They say ‘Once a smoker, always a smoker,’ and as someone who’s given up and started again more than a few times, I’ve come to accept that this holds a lot of truth for me personally. Like most of my smoker friends I’ve been lighting up since my early teens, and the ritual of rolling and smoking cigarettes has become a long-term habit that I thoroughly enjoy at the same time as wholeheartedly wishing that I didn’t.
Part of the reason I started smoking at the age of 13 was that all of the adults I knew were smokers and so it seemed like a pretty normal thing to do. There was, of course, also a rebellious element as I was totally aware of the health risks that cigarettes pose. Unfortunately I didn’t care too much about this at the time, and persevered through the initial sickness and coughing fits even though I knew that I was damaging myself. Shamefully, though, the biggest draw to cigarettes for me when I was a teenager was the misplaced notion that smoking was something you did if you were cool, which I really wasn’t back then. I was the clumsy fat kid with frizzy black hair and ill-fitting school clothes. And as all misfits will relate to, I was made well aware of my perceived ‘otherness’ by my peers.
Disliking school for this and many other reasons, I started bunking off on a regular basis. My favourite thing to do in light of there being very little else, was to pester strangers in the street to buy me cigarettes, and then hang around smoking in the park down the road until I was eventually found and dragged back to class. Whilst the desire to bunk off thankfully subsided as soon as I graduated, the pleasure that I found in smoking has unfortunately remained very much in tact.
The biggest draw to cigarettes when I was a teenager was the misplaced notion that smoking was something you did if you were cool, which I really wasn’t back then.
In addition to nicotine, the other substance that I regularly consume and enjoy is alcohol. And like all great pairings, I can’t seem to separate one from the other: the pleasure I find in smoking is significantly amplified when I have a drink in my hand, and alcohol isn’t quite as satisfying on it’s own. The way that I’ve dealt with this in the past when I’ve managed to quit cigarettes for extended periods of time is simply to avoid alcohol altogether. Sounds like a perfect solution, right?
On the surface abstinence seems like a great idea. Not only does avoiding both drinking and smoking have immense benefits in terms of physical health, it also saves a lot of cash; I could probably buy a house with all the money that I’ve spent in pubs over the years! But dig a little deeper, and it poses some problems. I’m by no means reliant on alcohol and (unless I’m under lots of stress) I very rarely drink enough these days to become completely intoxicated. But sharing a decent bottle of wine or having a few beers with friends is something that I look forward to and that I find incredibly relaxing. Whilst I no longer feel the need to binge on alcohol in the way that I used to when I was younger, denying myself the pleasure of drinking at all ignores a large part of who I am. In my experience, and I’ve tried several times, complete abstinence only leads to feelings of isolation, loneliness and sadness. I’d much rather dabble a little and have a good time with the people I love than find myself alone and miserable.
I’m never going to be someone who enjoys sitting in the pub with an orange juice and a packet of crisps as everyone around me drinks and smokes. But rather than beating myself up about my inability to reject everything that’s bad for me, I’ve decided to accept it and relax a little. There’s no denying that smoking is incredibly bad for my health, or that drinking alcohol leads me to smoke more than I’d like to. But the more I tell myself that I’m stupid for doing it and deny myself pleasure for the sake of trying to quit when I’m clearly not ready, the less likely I am to find the determination to stop.
I’m hopeful that there will come a time when smoking feels less desirable to me. Until then, though, the best thing that I can do is savour every single cigarette that I smoke, and wait patiently for the right kind of willpower to emerge.