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How I'm Puzzling My Way Through Nicotine Withdrawal and Crises

It's a hobby that's also brought me closer to my daughter

A daughter with her arm around her mother with puzzle pieces outlined on top of the image

Steve Schulman

I started doing puzzles to get me through nicotine withdrawal. A pack-a-day smoker in my 20s, I'd always associated smoking with my hands, feeling glamorous like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. I wasn't aware that movie stars were paid to promote cigarettes. Nor how addictive cigarettes would be.

During withdrawal, I fake-smoked a pen and doodled with vibrant marker colors. On day six, I opened up the New York Times crossword and had an aha moment, the way a fanatic feels when solving a difficult clue. If my hands were busy filling in the grid, I couldn't light up.

I matched plurals and abbreviations, progressing beyond gimmes to metaphors and heteronyms (a new word for a vocabulary nerd like me). Using a red Flair pen, I dared to be a risk-taker who wouldn't need to erase. I admired the aesthetic juxtaposition between bold color and the black-and-white grid.

I never smoked another cigarette. My other reward: becoming a lifelong puzzle solver.

Every summer my husband, daughter and I vacationed near Lake Erie (popular puzzle word). My daughter would emerge on the porch with her morning chocolate milk. She'd lean over my shoulder, trying to help me solve each puzzle. In time she clued me in on modern pop culture answers. Our daily puzzle became a collage of different color pens and joint brain power.

On lazy summer afternoons, we started doing jigsaw puzzles on the porch. I taught her to find the edges, then sort the pieces by color or shape. Mother-daughter conversations are often tense or nonexistent during teenage years. But when I invited her into my puzzle world, she let me into her orbit. I became privy to friendship problems, worries about grades, crushes on boys. Sometimes I just listened and nodded, occasionally she asked my advice. Should she tell Emily she felt left out at lunch? Will she ever understand physics? Would a small or large college best suit her? What if she became homesick?

A completed jigsaw puzzle

Steve Schulman

Often we worked together in silence, almost like meditating. Impromptu songs would burst forth as our fingers searched for the right piece to complete a corner. We applauded ourselves and each other.

Puzzles bonded us in a surprising new way once the pandemic hit. Moving out after college, she'd left behind cherished books, stuffed animals and her collection of jigsaw puzzles. Quarantined, she could no longer spend evenings out with friends and coworkers. Each night after dinner, she became ensconced in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Puzzles, after toilet paper, became one of the most sought-after and hard-to-find items, often with long delivery waits. According to New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, puzzles relieve stress. “You feel in control of your life when you've finished a good puzzle."

Luckily I secured a few jigsaws online. I dropped them off outside my daughter's apartment, waving to her through the window, unsure when we could have a real hug again. Back home, my neighbors initiated a puzzle swap: We'd leave one we'd finished for the taking in the lobby, and grab a new one. But I missed sharing this favorite activity with my daughter.

"Let's do our puzzles together on FaceTime,” she suggested.

It was the boost I needed. We could be together — social distancing through computer screens.

I was in the middle of Games We Played, a 1,000-piece assemblage of games I fondly remembered, from Twister to Concentration. Whenever I was stumped or frustrated, my daughter asked me to flip my camera so she could see my board. She had a good eye, guiding me toward the next piece.

"Don't give up,” she encouraged.

Like many in quarantine, I often felt exhausted, even overwhelmed. I was proud of my daughter's patience and perseverance. She could thread 1,000 pieces together in 48 hours, while I plodded along for weeks, sometimes clueless. She was surpassing me in many ways, the natural way of life at a time when nothing seemed normal anymore. I'd grown used to counting on her for technology rescues, and now I lagged behind her speed completing a daunting collage of ice cream sundaes or a nature landscape of birds and flowers. Puzzling through an uncertain future, we couldn't always fit together the pieces of our lockdown lives. But we could feel in control — even when reaching the end of a puzzle or a quarantine seemed insurmountable. And when I see her image on FaceTime, my iPad perched on top of a huge rectangle full of holes waiting to be filled in, we feel connected each time we connect a piece of our respective puzzles. It's almost as if we're in the same room. Her voice motivates me to forge forward.

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