Cloves, Coming Out, and a Letter to Patti Digh

Dear Patti:

It’s me, Jena.

I know we are only Facebook friends and occasional blog-linkers, but when your name popped into my head yesterday morning, I knew immediately I had to write you a letter. To ring your bell, to show up on your front porch with a plate of warm blueberry muffins. To make you an offering.

I had to do these things because today is, has to be, Day One. I’m here to ask for your support and accountability. I’m here to start my 37 Days.

Yesterday morning, my sweet, deep nine-year-old Aviva “caught” me smoking a clove on the back deck before daylight.

The last time this happened was six and a half years ago, when she was two and her dad, Greg, my now ex-husband, walked into the kitchen one morning, smoking a Marlboro he had found in my bag. She wanted to know why Dada was so “frustrated.” I didn’t know how she knew the word “frustrated,” but she did.

I’ve told this story many times. Perhaps too many. How I quit shortly after that incident, while Greg was away on a mountaineering trip. How every night, I asked Aviva, “Where did Dada go?” And every night, she responded, “Dada go to the mountains.” How I started my first, short-lived blog, “Dadago: Nicotine Replacement Therapy.” How although I became an appreciative and bona fide non-smoker–I even ran a half-marathon–I always knew that I could not have “just one.” It was an all-or-nothing proposition. I still had dreams in which I was a smoker. I considered going to 12-step meetings. I read Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story and wept with recognition.

I had quit before over the many years since I smoked my first Camel Light in the cemetery by Emily Dickinson’s family plot in eighth grade. But it was after a long period of closet smoking leading up to that day in June, 2005 that I decided to finally “come out” as a smoker. I told friends who had no idea I smoked that I smoked, and asked for their support. Many were shocked, who thought of me as a runner, a yogi, a healthy mama.

I knew that coming out of hiding was the only way it would stick, that I couldn’t do it alone, and that I had to move through the silence and shame of keeping this “bad habit” to myself. Little did I know then that this coming out would be a dress rehearsal for the real thing five years later.

I remember printing out a sheet that detailed the healing sequence–what happens in the body within one hour, six hours, twelve and twenty-four and forty-eight and ninety-six hours of that last drag. I called it a “spiritual decision.” I had cherished the solitude I associated so strongly with smoking, and was suddenly confronted with all that extra space and time that not smoking opened up. I explored its emptiness and its fullness, what I avoided and stifled by smoking, how it was my way both of disappearing and connecting with myself.

But I did it. I ran and wrote my way through those first weeks, a nicotine patch on my left shoulder. Pearl was conceived within days of Greg’s return from the Wind River Range.

I truly believed I would never start again, though I reserved one tiny, private, perhaps silly-sounding exception: if the world ended, in the apocalyptic sense, if (God forbid) I experienced some kind of shattering loss, I would get a “smoke-em-if-you-got-em” pass.

And then on February 10, nine months ago today, I smoked for the first time in nearly six years. The fact was, I had experienced the end-of-my-world-as-I-knew-it. My moment had arrived, and I snatched it right up.

Afterward, I neurotically threw out the rest of the pack, only to buy another not two days later at Garcia’s Tobacco Shop on Church Street, the only place in Burlington that I know of that sells Bali Hai cloves, a slightly sweet, not-quite cigarette that’s every bit as addictive as the real thing. It was like that scene in Win Win when Paul Giamatti’s character buys a pack of cigarettes at the gas station, takes one out, tosses the pack over his shoulder into the dumpster, and lights up behind the building.

Yesterday, Aviva told me she’d read about a guy in the Guinness Book who chewed gum to quit smoking, then made a pelican sculpture out of all the chewed gum. I didn’t mention the nicotine patches in my top dresser drawer, the ones I bought last spring and have been avoiding, waiting for the day when an intention strong enough to carry me through that passage announced itself ready.

And today was that day. I rose, made my coffee, showered, gulped up deep belly breaths, and stuck a patch on my upper back.

It’s time. To reclaim my healthy mama body, my autonomy, my ability to be out without the crippling crutches of any addiction*. Yesterday, I lit up for the last time, sat and wrote with the company of this old fiendish friend I love to hate breaking up with. Later, I laced up my sneakers and ran on the bikepath, knowing that running–like truth-telling, like cutting through the old, old habits of hiding and shame and secrecy, like deep breathing and fierce wolf baring her teeth and tender vulnerable heart, like all of these–will be one of my saviors.

I ran north on the bike path along the lake, took a left up a steep dirt path behind the old orphanage building up to North Ave. By the time I was coasting down Battery Street, a chant had come to me: I can. I want. I choose. And then suddenly I remembered a mantra from probably ten years ago. I am pretty sure it had to do with quitting smoking then, too. It went like this:


And so today, Patti, I began. Day one. Sprinted the last block, chanting those words out loud. I can. I want. I choose. Joy. Freedom. Peace and Power.

When I came out last year–not as a smoker this time, but as a lesbian (still gives me a shiver to write that down, name it, claim it, own it, announce it), I knew in my deepest knowing that smoking again would in some way defeat the point of all that growing, of ultimately surrendering to–and moving into–a life so much bigger than me and what I thought it would be. I felt the full power of my presence–uncorked as it were–in a way I had never before experienced.

I’m not going to take the time to ask why I fell back on an old habit, allowed myself to get sucked back into that inhale-exhale that masquerades as actual breathing. The reasons may be obvious, or they may not be. But the “why” isn’t really the point, nor is self-recrimination. Friends told me to cut myself some slack, and I clutched that permission slip like a kid with a written note excusing her absence from school. Excuse me for smoking again–here is my note. Here is my reason for lighting up. Here is my story, my stressful situation. Here is my absolution. And here is my denial.

Damn. Denial.

Damn denial.

The difference a period makes. The difference Day One makes. The difference a little face in the kitchen door window at 5:30am makes, the stomp of a foot. The difference waking up makes. My excuse has expired, and I fight it, I fight it, I fight it. I might just join that women-owned boxing gym I heard about, to channel my fight someplace else, where my lungs won’t ache and my breath won’t stink, where I won’t be scared to death I’ll be one of those people people sadly describe as a “bright light that went out too soon” or some other smoking-related cancer cliche.

Patti, I am writing you this letter to make it known. To hold myself accountable. To be fearless and real. To have nothing to hide. To override the part of me that’s protesting, “I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna.” To be stronger than the voice in my head telling me to delete this letter at once.

Yes, I’ve quit smoking before. But I keep thinking of the sign I stole this week from a friend’s Facebook wall. It made its way into a poem, and now into this letter: “When’s the last time you did something for the first time?” And Maezen’s response: “Every time.”

And so (damnit!) I do this for the first time again, every moment truly new and wide open without the cozy cave of a lighter and that first, deep inhale. Once again, I stand here in the early darkness with all my fear and resistance, infused with the power-surge of possibility honesty brings.

With thirty-six days to go, and God willing, a lifetime after that.

I can. I want. I choose. And I love.


*Do not even THINK about touching my coffee.

11 thoughts on “Cloves, Coming Out, and a Letter to Patti Digh

  1. Karen Pery says:

    As with everything, Jena, I applaud you and I support you. 100%.

    I learned something recently at a Leadership retreat, in an exercise that seemed futile in the moment but imprinted itself on my brain. [Fail – or whatever word meets that feeling of falling off the wagon/feeling shame/frustration, etc.]. Begin again. It’s not the fail part that sticks, it’s the grounding and beginning part you want to recreate as openly and honestly every single time.

    Love to you.


  2. Pamela says:

    Jena this is so wonderful not just for smoking or addiction but for all the ways we give away our power – to other people, to relationships, to things, to addictions, to beliefs.

    Never before have I thought like this and your words will stay with me. I love what you wrote about how smoking gave you solitude. And how you were confronted with all that empty space. So beautiful! I so know that feeling.

    Be compassionate with your tender heart and know that you are not alone in your fight. xoxo


  3. Kathryn says:

    Jena, what to say but bravo. bravo to all of it, to starting, to knowing. To being open to something else that you can’t quite imagine yet.

    Proud of you,


  4. S. says:

    Jena, much power to you (tho’ you already have so much!) I’ve never been a smoker, but I know the power of compulsive behavior. Call me if the itch ever feels unbearable. We’ll go have a cuppa together while we sit on our hands and wait for it to pass. Much love.


  5. Kathy Hennis says:

    You are awesome!!

    I love the way you described the new abyss..of taking an inhale..of living life big, again, even though you had stepped into the abyss before.

    Thanks for writing



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s