ADHD, Anxiety, College Demands…and the Return of Nicotine Cravings

Nicotine patches have helped me quit smoking, but is my own drive for perfectionism on my college exams, combined with ADD/ADHD, anxiety, and cravings for nicotine, driving me right back to the cigarettes that robbed me of my brain for so long?
ADHD College Blog | posted by Henry Greene

Two weeks have gone by since I finished the last of my nicotine patches, and I haven’t touched a cigarette. Nicotine is the furthest thing from my mind, despite having spent the better part of high school and my first year of college smoking to self-medicated my symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) and anxiety. Instead, midterm madness dominates my consciousness day in and day out. My every motion and every thought have been made with calculated precision. I walk rigidly, looking at no one as I stroll from my statistics class, where I frantically scribble down notes, to the library, where I’ll frantically study those notes.

Temple’s campus is not unlike the sort of aquarium you see in a bargain-priced fish store. The campus is walled in on all ends by high-rise classrooms and dormitories, which gives me the sense that I’m at the bottom of a pond. In the pond are hundreds upon hundreds of cheap goldfish -- otherwise known as students -- swarming around in schools. The currents that the schools follow are strong and deeply ingrained. At an intersection in the middle of campus, the fish flow to a stop when a police officer blares his whistle and raises a stop sign. Cars and semi-trucks spewing black exhaust jet across the street. As the schools of fish sputter to a stop, their hundreds-strong ranks compact, creating a crush of sweaty humanity. Cigarette smoke spews from the crowd in thin streams as though from a hundred tiny smokestacks. This is my day in, day out as I shuffle from class to class. I survive it only because I keep my mind sterile and cold -- obsessed with notes, flashcards, and my GPA. I try to block out the shoulders that are bucking up against me. My mind tries to fly away from the heat of the crowd pressing in on me and causing me to break out in waves of sweat. The best I can do is take slow, deep breaths, but the air is stuffy and I feel no sense of escape.

As I gasp for air, I glance at the boy bumping up against my right side. He doesn’t notice the sea of schools of fish around him. Instead, he focuses on lighting a cigarette. He struggles to make the lighter hold a flame, but his irritation seems mild compared to my own. Finally, the flame catches, and the cigarette’s tip makes a fresh sizzling noise as he takes a deep hit. 

“Ahhhh!” he sighs, exhaling a long stream of smoke. Just as his moment of bliss peaks, the whistle blares and the bodies begin moving again. When the bodies disperse, I treasure my newfound space and take deep gasps of air. My smoking compatriot, on the other hand, seems to have barely noticed the change. He had been so immersed in those heavenly drags that he was entirely oblivious to the blaring policeman’s whistle and the crush of bodies. He strolls away Zen-like, immune to such pettiness.

I, on the other hand, feel anything but Zen. Even without sweaty bodies threatening to suffocate me, there is still no joy in my day. My mind churns out my day's schedule just like it churns out statistics equations. Sometimes I stop dead in my tracks and long desperately for an internal monologue that told me something other than how many hours of studying I have ahead of me that day. But when I grasp for thoughts outside of studying, I turn up blank. So I shuffle onward, forever dodging bodies, until I reach the library. Stoically, I mount the flights of steps, walk to the far corner of the “quiet zone,” and plant myself and my schoolbooks on a rickety, Spartan table.

A three-hour marathon of paging through formulas ensues. I grind through one problem, then another. Save for the occasional bathroom break, there is no rest built into my routine -- what would I do? I’m a student now; I have my mind back after losing it for so long to cigarettes, and there is nothing for me to do with my weekdays but study.

After three hours, I have copied all my notes to flashcards and practiced and re-practiced every problem. With my last problem out of the way, I realize I should be relieved -- I’m all done! But instead, a sad realization overtakes me -- now that I’m through, I have nothing left to do but walk to the train station and go home. I’ll lie in bed for a while, fall asleep, wake up, and hit the books once again. I keep adding days to this vision. I watch with terror as day after day of aesthetic, lonely labor unfolds. Even looking at the desk in front of me makes me gloomy.

Outside it’s dark and cool. I try to savor the breeze for a while. Finally, a little pleasure! That will be my reward for my hard day’s work.

Only a few stray fish are darting around the bottom of the aquarium at this hour. Whether in throngs or astray, the fish are strangers to me, and I feel lonely in the aquarium. I wonder at the odds of running into someone I know. I imagine the feeling of reward that would come from good conversation after a long day’s work. But, I think, the odds are slim to none.

I stroll back toward the train station and brainstorm ways to do something, anything, to add some kind of joy to my day. I try to pep myself up over the idea of sipping on a lukewarm, decaf coffee all by myself while sitting in some dismal corner of Starbucks and listening to music that was chic last year. The thought just makes me more depressed.

That’s when I see him again -- my fellow fish that I’d butted up against in the afternoon throng. He looks just as contented now as he did when I last saw him. Maybe even more so -- unlike me, he seems to be reveling in his solitude. He is peering at the stars through the spaces between the high-rise buildings. He wears a somewhat enlightened expression and sighs out a beautiful plume of smoke.

“Hey man, quick question?” I ask.

“What’s up?" he asks.

“Can I bum a cigarette … please?”

He smiles a knowing smile. He nods at me and raises his eyebrows wisely. Then his hand emerges from his jacket pocket with a pack of cigarettes.

Enjoy, man,” he nods, emphasizing enjoy soulfully.

As I light the first cigarette I’ve smoked in two months, I gaze up at the night sky and think to myself, Those were the wisest words I’ve heard all day.

That was a year ago. Since that point, I’ve finally become a reasonable person -- at least in terms of my relationship with cigarettes. In every other area of my life, I’m still a basket case: I am always stressed; I am always either too anxious to accomplish any work or too anxious to do anything but work, but as I'll write about in future posts, I've largely begun to deal with my ADD/ADHD and anxiety without the crippling force of my cigarette addiction.

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