Smoke and Mirrors

Marina Jones Meads writes about the social role of smoking and the trials and tribulations of giving it up.

As the new year quickly approached, I found myself juggling the usual festive duties, the fear of surging Omicron and looming January deadlines. Naturally, this led to me reaching for a smoke a few more times a day than I’d like to admit. To give some context, I started smoking (more than just socially) at sixth form college, where my frail sixteen-year-old sense of self thought that joining my friends in the smoking area couldn’t be too much of a problem. And, hey, a poorly rolled cigarette hanging out of my mouth did look kinda cool, right? 

And no… like, I know they say “it’s really bad for you and you’ll get addicted”, but…  that won’t happen to me. Wrong. Four years down the line and I still couldn’t quit. I had stopped a few times in the past but always caved on a night out and bought a new pouch of tobacco the next day.

I decided to carry on until I’d submitted all of my essays, and then I would quit for good. I realised that this time I needed to really interrogate why I felt the need to smoke: apart from the obvious reason that it’s a highly addictive substance, I think that smoking for me had become a sort of social crutch. Something to do with my hands – a routine. And despite being told time and time again throughout school that it was bad for me and that it’s almost impossible to quit, I still decided to light up day after day. It’s undeniable that there are social benefits; going out for a smoke break with a new group of people in a new setting does have a sort of ice breaking effect. And everyone knows the best chats on a night out (apart from the girls’ toilets) happen in the smoking area. But in reality, I would wake up feeling like death warmed up and my teeth were starting to go yellow at twenty-one. And let’s be honest, I am perfectly capable of striking up a conversation with a stranger in other ways than asking for a lighter.

Another delusion that kept me addicted was the myth that smoking helps to eliminate stress. Yet, after a brief browse of the NHS website I found that stopping smoking actually reduces anxiety; it’s the constant cycle of nicotine withdrawal followed by the relief of a cigarette that tricks us into thinking smoking relieves stress. At this point I was starting to feel a bit silly, and I wondered how much time and money I had wasted on smoking whilst telling myself that it was improving my productivity and focus. 

Artwork by Marina Jones Meads.

I began to ponder the ways in which filmic presentations of women and cigarettes had permeated my subconscious and affected my relationship with smoking. One doesn’t have to think too hard to picture a sultry female figure taking a drag and looking out into the distance. Cigarettes are used as stylistic devices which signify rebellion and are often conflated with the seductive image of a ‘femme fatal’ type figure.  Although in recent years I have felt mostly embarrassed of my bad habit, perhaps a little part of me saw smoking as a last ditch attempt to romanticise my life and feel like ‘the main character’. The delightful assortment of blackened lungs and rotten teeth that so lovingly adorn the packaging these days does somewhat undo this effect, and huddling outside the ASS in the January drizzle doesn’t feel very sexy or mysterious. Perhaps the only pitiful act of rebellion is standing on the no smoking signs. 

Despite whatever mental gymnastics I’ve performed over the years to justify a habit that made me feel like crap, I’ve decided that enough is enough. It’s the perfect capitalist nightmare – you’re never quite satisfied and as the prices continue to rise, I want out. 

The days have slowly, and somewhat painfully, strung into weeks and now it has been almost a month since I had a cigarette. Socially it hasn’t affected me as much as I thought it would, but that also could have something to do with the fact that I’m in third year and my evenings are often spent deep in the books, rather than out on the town. Furthermore, two of my flatmates have also recently quit smoking and this sense of accountability has definitely made the whole process a lot smoother.

The most gratifying aspect of quitting for me is the knowledge that I’ve made a choice to look after myself. Going to a yoga class and having a smoke later in the day always made me feel like a fraud and it’s been really rewarding knowing that my body has begun healing. What’s empowering for me is looking after my health and my body and this seemed like the most obvious place to start.

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