Smoking to Self-Medicate Anxiety and ADHD

As a teenager with anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), I turned to smoking to dull my symptoms and nerves, but in the process, I dulled my brain, too.
ADHD College Blog | posted by Henry Greene

It’s Wednesday afternoon and, as usual, my friend Rupert and I are loitering outside the local drugstore. It’s a humid, sweaty day but we didn’t hesitate to hike our usual hike -- two miles down the shoulder of a busy, suburban highway -- to a local shopping center. We time our treks carefully. Arrive too early and the shops will be packed with the workday lunch crowd. The sharply dressed, Starbucks-wielding adults jetting out of their offices for a quick lunch break are of no use to us. But if we arrive too late, the shopping center may be a ghost town -- a nightmarish possibility that would ruin our afternoon completely.

It’s 4 p.m. when we arrive and, at first, our hearts sink. Only a light sprinkling of cars dot the vast parking lot and not a soul is trolling along the sidewalks. We almost collapse onto the bench in complete dejection when suddenly, Rupert sits up with a start and thrusts out his forefinger eagerly at a figure in the distance. He’s spotted a hulking, frumpy man in a black Metallica T-shirt walking toward us. The fellow’s dazed, apathetic expression and his black, waist-length dreadlocks tell us one thing: He’s our man!

Rupert nudges my shoulder.

“Quick, quick, Henry, grab him before he gets away,” he urges.

My wallflower, ninth-grade self freezes for a moment and panics. Typically, the thought of approaching anyone new inflates a lump in my throat and causes my knock-kneed legs to shiver. I’m incapable of speaking up in class, telling jokes to groups of friends, making eye contact, or, God forbid, approaching girls may age, let alone women. In spite of attending weekly therapy sessions to discuss my attention deficit hyperactivty disorder (ADD/ADHD) and anxiety, there are only rare moments that I don’t feel like a helpless victim of my symptoms. Begging for cigarettes is one of those moments. While my ADD/ADHD medication hasn't shown signs of helping, self-medicating with cigarettes promises such immediate and profound relief, no fear is insurmountable. I swallow that oversized lump in my throat, straighten myself out, and strut towards this hulking man as calmly and confidently as I can. 

This is the one minute area of my life where I can overcome my shyness for the sake of a higher calling.

I try making eye contact with the man as he waddles down the sidewalk.

“Hey … uh, sir?” I stutter. “Excuse me?”

Turning his large head toward me slowly to reveal raised eyebrows and skin overgrown with a scraggly black beard and a polka-dotting of white-head zits, he waits for me to finish.

“Is there any chance you could buy me a pack of cigarettes?” I squeak, shyly holding up a $20 bill. “You can keep the change.”

Recently, to feed our cravings, Rupert and I have become shrewd judges of character. As per usual, our intuition -- which said that this guy, with his Metallica T-shirt, dreads, and apparent disregard for mainstream standards of good grooming, was a rebel, bitter enough to accept any opportunity to stick it to the man, which in this case meant buying two lanky adolescents a pack of smokes -- is spot on.

As we wait for our benefactor to emerge, the sparks of anxiety I feel from this edgy transaction take my whirring mind in unpredicted directions. I think briefly of English class.

Jenna, a waifish, somewhat snarky girl that I’ve developed an inexplicable crush on, sits directly next to me. Paralyzed with fear, I clutch the edges of my desk and stare rigidly forward. My eyes never deviate from the teacher, lest I accidently glace at hers and thereby give away my secret passion. Sometimes, I feel her eyes scrutinizing me. I never turn my head to meet her gaze, but I know she wants me to. Once, I hear her say something to me -- the sort of petty comment designed to spark conversation between schoolmates.

“Ugh, I hate this class,” she says. “So much reading.”

My hands tighten their grip on the desk. Again and again, I repeat to myself, “She’s not talking to me -- there’s no way she’s talking to me.”

I stare forward even more rigidly than before. Silently, I bite my lip. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her head recoil from my cold-shouldering slight. She looks down, seemingly somewhat hurt or confused. She had been trying to talk to me, I think.


“I-hate-myself-I-hate-myself-I-hate-myself,” I murmur again and again under my breath as I try to block out the memories. But the harder I try to push these thoughts out of my head, the more the shameful memories accrue. I remember Jenna’s slighted look and on top of that, the sarcastic words a boy in class who sits right in front of Jenna said in our earshot: “I wonder if he’s mute.” The pace of my thoughts quickens --

“Henry!” Rupert nudges my arm. “He’s back!”

I jerk myself out of my thoughts: Metallica Fan is exiting the store with a plastic shopping bag dangling from one of his enormous, hairy hands. Clearly a little skeeved out at the realization that he’s breaking the law for the sake of two awkward teens, he walks by us without making eye contact and accidently drops the plastic bag at our feet.

We watch our gallant, dreadlocked hero strut off into the distance, then we pillage the bag for its nicotine-imbued contents.

“Hell yeah!” Rupert raises the pack of Newport 100’s like a trophy.

We skitter to a back alley behind the shopping center. Safely out of view, he lights up my cigarette. I inhale deeply and stifle a cough. Already, my 14-year-old lungs are beginning to acclimate to, even crave, the feeling of thick smoke permeating their inner pathways. I take another deep puff of menthol smoke, hold it in my lungs till it hurts, then let out a long, sighing exhalation. Smoke spews out into the air in front of me like steam escaping from an overheated engine. A soothing calm overcomes me. It is as though someone has struck a gong, causing a smooth, mindless hum to suddenly block out the static noise whirring endlessly in my mind. I slump onto the concrete ground, take another deep drag, and feel at peace.

As I'll write about in my next blog, four years later -- fully addicted to cigarettes to the point where I can't get ready for work without having three cigarettes to wake me up and steady my mind -- I want to grab that lanky, pasty-skinned teen by the collar, pull him off of that concrete alley floor, and shake him, spitting violent threats, until he promises me he’ll never touch a cigarette again. But my time machine isn’t yet in operation. So, as I page through my memory like a photo album, I’m forced to scan through picture after picture of that lanky kid begging cigarettes from the bad kids in tenth grade, stealing a carton of Marlboros out of an open convertible in eleventh grade, and by senior year, being unable to break through his barrier of shyness without a Marlboro Menthol 100 tucked between his lips.

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