Addiction is like disease, able to cripple your body and mind. The only difference is that, with addiction, you have a choice in the matter, and you can either let it consume your life or decide to fight back. It isn’t an easy battle, and you may fall many times before you walk away for good, but it just might save your life. Nobody understands this lifelong struggle better than John Aaron, author and illustrator of the new book Romancing the Smoke: Reflections of a Nicotine Addict.
Unlike many books about nicotine addiction, Romancing the Smoke isn’t meant for telling smokers how to quit. Aaron’s darkly humorous memoir about his 40-year addiction is raw and honest, with illustrations done by the author himself. The memoir also delves into the history of the tobacco industry, its disturbingly effective marketing, and suggests non-traditional practices for a smoke-free lifestyle, such as laughter, yoga, and transcendental meditation (TM).
This week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Aaron, who is currently two-and-a-half years smoke-free, lives in Ojai, and is the director of CHALK4PEACE, a nonprofit chalk art organization. He was kind enough to share his personal experience and offer solid advice for those currently battling addiction.
As Samuel Clemens says, “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” What events eventually led you to stop smoking?
I was a smoker and a dedicated smoker. I wasn’t going to quit and no one was going to tell me to quit.
In 2010, I woke up suddenly and realized that I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get air into my system. I knew enough about the respiratory system to know that I only had four minutes to live if I didn’t get air my system soon. That was the biggest wake-up call.
I was in the hospital for three days. After I got out, I went to go buy a pack of cigarettes. Then I saw this old lady with tubes up her nose. I could even smell her and she terrified me. I have been in situations where gang members have accosted me, but I was never as scared as when I saw her.
You talk about how the tobacco industry is disturbingly effective at marketing. How did you get lured you in?
I started smoking when I was 12, because everyone else around me smoked, even my family. It was really all about being “cool.” During my time, James Dean was cool. Leather jacket, bad ass, and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. I looked at it and was like, “Cool.”
In the book, I also talk about cigarette mottos from when I was young, but I don’t remember the products. Why do I know everybody’s motto? Because that’s how effective their marketing is. Creepy, but true.
What do you mean by “romancing the smoke”?
Basically, what it is is showing an absurd amount of affection for something that doesn’t deserve it. It’s the road to ruin.
Let’s say, I would be somewhere, either at the beach having a nice BBQ or at a beautiful dinner with seafood and veggies. Then at the end, I’ll have a cigarette. Secretly, I couldn’t wait to get through everything just to have that cigarette. Then I’ll have to put it out. But I’m already wondering when my next cigarette will be.
That’s how bad the addiction becomes. “I want this to be over, I want a cig.” If you think it’s okay to have just “one” cigarette, think of it as one in 10,000 cigs you will smoke. It’s like going back to square one. That’s what romancing the smoke is.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this memoir?
The main challenge was that I was doing this to purge my demons. I wanted the book to be short and sweet, so that if someone decided to read it, they could easily read it in a few hours on the airplane or something.
I haven’t found any books on smoking and what it’s like. Most books tells you how to stop, but I feel that puts a weight on people’s shoulders. They might be thinking, “If I just don’t read this, I’ll be okay.” I’m not a doctor, so I can’t tell you how to quit smoking. But I just hope this book coaches you to possibly deal with it.
Also, I was trying to figure out whether it was just writing a bunch of stuff that was just notebooks full of writing about smoking or whether it was something that was worth into organizing a book. See, I’m no good at that. Everyone needs a good editor.
What was the artistic process you underwent when illustrating this memoir?
There are times where I’ll be writing the story and I’ll get a strong visualization. When these images would appear, I actually would stop writing and start sketching. Like in Chapter 10, I talk about this scary guy I met. I remember when I was telling the story and writing it down, I was thinking, “That guy scared the hell out of me! I have to do a drawing.”
Or I would draw and then start to tell story. The artwork and writing complimented each other. I’m lucky that I spent so much time as illustrator. It was a lot of fun.
What is one thing you hope for readers to get out of this book?
If I can help one person to become smoke free, I’ll feel like I really accomplished something…
John Aaron will sign copies of Romancing the Smoke: Reflections of a Nicotine Addict on Saturday, February 2, 3:30-5 p.m., at Tecolote Books (1470 East Valley Rd., 805-969-4977) in Montecito. His book is also on sale at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State Street, 805-682-6787) in Santa Barbara and Made in Ojai (323 East Matilija St., 805-646-2400). See romancingthesmoke.blogspot.com/.