I was 17 when I first wandered out to the smoking pit on my high school campus. I grew up in an affluent suburb of Toronto and respect amongst my peers was measured by grades and expensive clothing. Smoking cigarettes wasn’t cool, and most of the students who milled around the patch of dirt 20 metres from the building skipped class and were on the social outskirts. I don’t know who lured me out there. I probably went willingly, and certainly as an act of rebellion.
I’ve grown up, but I have never stopped smoking, and have continued to feel like a pariah.
Smoking cigarettes is gross. It’s harmful, it’s stinky, and it doesn’t make practical sense. Everyone knows this, and the notion of the smoker as a good-for-nothing is drilled into young minds early on by parents and the media. As a kid, I would look at people smoking on the street, thinking they weren’t as good as everyone else. Worse, it always seemed smokers were threatening—at any moment they will offer you a puff and pull you under with them, forever condemned to addiction and a life of smoky affliction.
But here’s the thing: I have been smoking for a decade, and I wouldn’t give up a single cigarette. I fully understand the power of addiction, but have never felt trapped by my desire to smoke. In fact, I believe it has helped me, and I am in no hurry to quit.
To me, smoking is freedom. I’m not particularly calm—my mother says my brain is always working. So I've used smoking as a coping mechanism, a meditation-of-sorts, a break from social situations and a way to meet new people. At times, I have prescribed myself a smoke after a long day or after completing a project, and other days leaned on my pouch of tobacco when I feel the world crashing around me. Somehow, it always made me feel better that if I needed that break from the party, that step outside to look up at some ancient constellation, that time to think, it was there. This is textbook addiction, as outlined in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business: “All habits, it turns out, consist of three parts: a routine, a reward and a cue,” he writes. For now, I like my routine. When life hits me, I have a solution.
My first long-term relationship was a devastating mess of insecurity, immaturity and intense gaslighting from both sides. I was never “allowed” to smoke during these years, but hid a pack in a secret pocket in my backpack. I was too young to understand myself or how to be in a relationship, but the bits of wisdom I pried from my brain often came from these stolen moments of pause. Smoking helped me in a way nothing else could. The first thing I did as we were breaking up in my student house bedroom was unearth my secret stash and light a cigarette out the window. I felt liberated.
These moments would be necessary again and again as my life stayed complicated. I smoked as I sat on my front stoop in -20 degrees in the Rockies where I had been living for a few months. Blankets around my shoulders and listening to music, I tried to puzzle out how to convince the local newspaper to hire me. After moving to Australia, my first friend was a girl who taught me how to roll cigarettes. She would puff away with me over coffees as I wondered aloud about my future. When I eventually came home, cigarettes on the balcony helped me escape parties where I realized my friends had moved on without me.
I have never thought it looked great or felt proud to inhale a confection of toxins, but neither have I shamed myself nor actively tried to quit. However, I have been shamed by people around me.
The amount I smoke has fluctuated based on my stress level and who I hang out with, but now in my mid-20s, it hovers at once a day, usually at night with a cup of tea. Despite the few I have each week and my own opinion that it does not overpower my day-to-day life, I draw furtive glances when I start rolling a cigarette at a party, or light up outside the airport after a terrifying 13 hours of turbulence. These looks make me feel small—finally I am trapped.
The first time I realized these stereotypes might define me was the summer before university, as I wandered around my hometown searching for a summer job. I entered the local toy store and politely asked to speak to the manager. I told her I was a good student and hard worker. Days later, my younger brother asked if I had dropped off a resume downtown—his friend from school who works there told him that as soon as I left the shop, the manager laughed, saying she would never hire someone who reeked of smoke.
Since then, I have faced similar judgments on my character and intelligence, and they shock me. If I get the wind direction right, I’m not hurting anyone but myself, and can’t be judged as someone other than a human who has a vice and made a choice. Being told, “You know that’s not good for you” or getting the stink eye from a gas station cashier doesn’t make me feel any worse about my choices — I feel defensive and defiant. Give me three packs, sir, you don’t own me.
The reasons for this need to judge are complex. A massive public health campaign by the Canadian government decades ago certainly laid the groundwork for society’s perception of smokers. Until then, lighting up was normal and even encouraged. Today, public awareness, increased taxes on cigarettes, and ever-tightening bylaws have inched those who still choose to smoke to the curb, quite literally.
Don’t get me wrong, these campaigns are important and effective—only 17% of adults now consider themselves smokers, compared to 50% in the 1960s. Smoking is a bad habit, one that kills approximately 45,000 Canadians each year and is the biggest source of preventable deaths in Canada. I would never encourage a friend to pick it up (although if they wish to join me, they can), and am not proud of my habit. As a female smoker, I am 25.7 times more likely to develop lung cancer, and my life expectancy is 10 years shorter than my pink-lunged counterpart.
Maybe some people believe they know better and have the responsibility to help smokers quit. Perhaps it makes them feel better about themselves to do so.
It doesn’t matter. It is my body and my time. I am an educated, intelligent woman enlightened about the myriad health issues that can be caused or worsened by smoking. I simply smoke when I wish to, and would like the world to leave me alone.
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