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This Is My Brain on Chantix

Since the FDA’s announcement, those hare-and-tortoise commercials seem to have disappeared from the airwaves. Is the voice-over being retooled? “Yes, we’re currently updating our branded campaign in order to reflect the changes to the label,” says Francisco Debauer, a Pfizer spokesperson. “In the meantime, we’ll be airing our unbranded ad in TV and print”—the My Time to Quit campaign, which never mentions Chantix, but directs people to a Website that eventually leads to them to another, which does.

The drug would appear to be at a crossroads—perhaps the worst, rarest adverse reactions have been reported, perhaps more cases are still to come. Pfizer says no lawsuits have been filed, but there are certainly injury lawyers hungrily putting up Chantix Webpages. Smokers who want to quit are left with a more difficult decision—and the strong advice, if they do take the drug, to be on the lookout for mood changes.

After a few weeks on Chantix, I had managed to stop smoking altogether—but it didn’t feel like a triumphant turn of events. I’d become rather reclusive, avoiding calls from friends, and basically just shuttling back and forth between my office and my apartment. I began to dread six o’clock; it meant I had to walk through the streets again. The subway was now out of the question; it made me too nervous. I stopped going to the gym, too.

I wondered whether Chantix was zapping my brain’s pleasure-delivery system to such a degree that not only did I find no reward in cigarettes, but I also found no reward in socializing, exercising, writing, or any of my usual self-stimulating tricks. I’d pace the floor, sit on the bed, channel surf, pace some more, try to read, but the room had a stale, sinking feeling. Maybe I should go and grab a drink—then at least I might be able to get some rest.

There was no warning against drinking while on Chantix, and even if there had been, I can’t say with any honesty that I’d have adhered to it. (I wasn’t taking any other medication, though.) But while I’ve had my fair share of dark and drunken nights over the years, what I experienced on Chantix was something else altogether. One evening, I steeled myself to go on a date, but after a few drinks with the guy, I abruptly burst into tears mid-sentence. The crying jag lasted about 30 minutes, with the thought I can’t do this anymore looping through my head. This was happening a lot lately, as though someone had spliced other people’s thoughts into the tape whirl of my brain.

Another night, at an East Village bar, an older man in a trench coat caught my attention. I chatted him up for a while, until I realized I was actually trying to go home with the shadow cast by a potted plant. With alcohol in my system, I was somehow able to take this hallucination in stride: “The man who got away … ” But that same evening ended with my taunting a skinhead who was improbably on the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street. “You must be lost,” I snapped. “Are you looking for 1993?” He ended up chasing me into a deli and saying he was going to murder me. (The guy at the register called the cops and the skinhead fled, so I’m fairly confident that he, at least, was real.)

I’ve blacked out a handful of times before, but now it wasn’t unusual to have five or six hours completely wiped out of my memory. I’d wake up with my clothes on, music blasting, and strange half-eaten sandwiches lying on the floor that I had no recollection of buying. One morning, I found an unopened container of dental floss in my coat, as well as a batch of business cards from people whom I couldn’t remember at all. Later that day I received a text message: “I had a great time meeting you … I could have talked to you for another two hours. :)” I have no idea who that person was.

Why didn’t I just stop taking the drug? I did consider it. But there’s something particularly dispiriting about quitting a medicine that’s supposed to be helping you quit smoking. I kept thinking that my body was still getting used to being on Chantix and off cigarettes, that I should wait until everything readjusted itself.

A few nights later, a friend invited me to a party and I reluctantly agreed. I was still avoiding my closest friends for fear that they’d notice changes in my behavior. But maybe I’d feel better if I stopped keeping to myself, for just a night. At the party, I tried to impersonate myself as best I could, but I found myself staring and nodding blankly, actually having difficulty understanding what people were trying to say, and getting oddly touchy at offhand comments.

I was offered a piece of cake on a plate and a fork. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the puzzle. How the hell were these pieces supposed to fit together? Fork. Plate. Cake. What sort of maniac would present me with something like this at a party? I abandoned the cake for a vodka tonic, which I drank in silent rage.

I left without saying good-bye. In the cab, I watched the city slash past the windows and was tempted to just throw open the door. Running up the stairs to my apartment, I barely had the door open before the crying started again. I sat on the edge of the bed, doubled over, and I felt severely ill, as though some freakish primal despair had finally been loosened from my stomach. The sensation was more like vomiting than any sadness I’ve ever experienced, and the shrieking sobs were punctuated by sudden jags of rage. Like a spoiled teenager, I’d suddenly uproot drawers from the bureau, push all the belongings off shelves with a sudden swat of the arm, smash a glass against the wall, and then the crying would take over yet again. Meanwhile, the room seemed to be pulsing and reverberating around me, and my eye would keep zeroing in on objects—the television, the AC, a pair of shoes—and feel as though they were somehow buzzing with life and gleefully watching me endure the biggest meltdown I’d ever had. I had somehow ruined myself, and suicide seemed like a good way to avoid the embarrassment of this fact’s being exposed.

The next morning, I called in sick to work and started cleaning up the considerable mess I’d made. I had to throw out a bunch of broken CDs, smashed glasses, torn clothes, ripped photographs, and the remaining boxes of Chantix from my medicine cabinet.

It was a good call, I think, the second most important decision I’d ever make in my life.