My father has emphysema. Who wouldn’t, after fifty-six years of smoking? Though he hasn’t been formally diagnosed, his pained breathing and persistent fatigue have finally forced him to use the word “emphysema” for the first time, at age 72. He once told me he began smoking at age fourteen, though he never mentioned why; after several false starts, he finally kicked the habit about eighteen months ago.
When my family relocated from California to Nebraska in 1992, so my parents could retire near where they grew up, I immediately noticed how many people smoked. My first job, behind the convenience store counter, involved accessing the tobacco rack for customers, a position for which I now suspect I was technically underage. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say most purchases included packs of smokes, enough did to worry me.
At that time, still under the sway of neoliberal political thinking, I would’ve never attributed economic reasoning to personal habits. I just wondered why smoking seemed so pervasive in Nebraska culture compared to California. Though I knew smokers Out West, they remained primarily obscure, pursuing their habits less blatantly. My workplace never completely stopped at smoke-break time, as it did in Nebraska, where smokers herded, lemming-like, toward the doors.
But thinking about my father’s struggling health, I realized I did see something similar in California. Though people smoking weed and consuming other drugs needed to maintain more cover than smokers do, the same basic behavior obtained. People embraced work, school, and other mandatory responsibilities as clear-headed as circumstances allowed, then when duty ended, they raced headlong to whatever substance made them feel human again. Legal or otherwise.
Addiction specialist Gabor Maté writes that understanding substance addicts in terms of recreational users is mistaken. Some people smoke weed, inject heroin, snort cocaine, and consume other drugs because their substances make them feel good. Addicts don’t want to feel good, however; they want to feel normal. They want whatever suffering infects their sober lives to vanish under the comforting glow of their favored substance, even for an hour.
Cocaine and heroin are painkillers. Before they became illegal, snake-oil salesmen included these drugs in their patent medicines because, no matter whatever else their concoctions included, Peruvian marching powder made the pain go away. So when considering what turns people into coke or smack addicts, or what hooks people on other painkillers like alcohol or Vicodin, we must look not at the drugs, but at whatever pain needs killed.
Nicotine and cannabis, however, aren’t painkillers. Like Valium, another widely abused substance, they’re anti-anxiety drugs. When jitters paralyze you, having a smoke, a toke, or a tab of V really drains the tension. So if painkillers require us to find the user’s unexamined pain, logic dictates, anti-anxiety drugs require us to find the unexamined anxiety. Why would a 14-year-old from bucolic western Nebraska have anxieties that need smoked out?
Rural life is frequently precarious. The principal economic driver, farming, is constantly subject to weather, market fluctuations, and other forces individuals cannot control. Dips in commodity prices take money from farmers, but also from businesses dependent on farmers, like equipment dealers, small-town banks, and entire rural downtowns. Despite tough-talking individualist myths, rural and small-town people, the western Nebraska population, live constantly at the verge of a sheer cliff.
Compare big-city life. Even after the collapse of 2008, the financial services sector remains America’s largest industry, in dollar terms. People wager massive fortunes on a 24-hour cycle. As we learned during the last economic contraction, financial services operates like a casino, plying big winners with rewards to keep them at the table. In Vegas, the rewards include comped drinks. One icon of bankers’ lifestyles is the three-martini lunch.
So while small-town people live constantly with the anxiety of hoping they’ll make next month’s payments, big-city moguls swallow the risks of gambling away Grandmother’s retirement savings. People raised in rural life, like my dad, or in California’s suburban uncertainty, smoke the anxiety away. While Bernie Madoff-type gamblers kill the pain of knowing they’re rewarded while they’re winning, but could lose everything at any moment.
Cocaine and heroin have little presence in western Nebraska, where I live, but at my construction job, I’m among the few men who don’t use tobacco. This isn’t coincidental. People’s favored drugs reflect their circumstances, and their circumstances have dollar measurements. Though hard drugs remain the province of urbanism, where difficulty and pain define daily life, rural workers will always prefer to smoke their fears away.