Some little girls fantasize about finding Prince Charming and having that perfect wedding day. I couldn’t wait for the moment I was old enough to have my first cigarette. The future may have been an unclear notion, but one thing I knew for sure – when I grew up, I was going to be a smoker.
I don’t know what my first spoken word was, but the first one I learnt how to write was “mother” and the first one I could read was “cigarette”. I learnt how to read and write by myself one summer, before going to school, and I couldn’t wait for my mother to come home so I could show her my new skills. Funny, she wasn’t as pleased as I expected, especially when I pointed at the cigarette image in my book, mentioning it made me think of her.Perhaps it was the fact that my parents and most adults in my family smoked; perhaps it was because my mother smoked during her pregnancy; perhaps I associated the habit with the idea of grace, beauty and femininity. In those early childhood years, I regarded my mother as the epitome of elegance and beauty, I wished I could grow up to be as pretty and refined as she was. I was fascinated by the way her slender fingers held the cigarette, how she delicately pulled it out of the pack with her long colourfully polished nails. Smoking did more than complete her image, it defined it. I even went so far as to ask my grandmother why she didn’t smoke, and I had no idea why she called smoking a disgusting unhealthy habit. It simply made no sense.
Soon enough I started to see my mother for the deeply flawed human being that she was. But my desire to start smoking didn’t disappear. I was 12, almost 13 when I had my first cigarette, and if you asked me back then, I would have said it was long overdue.
I remember everything about it, the night, the planning, the taste, the emotion… the disappointment.
We were on a school trip and two of my friends and I decided it was time; one of them changed her mind, but the other girl and I were determined that was the night. We went to the chalet bar and realized they only had the one brand of cigarettes – they weren’t among the better ones. But it wasn’t like we had a choice… we were up on a mountain. We blamed the terrible taste on it and we concluded that it would be a whole different story once we got our hands on better cigarettes. We were somewhat right. We smoked several cigarettes that evening in the crisp mountain air, staring at the dark quiet forest. We didn’t even need to hide, nobody suspected the star pupils of doing anything wrong; besides, the teachers had their hands full trying to control the 10th graders.
I had dreamt of that first cigarette, and it was mostly disappointing when I smoked it. Was that what all the fuss was about? Much as I hated to admit it, I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel sick, I simply didn’t like the taste.
But I did like the way the idea of smoking made me feel. I did like that I was among the first in my class to start smoking. I did like sneaking around with my friends. I did like the fear of getting caught and all the ingenious ways of hiding it. During the following years, I smoked occasionally, almost daily even, without becoming addicted to it. I was handy with the needle and thread, so all my bags had a hidden pocket for my cigarettes. Some of my classmates did get caught, and knowing we were friends, my mother and grandmother warned me there would be terrible consequences if I dared try it before I was 18. My reaction was to start stealing cigarettes from my mother just to prove she wouldn’t notice. And she didn’t notice, not even when I smoked in her own home. I even tried my luck, smoking at the window in my room, when my grandmother wasn’t home overnight. I got away with it. In fact, I never got caught.
I was almost 15 when I knew I had to stop. By that time I no longer wanted to be a smoker, not in the real sense. It was summer once more and I left my home angry and frustrated after a big fight with my grandmother. I wanted to vent about it to my friends; I wanted a hug from my boyfriend; and I also really wanted a cigarette… It was time to stop. I had seen most of my friends become avid smokers by that point and I didn’t want that for myself. It wasn’t worth it. Much as I had fun smoking when most of them weren’t, once everybody did start smoking, it lost its appeal to me. The summer after my high school graduation, my mother offered me a cigarette. I was old enough not to have to hide my smoking, she said. I was her daughter, so surely I must have been a smoker as well. It took a while to convince her I wasn’t.
In my childhood, I knew I would be a smoker. I was wrong. I am not a smoker, and I am happy I was wrong.
My mother continues to smoke. She identifies herself with her addiction, and she sees absolutely nothing wrong with it. I know – because she has admitted it – that in a way she wishes I were a smoker as well. She also admits she never suspected I smoked when I was 12, and she laughs when I tell her I used to steal her cigarettes. The same way I wanted to smoke more when she used to tell I wasn’t allowed to do it before I was 18, she wants to stubbornly hold on to her addiction now that doctors tell her she needs to stop.
She got it in her head that they’re all wrong, there must be another reason for her health issues. Throughout her life, she lived with the conviction that smoking might only damage her lungs. Now she has to face the fact that various complicated gastrointestinal problems are the unexpected consequence, even if her lungs aren’t in trouble yet. She is in pain and the doctors keep changing her medication, as her situation worsens. She is constantly hungry, because she can barely eat. She suffers, because she always enjoyed good food. She suffers, because she looks in the mirror and cannot stand what she sees – she went through life as an attractive woman and she still cares about her looks, but the woman in the mirror looks old and scary.
Almost two years after she was diagnosed, she still cannot accept that the universe is not against her, trying to deprive her of her most cherished pleasure. She blames the doctors for not coming up with some miracle cure which would restore her health and allow her to keep smoking. She blames everyone who managed to quit smoking – the mere decision to do so is perceived as a betrayal of the self. She tears into anyone who tries to tell her life might be worth living even without cigarettes. That’s all she talks about, there’s nothing and no one she will listen to, and it all comes back to the unfair universe which has singled her out.
A month ago, she has finally reduced the number of cigarettes, after yet another medical scare. She has confessed to having no intention to quit, even if she was told repeatedly that she needs to. Since she wasn’t miraculously cured within a month, she has proven herself that they were all wrong. Reason and common sense no longer play a part in it.
In some ways, I have nothing against smoking. I even dated smokers, but I couldn’t do that again; nor could I be in a committed relationship with one. That’s just who I am. I believe we have the right to be as self-destructive as we want, as long as we don’t destroy others in the process. In other ways, it’s a pet peeve of mine. I feel furious whenever I see parents smoking in the proximity of their young children or pregnant women lighting a cigarette.
I was in my early thirties when I finally told my mother she was no longer allowed to smoke in my home when she visited. It caused yet another rift, but the same way she is allowed to make her decisions about her body, I am entitled to do the same for myself. I will occasionally pick up an open pack of cigarettes and sniff it – I love the way tobacco smells almost as much as I hate cigarette smoke.
I am not trying to teach a lesson. I’m only sharing a story about choices. Think about the point where choices you make for yourself might also become choices you are forcefully making for others, for your children, for your partners. They deserve the same prerogative – to choose what they want for themselves.