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Dishonesty begins casually. And it often starts small.
When I was a senior in high school, I went through a month-long phase where I kept a pack of parliament lights tucked away in a shoe box in my closet, along with love notes I never sent, condoms, and a small dime bag of weed that I bought off the streets of Port Chester, New York. These were my secret possessions that I never wanted my parents to ever find.
I remember the craving I would feel in the late afternoons after school, thinking about the pack of cigarettes tucked away in the hiding space in my closet. Was it the nicotine that I craved or the need to break my parent’s rules? Did I want to do something scandalous and rebel against the privileged lifestyle in which I had grown so accustomed to, living in an affluent town in Connecticut? Or did I really just want to feel the dopamine rush from the puff of nicotine? Maybe a combination of both.
I checked on my stash often, opening the shoebox and pulling the small pack of cigarettes out, turning the carton over and over again in my hand, smelling it and practicing with the lighter on my bedroom floor. I was able to sneak out back onto the patio and actually smoke a cigarette only once or twice a week, when my mother would run out to do an errand before dinner.
I both feared and obsessed over my craving for the cigarettes. I loved my stash, but it made me nervous. I knew cigarettes were bad for me, and I didn’t want to be a smoker. My friends and I made fun of the girls who smoked, and we laughed at the gangs of teens who hung around in groups on the Avenue outside the movie theater doing so. I was better than that. And I ultimately knew what it meant to crave it, so I only allowed myself to indulge once or twice a week when my mother was out. I didn’t want to die young from lung cancer, I thought. But it was fun.
I would wait for my mother to leave me home alone in the afternoons after school, so I could sneak out onto the back patio. My black lab, Maggie, would sit at the back door wagging her tail, begging to come outside with me and play. I would wait until I could see my mother’s car heading away from the house, and I would follow it down the road with my eyes and around the corner. As soon as she was out of sight, I would light the parliament, expertly blowing the smoke up toward the sky, sighing deeply with relief.
I’m fine, I would tell myself. This is no big deal, I would say.
I would watch the perfect little rings float slowly toward the clouds and a feeling of elation would momentarily take me away. I would spin around in circles, laughing to myself, Maggie watching me intently through the window of the door.
But the joy was always fleeting, lasting only a few more minutes. The fun was always quickly replaced with nausea, dizziness, and a racing heart.
I would soon grow nervous, searching the road for any sign of my mother’s car on her way back home too soon. Perhaps she would return suddenly, “Oops, I forgot my wallet!”
Even though I knew I was alone, I was terrified of getting caught. I loved the danger, but I hated it. I craved the dizziness the cigarettes would immediately provide, but it made me sick to my stomach. It was so exciting to feel that I was doing something a little bit bad, but the guilt afterward often overwhelmed me.
After a puff or two and feeling like I would pass out, I would put the cigarette out and crush it with my shoe, hiding it under a rock. I would head back inside the house, wash my hands, and give Maggie a kiss on the head. Then I would go back up to my bedroom, change my clothes, and begin my homework.
A dishonest, casual, little secret. And no one ever discovered my truth back then. My parents never found the pile of crushed, half-smoked cigarettes out back.
Fast forward 20 years later, and I would find myself doing something similar all over again. A small, casual dishonesty that would eventually escalate and change my life forever. Years after I perfected sneaking around smoking cigarettes on my parents’ back patio, I recreated this routine and pattern as an adult in a completely different way. It developed into something much larger.
As a grown woman, wife, and mother, I found myself creeping around in the shadows of my own home, hiding from my husband and children. But this time, it wasn’t parliament lights that I was hiding in my closet. It was bottles of vodka.