Can’t quit, won’t quit: confessions of a die-hard smoker

I have asthma, and there’s a fairly major respiratory disease going around, as you may have heard, and also I am a smoker. A quick inventory of my coat pockets: inhaler, face mask, Marlboro Gold. I never fell into smoking as a teenager when everyone else seemed to think it was cool, but took it up in my 30s, as others might develop an interest in birdwatching, or CrossFit. Four or five a day, for the best part of a decade, and more at the weekends. This piece is anonymous because my mother cannot know. I don’t have the words to express how unbelievably stupid I feel about all this.

There’s quite a lot going on here, and not all of it is solely of interest to me and my therapist. You might imagine that a continuing and lung-buggering international emergency which a study says is specifically more dangerous for smokers would mean there were fewer idiots like me. But in fact, stress and boredom are more than a match for serious health concerns: research published in August last year suggested that the number of young adults smoking in England went up by about a quarter during the first lockdown. There was a spike in the number of people across all ages giving up smoking in England during that same first lockdown period – but no sign of the plummeting rates you might rationally expect. Then again, nothing about this habit has ever been rational.

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For my own part, I don’t know exactly what kind of smoker I am, but I know I’m not casual, or social: I’m highly committed to something very unpopular. The persistence of the packet in my pocket is not for the want of trying. It’s more for a want of wanting. My figurative heart just isn’t in it, although my literal heart would probably have quite strong opinions in the opposite direction. (Unlucky, literal heart, only sentient organs get a vote!) I don’t suppose I speak for the other 1.1bn people still grimly puffing away, but it feels as if my problem is that I still, somewhere in my lizard brain, think this habit that makes me smell awful and look desperate is … cool, a deftly executed little ritual that makes me a more compelling figure to people at a party. Did you feel cool when you were a teenager, my therapist asks, and it’s obvious to us both that the question is a rhetorical one.

I started smoking as some sort of bloody-minded reinvention after a breakup
That makes a grim sort of sense, but it’s probably also a crutch, and a way to ignore the obvious fact that I’m addicted. After all, I’ve barely been to any parties for quite a long time and, apart from the neighbour’s terminally unimpressed cat, there’s no audience when I’m huddled in the back garden on a rainy Tuesday morning getting ash on myself.

I started, for reasons I don’t fully understand, as some sort of warped, bloody-minded reinvention shortly after a breakup. I should have known from my permanent inability to leave half a pack of sweets in a cupboard for the next day that it wouldn’t work; before long I had slipped from a pack a month to one every few days.

I wish I had properly understood then how insidious an addiction nicotine would turn out to be, how misleading and unhelpful the term “craving” would prove, at least for me: it suggests a siren in your brain when you go without, when the truth is something more like the little fillip you get when it occurs to you that you’d like a cup of tea and a biscuit. I don’t often leave it long enough to be faced with a more powerful compulsion than that, but because it doesn’t seem especially intense, I almost always give in to it. I think I have a constitutional weakness for treats.

I still don’t think I really, deeply, want to stop, or understand how urgently I have to. But I know I don’t want this bleak internal monologue motoring in my head any more: an endless, boring chunter that slides into my mind any time I’m not thinking about anything much. It may be that the pandemic’s additional opportunities for mental drift has helped me reach at least this caveated breakthrough, because in 2021 I started Juul-ing. Whereas previous attempts failed spectacularly – the time I lit up while chewing Nicorette is a particular low point – this time, I’ve gone more than a week between cigarettes, at the cost of an umbilical attachment to a mysterious little obelisk whose long-term impacts remain unknown. I buy menthol vape pods in bulk and feel nervous if the battery light blinks red. I always come back to smoking in the end, but the gaps are getting a bit longer, and a bit easier to tolerate.

None of this is consoling. Helpful though the vaping is, and good though I feel about smoking less, I seem to be stuck on it as a harm-reduction method, not a step towards kicking the habit. I tell myself that once all this – I am waving my hands at the universe – has eased off a little, I’ll really get on with it.

I miss being the person I was before I smoked, when I had no idea how much of a luxury it was never to have thought about it
The prospect of slowly killing myself is fixed as an abstraction. I feel I’d stop if I were having a kid, but that might just be another rationalisation for putting it off. So here I am, the sort of person who vapes behind their hand in Zoom meetings, and blows a conspicuous little cloud out of the corner of his mouth as if anyone’s not going to notice it because it comes out sideways.

I miss being the person I was before I smoked, when I had no idea how much of a luxury it was never to have thought about it, and I know that even if I succeed in giving up nicotine completely, that victory will be shadowed by an obscure sense of loss. I also can’t believe how much less funny this piece is than I meant it to be. But maybe, two years into a global pandemic, that counts for personal growth: the ability to face the absurdity of the harm you are doing to yourself as something more consequential than a morbid joke.