Content Warning: Discussion of addiction, including the specifics of using drugs, and smoking.

I struggle to pull my coat onto my shoulders. The gesture makes a popping sound from my elbow, which I follow with a preprogrammed joke before anyone can ask if it hurt. It did. It always does. That’s why they call it chronic pain.

It takes some time to put on my shoes. My left ankle doesn’t rotate anymore, and neither foot will point their respective toes. Turns out that’s a useful thing for a foot to do in order to put on boots. I try as much as possible to make sure no one’s paying attention as I push my sluggish feet into them, because it’s not fun or funny. It hurts, and it’s humiliating to feel unable to put on your own shoes. I don’t have a joke for these moments. Just angry tears I shove down past the laces and tongue.

I pull on my hat, throw a scarf around my neck in such a way I know it will sluff off my shoulders as I shuffle out the door. Fixing the long length of fabric isn’t worth the motion; I can tell if my elbow pops out again it’s going to mean keeping my arm bent in a pretend sling and pressed against my side for a good 40 minutes to keep it from getting worse. It’s not worth the ache. I let the tassels drag across the doormat, getting damp and heavy.

I already have my cigarette behind my ear and a lighter in hand. The second my curled fingers hit the cold air they begin to grow stiff. I waste precious mobility digging through my pockets for the box and light. So I’m always ready in advance. I’ve perfected the actions, as much as I can, so as to save as much energy and avoid the worst of the pain. The only thing to pity is the temperature, and that I’m depressingly low on my cigarette count.

Out in the cold, I turn my back to the direction of the wind and flick the lighter. I take a deep, steadying breath. Sometimes the things that are bad for you are better than going without. But that’s logic that’s gotten me into trouble in the past.

I think about ritual. Some people say there are ghosts built solely from repetition–imprints of the daily motions of a lifetime onto a space. Women in colonial gowns walking through the hall. The sound of heavy work boots endlessly climbing the stairs before thudding back down them again. Congregations walking the aisle to take their waiffers, kneel, cross themselves, and disappear until the next communion. The rituals continue long after the person who made them.

Image Description: A close-up of someone wearing a pair of tan work boots and dark pants, standing in the snow.

I’ve let go of a lot of rituals over the years. I’m an addict, so there’s a lot of them. I’m trying to cut back on smoking, and my crippled body would be pleased by the follow through if I manage. Suiting up for the Minnesotan winter is no small effort, and, turns out, cigarettes are pretty bad for you. But there are worse drugs, worse rituals. The kind I hope died with the person I was while using.

A lot of folks at AA or NA meetings will tell you that you’re already high when you’re getting ready to use. The anticipation makes your skin warm, pushes down through you until you’re flush and giddy. As you call your dealer, push open the door of the liquor store, open that brand new prescription bottle– you’re taking part in a ritual. One that you will perfect over time. It soon becomes as heady as the drug itself.

I used to smoke after my first fix in a while. I’d feel the tension in my shoulders unspool, and the constant pain in my knees and hips would sink down with it. The nicotine and opiates would hum through me until I was euphoric about nothing and everything. It was wonderful to be alive, for life to not mean– at least for that moment– I must be in pain. But those moments grew shorter and shorter, and to reach them took more and more, until I was trading my breath for empty promises.

I disagree with those who say the ritual is as bad as the communion. I think about the ghosts that haunt houses without knowing. There’s no sentience behind the phenomena, only the sounds and signs of life playing out, day after day. No one planned for those footsteps or practice scales to be the only evidence of their having existed. I didn’t plan for the familiar ache of putting on my coat to carry the weight of a painful memory–the memory of not being in pain–but the motions are remembered, imprinted onto my cracking joints and fumbling fingers.