Tony Gwynn’s death represents a small part of the chewing tobacco problem

Over the weekend Tony Gwynn died from salivary gland cancer that he’d been battling since 2010, and that was a result of chewing tobacco. Tony Gwynn was 54 years old.

Gwynn’s relationship with chewing tobacco is merely the tip of the iceberg. Here is my story of the downside of chewing tobacco, which to this point hasn’t ended as tragically, but is probably more common than Gwynn’s specific story.

I started chewing when I was 16 years old. My friend Matt and I were in the rec room at the house of a friend of ours. We were drinking Aftershock, which was the second thing I’d ever drank, and I was in the middle of a rebellious streak that had begun a couple of years before when my parents got divorced.

Already drunk, I put in a dip of Copenhagen Longcut that was enormous. I immediately got light-headed, felt like I was spinning, and had a heightened sense of reality. It was weird, but altering, and at time I really wanted to be altered. At the time I never thought that chewing tobacco would be anything more than recreation for me.

About a year later Matt and I got a job together at the same Taco Time. I’d chewed a dozen or so times in the interim, but I’d picked up another habit – smoking.

I grew up near an Indian reservation that had cigarettes and chewing tobacco for far cheaper than their counterparts at local convenience and grocery stores. Even better for a rebellious 17-year-old, they didn’t card. At 17 years old I was only asked for ID once. I was never turned away from a smoke shop, and the only time I was even asked for ID I pretended I’d forgotten it and they sold me the can of chew and pack of cigarettes.

I’ve had only a handful of jobs in my life, and most of them haven’t been very good jobs, but by far the most stress and least amount of money came from working at Taco Time. I’m sure it’s not Taco Time’s fault. Fast food is exactly what it sounds like, food that is required to be made in incredibly short amounts of time, but done by semi-stoned teenagers. I was on the baseball team, and had the most stressful job I’ve ever had. I had access to chewing tobacco, a lot of incentive to do it, and a group of people surrounding me who were similarly inclined to enjoy it.

The idea that chewing or smoking somehow makes you “look cool” is a kind of ignorant fallacy, at least for my generation. My heroes didn’t have cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves. Rather, they had chew cans in the back pocket of their baseball pants. I remember walking through the Kingdome on Little League day and seeing the stains on the turf in right field from where Jay Buhner had spit his chewing tobacco for several years. I remember long streams of comically thick chew spit squirting from the mouths of dozens of my favorite players. I remember buying Big League Chew and wadding it up in my cheek while pretending it was chewing tobacco. I remember picking dead grass in my lawn and putting it into a sandwich bag, and reaching for a fake dip. I had all of these images and desires before I’d ever really seen what chewing tobacco was.

But for me, and for may of my baseball teammates, chewing was about bonding. It was a beer after work, but we weren’t old enough to buy beer (or chew for that matter). It was a right of passage, and a group activity.

When I turned 18 was the beginning of the summer after senior year, and I got a full-time job working in a factory doing hand assembly. About a half-dozen baseball players were also there because the plant manager had coached several of us in Little League. All of us chewed, for the most part, and for the first time we were allowed to basically chew tobacco to our heart’s content. We had spit cups at our stations, and traded different flavored cans of chew like Pogs.

I chewed two cans a day. When I was 17 years old my mom found a stash of a variety of vices I had at the time: a weed pipe I’d barely used, a  single empty Miller Genuine Draft bottle, a handful of dirty magazines and DVDs, and a can of chew and pack of cigarettes. I remember feeling awful when I realized she’d found them, and we talked about it, and both cried. She smoked for a couple of decades, and she and my dad, prior to their divorce, had quit smoking. I’ve since realized that my dad started again some years later in secrecy, and though there is no one cause for divorce, this had become a source of pain for my mom.

She put her foot down on the weed, understood but didn’t approve of the porno, but absolutely implored that I quit smoking and chewing. At that point I wasn’t heavily addicted, and opted to stop doing it inside the house, because at that time I had that much control over nicotine.

When she found my chew and cigarettes at 18 years old, she was more firm: “You won’t do that in this house, we’ve talked about this.”

“I’m 18 years old now. I’m an adult. I’m not going to quit, and I don’t want to quit, so if I need to move I’ll start looking for places.”

This would prove to be one of the dumbest stances I’d take in my life, and one of the few ultimatums I’ve ever given. I was allowed to remain in the house.

As the factory job wound down most of the group went on to college. I went to work for a company that installs truck canopies.

Everybody at that company smoked, it seemed. It was probably closer to 80 percent of the company, but some of that 80 percent smoked enough to make up for those that didn’t. I worked at multiple locations, and some of the managers would even let us smoke in the installation bays. Even when the law was passed forbidding any smoking within 25 feet of a business entrance, we were given the nod and wink approval to continue smoking indoors. I chewed, I smoked, and I did it constantly.

At some point during my time at this canopy place I had a car break down, and was carpooling to work for several months as a result. This made getting chew very difficult, as I didn’t constantly have access to local smokeshops or gas stations. I’d asked my mom to take me to the store under the guise of something else, and she saw directly through that guise. She refused to take me to the store, taking a stand against my addiction, and if there is anything that will anger a person who smokes or chews, or anyone with any addiction I imagine, it is not having access to the thing which they are addicted to.

I punched my dresser really hard when I hung up the phone. When I punched my dresser I broke the bone in my hand that connects with the lowest pinky knuckle. It was too late to go to urgent care, and it didn’t hurt bad enough to go to the emergency room, so my mom picked me up, took me to a drug store so that I could buy a splint for my hand. When I got to the register I bought two cans of Copenhagen Longcut.

“What’d you punch?”

That’s what the doctor asked. I didn’t tell him what had happened, just that my hand was broken. He told me that almost all of these kinds of breaks occur in young men in my age range, and that they are always punching something inanimate.

Sometime before my 20th birthday I was on the verge of joining the Navy unless something changed in my life. One of the biggest reasons I didn’t join, apart from a general fear of the possibilities of what could happen, was that I was scared of what I would be like during 13 weeks of basic training without nicotine. With a fast approaching deadline at which I would either join the Navy, or have a definite plan in place to go to college, I got a new job, turned 20 and then 21 years old, and then moved out.

I would work night shift in this job, and eventually weekend graveyard shift, allowing me to go to classes. I wanted to quit chewing by this time, or at least, I didn’t want it to have such a hold on me. However, I made excuses. I was working 40 hours per week, taking a full-plus load of classes, and at points had second jobs until I became the editor in chief of my community college newspaper.

Chewing kept me awake. Nicotine is a stimulant, and I’m too aware of myself to fall asleep with a chew in. So kept chewing. And I kept smoking.

In 2008 the economy recessed. My company got rid of the weekend graveyard shift, and I was forced to weekday night shift, or swing shift as the company called it. This wasn’t an ordinary swing shift, rather, it started at 3:30 PM, and got over at 2 AM. My first class was at 8 AM, and so I chewed my way through class. I chewed my way through my editor in chief duties. I smoked when I wasn’t chewing. I chewed when I wasn’t eating. I chewed almost the whole time I wasn’t sleeping.

Then, as many do, I quit on New Years Day one year. I’d quit before, or as an old boss of mine called it, I’d “stopped for a while.” For people who quit nicotine, quitting is a lot like romantic relationships. You may learn something from each shot at you take at one, but you either fail all but one time, or you die without succeeding.

This time I quit for a month. It was very ceremonious. On New Years Eve my friend and I binge chewed and binge smoked. I chewed all of the remaining chew I had, and smoked all of the remaining cigarettes I had. We drank, and smoked, and drank, and smoked, and chewed.

I quit for about two months, and after that I was back at it. Not like before, though.

I met my girlfriend in college. Before we started dating she went to school in Ellensburg. I still worked. I’d start dating my girlfriend in May of 2010, becoming “Facebook official” in June. When we’d started texting – I had known her for years before this – I had quit smoking and chewing. I never told her that I’d started again, and even though I hadn’t started like I did in the past, I didn’t feel completely honest about it. I’d smoke a cigarette while I was stressed at work.

I remember my last real experience with nicotine. I’d mostly quit smoking and chewing even during stressful situations. I was even able to drink without giving in to the urge. Then one weekend my friend Matt, the same friend who started me chewing, came to Ellensburg with me to celebrate his sister’s 21st birthday. She also went to Central Washington, so we made a thing of it. I avoided chewing despite him chewing in front of me. I refuse to be the guy that tells other people not to chew or smoke in the places that they chew or smoke.

On the way home it was snowing. First lightly, then pretty hard, and it was sticking. We hadn’t made it to Cle Elum and I was using four-wheel drive. Suddenly my transfer case started to knock, and my four-wheel drive started to slip out for a beat at time. At some point between death grips of the steering wheel I grabbed Matt’s can of chew, an empty Gatorade bottle, and did the best thing I knew to ease stress.

I felt terrible afterwards. A relatively trivial life event had made me weak. And for the first time in my life I was with someone for whom I cared about enough to sacrifice for. And the secrecy I resented in my dad had begun to boil up in me.

But quitting tobacco is no traditional sacrifice. It’s selfish. I wanted more time on this earth, and there was no way I would get as much as I wanted if I kept it up. So I quit. I quit knowing I would gain weight, and aware that if I needed to eat my way to a beaten addiction, I’d be picking the lesser of two evils.

I’ve gained 50 lbs. My girlfriend still loves me and finds me attractive. I haven’t wanted a cigarette or a chew in a long time. I smoked a cigar at a wedding last summer and didn’t inhale, and woke up without a trace of desire to go buy a pack of Camel Filters and start the whole thing over again.

I’m no longer addicted to nicotine. That addiction may have manifested itself in some other compulsion, food being the most likely culprit, or it may have spread evenly over things that I’m already compelled to do (like write this stupid blog). But I no longer have the desire to use nicotine.

It wasn’t instantaneous. In fact, for more than a year I was chewing gum like I was in a contest. I ate sunflower seeds and skittles. I probably spent more money trying not to smoke or chew that I would have been spending on chew or cigarettes to begin with. I was terrified of starting again, but at the beginning, I still had part of a can of chew in my truck. It was old, but would do the job in a pinch. I don’t remember what day that was. For me, removing the ceremonious nature of quitting was a key to being successful. Why should I pay this addiction so much respect as to create a figurative holiday in its honor? That’s what we do for dead politicians and political activists. For religious prophets and war heroes. Not for some nasty habit we picked up in high school.

I don’t know how to quit nicotine. That’s what worked for me, but I’m no expert. I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded.

Quitting chewing and smoking was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and starting chewing is the worst thing I’ve ever done. I got a broken hand, 50 lbs of extra weight, an occasionally-unhappy girlfriend, a disrespected mom, a kind of dependency that kept me in some pretty bad jobs far too long, and eight years of money spent without any value gained.

It’s been close to four years, and I didn’t die, but nicotine has never helped me.

Tony Gwynn died from his addiction to nicotine. Certainly nicotine isn’t as life-impacting as an addiction to heroin or cocaine, and to even have the term addiction as the word used to describe dependence on both nicotine and harder drugs seems to cheapen the meaning of the word, in my mind at least.

Tony Gwynn couldn’t quit chewing, not because he was undisciplined, but because quitting an addiction is really hard.

And while Tony Gwynn died far too young, he’s far from the first, and won’t be the last to do so. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve ourselves. That doesn’t mean we’re destined to a life of addiction and dependence. What it really means is that the stakes are high, and that even with massive wealth and ostensible access to the best treatment medical science has to offer, the only sure way to not let chewing kill you is to quit, or to never start.

I don’t know what the answer to prevention is. Players may not want to be considered role models, but regardless of that, their behavior shapes the behavior of children. It’s sad that it took the death of a legend to shed light on this problem, and Major League Baseball is apparently examining chewing tobacco in light of Gwynn’s death. But if anything comes from this, it should be known that this problem exists far beyond the most extreme cases of men dying 20 years before they should.

Almost everyone I know who chews or smokes started before they were 18 years old. I don’t know why everyone starts, but if baseball can do anything to stop them, they should.