I don’t like smoking. I don’t like the taste. I don’t like the dry mouth. I don’t like the heaviness in my chest or the phlegm in my throat when I wake up in the morning. I don’t like the smell it leaves in my car and my home. And I really don’t like the $38.43 per carton I fork out twice a month.
But, I do like one thing about smoking. I like the ritual, raising the cigarette to my mouth, barely touching the tip of the filter to my lips, sometimes tilting my head back slightly, inhaling, and then the long exhale of smoke into the atmosphere. I’m Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? Just put your lips together and . . . blow.” (Lamb).
But where is Humphrey Bogart when I’m driving in my car, sitting at my kitchen table at 6:00 in the morning reading the newspaper, or standing in subzero weather on the quad at mid-morning of any given work day? He’s certainly not with me. The fact that I want (need?) to smoke even in those situations tells me this goes beyond appearance, even if that appearance is only how I want to see myself.
First, I should talk about me, so be patient. This won’t take long. I’m a passive personality. I want approval and acceptance. I avoid confrontation. I have a great sense of humor, and I love it when I’m the center of attention. I’m an average, flawed human being.
My profession is that of clerical support. I’m a secretary. I couldn’t have picked a better line of work. I’m helpful, reliable, and supportive. It’s a perfect fit for who I am. I like the routine and the confines of an 8:00 to 5:00 workday. I like the steady paycheck, health benefits, retirement savings, and vacation time. It lacks romance and excitement, but it meets my needs. At 54, meeting needs is a necessary goal.
Meeting necessary goals means we live in a world of ‘have to’s’. We have to have food, clothing, and shelter. We have to have money to pay for these items. Most of us have to work for that money. It’s a given of life. In early adulthood we have our dreams of how we want to support ourselves. Those of us who are fortunate enough to pursue an education, do just that. Whether or not we actually attain career goals is a topic for another time. (Me, I wanted to be an actress. I know, I’m a cliché.)
After we accept the ‘have to’s’ of life, we look to the ‘suppos’d to’s’. ‘Suppos’d to’s’ are what we choose to do, but aren’t necessarily required to do in order to survive. These choices determine our course in life as much as any ‘have to’ we follow. I live by many ‘suppos’d to’ rules. I’m supposed to be pleasant, kind, as well as generous with my time and resources. That’s what good people do. I’m supposed to take care of myself so I can live a long and productive life. I eat fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish, fat free yogurt and low fat cheese. I exercise three times a week.
It seems to me that everything I approach in life has a ‘suppos’d to’ element to it. I’m not saying, for a moment, I expect it to be any other way. Well, rationally and logically, I don’t expect it to be any other way. But, emotionally, I’m not so sure.
I can find absolutely no ‘suppos’d to’ in the act of smoking. When I inhale the smoke (and absorb the nicotine), hold it for just a second, maybe two, and exhale, I say to everyone and everything, I’m not doing what I’m suppos’d to do. I love the voice that one simple act gives me.
I envy those who meet all the societal expectations of job, home, and family with their voices in tact. They do it without the crutch of smoking, drinking, gambling, or any fill-in-the-blank anonymous affliction in place today. They’re functional, strong, and emotionally secure in who and what they are. Much like you, Dr. Robillard. And yes, I’d like to know how you do it. Is the success you enjoy in your career indicative of qualities that affect other areas of your life. How do you cope without the crutches? I really want to know.
Well, first of all, no one is as adjusted, healthy, and emotionally/psychologically sound as you seem to think. Did you consider that we all have our crutches, our means of coping? Some people turn into exercise fiends or become career-driven workaholics. The difference is that unlike smoking, these crutches won’t eventually kill us. We’re talking cancer, heart disease, stroke!
I knew that was coming.
Second of all, you describe yourself as a passive personality. Yes, there are many people like you out there. I hope you’re not trying to tell me that only passive people smoke, or that all smokers are passive.
Of course not.
Good. And third of all, have you been to a bookstore lately? Bookstores have something called a self-help section. I’m not talking about ‘How to Quit Smoking’ necessarily, but there are books on self-esteem and assertiveness training. You’re not alone. People find ways to grow and move forward.
Now who’s resorting to clichés?
Are you mad?
Of course I’m not. I just don’t know where you’re going with this.
I quit smoking once before, and I’m not talking about last month for a day or two. I mean in the mid-80’s for 15 years. It really wasn’t that hard to do. My mother had just come to live with me. She didn’t mind that I smoked. She used to ask me to sit closer to her so she could get a whiff. She had stopped smoking before I was born. Something about finding religion and feeling it wasn’t a Christian thing to do. But she never denied that she missed it.
I decided with what I knew about second-hand smoke, it just seemed irresponsible to put someone at risk, especially someone I loved, so I decided to quit. It was relatively easy to do. I started with week one going without a cigarette until mid-morning. The next week, I didn’t have a cigarette until after lunch. Then, no cigarette until I drove home from work, next it was until after dinner, and finally I made it all day without smoking. I’m a person of structure, and I followed that structure with a determined commitment to meet my goal. It was relatively easy. Why, I can’t say. Maybe because my mother was there. She filled the void left by not smoking. It was easy to let go.
Excuse me. Void? I thought smoking is your way of rebelling.
I never said rebelling. I said it was the one thing I could do that I wasn’t ‘suppos’d to’ do.
So how do we go from rebelling to filling a void?
I miss her. I miss having someone to come home to each night. I remember when she first moved up with me, I told people I didn’t know how lonely I was until she moved in. She was my best friend. I’d do anything for her and she for me. In a perfect world, everyone would have that one person in his/her life, even if it is only for a short time. Fortunately for me, I had her with me until I was 52. I’m getting off track.
I don’t think so. You want to know why you smoke. Why something that is so unpleasant, that makes you so physically uncomfortable, that is so financially draining, so consumes your life.
Smoking fills the time. It kills the boredom. It’s fills the hole that’s left when the most important person in your life leaves you. We can’t live in a void. We can’t survive there. We need to fill it in some way.
You’re right. Some of us are just lucky. We find ways or learn ways to fill the void. We move forward. To quit smoking isn’t about giving up something. It’s about giving yourself something. Clear lungs, better breath, longer life, a relief from the financial burden. That’s not a bad trade-off.
To quit smoking means I lose my voice. How do I find that voice when I’ve given up the one means I’ve had to express myself? And I want something to do -- when I’m watching TV, when the workload is slow and I’m bored, or the workload is heavy and I’m stressed. I want something to do.
Take up knitting. Go for a walk. Do deep-breathing exercises.
Yes, all the things I’m supposed to do.
Are we back to that?
Yes. Who doesn’t need at least one part of her (or his) life that doesn’t conform? How else can we separate ourselves from the pack? I know who I am at the core. What happens when I stand up for myself at the wrong time, when I say the wrong thing? I mean really. What happens when I’m wrong, and people are justified in not liking me or in being angry with me? I know what you’re going to say, “I’m not supposed to care.”
I wasn’t going to say that. Although, what will happen if you’re wrong? People will be angry with you or someone may not like you. Is that going to kill you, does it even put you at risk? Is non-acceptance worse than the inevitable consequences that come with smoking? Can you honestly tell me that it’s better to stay where you are, doing what you’re doing?
Fine. It’s not better. It’s easier. It’s easier to keep a destructive habit than it is to drop it. It’s easier to stay where I am than it is to change, move forward, embrace the opportunity. Yes, I’m guilty of staying in the comfort zone. There are still days when I remember how it was when my mother was here. What it meant to come home after work, sit down on the couch next to her, make some lame joke and hear her laugh. That was my comfort zone, and I was thrown out of it when she died. I have a new one now, and I’m not willing to leave it, not yet. I don’t want to be strong. I’ve already been strong. I just want to have a cigarette.
Sometimes we choose the easy way out, even when we know it’s wrong. We make that choice because it’s ours to make. We’d rather be wrong than smart, or right.
So, I should leave you alone?
Absolutely not. You’re a member of the non-smoking community. You’re not supposed to turn your back on smokers. You’re supposed to keep at us. Support the city ordinances that end smoking in public establishments, legislation that taxes tobacco products, and a court system that holds the industry responsible for marketing this poison to the general public in the first place. It’s not because smokers are passive, or bored, or lonely that we smoke. We smoke because we choose to break that simple rule that tells us to do what is logical, smart, and leads to a longer, better life. Whatever the reason, it’s our choice when we do what we’re not supposed to do. We live with that choice. If and when the time comes to change, we’ll change. It’s that simple. It’s your job to not let us forget what we’re ‘suppos’d to’ do.
Lamb, Ellen Clair. Answer Girl, July 3, 2005 http://answergirlnet.blogspot.com/2005/07/you-know-how-to-whistle-dont-you-steve.html.