January 06, 2004

All About Augusten

All About George's recently de-locked George did me not only the pleasure of reading the Running with Sicssors post below, but sending me a link to this fanfriggingtastic NYT read on my new favorite author, Augusten Burroughs, which details how he quit smoking.

Like everything else about this twisted (Augusten, not George, err... well... skip that) writer, the story is richly witty and funny, and a little bit frightening. All the more fuel to my firey craving to keep reading him this evening.

I have no idea if the story is behind the annoying NYT firewall or not, so here's the text, just in case.

So sue me.

Possessed: Getting Even With Nicorettes

January 4, 2004

Thinking about quitting?

It's not easy, in case you haven't heard. The latest news is that nothing less than a trinity of aid - an antidepressant, nicotine replacement and some form of counseling - gives the best odds of helping a smoker quit. Still, the North American common smoker is a suspicious creature, notoriously difficult to domesticate and wary of cures devised by humans. Take the patch. It may steamroll one's nicotine levels into a nice even line, but it does not address what happens when a smoker wants a cigarette anyway. Now.

After all, addiction is an antidote to monotony, not vice versa.

When the writer Augusten Burroughs decided to quit smoking, the patch didn't stand a chance. "I used two of them," he said, recalling his maiden voyage into the sea of nicotine replacement. "But the patch is passive. It administers the medication, and I want to do that." Mr. Burroughs, who recounted his experiences getting sober in wicked and dark detail in "Dry," published last spring, knows all too well that much of life today, addict or no, is about honing one's flair for that modern art known to press agents as damage control.

And so, five years ago, when Mr. Burroughs met Nicorette, he started chewing and never stopped. It is now his favorite thing on earth. "You're supposed to start with a certain number of pieces a day and taper down," he said. "I did the opposite."

Now he goes through three 168-piece boxes (at $53 each) a week, or 72 pieces a day. If that sounds like a lot, bear in mind that by age 33, when he quit, he had been smoking for 20 years and was up to three packs a day. (Mr. Burroughs's teenage smoking is one of the more wholesome adventures detailed in "Running With Scissors," his best-selling memoir about his bizarre childhood.)

Beyond the gum's fairly obvious advantage - you can essentially smoke in airplanes, theaters, bars and other places where lighting up is verboten - there are other aspects that Mr. Burroughs fetishizes. "There are three flavors," he explained. "There's orange, which tastes like a mix of Bayer aspirin and mercury - it's like a dessert gum. Then there's mint, which has a soft, passive, slightly refreshing flavor. That would be good for preschoolers."

The flavor he prefers, though, is the one he calls Original Chemical. "It's the taste of DuPont," he said.

Like a wayward cat that, having been declawed, finds more perverse routes to mischief, Mr. Burroughs rejoices in the peculiar ways that the gum, devoid of the Bogie and Bacall allure of cigarettes, can still set off smoke alarms of a sort. "I'll be at a party," he said, "and someone will say, `Oh, is that Nicorette?' and I'll say, `Yes, do you want some?' They'll say, `Oh, I don't smoke,' and I'll say, `Try it anyway.' There's this excitement and curiosity, and then on about the fourth chew, this look comes over their face that says, `Oh God, why are you giving me lead?'

"It's like prank gum. It's like going to kiss your grandmother and finding her tongue in your mouth."

And much like the little cliques of smokers that spring up outside restaurants and bars or the tobacco chewers who can spot one another by the circle the tobacco tin wears through the back pocket of their jeans, there is a secret society of Nicoretters. "You'll see people chewing, and you can just kind of tell," Mr. Burroughs said. "You'll say, `Nicorette?' and they'll nod. Then you say, `How long?' and they'll say `four' or `five.' It's never weeks or months they're talking about. It's always years."

Studies have yet to demonstrate serious adverse effects to chewing the gum longer than indicated, but even if that were not the case, Mr. Burroughs said he would not quit. "You get a little reason to live every few minutes," he noted cheerily.

It bears noting that for all its staid and upright associations, the word sober comes from the Latin for, simply, "not drunk." There is nothing about "not twisted." So when it comes to giving up your old bad habits, it's best not to aim for perfection. Just make room for some new not-so-bad habits.

It's what they call progress.