(cw: mental health, addiction, smoking, death)
I saw a funny tweet earlier today that brought back some memories. It is clearly relating to the ever-evolving UK (and country-specific) rules as they try to grapple with the spread of the virus:
While the UK’s problem with underage binge drinking is not actually funny, it did bring back some memories of my teenage days.
Up until 2007, the minimum age to buy tobacco products was 16. This means that when I was a young teen, lots of people around me were smoking – 13 and 14 year olds who hung around with older kids or who got cigarettes off their siblings or parents, 15 year olds who looked a bit older, and so on. Everyone was sort of aware of the health risks associated with smoking, but that sort of thing never happened to anyone young, it was always your nan who’d smoked 40 a day since the 70s, that sort of thing. Besides, worrying about your health was uncool; not giving a fuck was the only acceptable approach, amIrite?
I still remember the first thing I smoked: a cigarillo that my Cool Friends Kate and Abi were smoking at Paola’s 16th birthday party. You know the type of friend I’m talking about: the ones who are a bit quirky, but that quirkiness is its own kind of charisma. Kate got a week’s internal suspension for picking the lock to the attic and falling through the ceiling into Mrs Cornish’s maths class, and Abi was the Titania to my Bottom in our GCSE Drama production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which more or less says all you need to know. They were artistic smokers, the sort that in another life would be starving in some damp Parisian apartment, not the alcopop-drinking chavs with bizarre articulated clown necklaces (purchased from the Argos catalogue) who were down getting shitfaced in the Mems* every night.
*Ashford Memorial Gardens has 4.6 stars on Google reviews and I am not really sure why. They must’ve done it up since I was in school.
Anyway, smoking then became the norm. My then-boyfriend smoked, as did half my coworkers at the supermarket where I worked at weekends. It was a great way to socialise without having to have anything else in common! “Gizza light, wouldja?” (read: may I briefly use your lighter?) and the conversation was started.
So by the time my mental health issues really began to make themselves properly known, I was already fully addicted to smoking. My parents – all three of them – were ex-smokers, and were all understandably vocal about what a bad idea they thought smoking was. I didn’t want to deal with their disappointment or criticism, so I lied to them. Anyone who lives with a smoker knows how impossible it is not to be aware that they smoke! But I wasn’t ready for that conversation; I had too many other things that I was struggling to deal with.
It is around this time that my memory of events gets a little hazy. I dropped out of secondary school, got kicked out of home, was homeless for a bit, got into some trouble, got in touch with my dad and moved in with him, reconciled with my mum and stepdad, moved back in with them, did my A-levels at home, went to uni before I was ready, got into some trouble, dropped out of uni, started working, had a breakdown, got admitted to a psych ward…
…I think that’s more or less the order things went? And all that time I was smoking. Then, as I mentioned in this post, my dad got sick and I spent a few months caring for him before he eventually passed away.
At 3:45am on August 17th when my brother confirmed that my dad had died and went to call the nurse on duty, I grabbed my hoodie and plodded through the silent hospital corridors and out of the back entrance, where I sat down on the ground and lit a cigarette. My iPod Nano was in my pocket too, and I scrolled to Kimi ni negai wo by Miyavi and sat there, smoking and looking up at the stars, not crying, just numb. I’d cried plenty before, and would cry even more in the days, weeks, years after, but right there in that moment, having a cigarette gave me some space. I’d been suicidal for years, struggling endlessly with my mental health, but that grounding moment and that song made something shift.
And I softly make a wish. A wish upon you, who has become a star.“Kimi ni negai wo” (Eng trans) – Miyavi
“It’s ok now, I can stand on my own”. ‘Cause I’m not alone, right.
So I’ll live your half as well.
Just as you’re living inside of me always.
So again, just like those times, always watch me at my side.
Four months later, I decided to quit. My dad had always hated me smoking (of course), and I felt that, although it was too late in a sense, I owed it to him. After all, how could I live “his half” if I was compromising my health by smoking? And slowly, one week at a time and with the help of both the NHS and my closest friend, I stopped.
It wasn’t easy, though – beating an addiction never is! Even to this day, I think of myself as “a smoker who doesn’t smoke”. An addict is always an addict. But reaching the point where I felt in a position to quit was, for me, quite a journey.