By an anonymous Fort Leonard Wood smoker
Special to GUIDON
I’m a smoker.
I’m called that by people I love, people who love me and by people who don’t know me at all.
I hate saying it, but that is, by definition, a part of what I am.
No matter how I may try to spin it — I only smoke a half pack per day; I only smoke more when I’m in social situations; I only smoke when I’m stressed — I’m still a smoker.
And to say “only” — as if it softens the blow, as if, for some reason, I should be categorized differently than any other person who smokes, as if somehow pointing the finger at people who smoke more often proves “I’m not that bad” — only proves one thing:
Everyone knows about the negative health effects of smoking. I am aware of them, as well as the negative perceptions that stem from those, and yet I still choose to smoke.
I’ve also come to see how smoking isn’t just about me — my choices affect my loved ones.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, cigarette smoking is responsible for about one in every five deaths annually in the U.S., and for every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness.
Those numbers include secondhand smoke exposure — people who were forced to face the consequences of an action that was never their own.
One of the most common questions I am asked by people who have never had a cigarette is, “How did you start?”
Before I go any further, let me clarify one thing; I like this question. It’s honest. It’s caring. There’s little judgment there, and moreover, it doesn’t feel like I am a “dirty smoker” in their mind. It feels like I am more than that.
That question establishes that I am a human being with a past. That question communicates that the speaker is — through what I assume is a level of empathy — genuinely trying to understand why I started such a destructive habit.
I’ll answer the question, as I am certainly willing to share my story. But before I do, I’d like to make a suggestion to all non-smokers: if you know someone who smokes, and you care enough that you want them to quit, start by asking their story.
You will not believe how much that person may open up. A little empathy, in my opinion, is the way to start the conversation about quitting. Empathy means the world to a group regularly synonymized with uncleanliness.
So, how did I start?
I was in college, 18 years old and finally away from the omniscient gaze of my loving, but micromanaging mother. I was in my university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program, and I began to make a close circle of friends with some of the other cadets.
We would drink on the weekends and one time, my friend lit up a cigarette.
I’d heard that it gives you a breathtaking rush when you’re buzzed, so I was curious, but afraid to ask for one because, for some reason, I had to save face. Cue rolling of the eyes at younger pride.
Keep in mind, too, that I was chosen to present my speech to an entire elementary school after completing the D.A.R.E. program. So, the irony here is about as palpable as my hypocrisy, like a faint wisp of smoke in an otherwise fresh breeze.
My friend must have noticed my looking at his cigarettes when he asked, “Want one?”
I’d like to pin this decision on peer pressure to absolve myself of any guilt, but the truth is that was all the invitation I needed. I lit one up.
“Holy …,” I thought. My head felt lighter and I needed to sit down. The rush was insane.
But was it worth it?
I ask myself that question every time I try to quit. The answer is unequivocally, no.
As any smoker, current and former, will tell you, the nicotine rush subsides slowly over the next year, depending on how often you smoke.
Whether you’re having a cigarette after every meal, or huffing down three packs a day, eventually the rush fades, and you find yourself smoking more and more, spending more and more, chasing that first hit.
It doesn’t come back. That experience is a memory. Memories don’t resurrect themselves, no matter how hard you try.
And in trying to revive something that’s already dead and gone, you’re going to waste a lot of money, and what’s more — you’ll push people away who love you.
I know I did — but it’s not just me.
A 2010 study from The Australian National University found that if one partner in the relationship smokes, then the couple is 76 to 95 percent more likely to separate.
I can attest to that. I dated someone in college who I now know is the “one who got away.” One of her stipulations in agreeing to become exclusive with me was that I had to quit smoking.
“Fair enough,” I thought, “I’ll just hide it from her.” Selfish.
When I say that I had a “system” to get rid of any cigarette odor before seeing her, I mean it was more meticulous than professionally evaluating scrimshaw.
I’d wash my hands first, then hop in the shower, scrub the life out of my hair, hands and neck, brush my teeth, guzzle mouthwash, and then brush my teeth again.
I thought there was no way on Earth my girlfriend would know. You guessed it — I’m a moron.
She knew, but she loved me too much to say anything unless she caught me cig-handed.
We broke up later for unrelated circumstances, but as she is a woman of her word, I’m confident the relationship wouldn’t have lasted much longer had I continued smoking.
One of the reasons I know now that she always knew about my smoking is because after years of radio silence, I’m finally in contact with her again.
I just went to visit her in a different city. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d handle going five days without a smoke, but to my surprise, I never wanted one.
She’s the love of my life, and being with her or merely around her distracts me enough that I don’t even think about it. And if I do, I’ll choose to remember that people get sick and sometimes die from secondhand smoke.
“This type of smoke has higher concentrations of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and is more toxic,” according to the American Cancer Society. The organization states on its website that it’s also likely to cause depression.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll be damned before I not only cause illness in my loved ones, but reap them of their happiness, too.
So, here’s my advice.
If I can’t convince you to better your life for the sake of your own reputation and body odor, then hopefully you can find someone you love enough for whom you would do anything.
I know I’d move mountains for my love.
Tomorrow is not a promise, and the more you smoke, the more it becomes an unlikely privilege. Don’t sacrifice your loved ones’ health, too, for an action that is solely your own.
Quit smoking. Save lives. Live for someone.
(Editor’s note: The author has chosen to remain anonymous due to the negative reputation associated with smoking.)