10 Years Ago Today, I Saved My Life.

19-20Today is a very special day I circled on my calendar a lifetime ago…a day I once feared I might never see.  Today is my 10-year anniversary of quitting smoking.  Yes, yes – accolades and congratulations…but seriously…I was a smoker?  That seems so odd to me now.  I wasn’t a casual smoker either, I smoked a pack and half a day.  That’s 30 cigarettes per day, or 900 a month, or 11,000 per year.  I smoked for about 12 years so I’ve had over 100,000 cigarettes in my life.  I defined myself as a smoker.  I smoked in my house, in my car, at parties, at life events, at high school and college graduation, on a plane (yes…I’m dating myself a bit there), and everywhere in between.  When I met my wife; I was a smoker.  When my nephew was born; I was a smoker.  When I started my own company; I was a smoker.  Now, there are people in my life who have never seen me smoke.  I have children who will never see an ashtray in our house.  I lecture my kid’s sitters about not smoking and already talk to my kids about why smoking is bad.  Who am I?  Actually…I know exactly who I am.  The better question is:  Who was I?

Like most kids, my first smoke came from a desire to look cool and seem popular.  I remember holding it like a pencil, not really knowing what to do, and just letting it smolder in the night air among my friends so it looked like I was fitting in.  Every now and then I’d puff it a few times without inhaling to keep it going…as if that glowing amber ash was an approval light that would take me from nerd to popular among the group.  For a moment in time I was cool, or maybe just different.  There are much cooler ways to be different.  What did I know?  I was 14 years old and invincible.

koolmentholcigarettesThe first pack I ever bought was menthol Kools from a candy bar vending machine on the dock of a marina in Lake George, NY.  It was nighttime and I couldn’t believe they were just there in the machine with no one around.  My parents were next door at dinner and I was feeding dinner rolls to the ducks next to a sigh that said “DO NOT FEED THE DUCKS.”  Cool.  Or should I say “Kool.”  For the next week, I became suddenly interested in taking long walks at night through the woods which resulted in a rash along my ankles from poison ivy…but the woods are where all kids go to do things they don’t want adults to see.  In my mind the menthol flavor was also masking the smell from my clothes…making everything smell minty fresh.  Luckily, I had an older sister to tell me I was a moron, not for smoking, for thinking menthol made me smell like mint.

By 16 I was smoking around a pack a day and going to boarding school, so I didn’t have to worry about the smell of my clothes anymore since I was in Boston and my parents were in Kansas.  I had made the switch to Parliaments by this time but Camel Wides were popular as well.  Once off campus, I was only beholden to the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts…which bent easily compared to the unbreakable rules of boarding school.  When on campus, I was back in the woods with the rest of my friends between classes.  All of us cowering in secret, listening for teachers, and praying not to get caught.  I got caught.  A few times.  I got suspended.  I got into other troubles as well, but then the school changed their policies around where you could and could not walk between classes in an attempt to deter students from smoking on campus.  I took to battle with my favorite weapon:  My pencil.  I was the cartoonist for the school paper and I ventured off the deep end of taunting the administration and even circulated my own graphic novel on the militarization of teachers in policing a smoke-free campus at all costs.

I was expelled the week before Winter Break.

In what was by far the coolest 90’s movie moment of my life, I walked out of my meeting with administration to find a small crowd of friends and supporters waiting outside to see what the verdict was.  I never said a word.  I just paused on the front stoop, pulled a cigarette out of my jacket pocket, and fired up a smoke.  The crowd was a mixed bag of upset to learn I was expelled and excited to see something rebellious.  The dean came outside and said, “Ryan! What are you doing? Put that cigarette out now!”  I took a long drag, breathed out, and said, “What are you gonna do? Expel me?”  Then I walked out into the campus to enjoy my smoke in solidarity.

A year later I was going to the high school I would graduate from and had an apartment 10 minutes off campus.  This was when I truly became a smoker.  I smoked in bed, I smoked in the shower, I smoked at breakfast, I smoked in the car, I smoked between classes, I smoked after school, I smoked watching TV, I smoked at dinner, I smoked doing homework, and I had one last smoke before bed.  I boomed up to two packs a day or more during this time.  It was…disgusting.

medill_lg_pneumothoraxThe summer after my Senior year of high school I took a job doing landscaping.  It was a wonderful job, I got to play in the dirt all day, get sweaty, get tanned, and see real-time results from my work.  We had excavated a large hole for a drainage pipe we were installing and I was standing inside it.  I was lifting a large rock when I heard it.  A small “crack” sound from inside my body.  I assumed I had popped my back but it was such an odd noise.  I quickly started feeling sick; my neck hurt, I was short of breath, I felt nauseous, and my throat was sore.  My boss gave me the afternoon off and I went straight home, took a shower, popped 4 ibuprofen, and laid down for a nap.  When I awoke two hours later my throat was on fire and I was having trouble breathing.  Something was clearly not right.  I went to the ER where the doctors dismissed it as a bad sore throat, but I pleaded that there was something bigger going on.  Begrudgingly, they did an X-ray of my throat.  I had a pneumothorax, a condition where a puncture in the lung causes air to get trapped between the lung and the chest causing the lung to collapse.  In my case, it was traveling into my neck and getting trapped behind my throat where it was choking me to death.  A needle in the throat and chest to aspirate is not fun…but that is how I spent my 19th birthday.  My aunt visited me and asked what she could do to make me feel better.  “Throw these away for me,” I said as I pulled the pack of cigarettes from my pocket, squeezed them till they were crushed, and handed them to her.  The nurse filled my veins with morphine and as I fell down the rabbit hole I said, “I quit…I’m never smoking again.

I started smoking again 1 month later.

RyanWGates1By college I had spent seemingly a lifetime living alone and handling myself as I saw fit.  I wasn’t a boozer, a pot-head, or any of that crap in college…I was a smoker.  The lighter cigarettes no longer had any flavor for me and I switched to Marlboro Reds and eventually Lucky Strike Unfiltered.  I was studying film which meant I spent a lot of time editing video – this required rendering which means you spent a lot of time staring at a computer watching a progress bar go by.  We learned to gauge time by cigarettes.  7 minutes?  That’s enough time to go outside and have 1 cigarette.  15 minutes?  That’s 2…and so on.

When I met my wife, it was 2003 and you could smoke EVERYWHERE in New York City.  Bars, taxis, restaurants, clubs, sporting events, and more.  Everyone smoked.  My wife (Kate) would have a drag here and there, maybe buy 2 packs a year, but she was not a smoker by any means.  My 300 square foot bachelor pad was disgusting.  It was a closet with ashtrays.  Yet, she liked me and so she overlooked the smoking thing.  We moved in together.

RyanWGatesBy 2005 I was up to 2 packs a day.  Parliaments were my brand again, though the charcoal filters were long gone now.  The ashtray on the coffee table of our basement was so large and overflowing with old cigarette butts that you didn’t have to tamp one out when you were done…you just shoved it into the ash and it was smothered out.  I think back now and I can’t believe that we lived like that…it’s disgusting.  However, I was too stupid to see it since it was right in front of my face.  In 2002, New York City had started the process of going smoke-free and by now it had made things a nuisance for us smokers.  No more smoking in cabs, bars, and restaurants.  We all huddled outside and smoked on the sidewalk making it miserable for everyone else that had to walk through our plumes of smoke.  In winter, it was miserable for us…yet we continued on.

SanFranIn 2006 we moved to San Francisco where I was made a social pariah for being a smoker.  In all fairness, I was also a pariah for buying cheese from Whole Foods instead of Rainbow Grocery, not saying “please” when ordering my coffee, and not living a vegan life.  San Francisco and I didn’t get along.  I maintained my “go fuck yourself” New York City attitude and smoked non-stop.  I was flying back and forth to New York City for the advertising agency I was working for and no one judged me when I was home back east.  Then, I took the job that changed my life…not my career…my life.

I got hired to produce and direct for Hershey’s new product, Ice Breakers Sours.  We were headed to Cancun, Mexico for two weeks during MTV’s Spring Break 2007 and would be belles of the ball with all access to create an experience of a lifetime for a lucky few and roll out the “Watch and Whoa” campaign to the young demographic.  It sounds awesome (and it was), but it was the most stressful 10 days of my life.  We were shooting an internet reality show so a typical day’s schedule looked like this:

  • 6:30 AM Call time
  • 7:00 AM Searching for our college student cast who were hungover or still drinking.
  • 8:00 AM Breakfast.
  • 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM Filming
  • 12:30 PM Lunch
  • 1:30 – 4:00 PM Filming
  • 5:00 PM Loading footage
  • 6:00 PM Strategic meeting
  • 7:00 – 10:00 PM Editing
  • 10:00 PM Rough cut review with client
  • 10:30 PM – 2:00 AM Final cuts and revisions
  • 3:00 AM Load to FTP

Then we’d do it all over again the next day.  3 hours’ sleep…if you’re lucky.  My two co-producers and I took shifts sleeping to keep this project going.  We were strung out.  What did we do to keep from going crazy?  We drank coffee and smoked non-stop.  NON-STOP.  We all smoked between 2-3 packs per day…each of us.  We bought them by the carton and just had packs lying everywhere.  If I stopped smoking, I could feel my eyes drooping and closing.  It was Spring Break so everyone was smoking and pretty soon they ran out of the brands we smoked.  We started buying the cheapest Mexican cigarettes we could find and a few we could swear were so cheap you could smoke them with one drag.  It was the beginning of the end.


MARCH 19, 2007.  Our last day in Mexico.  We were notorious by now in Cancun, the “Three Amigos.”  We had filmed everywhere, greased every palm, been to every club, and had a few parties of our own.  We stood haggard and exhausted at baggage check in with over a quarter of a million dollars in camera gear.  I skipped the line and went straight to the counter.  I pulled a $100 bill from my pocket, shook hands with the representative, and said I needed to make sure all the gear and my people got on board.  The flights were all screwed up.  I pulled another $100 bill out.  They felt they could work something out.  A few $100 bills later and we were jogging to security with cigarettes in hand, sandwiches, and all our work on dozens of hard drives.  I’ll never forget going through security while smoking…no one told me “no.”  We went to the gate where we were informed they didn’t have enough seats for all of us.  We sent the crew on board with the hard drives and said we’d see them in New York…we’d find a way.  The $100 bill handshakes came back out again, people got on walkie talkies, and then all of a sudden we were running!  We ran through the airport, cigarettes in hand, chasing after the attendant ahead of us beckoning us to go faster.  It was surreal.  We reached another security checkpoint and just ran through it…the metal detector beeped loudly and we paused, turned to the security guard, and waited.  He took a long look at us, smiled, and nodded yes.  We took off running again.  At last, we arrived at a derelict gate with no signage or windows.  We asked, “Where are we going?”  The attendant, pausing from her conversation on the walkie talkie, “The plane.”  We looked befuddled.  “What plane? ¿Dónde?”  She ignored us and said, “Here we go!”  She opened the security doors and we were standing on the tarmac.  “Have a nice flight!”  She yelled to us over the roar of jet engines.  “¿Dónde está el avión?”  We shouted back, but all we heard was “Have a nice flight!”  We were ushered onto a bus with a driver who spoke no English and driven away from the airport.  For a moment…we worried we might be going to jail.  We lit up cigarettes on the bus.  Why not?  Then…we saw it.  A Jetblue plane parked in a holding area with a rolling stair cart leading up to the main cabin door.  We had managed to finagle our way onto a plane that had already left the gate.  Tears of joy…we were going home.  As I boarded the plane the flight attendant looked at me in horror and said, “Sir!”  I looked back aghast.  “What?”  I replied innocently.  She motioned to my side and I realized I still had a cigarette in my hand.  I had just absent-mindlessly forgotten I was still smoking.  “Oh!  Sorry!”  I stepped outside, took one last long drag, and stomped it out on the top step of the metal stair cart.

That was my last cigarette.  Ever.

By the time I landed in New York I had a cold.  Having a head cold is the one time smoking sucks.  I would often take a break from smoking when sick and this one was turning out to be a doozie.  I had a few days in New York to wrap up and then I was back on plane to San Francisco.  When I got home I was so worn out and sick I slept for two days.  When I woke up I felt better and was hungry for a smoke…but all I had were those terrible Mexican cigarettes.  I tossed them in the trash and decided I’d buy a pack later.  The thing was, I wanted a cigarette so badly…but the idea of a cigarette sounded disgusting to me.  Then the idea hit me, “Maybe I should quit.”  It sounds so simple, but this was different.  This was the first time I had wanted to quit without something negative influencing it.  Then I thought, “What if I just decided to leave my smoking in Mexico.”  So…I did.

RyanWineI booked Kate and I into an ocean side B&B up the coast where we sat in a hot tub, got massages, ate fine food, and strolled along the beach.  I did the math on how much I spent a year on cigarettes and it was a few thousand dollars.  That’s when I made the best decision of my life: I decided to book into a B&B in Sonoma and spend the week starting a wine collection with the money I would have spent annually on cigarettes.  Every time I wanted a smoke so badly I couldn’t stand it…I’d open a bottle of wine with friends instead.  I challenged myself to do one year to make it financially worthwhile.

About a month later, my aunt collapsed unexpectedly in her home and went into a coma.  Lung cancer.  She had been a smoker my whole life.  I had smoked with her as a kid at family events and she had promised not to tell on me.  She had let me smoke in her house with her.  She had always been the cool one…the Kool one.  About a week later, Kate and I went camping on the salt flats in Nevada.  When my brother-in-law called me on the satellite phone I already knew what he was going to say.  My aunt Jeanine had passed away.  She was 53 years old.  It destroyed me.

RyanSaltFlatsThe thing about the salt flats is it hardly ever rains.  Due to the lack of humidity, you can see for miles.  Kate and I took a long walk that day out to a small rise in the middle of the dried lake bed where I stacked a few rocks in her memory, then sat down in the desolate place and cried, and cried, and cried till the heavens opened up and it rained.  It was so odd…seeing rain in a dry place.  Rain turned to snow on the drive back to San Francisco and I stopped in Tahoe for a few hours to snowboard in the whiteout.  I was one of a handful of people on the mountain that day as you could only see a few feet in front of you.  Nonetheless, I kept going up the Gondola and slowly coming down through the blizzard.  Between the salt flat and the blizzard, I had a lot of time alone with my thoughts.  No distractions.  Just the sound of my breath, the beating of my heart, and the feeling of overwhelming sickness welling up from my insides.  It was the second time in my life a sibling had been taken from my parents…but this was the first time I was old enough to process it.  I knew I was never going to smoke again.  Jeanine’s passing was, so to speak, the final nail in the coffin.  Not only did I want to quit smoking…I wanted to change my life.

A year later, Kate and I were married back east at my family’s summer home in Bolton Landing, NY.  The friends I made when we moved there never saw me smoke and knew me no other way.  When we moved to Wichita, KS seven years ago, it solidified it even more.  Only my childhood friends had ever seen me smoke.  Then, Kate and I had our first son, Max.  Then our second, Dodge.  I became someone’s dad.  That adventure set my life on a whole new path…one my constant readers and I have journeyed on together.  That level of responsibility is massive, scary, humbling, and rewarding.  Right now my boys are 6 and 4, but I know one day when they’re older they’ll be offered a smoke and have to make a decision like I did.  My parents raised me in a smoke-free environment and lectured me on why it was bad for me.  Yet, I rebelled.  All I can do is teach my boys how to make smart decisions…and then take off the training wheels and let them make their own decisions…and hope they make better decisions than the ones I made.

I wish, I wish, I wish…I had never smoked.  Fitting, its 10 years to the day of quitting smoking and I am sick as a dog.  I have a sinus infection and am on my second round of antibiotics.  I have been sick for over 40 days, meaning I have been sick more days than I have been well in 2017.  I have a death-rattle cough because the cilia in my lungs get damaged easily from repeated coughing and then takes a long time to recover.  My doctor congratulates me on quitting smoking and tells me the statistics on how much I have improved my health.  However, my damaged sinuses and struggling lungs are likely from over a decade of abuse from smoking.  I wish, I wish, I wish…  Alas, the past is depression and the future is anxiety.  I live now.  Besides, learning to quit smoking is something that has defined my personality and my ability to use free will to do amazing things.  In 10 years, I never took a single drag off a cigarette, never used any nicotine patches, nor had any assistance other than my own mind willing me to move forward.  That’s pretty powerful.

10 years ago, I just wanted to see how long I could go.  My dad had promised if I went a year without smoking we’d go play golf in Northern Ireland.  It was a trip of a lifetime and I’ll never forget it.  I came home from that trip and wondered where I’d be in 2017.  I set that date in my head.  I have fantasized about it for years…sometimes daily.  I said, back in 2006, that I’d have one cigarette on my 10-year anniversary of quitting.  Just one!  Then I’d go another 10 years.  I have fantasized about that cigarette countless times.  I could feel it between my index and middle finger on my right hand.  I could feel its weight in my lungs.  I could taste it in my mind.

So…here we are.

Will I be having a cigarette today?

Not on my life.  I left my smoking in Mexico.


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