This is not a confession. This is not a story or a parable, a manifesto or a warning, a love letter or a fantasy, self-help or recruitment drive.
If it mattered when I first tried a cigarette, I could tell you where, who with and what brand. If it was important, I could consider the year or so between my first, childhood cigarette and my second, adolescent one and draw conclusions from it. I could speculate about whether I enjoyed the smoke, or whether I enjoyed the fact of smoking, or whether I enjoyed that I did it with others and enjoyed that they liked me when I smoked. I could even wonder if I hated it, worried about whether I was doing it right, found the dizziness that went with it thrilling and terrifying.
But it doesn’t matter. The thing to remember is that it was always chosen. Smoking isn’t a characteristic or personality. Nicotine doesn’t force anything. I am no more or less a smoker now than I used to be. Cigarettes smoke, but living people do not.
I didn’t want to have a cigarette after the first handful. Rather, I wanted to have had one, which isn’t the same thing at all. My cigarettes have been both the prompt to and gratification of an impulse, where inherent in scratching the itch was the itch to come. It’s not a circle, because it started somewhere; it’s a many-knotted string, with a beginning and an end.
Addiction is a word for stacking the odds. It is no more difficult not to consume a particular cigarette when you are addicted than it is when you’re not addicted. It’s always a choice to have one, but it’s not necessarily a choice not to. When you’re not smoking, you are not smoking; you only begin smoking when you choose to light your cigarette and draw its dead product into your lungs. A smoker makes love to their employment; a smoker makes an effort. Not smoking should be as simple as laziness. Not bothering.
It’s unfathomable to know this and still do it. Cigarettes will kill me, and they make me sleep badly, nervous, cough, smell and smoke, and yet I continue to consume them. It’s insane, literally. Any positive effects of a cigarette are entirely contingent on the previous cigarette and the one to come, as Allen Carr so relentlessly emphasises.
Drinking to excess is one thing, but every single cigarette is excessive, and we know it, in our bodies and our bones as well as our minds. We know that every small cough is a premonition of larger ones; we know that the slight yellowing of our fingers is darkened, many times worse, in our lungs; we know that the just-perceptible bagginess in our skin won’t go until we don’t smoke anymore; and we know that a slight pain in our throat, a tickle in our chest or blood in our mouth, might mean it’s already too late. We know we’ve smoked too many.
Can I think of specific cigarettes I’ve enjoyed? I can certainly think of situations in which I’ve been smoking when I’ve been very happy, but I don’t think that’s the same thing. Has a cigarette ever caused me to enjoy something that I wouldn’t have enjoyed anyway?
People who say not smoking requires willpower are wrong, but so are those who say it doesn’t. It’s a cliché to point out that ‘willpower’ is loaded, like ‘giving up’ and ‘quitting’ – it sets you up to fail. Of course I have willpower. I get out of bed every day, don’t I? If I smoke, am I weak-willed? Nonsense. You could easily say the opposite (and people have). But not smoking does take will. It’s not a will to act, but a will not to act, an assertion that manifests its success in passivity. Unwillpower. Will.
There’s no joy in any of this. There’s no right to feel pleased with yourself. It’s no more impressive not to smoke than it is to smoke. It’s just a choice that you make, like getting on the bus or cleaning your teeth.
You shouldn’t stop smoking. There’s no should. You might feel you have local, temporal obligations not to do anything that increases your chances of death, but the universe cares nothing what goes into your lungs. Stopping smoking is not really a decision to be made; but the decision to smoke is made every time you have a cigarette. I have stopped smoking thousands of times, on occasion for as little as five minutes, and the only real difference with my stopping smoking this time is that there has been a longer gap since I last stopped having stopped.
How is it possible that I have consumed cigarettes, on and off (mostly on) for more than half my life? Was that first cigarette, proffered by the older brother of a friend in the woods at the bottom of the school playing fields, really any good? All that for a Rothmans? Of course not. The second wasn’t any better, taken from another older boy, behind a bike shed (really), at another school. I think I was almost sick that second time. It took a few months, probably, a pack or five, to acquire the habit. And then, very quickly, all at once, smoking seemed part of who I was (though it was never anything of the sort). I smoked between lessons. Then I smoked after school. I smoked on holidays and with friends. I sometimes felt like I owed it to myself to smoke, so I did, even on my own, as if I was practising.
And yet, there were moments: moments that have turned into images and nothing more. Smoking at Perugia airport, espresso already taken care of, waiting for a taxi in baking sun. Camel Lights, Camel Blu, with the slight sweetness that no other brand quite matched, drawing softly. Sitting on a paddock by a duck pond; cigarettes in restaurants with whisky; smoking in the summertime. These, but not the obligatory morning drag, not the cold pub doorways, not the cheap, chemical-light roll-ups, not the cold and the wet. A cigarette never made me feel good if I wasn’t already feeling good.
I don’t regret smoking, but it remains a puzzle. And every now and then, with a drink, or getting off a train, perhaps after a large meal or a small coffee, something nudges me, craftily, not to have a cigarette exactly, but into thinking that smoking is something I do. And then there’s a choice to make again.