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This Is My Brain on Chantix

I’d heard it was the most effective stop-smoking drug yet. So I took it. Then those reports of suicidal ideation began washing in.

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Things were looking good. My doctor had gone through the test results and told me I was perfectly healthy—except my breathing was a little shallow. That didn’t surprise me. I’d been smoking for twelve of my 32 years, and my father died of lung cancer in his early fifties. That’s why I was having my first physical in five years: I’d decided it was time to stop for good.

I’d heard about Chantix, a relatively new drug from Pfizer that blocks nicotine from attaching to your brain receptors. That way, you stop receiving any pleasure from cigarettes at all—even as the drug, snuggling up to those receptors the same way nicotine does, reduces withdrawal cravings and unleashes a happy little wash of dopamine to boot. Wonderful things they can do nowadays.

My doctor wished me luck as he wrote out the prescription, telling me it was the single most important decision I’d ever make in my life. I had the medication that night, 35 minutes after dropping into Duane Reade. While waiting, I gleefully chain-smoked Parliament Lights. One of Chantix’s big perks is that you can smoke for the first seven days you’re on it (most people take it for twelve weeks)—more than enough time, I thought, to say good-bye to an old friend.

I swallowed my first pill the next day before work. It was a beautiful fall morning, an almost obnoxiously cinematic day to turn over a new leaf. But by the time I was halfway to the office, I started to feel a slight nausea coming on. Of course, that is a common side effect, as are constipation, gas, vomiting, and changes in dreaming. These five symptoms were emblazoned in a large font on the patient-information sheet.

My stomach settled as I finished my first cup of coffee. I slipped into my boss’s office, proudly announcing that I’d just started taking Chantix. “You’ve probably seen the commercial,” I said. A CGI tortoise races against a sprightly CGI hare, while a paternal voice-over reminds us that quitting smoking “isn’t for sprinters … it’s all about getting there!” Clinical trials demonstrated a whopping 44 percent of patients were still off cigarettes after twelve weeks, the ad says. The tortoise winks knowingly.

“You know, I saw something about Chantix,” my boss said, sounding vaguely concerned. He tracked down the story on a CBS Website. It was a sensational report on Carter Albrecht, a Dallas musician formerly with Edie Brickell & New Bohemians. Albrecht had started taking Chantix with his fiancée, with seemingly dramatic side effects. She claimed he had had bizarre hallucinations that worsened when he drank. One evening, he attacked her, something he’d never done before. He then ran to his neighbor’s house and kicked at the door, screaming incomprehensibly. The neighbor was so panicked he wound up shooting Albrecht through the door, killing him.

I tried not to roll my eyes. It seemed obvious this was nothing more than scaremongering—perhaps Big Tobacco had launched a spin campaign. Millions of Americans were on Chantix. Why focus on the negative?

The next night, I nodded off listening to Radiohead’s In Rainbows, feeling a little guilty that I’d paid zero dollars for it. I had a quick blip of a dream: A dark, inky fluid was jolting violently from the corners of my ceiling, zigzagging its way across the walls and wooden floor in jerky sync to the music.

It was only a dream, though it seemed more immediate and visceral than my usual fare, which I rarely remember after waking up. The following night, things got even stranger. I fell asleep with Bravo blaring on my TV and dreamed that a red-faced Tim Gunn was pushing me against the wall. “But I always thought you were so nice,” I said.

By night four, my dreams began to take on characteristics of a David Cronenberg movie. Every time I’d drift off, I’d dream that an invisible, malevolent entity was emanating from my air conditioner, which seemed to be rattling even more than usual. I’d nap for twenty minutes or so before bolting awake with an involuntary gasp. I had the uneasy sense that I wasn’t alone.

I smoked a cigarette, then tried going back to sleep. But each time I started napping, I’d dream that something increasingly ominous—carbon monoxide? Vampires?—was sucking vital essence out of me. Soon the clock on my desk read 3:20 a.m.

The most unsettling thing about sleeping on Chantix is that I never felt like I was truly asleep. Some part of me remained on guard. It was more like lucid dreaming, what I thought it might feel like to be hypnotized. And it didn’t entirely go away come morning. As I showered, shaved, and scrambled into clothes, I tried to shake a weird, paranoid sense that I’d just been psychically raped by a household appliance.


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