RELAX. I DON’T MEAN THAT ONE.
I’m talking about the boyfriend I’ve been with for more than half my life. He’s romanced me, sat in my hand through the worst days and been my accomplice at – almost – every celebration. I’m talking about tobacco.
Mentally, I’ve always added a cigarette to my identity. Wafts of smoke have peppered my nights and smoke breaks have been an important part of every day. Since I first thought “I like to write”, that little boyfriend had become an essential. I’d convinced myself I could not write without him. Earlier this year, though, I proved that thought wrong. That was a turning point for me. Realising I could write without using a cigarette as a muse was a moment I wanted to happen and, when it happened, I felt relief.
I don’t know who I was looking at in this photo but I don’t think I liked them much.
Tobacco and I had a romance that started when (I am sad to admit) I was thirteen. We dabbled through our dalliance throughout high school and I actually quit him during my second year of University. For a whole month. And then tobacco and I lit up our love again after I’d had a particularly cruddy day.
That love life continued until I was 24 and found out I was pregnant. I was smoking at the time that I looked at the test results, and crushed it as the two blue lines appeared.
But, when my dad died, shortly after my daughter was born, the first thing I did after getting the phone call, was reach for a cigarette. And, well, the love affair began again.
I depended on that tobacco through the best days and even more so on the worst ones. It was my calling card and my relief. Finish working on something? Light up. Start working on something? Light up. Wake up? You go get that morning cigarette. Going to bed? Don’t forget Cath, you should totally have a smoke before you do that.
Cape Town. 2009. Weirdly, most photos I have of me smoking, were taken in Cape Town.
I’ve tried to quit, quite a few times. Really, I have. I started diaries, I’d mark them and count them, push them away from myself and then end up pulling them even closer to me at like 2am, when I felt overwhelmed. Those diaries I penned my thoughts and times I smoked into, sometimes scribbling with one eye, helped though. I learnt that I had a behavioural pattern, and I had proved it to myself.
But, I’ve known for about the past six months that I was slowly getting cheesed with this dependency. The more I started to hate it, the more I wanted to quit lighting up. I ended up in this weird ping-pong of self-loathing, where I’d hate smoking and yet feel sweet relief when I had one. I ended up just hating myself more and more, and disappearing into clouds of smoke that were a weird mixture of loathing and tobacco. By the time I crushed my last cigarette, I was smoking 40 a day on a bad day. When I had a horrible health scare earlier this year – one that should have frightened me away from smoking too – the first thing I did was reach for a smoke. You could say, my friends, that the love affair was a lot like a previous relationship of mine (we all have one of these infatuations in our history books, admit it) – both of us so desperate to leave but both of us so desperate to stay.
Both my parents died of cancer. Yes, they were smokers. No, I don’t think that their smoking was the ultimate thing that caused their cancer because there were a lot of other variables at play (and, before you start – you don’t know what I know, especially if you do not know our family tree’s history). I don’t debate that smoking can cause cancer. I do debate that it was the central cause of my parents’ deaths (and I’m allowed to do that, thanks). A lot of the people in my family were or are smokers. It’s said that if your parents were smokers, you’re more likely to become a smoker. Smoking was like part of our furniture. No, actually, cigarettes were in our furniture, and a fine (and not so fine) layer of ash kinda covered everything. Especially our keyboards.
Perhaps that’s why it felt like such a sin against my own identity to drop that little blue box from my life. To eschew cigarettes meant, for me, to rid myself of something that had defined my connection to my parents. The early morning tea and smoke, the late afternoon chats with my dad over a whiskey and smoke…I was bidding all of those moments farewell by doing this. I felt like I was cutting a connection. Except, I now realise, that that connection doesn’t ever end, because they are memories that’ll stick with me, and they had nothing to do with cigarettes.
Some weird artsy fartsy silhouette attempt.
When some particularly wonderful people in my life (yes, you know who you are :D) gave me an electronic cigarette for my birthday, I was stoked. Stoked beyond words. After all my attempts to ditch the beau of tobacco, this has proven to be the most successful.
I will confess that I have wobbled. There have been days when I’ve wanted to do the equivalent of late-night-drunk-text-to-an-ex and run outside, light up and feel a sweet relief. There have been three particularly bad episodes of this, where I have felt that if I didn’t have a cigarette *right now*, I’d explode. It got so bad one day, I found myself searching for images of people smoking, just so I could, at least, vicariously, live through the “celebration” of lighting up. You see, lighting up that smoke was a celebration for me, and I felt like I’d uninvited myself to the party.
So I chose to tweet my way through them, and the support of my lovely online people has been immense. There have been people who’ve yelled at me, tough loved me and outright threatened me. There have been people who’ve commiserated with me or cheered me on. And, thankfully, there have also been people who have completely ignored me and this stupid, very #firstworldproblem.
Most importantly though, having my very real, very permanent Shmooshy do this with me, has been a guiding force. I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done it without him.
I have felt a weird sense of grief. I will admit, shamefully, that I feel more and more like I’ve gone through this horrendous breakup, and can’t call my ex to cry on the phone to him, in some weird bid to get him back (disclaimer – people – those phone calls never work out. Stop it). Every day though, the desire to “call” that smoke up, has faded and, in fact, today, just over a month after I ditched the zero and got with the hero, I think I’ve deleted the zero’s number off my mental phone.
I’ve been given some grief about this, and I think I’ll chat about that now. Because I’ve moved to an e-cigarette (which is low nicotine, and I am in the process of moving to no-nicotine), someone decided to tell me that “I hadn’t really quit” and that I was “just being a baby and (this one’s my favourite) “going to kill yourself anyway”. Nice conversation, that was. Hugely positive and inspiring. *sarcasm*. I’ve decided to actively ignore anyone who gives me this kind of grief. This is, after all, my story and not theirs.
I can smell nowadays. I can smell like never before. Sometimes that’s wonderful and – at other times – it’s really not. I can run faster than I used to be able to, and I can run for longer without wanting to collapse.
And, as for my forgotten beau? I found a box of him in my kitchen yesterday, where I’d obviously stashed it “in case of emergencies”. Just looking at the box, holding it in my hand and turning it over, I felt ill. Maybe it is how my friend Melanie says:
“Nothing like seeing your ex and thinking eeuw!”
All I know is that, somehow, I’m getting over this weird romance. I’ve become one of those militant and annoying people who can’t stand the smell of smoke (sorry guys, seriously, but when we get our sense of smell back…) I’ve actually written apology notes to people for how badly I stank. They’d complain and I’d laugh it off. I’m sorry, really. Wow.
As I’ve removed what I thought was a critical facet of my identity, I don’t find myself lacking anymore. In fact, as the smoke has literally cleared, I’ve realised, as all girls do after they get ditched by the guy who led them on for years…
I didn’t need him anyway.