I’ve never been a smoker. Although that isn’t to say I’ve never smoked. A few puffs held tightly in my mouth then blerted out up the school field at 12 years old, shivering in the cold sharing a Lucky Strike between two at a teenage house party held in an affluent Cambridgeshire village, sucking in a few drags of Christina’s roll-ups outside Goldsmiths College Library age 21, my synapses alive with literary stress. WE. CAN. DO. THIS. We did.
All of these experiences, while not definitely anecdotes that accompany the highlights of my life, were all shared experiences with friends. They are something we look back and laugh at. Smoking a puff or two amid a girl gang became something we did. Reading Festivals weren’t the same if you didn’t have a drag by the fire at night and god help the 18 year old non-smoker in the nightclub when their entire friendship group trots outside. Bye then. The choice between toxin free warmth and sips of WKD blue versus braving the British winter to stand with your mates in a chilly square cage was a surprisingly easy one to make. I didn’t want to miss out. I think all of our best juvenile flirting came in those grim grey squares, with romantic views of the carpark and the obligatory lightweight vomiting up a brick wall. Those were the days.
Luckily as we got older, the majority of my friends stopped smoking. Nights stomping the sticky dance floor at DeNiro’s were swapped for wine bars and tapas and I didn’t hate it. I’ve always been a bit bougey, preferring to bake a Camembert than order a pizza. By my mid twenties smoking was part of those “oh how young and stupid we were” anecdotes. Only for me, it was around this time that I began smoking alone.
Don’t get me wrong, the amount of cigarettes I have inhaled in the past six years would equate to a slow day for some heavy smokers, but that’s not the point. One particularly stressful summer, my second out of Uni, a time I expected I would have my shit together but absolutely didn’t, I smoked two whole Marlborough lights while driving down the fast lane of the M25. Rings of tarmac, rings of smoke and endless rings of discontent. What.Am.I.Doing.Here?!
Then came 2018.
It wasn’t until 2018 that I realised that smoking is a thing I do when I think I’ve hit rock bottom. It sounds strange to say, but when I am in a deep, deep mental hole, having a cigarette is the only thing I can do to stop myself from crying. It’s like the bitter taste of tobacco and tar are enough to remind me that actually life tastes worse than this moment.
In March 2018 I had been apart from my boyfriend of six years for a couple of months. He had a new girl, I had started having an ill advised fling with a friend and had just moved in to my own furniture-free basement apartment. In the first few weeks, the adrenaline will get you through, after that, you’re own your own.
This crippling loneliness, the kind you can only feel during the dust settley aftermath of a big, terrifying transformation in your life, THIS is what lead me to lay down $18 bucks for a pack of 20 Ashfords in the late throws of the seemingly endless winter. These became my depression crutch of 2018.
The first one I smoked that same night as I walked home. As I breathed in the horrible, throat tearing plume, it joined a less distinguishable chamber of utter despair inside me, they mixed together and then I blew them out. Gone. Fuck, that felt better. To be able to pinpoint something so horrible and to simply breath it out became something I allowed myself to do only when I hit absolute lows. Writhing in my bed, tearing out my hair, huddling at the bottom of the shower. There was something I could do now to put and end to those nights. They weren’t every night by any means. Sometimes just the thought that I could do it would be enough to calm me down without having to suck in the dizzying vapour poison. Sometimes, it wasnt though and I would find myself sitting on my front step listening to Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, cigarette in hand, quietly ogling the moon and hoping for a better day.
The better days came and the better days went. One night I stood in the soupy thick Orlando Heat, looking my physical best and feeling my physical worst, drowning a double vodka soda and burning out my smoke to its dying embers. What the fuck was I doing?
It was around this point that I had a worrying diagnosis that put an end to it for a few months. How could I be sick and sitting outside on sporadic nights inhaling smoke? I’d have to be a royal twat.
That good motivation kept me in kale smoothies and vitamin supplements for the most of the summer, but then Autumn came. There were six cigarettes left in my box and one night, when I couldn’t make sense of you, I was back at my step, Jeff Buckley warbling in my ear and my teary eyes firmly fixed at the stars. I wanted so much to be better and to do better, I just couldn’t.
I think the real low was smoking an entire cigarette on a frosty grey day outside of work in early November. I never did it in daylight before. The winter was rearing its ugly head once again and I had no idea how I was going to do it all over. Please, not winter again. Please. Usually my lows would come at night when I was alone, but that day the only thing that allowed me to get up and get ready for work was telling myself I only had to keep it together until lunchtime, then I could cry in the toilets for 10 minutes and then go outside and burn my throat shut. My mouth shut, my heart shut. I could keep it all under lock and key until nighttime.
I actually hated you for doing this to me. But of course, I hated myself more for allowing it. I don’t think it was actually really about you at all, just the hole left inside my chest and trying to find a way to fill it because I knew I couldn’t close it. Or I could, but it took so much more time than I was willing to bear. So I puffed my time away.
There came a day in late November when I realised I wasn’t the only one struggling. There was hurt beyond mine in a friend too. I gave her one cigarette and told her my trick of feeling the worst you can, to stare rock bottom in the eye, in order to feel better. I don’t know if she ever smoked it, perhaps it was enough for it to just be there, like it had been for me some days.
Come December I was trying harder. I was doing better. Suddenly the end had a beginning in sight. 2019. I had three cigarettes left and I took them with me to New York, and to London and to my family home. Christmas can be a hard time, a lonely time, and I didn’t know if I would need them. I didn’t.
Back with me to Toronto they came, and like me, they were a little battered from the transatlantic haul.
The problem with going away is that you have to come back. I returned to Toronto to realize that my problems were still there and now was the time to cut the strings tying me to them once and for all. You needed to go. You couldn’t be a part of my new narrative.
The evening of the 29th December was my last bad day. So bad it deserved two cigarettes. I threw up in the toilet bowl.
December 31st came and I had been fully prepared to smoke my last disgusting stick before midnight; a cheers and farewell to a bad year I was so ready to put behind me. But in the end, the opportunity didn’t come. I never smoked it.
I found the tattered pack in my kitchen on New Years Morning as I was tidying alone with a lemoncello hangover. I stared at it…sad and bent and flaking. Not this year, mate. Not this year.
Head pounding, lonely but determined, I crumbled it between my fingers and threw it in the bin. I washed my hands clean and I started again.
Goodbye, old friend. I won’t miss you.