On Smoking

On Monday morning, at roughly 6:30am, at the crack of dawn, I came to acknowledge the presence of an elderly man walking his dog on the street overlooking my window. I was smoking a cigarette out of my window and I hadn’t slept at all, in fact, I was approaching the 12th hour of my day. This elderly man, with his slicked-back silver hair and slender frame, was slowly making his way down my road. Leash and cigarette in our respective hands, we glanced and noticed each other’s presences.

I saw him again on the following morning. This second instance felt different, I felt as though we had built some kind of connection this time despite not making any contact, not even a wave or a nod, but in some odd way, we had become friendly, as though we both acknowledged that we were both early birds. He, walking his dog, and me, smoking my cigarette.

I pondered about what type of character he was. Soft-spoken perhaps, mild-mannered possibly? He’s awake at 6:30am, walking his dog, I judged him to be a reasonable and polite fellow, one that respects his dog and his duties to maintain its health. The kind of man who enjoys taking morning strolls, possibly to contemplate or to clear his mind. He looked so calm and stoic, he didn’t scan his environments nor did he appear flummoxed. He was simply focused on his walk, with his gaze firmly locked towards his path. All this came to me in a flash, just based on his appearance and by him performing the act of walking his dog.

But then something odd happened and I attempted to see myself through his perspective. ‘What must I look like to him?’ I’m in a wife-beater, look dishevelled and puffing away at a cigarette at 6 in the morning. He probably knows I haven’t even had breakfast yet. He probably sees a young man being defeated by his addiction, who’s too lazy to leave his own home to inhale poisonous smoke as to not put his fellow abode-dwellers at risk. A character of weak-will?

This upset me. How could he be thinking those things about me? What did I do to deserve such disdain? I thought nothing but good thoughts for him and this is how he repays me? Oh, I was thinking these thoughts about myself. He probably didn’t even pay any attention to me nor exercise a single synaptic impulse on me. So why do I feel this way about myself?

Of the many vices I indulge in, smoking is perhaps the habit which induces the most intense feelings of regret and disappointment. I do hate myself for being beholden to this act. I am aware of how harmful and damaging it is but I just can’t seem to kick the habit. I developed this addiction through my own free will. I have no real recollection of how I began to smoke so casually and so often but I know it’s here to stay for a long fucking time.

I was always very critical of smoking, I had associated the act with my father and I always thought my father was a bad man. My mother drummed it into me from a young age that smoking was harmful and to never go near them. But my uncle would smoke and he always had a very appealing smell, I’d remember going in for hugs and habitually expecting that unique intoxicating smell, the smell of strong aftershave mixed with the aroma of tobacco smoke.

It was his unique scent, and to me, it smelled like what a man would smell like. He, being the only real father figure in my life, was the only readily available case study I had at hand for what it meant to be a man. If he smoked, with his tailored suits and baritone voice, then all men would smoke. As a kid, I thought maybe it’s not all that bad? My uncle is a good man, and he smokes, but if smoking is bad then how come he’s not a bad man? I like him after all.

There’s no denying that I have always thought smoking looked cool. You could be a dreary average person but if you perched a cigarette between your lips and lit up, then you had just been raised in my estimations. It wasn’t as if smoking wasn’t marketed as some rebellious act, an act that became immortalised by Hollywood and intellectual icons. Smoking is cool because it looks cool, there’s an aesthetic appeal to seeing someone with a thin white cylindrical roll of papered-tobacco hanging off their lips. Man, James Dean didn’t die at the age of 24 so he could be remembered for his anti-tobacco political activism.

A cigarette is the emblem of the radical outsider, the individual who rejects their overbearing authorities; their parents, society, the Department of Health and the bloody government while we’re at it. It’s a sign that you’re taking control of your body and your life in the most ironic way possible, by damaging your health. It seemed paradoxically life-affirming, on the one hand, you’ve gained mastery of your own body but through doing so you’ve had to start sacrificing it. A worthy price?

My daily living experience has been centred around my smokes for the last 2 years; one first thing in the morning, before a shit or breakfast or anything, it’s the first act I perform. Some more after my lectures, one after lunch, one between tea in the afternoon, one after my dinner, one at around 11, and a final smoke just before bed. It has brought a structure and a routine to my life that has never existed before. It took a deathly habit to centre me as a person.

I remember my first ever cigarette. I must have been four years old, sat on my father’s lap in a room crowded with family members. Either I asked him to try it or he placed one in my mouth on his own volition. I remember coughing instantly and running to the kitchen for some water. I’m not sure if I remember this as an actual experience or viewed it from a home family video years later. I’m not even sure if this actually occurred, but it’s something I wouldn’t put past my father. It’s exactly the kind of reckless stupidity one could expect from him.

I remember being 14 when I had my second cigarette. I stealthily stole a Chinese cigarette from Atan, a Chinese labourer who was working on the loft conversion for our house. I stole a cigarette from his pack and hid the loosie in the loft, which was still incomplete with only wooden beams and insulation having been fitted. I had waited for my mum, my uncle and Atan to leave before I could enjoy my first real cigarette. The only problem was that I didn’t have a lighter to start the fucking thing! So I had to light it from the stove, then sprint to the loft with my hand shielding the cigarette to prevent it from extinguishing and then smoke out of the window. Before I took my first puff, I was already out of breath. I smoked half of it and did not feel a single sensation, I ended up discarding it on the neighbour’s side of the roof. I’m pretty certain that I wasn’t inhaling properly.

My third time was my first real real time. I was 17 and in the company of two friends whom I am longer friends with, not because of how this story plays out but just because they were idiots and I had little in common with them. They coached me one day after school to properly inhale and I remember the sensation vividly. My chest tightened and lungs contracted, I felt a heat pass through every orifice of my chest and felt like I was being tightly embraced by a warm force. I coughed ridiculously to their enjoyment, throughout the school year I smoked a dozen times and I remember experiencing cravings.

It could have been a cognitive bias; me conforming with the traditional idea of a smoker experiencing withdrawals and nicotine cravings since I didn’t smoke nearly enough times to experience such real cravings, the kind that real smokers suffered from. You know the kind, after 20 or 30 years of puffing away, to go 3 hours without a hit of nicotine can be akin to not having a regular supply of oxygen. (This was the kind of naive thinking that allowed me to become a regular smoker in the first place, the false belief that you could only be really addicted to something if you’ve been enjoying it excessively for anything more than 10 years)

But I remember having dreams of smoking and wanting it during my days, I had become locked into a habit of chewing on my pen and resting it in my mouth in-between writing. This continued for what felt like was months. I was fixated with having another smoke, but I didn’t. I changed my company and I was no longer exposed to smoking, not for a long time at least.

After that I was pretty much against smoking, I even harshly judged my friends who would smoke. That was until I left home for university. That’s when I properly began to smoke.

I started in late 2014. I like to tell myself that the smoking areas of clubs had been the catalyst for my soon-to-be addiction but I know it’s a lie. I rationalised my decision as being my self-destructive choice to numb the pain from a break-up. I needed something to drown out the emotional hurt, I needed to feel something physical that was just short of harming myself in order to distract myself from what I was feeling. It was a big lie I told myself, it was such a passive experience, one that I was so mindlessly performing, but before I knew it, I had become hooked.

I feel like I was always going to smoke, I was always predisposed to picking up the habit given the close proximity to other smokers, my addictive and impulsive personality and obviously falling under the allure of smokings aesthetic appeal. But there’s something so ritualistic about lighting up and puffing away, there’s a hypnotic appeal to watching yourself blow out thick smoke when the air is dry and still.

I am fully aware that my addiction is both physiological and psychological, which makes breaking the habit all the more difficult. It seems like an enormous laborious effort to ween off this addiction. My entire day is revolved around when I can squeeze in cigarettes, I enjoy a great deal of satisfaction from rolling a cigarette and then enjoying the fruits of my artistry.

It has dawned on me that in the last three years, I’ve smoked close to two thousand grams of tobacco. What a frightening figure. I mean I may have definitely shortened my lifespan, which I am fine with but now it’s a matter of increasing my chances of making it past 40. 40 is a nice number, I can accept 40, 40 years on earth is enough time to do most of the best things you can do before your body begins to slow you down.

Since I’ve been a smoker I have been constantly noticing that there is no escape from it. Everyone in London seems to smoke, invading our collective air supply with their life-threatening toxins. You can’t walk for a half-mile without being reminded of a cigarette. It’s especially worse on the t.v screen. Cue reactivity is a real thing, anyone who tells you it isn’t is a fool. Try watching anything where a person engages in an activity that you regularly do. Maybe it’s eating or it’s taking a piss. You’ll notice that randomly you will have a sudden urge to do the same thing. It’s how advertising has been working for decades. In cinemas, before they begin screening your film, they make a concerted effort to show a coke commercial that presents all that black sugary delight in the most fizzily-appealing, thirst-quenching, saliva-producing way possible so that you can run off back to the counter to purchase a 16 oz cup to suckle at for the next 2 hours.

So what do I do? Cold-turkey? Cut down how many I have until I no longer feel the urge to smoke? I’m not sure, I think if I am to quit, I’ll have to go cold-turkey. Enter into the void, no half-arsing it.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to try quitting right now. Right after I finish the remaining bit of tobacco I have. But today, for absolute certainty. Maybe.

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