I had my first cigarette when I was 18. I hadn’t drank, smoked, or done any drugs before then. It was my own personal right of passage – I drove to the gas station and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds then drove out of town to the local fishing hole and sat on the trunk of my father’s car and tried to smoke while playing my guitar. I discovered the unpleasantness of smoking in the dry heat with the smoke barreling from the lit tobacco right into my eyes. When you’re holding a guitar in two hands, there’s only one place for that cigarette. I didn’t have another cigarette until later that fall when I was at college – one of the guys I was hanging out with was looking for a cigarette and I had the same pack from 3 months before, hidden in my bag. By then, then were quite stale, so the rest of the cigarettes I just gave to the guy, cause I wasn’t interested in this as a permanent habit.
About a year went by before my next cigarette – I was living in a house with a bunch of friends and we were into smoking pipe tobacco. We would sit on the corner on one of the main roads in town and smoke our pipes, getting chuckles and stares from people. There was one friend in particular I had formed a special bond with while smoking our pipes – he would frequently come over to the house in the late morning, just a few hours after I had finished up a night shift at work, and wake me up and we’d go out for lunch and find a place to smoke our pipes. One late night in the fall, we laid out in the back of his Volvo and he had some specialty cigarettes, which we smoked luxuriously as a chilly wind swept across our bare faces.
I don’t remember buying my next pack, but it was shortly after that night we started smoking cigarettes instead of pipes. In a sense, it was just rebellion. I had grown up so conservatively – I remember my own father being disgusted by someone lighting up a cigarette while they were driving out of the church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon – smoking was an escape from the rigid bounds of my religion. I was smoking because I could and because it was wrong. But even more than that, smoking was a social thing. It was what I did with my friends. [Well, not all of my friends – I kept it from those who I thought wouldn’t approve.] And that was what made it special.
But I also started smoking more and more alone. And it was in those moments I felt conviction. It was in the winter, I moved out of the house with my friends and back into my room in my parents house, and I remember driving home from a night shift, the cold air freezing my fingers in a way that felt like I was grasping the cigarette with my bones, crying because of the weight of despair I felt even then. I don’t know how many not empty packs of cigarettes I threw out the window on the interstate in desperation. But this conviction was my religion creeping in, causing me doubt and grief and shame. Interestingly, that was all my own doing. I doubt I hid it very well, my smoking. I would lead a worship set for church and during the sermon, walk around the neighborhood surrounding the church building and smoke a cigarette and then come back enveloped in the mixed stench of my cologne and the cigarette to lead one last song before sending people out the door. But no one ever said anything about it.
Despite my internal conviction, there was something about it that continued to draw me – and it was [as ridiculous as this sounds – and it is ridiculous] the idea of Joe Cool and the Marlboro Man, of Brad Pitt, Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Penn, and any other celebrity I had seen smoking a cigarette in a movie – it still seemed cool. And I still wanted to be a rebel.
And here I am, 14 years later, still smoking. But finally wanting to truly quit. And also realizing the depth of the hole I have dug for myself. I don’t want to stand in the cold and shiver while raising that toxicity to my mouth. I want to spend my days healthy, motivated, and living with clarity and depth. This 14 year experience hasn’t lived up to the billing. I am not a smoker. That is what I am going to continue to tell myself until it is true.
I am not a smoker.