A Smoking Career, Suspended

A New York Times article that wonders, ‘Why Smokers Still Smoke‘ set me to thinking: Why did I smoke? For as long as I did?

I smoked my first cigarette in my teen years. My father smoked, as did many of the men–all Air Force pilots–that I idolized. There was glamour and masculinity written all over the act. I loved the smell of cigarette smoke mingled with Old Spice cologne.

Buying cigarettes was easy; the shops that sold them cared little for ID’ing their customers. Disguising the smell wasn’t, so I took refuge in sucking on mints and chewing betelnuts. But I got caught–by my mother. It didn’t stop me, of course. I still smoked the occasional cigarette in high school, and then in university, began smoking every day. My consumption hovered at the half-a-dozen a day for those years, sometimes rising to ten a day. I didn’t buy packs of cigarettes, but like most students, bought them ‘loose’, in singles or pairs. Our budgets just didn’t permit the pack. Indeed, I didn’t begin to purchase packs until after moving to the US and commencing graduate school.

Four years after moving to the US, I tried to quit smoking. I was three months short of my twenty-fifth birthday. On New Year’s Day 1991, I stopped. I stayed tobacco-free for more than two years, surviving 1991, 1992 and the first five months or so of 1993. Then, on a hike in the Himalayas, I stopped at a mountaineering expedition’s base camp and the porters, after a hearty and friendly conversation, offered me a beedi. I accepted. I don’t know why. Perhaps, at that moment, overcome by euphoria and the friendship on display, I felt I couldn’t decline. My defenses had been breached. A few weeks later, during a long train journey through India, I smoked again. I had fallen off the wagon.

But from then on, my smoking was always sporadic; I was always in between attempts at quitting. I began my doctoral studies in the fall of 1993 and smoked heavily the first year, all the while regretting it. I quit in 1994 for a few weeks; I tried again in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, I succeeded again, staying off cigarettes till I had finishing my Ph.D in 2000. But on the day of my successful defense, drunk and disordered, I smoked again. I was off the wagon once more.

I moved to Australia after my Ph.D and quit several more times. Each of these episodes lasted days or weeks, never months. In 2001, I quit for a few months before starting again, as I struggled to cope with the stress of my job hunt.  In 2002, during a trip to Tokyo for a conference, an Australian graduate student urged me to throw away my half-full pack of Marlboros. I did, and stayed off cigarettes for a few months. In 2003, I began again. My girlfriend smoked.

In November 2003, we went away for a weekend to Cape May. My father’s 68th birth anniversary fell during that weekend. On that day, the two of us awoke and set out for breakfast. On the way, we stopped at a local bookstore, and I bought a biography of a US Navy pilot. As I did so, my girlfriend asked me if I was paying tribute to my father. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was probably true. A few minutes later, we arrived at our diner. In those days, you could still smoke indoors in eating establishments. Our coffees arrived, and we reached for our cigarettes. At that moment, I thought that this day seemed like as good a day as any other to quit smoking. So I did. My girlfriend–who is now my wife–quit for good a few months later.

I haven’t smoked cigarettes since.  The pattern I noticed in my quitting and restarting was that initially, I fell off the wagon because I was trying to celebrate something; later, I responded adversely to stress. But once I had tried to quit and succeeded for as long as I did, it became clear to me I didn’t want to smoke. So every cigarette from there on became a mark of failure, one I vainly attempted to disguise. It didn’t work and my compulsion to quit, even if almost always unsuccessful, remained strong.

I still fear the damage I did to my body all those years; perhaps I haven’t escaped tobacco’s cancerous embrace. For now, I’ll just hope I’ve managed to dodge the bullet.

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