Breathless is a French New-Wave film from 1960 directed by Jean-Luc Godard based on a story by Francois Truffaut. It stars Jean Seberg (as Patricia) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (as Michel). Michel is the quintessential smoker, the eternal bad boy. Throughout the entire film, a cigarette dangles from his lips. It is more than an accessory. It is a statement.
The film feels intentionally fragmented, thus jarring the viewer. And, the plot line is tragic from the beginning. Yet, this is not what sticks with me. It is the smoking, the constant smoking.
Three years ago, my respiratory doctor said, “I’m sorry to say this. I know how much you love cats, but you really shouldn’t be living with one.”
After my cats of seventeen and fifteen years passed, I decided to listen to my doctor. My asthma and allergies had me feeling strained. For breath. For air, for release. Waking in the night—lungs struggling, my throat tight.
I cried for weeks, mourning their deaths. Their twin passing, first Tigre, and then two months later, Laila.
Two years ago, my respiratory doctor said, “Yes. I know. Your cats passed. I am so sorry. But, I don’t think it was just the cats. I think you are allergic to smoke.” I didn’t want to believe it. I was still suffering—mourning and struggling to breathe. It had been a year since their tiny paws touched my face first thing in the morning, since their wet noses nuzzled mine, since I was covered in cat-hair constantly.
My breathing? Worse. Much worse. Worse each day. Smoke? Allergic? Damnit.
At the end of Breathless, Michel, a dying man, falls to the ground. He has just been shot and in his last breath, he exhales smoke.
Cigarettes? Never my thing. Yes, though, at one point, I was a smoker. I smoked because my friends smoked. I smoked because the movie stars I idolized in the French films constantly smoked. I smoked because I did not know what else to do with my life. But after seven years of this, I quit cold-turkey and I never looked back. But, smoking cannabis? Another story completely.
I did not want to listen to my doctor. I blamed my breathing issues on everything else, besides the actual smoke.
For a year, I felt breathless. Every day I awoke, feeling more and more unable to breathe. I felt unable to truly yawn. Only little, small breaths escaped and entered my lungs. I felt capsized in my body. For a year, I didn’t heed his concerns. I’ve been a daily cannabis smoker for longer than I often admit. Other than a few spotty teenage moments, I’ve been a stoner since my very early teens. It’s part of my creative identity. It was, at least.
It used to be something I was ashamed of, like I needed to keep my smoking a secret. In the past, culturally, cannabis users have been stigmatized as lazy and lacking ambition. Yet, that is the opposite of my experience with the miracle herb. For me, smoking flower always equaled creativity. I would put on some music, light-up, and within moments, be transported. In this dreamy, smoky state, I’d find inspiration. And relief.
Anxiety? Headaches and pain? Stress? What stress? But now? I’d wake up breathless. Too many visits to the ER. Chronic bronchitis. Nebulizer breathing treatments. Steroids and antibiotics for my lungs. Straining to breathe. Trying to quit.
Multiple visits to my respiratory doctor, where he treated me with compassion. Where he listened to me. I spoke about struggling with chronic pain and anxiety and grief. How I felt like I needed to smoke. Trying to quit. I did not like to use the word “addiction.” I still don’t. The chronic pain and anxiety increased as I decreased my smoked-flower intake. Finally, I hit rock-bottom.
Oregon was alight with smoke. Our beloved forests were burning. The sky rained ashes, like the earth was angry and needed to start over. The red smoke on the sun glowed over the city, and I cried, thinking of the gorge and its gutted landscape. Habitats, gone. The blaze that consumed everything. I imagined tiny chipmunks and soft bunnies and stoic elk and deer and cougars and bears, gone. The fire that started from carelessness consumed everything, growing by the moment, creeping towards the city, smog and orange skies. Apocalyptic. It got to a point where just the thought of smoking cannabis made me feel queasy.
Alone in my room, I thought of my dead cats as I struggled to breathe. I lacked their comfort. I used my inhaler and imagined those on the streets of the city who lacked resources to breathing treatments and shelter. I missed my cats and imagined the bunnies that were now gone, the flowers that were now dead, the depravity of humanity’s effect on Mother Nature. It seemed sacrosanct to smoke flower now. I could see beyond my body. My throat constricted whenever I would leave my house as I breathed-in the hazy air. I couldn’t even take walks or go to the park without becoming violently ill.
The world, my world, became very small. I hated my cage. I felt stuck in my body. I stayed in my apartment, waiting for the fires to die out.
Seasons changed. The fires blazed and were contained again and more sprung up. I decided to quit, to really quit. No more relapses. No more damage. No more deciding to quit on a Friday night and lighting up on a Saturday afternoon. The landscape was scarred enough. I was done. I was really done. I wanted to breathe, freely. I tried and I failed, over and again. Over and Over. Over and Over.
Then, somehow, I finally quit.
I’ve haven’t been smoking for the better part of a year. The level of pain I am experiencing on the daily is beyond my ability to express. I need relief still, and I’m learning how to medicate with tinctures and edibles. I ache… And, I ache… Yet, I can breathe. I’m not breathless. Anymore.
I don’t have cats now. I have a dog. I adopted an elderly Pomeranian and we take walks around the neighborhood. She loves to sniff around, just like I do.
I pick flowers. I breathe deep. Each step I take is an assertion. My life is worth it. Self-care is sometimes omission. Creativity is a challenge, but it is also self-compassion.
I am allowing myself to be vulnerable. I feel more present. I am back in therapy, again. On the couch, I talk about emotions I didn’t even know I had. So much is surfacing. It’s overwhelming sometimes.
To relax, I take lots of showers and long baths. I sit quietly at the park and observe everything. Crows in the sky. Kids teetering on the edge of the fountain, hunting for lucky pennies. I watch movies over and over, especially ones I’ve seen already. There is something soothing in their predictability.
I watch Breathless. I admire Jean Seberg’s looks: her short hair and striped shirt. I do not relate to her coolness and am fascinated by her still. It’s familiar.
Sometimes I’m out and pass-by people smoking cigarettes or sharing a blunt. Catching a whiff startles me. I have an instant reaction. I associate the scent of smoke with the ER waiting room. With burying my cats. With needing a nebulizer treatment. With the forest burning.
After the devastation of a forest fire, fresh life begins a new cycle. Nutrients are lush in the ashes. The sky permeates the soil. Decades-worth of seeds start to germinate once the forest canopy is no longer there. Saplings will have a new chance. Biodiversity has a chance to help heal and begin again. The sky clears. Smoke is no longer in the air. Yet, so much has been lost. It’s a natural cycle, this grief.
Taking a deep breath is a radical reminder. While I still crave the experience of smoking, opening the door to my subconscious, the place where my poetry lays dormant like seeds, ready to germinate… I know that it’s not the only way for me to feel alive. To find the words, to open the door. To go outside of myself.
Julia Laxer writes in the afternoons from a messy desk in a rose-lit room in Portland, Oregon. She uses performance art and spiritual practice to explore archetype and ritual and writes poems, essays, erotica, and memoir. Julia won the Orlando Prize in Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own (AROHO) in 2014, and is featured in magazines, including Luna Luna Magazine, CLASH Media, The Los Angeles Review, So-to-Speak, and Zócalo Public Square.