I have, at several points in my life, found myself on the precipice of addiction to various things, real or imagined. Here are the top 5:
There were two times in my life where I actually craved a cigarette, at least craved one not just in that drunk-freshman-year-trying-to-impress-girls-who-wouldn’t date-anywhere-near-the-upper-echelons-of-my-family’s-income-bracket way. The first was during my brief but fruitful stint as a waiter at Darryl’s restaurant in Raleigh, a job I interviewed for mere days after 9/11, which is not a cultural benchmark to this story as much as it is just a relative note about how stressful and emotion-consuming time it was. That was amplified by (though no way on the same level as) the personal turmoil I was dealing with, having just quit school at GW after two years, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all wrong, that the school did not feel even close to right for me, and was at risk of sucking me into a future of politics and polo shirts, incomparable student debt and friends who only liked you for the K Street connections you might have.
When you wait tables, the stress of not fucking up an order or dropping $300 worth of food in a single swoop (guilty!) becomes overpowering, and you quickly realize the only people with the easy out are the smokers. Not even counting whatever psychosomatic calming factor smokers think they get from nicotine addiction, the simple fact is that if you’re a smoker, you get more breaks, because if anyone needs breaks, it’s the people who are slowly killing themselves for an absurd amount of money every week.
But oh! how you start to look at the smokers longingly, the ones who time their meal drops just right so they can sneak in a few puffs in the alleyway in between the drink refill and the check. And I started thinking about taking up smoking, a habit I usually equate with the fun of sucking combustion engine exhaust recreationally (and then combusting all over nearby non-huffers faces to boot), just for the sweet breaks, if nothing else. I never actually picked up a cigarette the entire time though, though I did try to take a few alleyway lemonade breaks, to little effect.
The second time was maybe nine months later, the first week into my stint as a news editor at The Diamondback in the fall semester, when all the talent and energy that exists in a great college newsroom like that runs up against the harsh reality of inexperience. You realize that, no matter how good the ambition, any place with a built-in default tenure limit is bound to have the institutional knowledge of an ant that attended too many Phish shows.
It was in that first week when I realized that I was first up in a rotating schedule of producing special sections and that, content be damned, it had to come out the next day. This set off eight hours of frantic editing, layout, slotting and all sorts of horrible conversations with our production manager, for which I rested on the point that the longer she spent yelling at me, the less time I had to finish laying out the damn section. Sometime between the copy desk and roll time I slipped outside on the steps of the DBK’s building and asked another editor for a cigarette, and there I found myself, stress smoking at 11 p.m. for the first time in my life, and actually finding it relieving, though whether that is from any actual innate calming effects of smoking or just a latent Ben-Bradlee feeling of late-night newsroom archetype mocking, I can’t be sure. We finished the section and the rest of editing that semester got smoother, until I sent two reporters to get arrested at an Iraq war protest, but that’s another story. There were no more cigarette cravings.
4. Fast food
I used to love fast food so much I would build entire trips around it. I once agreed to go with my grandparents to Philly for a museum trip or something, riding the whole way in their musty, humid Oldsmobile with terrible air flow that always made me car sick, only because of the assumption that we’d stop for something fast foody along the way, which I was eternally hopeful would be McDonald’s or, at the very least, Burger King. I have a distinct memory of looking out the window of that car while plowing down some Philly street and seeing a McD’s on literally every corner, and wondering with wide-eyed amazement how there could be such a city in the world where so many people wanted to go to McDonald’s with such frequency that you could find one so easily (it was not, I’m sure, literally every corner, but the imagination of children blows things up to their ideal state of the world, and that’s what I envisioned at the time). In high school summers, my first friend with a car was the lord of the day, and we’d pick up the McD’s special that summer: two 20 packs of McNuggets, two fries and two large sodas, all for $20, if memory serves, and drive around with the nuggets lodged under the parking brake for easy snacking all day long as we looked for something to do.
I’m sure this affinity says something horrible about what I thought of our family’s food situation at the time, specifically, at least, our kitchen situation, where our mother had a running repertoire of 365 ways to cook chicken, most of which involved baking it in some sort of glaze and serving it with vegetables whose flavor had been boiled down to the non-stick bottom of the FoodTown pot we earned through loyal customer shopping points.
I grew bored of it quickly, and pined for something, anything, else outside the home, whether it be McDonald’s or food at the local diner; and never passed up the chance to take dinner at a friend’s house. I don’t think this means anything negative against my mother’s cooking so much as it does speak to my tendency to get bored with overpowering sameness, and get bored fast with it to the point of escape.
And then, high school, we discovered Taco Bell, and discovered our friend’s house that was a few blocks from the Bell, where her dentist father (who by this point was sleeping with his secretary. In his office. Which was in the first floor of the house) had installed a hot tub out back. So we’d get a case of TBell, some hard, some soft, and suck them back in the hot tub while playacting at adult conversations about girls and god, school and mortality, all tinged with the that slightly metallic taste of mass-produced beef-like product and sour cream applied via caulk gun. We’d wash it down with Sam’s Choice Mountain Dew knock off brand soda, by this point rapidly warming by the edge of the hot tub, sometimes spilling its weird yellow green liquid into the swirling water. We were young and athletic, and the sugary beef slew never seemed a problem for our metabolism.
I gave up meat three years after that; 13 years after that, I went full on vegan. Taco Bell, by the way, is still one of the most vegan-friendly fast food chains, if you’re traveling and don’t mind having to repeat your order three times. Chicken nuggets are still gross though.
3. Vegan junk food
Not so much a problem in my life until I moved to Brooklyn, where even the drunkest hipster trash can find themselves face to face with a bevy of vegan pizza slices to choose from that are just as unhealthy as anything your meat-slurping drunk friend would seek out. The secret to me being a vegetarian, and then a vegan, for all these years is that I wasn’t originally a particularly healthy one, at least not any more so than when I ate all the things. You get over this over time when you start embracing the joys of cooking and the dietary benefits that go beyond the ethical and environmental reasons for giving up meat, but, but but, there is a place in the city now that offers vegan cronuts, and, come on, don’t we all deserve the chance to be swallowed by the latest absurd foodie trend?
And then there’s Food Swings, from which vegan pal Jacqueline and I order 70 or so vegan hot wings every year for the Super Bowl and totally chill out with beer and football on my couch, because we’re secret vegan bros and this is Brooklyn in 2013 and we can do that.
I had one brief flirtation with getting into drugs, (like, on purpose) in 2007/8, right after the time that my dad died of a horrible thing called leukemia, which just seemed like a bastard of a disease that wouldn’t go away no matter how much we all rallied against it, kinda like the “Two and a Half Men” of the immune system. I don’t mean “drugs” in the sense where you’re at a concert or a party with friends and someone comes up to you and everyone is doing drugs and it’s a good time that you can write off later. I mean, like actually seeking it out, like wanting a new addiction, at least something to rest a bunch of nagging hangups on and redirect the blame for self doubt on something external.
Compounded on all that leukemia was the fact that I lived in South Carolina for the entire time he was sick, and, though I made visits up a few times, couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the outsider of the family, the one who wasn’t getting the whole story, who didn’t understand how serious everything was because the physical distance separated me from his weekly hospital trips, his increasingly gaunt frame, the time my mom and sister tried to take him out to a lobster restaurant for the first out of house trip in awhile but had to cut it short because even the medical mask he was wearing didn’t give them enough confidence he would avoid airborne infections in the crowded dining room.
That whole year after dad died , I was in a bad spiral, coming to a peak the summer of 2008 when I went through the only Big Breakup I’ve still ever had; and was facing the the inevitability that my career path (newspaper journalism) was quickly revealing itself to be a dead end, and that my end would soon be dead if I stayed in South Carolina. And I had friends who were really into drugs, and they seemed to have a good time and not worry about such things, so maybe they were on to something, or at least they seemed less bored.
I did not get hooked on drugs; I moved to New York City instead, which is an addiction all its own.
1. New York City
The reason I know I’m a junkie for New York City is that I get an actual physical withdrawal every time I leave. I don’t know if this is a psychosomatic thing, some weird chemical balance of smog and allergens or maybe an actual physical warning from my body about the dangers that wait if you leave the five boroughs, but the past few times I’ve left, my body has gone into a weird version of the junk sicks.
The problem of growing up in the suburbs is that they’re so intrinsically limiting, culturally, geographically and socially. I don’t know how my unease in them took root, other than that I had an innate sense from an early age of this Otherness out there, that there must be people who had more to do with their time than drive to boardwalk after boardwalk after mall after diner or sit on sand dunes for endless hours every summer night, trying to dissect the universe my friends and I knew so little about beyond the stars overheard. Moving away to college and South Carolina provided some relief, but only for so long, because you can only take on so many adventures in a sleepy southern resort town before you realize this place was just not built with you in mind.
It did turn out that such a treadmill-of-adventures place existed in New York City, Brooklyn specifically, where even the most extremely ADD among us have to try particularly hard to be bored, and everyone is interesting and at the top of their game. Leaving that bubble to travel elsewhere, even for a few, is called FOMO, and it is a very real thing, an affliction millennials will probably be seeking government-subsidized prescriptions for within a few years.
I visited Connecticut on the Megabus in May for my sister’s grad school graduation and — I’m not even kidding you — almost as soon as we crossed the state line into Connecticut, my nose started leaking, my lungs tightened up, and I spent the whole weekend balancing allergy medicine and tissues, even having to bail on Saturday night plans to draw myself into a miserable allergy den in her guest room.
My mom and grandmother moved away from New Jersey last summer, not two months before Sandy, after a lifetime of living there. Ever since I left NJ for college, when I’d hop on a bus or train to go visit, there was the overwhelming knowledge that at some point the state of New Jersey itself would cause my immune system to seize up, pushing me tumbling down the hill into the spastic, inhaler-grasping, snotty nosed teenager who had such an awkward time in high school.
I used to attribute this to the notoriously noxious output of pollen from the surrounding pine barrens, or maybe latent dander from our dog, Buddy; or maybe, on the latest trips, some manifestation of sadness remembering the house as the hollow figure of our father roamed the small hallway, unsure which room to go in or which bed he’d spend the next few hours on staring off into space; or maybe even some mold creeping through our suburban house and zoning back in on me, a familiar target.
But last August, the last time I went to see the family before they moved away, when I was there to clean out my leftover crap, from high school track medals to elementary school video games, I got walloped with the most powerful bout of out of New York City junk sick withdrawals ever. The pain grabbed my lungs like an angry mugger, pulling air out of me in short breaths. It made even rudimentary conversations with old friends — the kind I shared a bus stop with around the corner since kindergarten — practically unworkable, even though I was sitting in one of their in-ground pools (definitely a treat you don’t see in New York City), reunited with three girls I’ve known since I had baseball wallpaper in my bedroom.
I pulled the ripchord that day and took an earlier bus back to Port Authority, spending the rest of the night curled up in my bed in Brooklyn, slowly feeling back to my normal self. The addictive part of New York, I’ve realized, isn’t in its endless possibilities or constant entertainment value; it’s in its open-registration sort of format. Anyone who comes to New York, young/old, singer/comedian/painter, gets a chance to try to do their best at what they do. And some point after you realize that, you realize that not everyone can take the rush.