Zoe Zhang/MiC.

I must confess: I am on the verge of buying a vape right now.

Even after five months of sobriety, I still love everything about vaping: the soft crackling sound when I inhale, the sharp, euphoric feeling that penetrates my cerebrum, the subtle thrill of hiding in a bathroom stall to carry out the deed discreetly and, of course, the ability to hit it at social gatherings to avoid awkward silences. It delivers just the right level of sensory impairment that brought forth temporary pleasures without compromising my busy schedule. A brief stroll around campus will tell you that I am not alone in my love for vaping. 

Vaping devices can take on any shape and function: there are colorful, slick, cylindrical ones; rounded rectangular ones; Juuls, and other bulkier refillable vapes for the cloud-chasing nerds who are obsessively dedicated to performing vape tricks. They’re everywhere-littered on the ground, stored neatly next to the cashier at your local 7-Eleven and in the hands and pockets of your closest friends.

For me, vaping started early, and old habits certainly die hard. It was 2017, the winter of my sophomore year in high school, when Vans, Fjällräven Kånken, Instax Minis and Juuls were in. Out of the blue, my best friend sent me a link to purchase a Juul. It was a small, sleek silver gadget with a small bulb, charger and slot for refillable pods with vaping liquid. She told me that Juuls were all the rage right now and asked that I pay the steep $50 so that we could share it together. A week later, I received the Juul in discreet packaging. 

Four weeks later, I was hooked. There were four flavored pods in 2017: mint, mango, tobacco and menthol. Our favorites were the mango ones, so sweet and potent that they almost acted as gum. I would purchase flavored pods from my classmates through Snapchat and leave the $30 they had demanded inside my mailbox, where they would deliver the goods.

From those days on, my best friend and I would vape in every bathroom we encountered. From school libraries to malls and even at our pediatricians’ offices, nowhere was off limits. This was also around the time my brain had started to rely on nicotine to stay productive. Rewarding myself every now and then for hard work and focus had rewired my brain to seek the sweet release of dopamine triggered by nicotine and I was utterly unable to focus without it. Vaping became a feedback loop for my brain, nervous system and muscles.

This feedback loop would start when I was confronted with an especially difficult or boring class. Upon staring at the clock for a perfect time to take off, I would pick a time to go for a “vape break” in the bathroom to reward my concentration and hard work, carefully retrieving my Juul during my AP classes. When the perfect timing strikes, usually during group work, I would tilt my torso and slide my hand into my backpack to grab my Juul from its own compartment inside my backpack, acting as if I were shyly inserting a tampon into my sleeve to avoid the mocking laughter from my male peers. 

Skipping ever so slightly from the anticipation, I would then take a brisk walk to the bathroom, and enjoy my headrush there while praying the other girls didn’t hear the small crackle of the pod liquid vaporizing or notice a faint trace of said vapor rise above the stall door. After the effects of vaping had mostly subsided, I would then finally walk back all dazed and confused, trying my best to act as if nothing had happened. Sitting back into my seat, I usually felt a renewed burst of motivation to finish up my class work.

During these secret vape breaks, I felt a brief escape from the hefty pressure that is earning back the money my parents had invested in a Texas hospital in exchange for four temporary green cards for the entire family. 

Whenever my best friend and I vaped, for that brief, mind-numbing moment, she and I, both of Chinese immigrant backgrounds, escaped the confines of expectations for perfection. The behavior was revolting and despicable to school administrators and parents, rumored to cause brain damage in developing brains, but it equalized with the bland rigidity of the law-abiding, extracurricular-attending, sport-playing lifestyle we had in our adolescence. Every week was the exact same during the school year in Boston, the same milky-white sky and freezing weather. The only thing that didn’t seem constant was the consequence of vaping. Sixteen-year-old me felt almost like an international spy, hiding the money in the dead of night, retrieving the pods inside the sleeves of my hoodie and sliding it quickly inside my cup of makeup brushes whenever my mother would visit my bedroom to ensure my productivity.

During high school, I would have periods of sobriety from time to time. I oscillated between vaping and sobriety, prompted by the intensification of the side effects of vaping, signified by sudden headaches and chest pains. There would then be subsequent periods of intense worry for my health. I was no fool and knew that there were health consequences. In a twisted preservation of my own sanity, I refused to look up these potential ailments as vaping had become my coping mechanism for heartbreak and laziness. 

Fast forward to college, I remember being involved in an undefined relationship with a classmate shortly after we were permitted to return to campus after the lockdown. I coped by vaping whenever I dipped into the lows of said emotional rollercoaster. Whenever my disposable vape died, I would drag my feet across the street to-surprise surprise-7-Eleven to purchase a new one at 3 a.m., often after yet another failed attempt to quit. In the cooling morning breeze, I would unwrap it there on the street and take in deep inhales, momentarily forgetting about my less-than-satisfactory grades and inability to end things with him once and for all. 

As the chaos of freshman and sophomore years subsided, I found myself working toward a degree that likely wouldn’t grant me my desired level of success post-graduation with few extracurriculars to discuss on my resume and knew that it was now or never: I needed to fill up that resume. If not, I could risk wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on a useless piece of diploma. I was ready for all-nighters, Red Bull binges and countless leadership positions, and it took me right back to the comforts of my feedback loop.

Between all the all-nighters spent at the UGLI, midterm cramming at Duderstadt and anxious moments meeting new people, I vaped. The feedback loop was back with full potency: I would again reward myself with vaping after concentrating on my work for a while, like how parents would reward their children with playtime or a candy bar after successfully finishing their homework. Except this time, I could vape anywhere I wanted in broad daylight as an adult, erasing the secrecy element that I have always associated with vaping. Periodically, I would attempt to quit yet again. Still, the mood swings, cravings and brain fog that came after would prompt me into vaping again. I couldn’t risk enduring these side effects in the midst of raising my GPA and searching for a big tech internship.

Nicotine, the stimulant, bonded with nicotine receptors in my brain, which regenerated every time I vaped and were nearly impossible to satisfy. The vapor penetrated into my lungs and bloodstream, raising my heart rates and constricting my blood vessels. These effects helped me concentrate on tasks for a few minutes or so. It wasn’t until this summer that I learned from therapists at my summer internship that I had created a system of physiological and psychological coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety with vaping. 

As I sat in the dimly-lit therapist’s office, it all clicked: a major part of my endless addiction to vaping had been a response to the immense stress and emphasis on conventional success by my family and environment. From the very beginning, since the creation of my feedback loop, I had always viewed my vape as a coping mechanism for the copious amounts of stress I was under and as a small reward for my developing brain when it lacked external affirmation from the people around me. It delivered pleasurable neurotransmitters to my brain when the things and people in my life that were supposed to give me real happiness didn’t. 

In the age of “quiet quitting,” inflation, hustle culture and rising student loans, it is no wonder Gen Z uses nicotine to cope with the overwhelming pressures of life. The looming pressure of entering into a professional world with very little to offer young people, and all the necessary steps to take in your childhood and adolescent years to ensure conventional success measured by wealth, certainly call for unhealthy coping mechanisms as well. For what seemed like forever, I fought the urge to rely on this addiction once more for the sake of productivity. Five years, 121 Juul pods and 45 disposable vapes later, I am just now starting to understand why I adored vaping. As long as these stressors are still present, I will not be able to escape that itching desire to stop by 7-Eleven and pick up a brand new vape.

MiC Columnist Zoe Zhang can be reached at zoezhang@umich.edu.