Deer in the Headlights

Quitting smoking is hard. It says so right in the nicotine replacement therapy packages I kept buying at CVS for two years straight so I wouldn’t have to go without my nic fix at work. I’ve switched to a vape, and tonight I ran out of my 3mg e-liquid, so I headed to the vape store to replace it with a 0mg liquid. I’ll hang onto the placebo effect for as long as I can.

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The Sea of Jake

This is the story of how Jake pulled me out of the water in the middle of the night, as though I was baby Moses floating helplessly down the River Nile and he was Pharaoh’s daughter, young, beautiful, and seemingly willing to take care of me. But my dreamy, midnight perceptions are never accurate. If it wasn’t for Jake, I might have drowned, or I might have been forced to find my own way out of the water.


I met Jake on move-in day at Eckerd College, and we became friends almost out of necessity. We sat next to each other at Eckerd’s Ceremony of Lights, during which the figurative “lamp of learning” was lit, and everyone wondered who smelled like pot in the back of the auditorium. Jake told me I had a pretty singing voice, and I asked him if he was high. He said no, but I had my doubts. We parted ways after the ceremony, but kept bumping into each other around campus. Eventually, we exchanged phone numbers, and that was that– we were friends. We started spending more time together, and eventually we started to talk less, kiss more, and smoke as much pot and as many cigarettes as our bodies could handle.

I came to like Jake with the same sort of terrified compulsion I had felt for Zach the previous year. But Jake wasn’t at all like Zach. He was funny (in a perma-stoned sort of way), he was nice (whatever that meant), and he had great music taste. Jake played the guitar. He chain-smoked Camels while I burned my way through pack after pack of Marlboros. He always had pot.  Logically, it made sense for me to like him, but I found myself wishing he were a Jane, not a Jake, and willing myself to be “normal.” I’m still learning that love and logic do not exactly go hand-in-hand (although I do not claim to love Jake). I have a habit of convincing myself I like someone. A second date wouldn’t be so bad, right? I guess he’s kind of cute, in a way. Sure, all his jokes were totally sexist, but they would have been funny if I weren’t so uptight. No, it’s not weird that he brought a knife on a date. And the most prevalent of all: He’s probably as good as it gets for someone as fucked up as I am. I should consider myself lucky.

I was lucky to have Jake. He introduced me to his friends, and we became a homogeneous group. We were on the campus radio station together. We traversed campus, our pockets stuffed with cigarettes and the white Bic mini lighter we shared, and together we found the only two ashtrays on campus. When he kissed me, I pretended I was somewhere else. He said I tasted like cigarettes. I was lucky to have Jake.


The white lighter became a point of contention between the two of us. I was always in the cycle of quitting smoking, then starting again, then quitting, only to find myself at the drugstore at 2:00 AM in my pajamas buying three packs of cigarettes. It seemed perverse to throw cigarettes or lighters away, but I knew if I hung onto them, I would start smoking once more. So, I gave them to Jake, who was happy to take them.

Smoking was not as simple as a bad habit for me. I felt a deep sense of shame with every drag, every pack, every butt I kicked under some dirt. I am self-destructive by nature, though I am also cautious. I like to toy with mild addictions. At least I’m not a crackhead, I thought as I puffed away. At least this is helping me lessen self-harm. At least I’m not an alcoholic. At least I’m not a sex addict. I took another drag. At least I have most of my life under control, even if I can’t control this.

My parents, who I look to as examples of how to lead a healthy, successful life, were never smokers, as far as I know. As my dad put it in a stern lecture I received upon my unplanned arrival back home, “There are no positive benefits to cigarettes.” My brother helped me do that math: I was spending 15% of my meager weekly paycheck on cigarettes. Every time I flicked the lighter, the sense that I was nothing but a disappointment flickered in me.

So, as I was boxing up all my clothes, pictures, and books to take back home with me, I gave Jake my white lighter. “Throw it away,” I said. “Use it to light your bowl; I don’t care. I just can’t take it home with me.” I chomped on a piece of Nicorette, spit flying everywhere.

“I’m going to hang onto it. I’ll give it back to you,” he said from his place on my bed where he was staring at his phone.

“I don’t want it.”

“Yeah you do.”

He was probably right.


Eckerd College is on the Tampa Bay and has its own beach and waterfront, complete with paddle boards, kayaks, and sailboats available at no charge to students. Jake and I spent a lot of our time there, soaking in the beauty that is the Sunshine State. “Does the waterfront ever close?” I asked the sophomore working behind the boat-checkout counter.

“No, not really,” he said. “I mean, all the boats have to be back at 8:00, but you can swim whenever.”

“Literally whenever?” Jake asked. “Like anytime? Like, even at night?”

“Yeah, anytime,” the sophomore said, bending down to tie his shoe.

Jake and I walked out of the enclosure, to the picnic tables where we both lit up. “Dude, we should go night swimming,” he said.

I agreed enthusiastically, thinking this was just one of the many advantages of the lack of parental supervision for which college campuses are notorious. It was settled, we would part ways to finish our homework and eat dinner, and we would rendezvous at 11:00 PM by the waterfront. I had passed the swim test. I thought I was prepared.


In the water, fish brushed against our legs, and our feet were entwined. “Was that your foot?” We asked each other over and over. Sometimes the answer was yes, but often, it was no. The water was tepid, and the night air was thick.

I swam away from Jake and contemplated my own private oceans. The water is full of boys who cannot swim, boys who claim to be too broken to do anything other than cling to me for support. They often push my head under the water in an effort to breathe for themselves. I let them. I pretend I can absorb oxygen through osmosis, by clinging to their feet, their hair, their swim trunks. I am wearing swim trunks myself, partly as a nod to my aspirations of androgyny, but mostly to cover up the days-old razor slashes that sting faintly in the salt. In the dark, none of them can see the damage I’ve inflicted on myself. I am the perfect girl: sweet, quiet, sexy, obedient. I’m drowning.


The time comes for Jake and me to leave the water. Because we jumped in, we didn’t realize that there is no ladder in sight. We tried to walk up the algae-covered, rocky slope where the kayaks are tethered, but our feet couldn’t tolerate the sharp pains. We swam back to the ladderless dock and tried to pull ourselves up. Jake was successful, but I was still treading water, imprisoned by my lack of upper-body strength. Laughing, Jake pulled me out of the water, and we laid on our backs trying to catch our breath and looking up at the stars. Dazzled by the myriad constellations, I imagined myself somewhere else, lying next to my perfect Jane, content with her and with myself. Jake stood up and walked to the picnic table where we had left our keys, phones, lighter and cigarettes. Within moments, we were looking at each other through smoke, and it was like I’d never left the water at all.

Small Steps Forward

I learned a lot during my time at school, both in and out of class. I took a class called Youth Culture and Visual Media, taught by a film studies professor. We analyzed the ways in which society, advertisers, and film interact and how they coexist with youth. Outside of class, I learned that cigarettes are not a food group and illegal drugs don’t mix well with prescriptions. In the span of one month, I went from college to a psychiatric hospital, and soon I will be heading back to residential treatment—for what I hope will be the last time.

In all honesty, I was not ready to go to college. Before I left, I was still struggling to feed myself, self-harming quite frequently, and did not prioritize taking my medication. Still, I went off to school thinking that things would magically be better once I got there. In some ways, they were. I made new friends, and I was given all sorts of opportunities, including doing a show on the campus radio station. But in a lot of ways, things didn’t get better. In fact, they got worse. I found myself calling the suicide hotline at 3:00 AM, being unable to sleep before chain-smoking, and stress-vomiting. My professor became concerned, and I soon had counselling staff checking up on me almost every day.

It only took a few meals in college for my eating disorder to creep back into my life. All the hard work I did during my time in intensive outpatient just months before receded from my mind as anorexia’s lies took hold. I told myself the most dangerous lie: that I’d just lose “a few” pounds. With no definite goal in mind, I set out to lose weight, thinking I’d stop when I was happy, which is impossible for someone with an eating disorder. It is not my body that dissatisfies me. It is the distorted, disordered perceptions of my body that dissatisfy me. I know that losing weight will only heighten poor body image. The real solution is not to shed pounds, but to shed my disordered perceptions.

Meanwhile, most of my friends were doing drugs, and I joined in. Everyone seemed to be doing it, and I didn’t see my friends suffering any negative repercussions. I didn’t think it would do any harm. It probably comes as no surprise to you that I was completely wrong. Not only is it a bad idea to mix depressants with clinical depression, but it is an even worse idea to mix depressants with prescription anti-depressants. Not only did the drugs put me in a very dangerous and traumatic situation, but they made me extremely depressed. Even after they were out of my system, I was suicidal. By the time I moved back home, I was more depressed than I had ever felt in my life and wanted to die. My mom drove me to the emergency room, and I spent the next week in a psychiatric hospital, where it was decided that I needed more specialized residential treatment.

One of the key terms in my class at school was deceptively simple: youth. What does it mean to be youthful? The nuances of our definitions varied based on whatever we were arguing, but essentially, we decided, youth was characterized by inexperience and hedonism. Although I did not realize it at the time, my behavior was quintessentially youthful while I was at school. I blew off homework assignments to get high; I skipped breakfast so I could sleep in; I smoked because I thought it looked cool. I did all these things because I thought they were mature. In high school, I felt childish—youthful—because of my lack of experiences. I had never been to a “typical” house party, like what I saw depicted in the movies. I had never used drugs or alcohol, hardly dated, and never touched a cigarette (that started after high school). Although no one made fun of me and most of my friends met this same criteria, I felt like I must have been a fundamentally boring person.

In college, I thought I was growing up when in actuality, I was self-destructing. I have a knack for “re-writing” my life and my experiences to make them better than they are. For most of high school, I saw myself as a tortured artist. I believed my writing was improved by my suffering, that to truly be creative, I must be melancholic. What I am starting to realize, is that I cannot have both. I cannot be the brooding poet who chain-smokes in the moonlight in addition to being the future cantorial student I want to be. It is hard to let go of my idealized vision of self-destruction. It is hard to stop believing that there is something beautiful about slowly killing myself. One thing that has helped me is thinking of the people I admire. When I think of the traits I want to embody, what I want to stand for, and the people who inspire me to strive for my dreams, they are not “beautiful tragedies.” They are responsible people who overcame their personal struggles and became successful.

I am entering treatment with a focus on recovery and the goal of returning to college. When I go back to school, I want to make recovery as essential in my life as going to class. I will learn to take pride in how well I take care of myself, not how much damage I can inflict on my body and psyche. Instead of congratulating myself for how quickly I can smoke a pack of cigarettes, or how long I can go without eating, I will be proud of myself for eating well, for staying sober, and for becoming an expert in self-care. Not only do I want to make my parents proud, but I want to make God proud as well. While I was in the psychiatric hospital, I wrote the following in my journal, “Maybe [my extremely bad reaction to drugs] is some indirect way that God is watching over me, teaching me a hard lesson, and keeping me on the right track so that I can actually go to cantorial school… and help others… This could be a blessing. A really weird, painful one, but a blessing nonetheless.” I believe that God gave me a second chance to get things right. My behavior at school could have been the start of something even worse than what it was. Not only could I have undone all my progress towards recovery, but I could have been arrested and expelled had I been caught in possession of illegal drugs. I am grateful for the support of my family who is enabling me to get the blessing that is treatment. I am grateful that I have been removed from a dangerous situation and been given the chance to improve myself and learn to make better decisions. I am looking forward to going back to school and making truly mature decisions, decisions that will positively impact myself and those around me in addition to supporting my long-term goals. I am starting to believe what I wrote in my journal during my time in the psychiatric hospital, “[Prayer is] allowing God into my life and letting Him take care of me… not even that, but knowing that He is watching over me and that He’ll help me take care of myself.”