How to Quit Smoking in One Easy Step: Get Pneumonia in a Hurricane

by Brian Pritchett

Last time we spoke I told you all about how hideously old I am becoming. Now, as a grim preview of your own future, I have a quick update on my march toward the retirement community: the tale of my recent adventure with pneumonia.

I started getting sick two weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit. I was yawning a lot, and I had that barely-there twinge behind the eyes that you feel before a standard autumnal cold comes on. I wasn’t really paying any attention, but then it hit me in force at the office, and I went home early and changed into pajamas. They’ve been cleaned since, but I’m still wearing them as I write this.

I hadn’t been sick like that since I was a kid. I am a shameful sloth, with a neglectful lifestyle and a total disregard for my own health, but because God is dead and the universe is cosmically unfair, I am also generally fairly healthy. So, when I do get sick, I don’t have much experience with dealing with it. I just stayed home alone, drinking juice and taking lots of Nyquil and aspirin. I eventually took too much aspirin, and threw up, so then I got dressed and walked over to the pharmacy to get something to settle my stomach. By the time I got back I was doused in sweat, and collapsed in bed for the rest of the day.

That’s when I quit smoking, suddenly and almost painlessly. I wore a nicotine patch for eight hours, and then took it off because I couldn’t sleep. I never put another one on, and somehow, the exorcism worked and I still don’t have any cravings. Like everything else about this whole incident, I cannot explain how this happened.

That was the good news. The bad news was the increasing fever, and the sleeplessness that it caused. After a day and night with boiling blood I started having minor delusions, and seeing unconvincing mirages. Shadows in the corners of the bedroom became tall figures with long, spidery fingers. I tried not to panic, but I was tripping balls.

You’re probably wondering by now: how stupid is this person, and why hasn’t someone demanded that he go to the doctor? Doesn’t anyone love the stupid, stupid man?

I am stupid, but I am also loved, thanks for asking. Like I said though, I was hallucinating, and somehow I was convinced that I was getting better. When people would ask I would assure them that I was on the mend, but also too contagious to see anyone. My girlfriend, Maya, would normally have been skeptical about all of that, but she’s been distracted. Her sister, with whom she lives and shares one of those weird supernatural sister bonds where if you pinch one the other says ouch, broke her leg in three places a few weeks ago. Maya has been trying to nurse her back to health through two surgeries and an unusual amount of pain. So my illness wasn’t her primary concern, and I managed to get away with almost frying my brain.

Eventually Maya asked me what my temperature was, and I admitted that I didn’t own a thermometer, which, yeah … I’m an idiot. Maya came over with one. That night my fever topped out at a little over 102, so the next morning she dragged me to an urgent care center in Park Slope. I told the doctor that I had the flu.

“No you don’t,” he replied. “Flu season is over. Give me a moment please.”

He left the room and came back wearing a surgical mask.

He held a stethoscope to my back and told me to take a deep breath, which didn’t go so well. Two chest x-rays later I was diagnosed, and he asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I was relieved to be given the choice, and I said that I could sleep it off at home. He agreed and gave me an amazing antibiotic: one pill per day for ten days, and some medicine for the coughing. My fever broke the next morning. When I went back in for the follow up, the doctor said that he was glad to see me. He had been worried about not sending me to the hospital. I looked a lot better, he told me, but I should still take the rest of the week off.

My lungs, he explained, had been crawling with microscopic fauna. The little monsters were all dead now, thanks to the antibiotics, but their invisible corpses were languishing among my alveoli. I asked how I would get them out of my chest and he told me not to worry about it: my own microorganisms were feasting on the dead. That’s horrifying, so as I lay in bed that night thinking about all of this, I pictured a team of little green men with helmets and antennas, like The Great Gazoo from the Flintstones. The gazoos were driving tiny Zambonis through the civil war battlefield in my lungs, sweeping up the little dead bug soldiers with Xs over their eyes. Still gross, but also sort of comforting.

He also said I wasn’t contagious anymore, so I went over to the girls’ place and pulled up a blanket on the couch, next to Maya’s sister, with their dog, Griffin, between us. For the next two days the three of us lay there together watching Breaking Amish and Yukon Men, while poor ragged Maya brought us food and took our temperatures.

Still unable to sleep, I fell into a weirdly lucid state one night and had a vivid memory about an evening that I had spent in Prague, on a backpacking trip in 1995. I was with my friend Cristin, and we were in a warm bar on a cold night, drinking a concoction of booze and hot milk called Bear Milk. I wrote the whole thing down over the weekend and sent it to my editor at The Awl, and then spent a few days watching Twitter and comments to see if anyone liked it. It was something to do.

That brings us up to Friday. I hadn’t been paying attention to the news. I had only barely listened to the presidential debate, and on Sunday I was too ill to even watch football, which means, you guys, I was pretty sick. Another weird side effect was a sudden indifference to the Internet, almost as out of character as my new disregard for cigarettes. There was also a re-flowering of an older love for crap television. So I was really into watching Amish teens trying to start modeling careers and getting shunned, but I wasn’t taking Hurricane Sandy seriously at all.

We had spent the last storm, Irene, holed up in the girls’ place with the dog. We taped up the windows, put the barbecue grill at the foot of the bed, bought several gallons of bottled water, and then spent all day making a lasagna, for something to do. Irene came and went, passing us and spending her power upstate. We felt kind of dumb the next day, at the pub, giving away a lot of leftover lasagna. When we finally noticed that Sandy was coming, I guess we assumed she was going to be another Irene.

But Maya woke up early that morning. This sudden sleeplessness turned out to be the first sign of a lesser version of my disease. She got sick, of course, but her immune system is better than mine, so she didn’t go down the rabbit hole like I did. Before I was even awake she went to the store for groceries, including the makings of another special hurricane dinner to keep us from going nuts: beef bourguignon. On Saturday, the day before the storm was due, we had planned to go to Ricky’s for Halloween costumes. For some reason we decided to go through with that, and when we got there we noticed the weird vibe: everyone all shifty-eyed and harried, and arguments breaking out over places in the checkout line.

Maya said, “I have a feeling that this one is going to be bad.”

We picked up our friend Tim, who decided he’d rather be with us than alone in his apartment. And we all went back to the apartment to freak out for several days together.

We were all sick with something or other. Tim got a migraine. Maya and I took turns having coughing jags. Griffin had an allergy attack, and we had to whack him out on Benadryl. Eventually we were all insane, and we dressed up the dog in pajamas and a chicken hat.

But we were lucky, and we know it.

I’m still not smoking, and I haven’t been for weeks now. Will it last forever? Right now I’m all determined that it will, but it might be harder to be so fervent about it when life gets back to normal. So far, though, I’m a reborn non-smoker with pretty pink lungs. Want to achieve the same effect? Do the following:

1. Have little to no common sense.

2. Live in a disaster zone. Thanks to climate change, this has never been easier: for hurricanes, oil slicks, typhoons, Scyllas and Charybdises, any coast will do. For wildfires, mudslides, tornadoes and rampaging sasquatches, head inland.

3. Freak out and lie to everyone about how you feel, for no good reason.

Or, maybe try Chantix or something! Never worked for me though.

Brian Pritchett is a writer and a web producer in Brooklyn. He Tweets here.