I first smoked at the age of about 14. My friends and I smoked in the toilets at school, huddled together in one cubicle with our feet up on the seat so they couldn’t be seen below the door. We shared our cheap Sovereign ciggies, bought in packs of 5 or 10. We smoked in our lunch hour wandering round the shops in Marchmont, ready to throw them away if a teacher passed by. We stole our parents’ cigarettes and suffered untipped cigarettes or much stronger brands. We grew into Consulate menthol and finally St Moritz with the gold band and white tip, if we really wanted to impress. And when my uncle came home from Kuwait he brought with him Sobranie cocktail cigarettes in black and gold, or rainbow colours. They really made you cough and were terribly strong but worth the pain to be seen with such sophisticated smokes.
We smoked because it made us look older and that was what we desperately wanted in those days – to look older. How ironic that cigarettes do indeed make you look older – physically, by wrinkling your skin and your mouth. We wanted to look cool and sophisticated and grown-up and we thought that boys would want to talk to us because we looked so trendy. And there was always that moment when you had to ask someone for a light and got to cup your hands round his for just a brief moment, while looking up under your eyelashes in a sexy kind of way. That was until the smoke got in your eye and made it water profusely. Not so cool then.
I smoked just like my parents before me, and like my sisters after me. I smoked when I was pregnant because nobody told me it might not be a good thing. They did hint in 1978 at my second pregnancy that it might be an idea to give up because the baby might be smaller, but as Baby #1 had been 8lb 4oz, a smaller baby seemed like rather a good thing really. So I puffed my way through that pregnancy too and indeed Baby #2 was smaller at 7lb 11oz. I could live with that.
And on and on I smoked. When I was a single parent with no money I smoked. I smoked instead of eating. When I was homeless I smoked. Friends bought me cigs and somehow I always managed. I smoked and it calmed me down and slowed my breathing until I felt at peace. When I was anxious I reached for a smoke, and when I was relaxed I smoked. And I had asthma and in winter I coughed as I smoked and that was not good. One year I had pneumonia and could hardly breathe but still I lit one cigarette after another. Friends nagged me and strangers look disapprovingly. But still I smoked. And the Budgets came and went and cigarettes went up in price but still I smoked.
You see, smokers always seem to have more fun. There was always laughter coming out of the smoking room when we were separated like lepers. Non-smokers would linger at the door, inhaling our secondhand smoke and watching the fun. And we cracked open another bottle and opened the window a little as our eyes started to water with all the fug. We were the rebels, the naughty ones, the ones who had more fun.
Then I became a curate at a cathedral and nobody else smoked and I gave up. For two years I didn’t smoke and I smelled better and other things smelled better and I could walk and climb without stopping to gasp for breath. I had so much more money that I was able to buy nice things for my house, things I could never have afforded before. Sure, I put on some weight but that soon came off as I walked and walked and walked.
It was all undone though in just a moment. All it took was a crisis, several G&Ts, some bubbly and a social-smoker friend who offered me a fag. And that was the end of that. How lovely it was to smoke again. How comforting to inhale that soothing smoke deep into my lungs, until my breathing slowed and my worries lessened. Any time my anxiety would return all it took was a long white tube and a purple lighter before my blood pressure returned to normal. Who needs Valium?
By now, of course, the Chancellor has really got it in for smokers and you had to be pretty dedicated to be a smoker in the 21st century. Then the Government banned smoking in the workplace and then smoking in bars. We were reduced to huddling in groups in doorways or alleys. The rain fell, the snow fell but still we huddled together, sharing a camaraderie among strangers. Somehow the smokers were not such fun anymore. We had statistics thrown in our faces, lectures from doctors and friends. We had threats of no treatment in hospital for smoking-related illnesses because they were self-inflicted. But still we smoked, defiant and determined.
And we tried to give up secretly. From time to time we put on a patch or sucked a tab or took a mood-altering pill that was meant to help us stop although nobody knew quite why… and do get in touch if you have suicidal thoughts. And we managed a day or two, perhaps a week. And every sweetie that we substituted made us feel even more depressed. Then one night at 10pm we sneaked out to the all night supermarket and bought a wee packed of 10 smokes with the intention of never letting it get back to 20 a day, but within 48 hours it had.
So that, dear reader, was my life until a few weeks ago. That was when I had such a bad cough my asthma started to play up. One dose of antibiotics and steroids didn’t do the trick and the Practice Nurse did a new test of my lung function. “You have the lungs of an 85 year old,” she said. “And the beginnings of COPD.” An 85 year old?! I am 56. And I couldn’t climb one flight of stairs without stopping half way, and coughing at the top. And at night I wheezed as I lay down and in the morning I coughed and coughed. And I went to visit Durham with friends and I couldn’t climb the hills and had to keep stopping and friends walked on.
On 11 November 2012 the time was right. I had my last cigarette and now I live one day at a time. Occasionally I have a puff of an electronic cigarette (melon or spearmint flavour) but no more than about 3 puffs a day. That’s not even one whole cigarette. Some days I don’t use it at all and forget all about it. Those days are getting more frequent. Of course I feel better. I won’t lie and say the cough has gone because it hasn’t. But it is getting better and I know that if I hadn’t given up I would be on my third dose of steroids by now and probably back on the nebuliser, gasping for clean air.
I haven’t noticed that I’m better off financially yet. In fact, I haven’t been able to put the money away because there hasn’t been any. So something would have had to go, I’m guessing. And yes I’ve put on weight. A lot of weight. I have eaten my body weight in Maltesers, in fact. In the past when this happened I’d give up and go back to smoking but this time I can’t. This time I have to keep going because fat women don’t all have 85 year old lungs. And that is reversible.
I still miss them. And I may fall off the wagon again. But please don’t judge me. It is bloody hard and I loved smoking. Whether I love being healthy more remains to be seen.