Once, while attending a best friend’s birthday dinner party at her parents’ house on a Saturday night in the early fall of my junior year of college, the top quarter of my left lung collapsed.
There weren’t any warning signs or symptoms that I can recall. During the entree, my lungs were intact, and by dessert, one had deflated. The doctor didn’t offer a specific reason for it happening, either, other than that spontaneously collapsing lungs tend to strike tall, thin white people.
That’s exactly how he described it, too, the handsome silver-haired doctor who also was white though not especially tall.
“It happens to tall, thin white people,” he told me, as I sat on the exam table, my legs dangling off the side, and initially I felt compelled to thank him since that seemed like an appropriate response to a man calling me thin. But I didn’t have a chance to respond since he quickly followed up with a question that left me blushing.
“Do you smoke cigarettes?” he queried.
I glanced down guiltily at my apparently slender thighs and answered that, yes, I did, and that I knew it was a bad habit and had long intended to quit, really I did. But, of course, I hadn’t the slightest intention of quitting before my lung went limp. My girl friends and I always told ourselves that our smoking wasn’t a problem since Nature simply would force us to drop it once we got pregnant, most likely around age twenty-five, following a gorgeous wedding at twenty-three.
The night of my collapsed lung, I was barely twenty-one. After the dinner plates for the birthday party had been cleared, and my friend’s mom was busy in the kitchen stabbing an Italian cream cake full of candles, a sensation akin to striking one’s funny bone flashed toward the middle of my spine. At the same time, a tingle raced through my left arm, and though I could breathe, my inhalations were shallow. Not wanting to alarm anyone and spoil the festivity, I mouthed the words to “Happy Birthday,” nibbled three-quarters of my slice of cake to not appear rude, and excused myself from the table.
As quietly as I could I let myself onto the front porch and dialed my parents’ number. My dad answered and seemed impatient as soon as he could detect distress in my voice (“you have a flair for the dramatic,” he once observed about me). And after I explained my symptoms to him, the back pain and stiff left arm, I could tell he had diagnosed this as yet another case of theatrics.
“You probably threw out your back,” he flatly surmised. “Just go to the chiropractor on Monday.”
Back inside, I waited until after presents had been opened and wrapping paper disposed of to inform everyone that I wasn’t feeling well, and after a round of detailed questioning and earnest suggestions that I go to the hospital “just in case,” I convinced them that all I needed was some rest, and reluctantly my friend’s family wished me well and led me to the door.
Relieved to be alone and in my car, I pulled out of the driveway and opened up my glove compartment to retrieve a cigarette from a half-empty pack of Parliament Lights. The first drag stung noticeably more than usual, but I persisted through the whole thing with the same tenacity that I used to smoke while driving around those same streets years earlier when I was in high school.
“You’re not doing it right,” one of my teenage, veteran smoker girlfriends would mildly scold as she plucked a Djarum Black from my hand. “You have to hold it in, like this” she continued, pausing to take a drag as the clove-laced tobacco crackled, and then elegantly exhaled. At sixteen, I approached learning to smoke with the same diligence that I applied to my advanced placement courses in school, and straight-A student that I was, it’s little wonder that I picked up the technique quickly, illogically proud of my pointless new trick.
For the remainder of high school, while some kids devoted their extracurricular energy to being actors, cross-country runners, student government leaders, I devoted my body, time, and cunning to becoming a smoker, as it required physical training and practice to desensitize virgin lungs, and on top of that, swift thinking and truth-fudging skills to concoct airtight alibis and explanations as to why a teenager might arrive home on a Saturday night reeking of cigarette smoke. But unlike most of those theater kids, student athletes, and amateur politicians who likely left those identities behind upon graduation, my being a smoker transitioned effortlessly into college, since all barriers to access were gone.
Making new girl friends and boyfriends; taking breaks between classes, during work, while studying for exams; sitting alone waiting for the bus; entering and exiting conversations at parties; muddling through hangovers after parties—all of it—was metered and measured in cigarettes. So of course, the night that my lung collapsed, when I got back home, I took a painkiller leftover from getting my wisdom teeth removed a couple months earlier and kept right on smoking on my front porch with a couple of friends who had stopped by, commenting every now and then about the bizarre pain in my back that just wouldn’t go away.
When I woke up the next morning, the discomfort radiated from my spine throughout my entire torso, and I realized that I probably needed to see a doctor, not a chiropractor as my father had prescribed the night before. And I probably smoked another cigarette before I left the house to go to my university’s health clinic because a morning cigarette with coffee felt delightfully adult to me at the time.
“About a quarter of your left lung has collapsed,” the handsome silver-haired doctor told me after running a series of tests.
“What?” I responded, momentarily incredulous. He then walked me through the health risks of my tall, thin whiteness and, later, about the imperative that I stop smoking.
That day, I quit cold turkey and didn’t need any outside assistance to repair my lung, either. After six weeks of minimal movement, it reinflated on its own. Then, one evening in a desperate effort to calm my nerves around a guy whom I wanted to make my boyfriend—and never did—I bummed a cigarette, and that was it for quitting.
According to my high school life plan, I should be married by now, probably with a couple of kids, by now, rendering smoking a moot point long ago. But instead, I’m pushing thirty, and cigarettes still determine the tempo of my day-to-day, except that unlike in high school and college, I’m fearfully, not eagerly, awaiting the next one. I quit for almost three years in my mid-twenties, and for days and weeks at a time since then. Most recently, I had intended to quit last year for my birthday. But almost every weekend, I capitulate and have at least one. For that reason, I’ve re-attempted to quit every Sunday for roughly the past thirty-two Sundays, like a sinner begging for divine forgiveness in church each week, only to walk back into iniquity before the communion wafers barely have time to digest.
And whether I quit or not, it’s a medical likelihood that my left lung will collapse again, maybe a quarter of it again, or maybe the whole thing—who knows. Sometimes, I imagine it nestled inside my rib cage toward the back of my abdomen, the top left tip drooping slightly inward like the lingering indent of a punch thrown at a down pillow, and I realize how little I really cared when I was sixteen years old about who I wanted to become because it never occurred to me that when I grew up, I would be the same person that I was back then, still reaching for a cigarette to have, at the very least, something to hold onto while I tried to figure it all out.
Cristen Conger is an Atlanta-based writer, a podcast co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, and the internet's unofficial Curator of Lady Knowledge. Her work specializes in all things women, gender, sex, and getting laughs. Not always in that order.