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True Life: I am a fitness instructor addicted to e-cigarettes - Sarah Ballan

When it comes to e-cigarettes, I've tried them all. My first purchase was a banana ice Puff bar, and I finished it in a few days. It tasted just like those banana "Runt" candies, which were popular in the '90s, and each inhale brought back feelings of nostalgia. I bought the stick in California in 2020 while anticipating his second arrest.

"I'll quit when he does," I told my parents, who deeply disapprove of my hazardous habit. The "he" I am referring to is my stalker. For those of you who don't know, I am a survivor. (I don't like the word victim because it sounds weak.) For two years of my Life — before and well into the pandemic — I was stalked by a member of my own NYC fitness community. But this entry isn't about him; it's about the aftermath. I started smoking e-cigs to cope with the crippling anxiety I had whenever I opened up my phone. At this point, however, it's been ages since he's contacted me. Although I'd like to blame someone else for my addiction, this one's on me.

I've always liked the feeling of smoking. It gives me a head rush. I quickly graduated from the flat Puff Bars to the large cylinder ones with 800 "puffs" per piece. Puff Bars are fruity, and I'd puff and puff, sometimes in place of eating. The flavors satiated my hunger but left me addicted to the nicotine.

The crazy thing is, I started smoking e-cigs after coronavirus was deemed a disease that could have devastating impacts on your lungs and respiratory system. I was, well, still am, a fit pro, so I should know better. My fellow millennials didn't grow up with this temptation; it's more a "Gen-Z" thing. But, PTSD makes you desperate to escape bad feelings, and sometimes you'll turn to something that's not good for you. Also, I was out of an in-studio job. The title "fitness pro" didn't resonate with me the way it used to because I was getting weekly pay stubs from the government rather than from my old studio.

Since I wasn't being paid to teach, I experimented with other brands of e-cigs. Almost two years later, my go-to product is the Air Bar. It lasts longer than the Puff and tastes slightly less like chemicals. Also, the regular Air Bar is the midway price point between the Puff Plus and the Air Bar Max (2,000 puffs). Mo, the man behind the counter of the Smoke Zone on 56th street, knows me — not by my name, but by my flavor: pineapple ice. Whenever I walk in, which is usually once a week, sometimes twice if I'm stressed out, he knows to go to the back room and bring me my go-to stick. (Flavored e-cigs are not always displayed on the shelves behind smoke shop counters, as the government is cracking down to prevent the future generation from getting 'popcorn lung'). We don't say much other than hello, even though I've been a regular for over a year. Sometimes I tell him: "I'm quitting, Mo. Don't sell me another one," and he'll chuckle.

My addiction to the Air Bar is part mental, part physical. Whenever I go too long without a drag, I get antsy, even though nicotine is a stimulant, which makes a person more restless. When I take a hit, I feel a little light-headed, but my nerves are replaced by momentary dopamine. Dopamine rushes are like being rewarded. It doesn't produce the kind of euphoria or impairment that inhaling, like pot, does, but the hits improve my mood. I started sleeping with my Air Bar next to my bed to inhale the flavors before bed. Sometimes, I wake up with it in my hand.

During my first year of graduate school on Zoom, I could attend class on my bed while still in pajamas. I started smoking discreetly. I'd turn off my camera, lean to one side, off-screen, and exhale. Then, I started not to care as much — what would they do? I became the caterpillar from Alice and Wonderland, blowing thick clouds of smoke straight into the camera.

This habit of mine has become an expensive one. I am off unemployment checks, and my primary source of income is teaching part-time as an indoor cycling coach, supplemented by personal training clients. My weekly salary depends on how much I hustle — how many people I can get to take my spin class or the number of one-on-one sessions. Smoke Zone Mo sometimes offers me a discount, but each Air Bar is $12. Let's call it a $12/ week minimum. This sum doesn't include impulse buys downtown at places where I'm not a regular and will sometimes get charged $15+ if I'm out in the West Village and my stick runs out. This often happens on weekends. If my math is correct, please don't judge me on these skills — I average, give or take, over $50/ month on poison.

My bank account is negatively affected, and my stamina is nowhere near where it used to be. One day, during the pandemic's beginning, before I became Puff the Magic Dragon, I impromptu ran a half-marathon for fun in under two hours. I was in pain for a few days, but my legs were more tired than my lungs. Recently, I ran two miles in the time I used to run three. I'm embarrassed to call out the actual breakdown per mile, so I won't. But the slower time wasn't what alarmed me most — it was my heart-rate zones.

Let me break down the different heart-rate zones for you:

● Zone 1: Very light, 50-60% effort, good for active recovery (ex: walking)

● Zone 2: Light, 60-70% effort, improves basic endurance and fat-burning (ex: fast-paced walking/ easy jog)

● Zone 3: Moderate, 70-80% effort, improves aerobic fitness (ex: faster jogging)

● Zone 4: Hard, 80-90% effort, increases maximum performance capacity (ex: running)

● Zone 5: Maximum, 90-100% effort, used for maximum performance and speed (ex: sprinting)

It's ok to push yourself to zone 5 during a cardio workout in small intervals, so your body can push itself to new limits. It's not ok to stay in zone 5 for the entire activity.

Given my training history, it didn't make sense. How were my "chill-paced" laps around the reservoir in Central Park my bodily equivalent of sprinting? I blame the mother f*cking e-cig. I tell myself: I'll quit tomorrow, but tomorrow always gets pushed back another day. I still easily teach spin classes, but that could be muscle memory. I want to quit, I really would, but I don't know how to.

I paced myself based on what I could previously run, so I thought I was semi-on track. I noticed it was more challenging to keep up with speed, but I pushed myself anyway because I'm competitive (even when breaking my records). Even though it felt oddly strenuous, I didn't consider that running at a slower pace was my body telling me to take it easy. When I reviewed my stats post-run, I realized I was in zones 4 and 5 (mostly 5) for most of my run. My slowest mile ever had become my biggest challenge.


Sarah Ballan is a Manhattan-based writer and editor with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Hunter College. Whether teaching fitness classes or writing essays and short fiction, her focus is on interpersonal relationships and deep self-reflection. Sarah's writing is bold, raw, unapologetic, and cinematic.


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