I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to smoke cigarettes.
But now that I’ve quit, I can look back on the way I felt and the reasons why I did it. There are a multitude of reasons why people smoke, but people with mental illnesses are much more likely to smoke than those without. When I learned this fact, it made me realize just how much my smoking habit was affected by and fueled my mental illness.
So while I know smoking is a no good, all round, BAD idea. Rather than yelling at a stranger smoking on the street because they “look ugly doing that” or are “just asking to die,” try thinking about what feelings or experiences they had that led them to smoke that cigarette.
How I Started Smoking
People who smoke now-a-days don’t have the same excuse as older generations who “didn’t know any better.” It seems like every year of elementary school we had a special day dedicated to showing us horrifying images of smoking gone wrong. Obviously, I thought those black tar mouth displays and decrepit lungs were scary, but I was 9 and had never seen someone smoking, let alone thought of doing it myself.
I didn’t actually see or consider smoking until I went away to college. College showed me new and destructive ways to deal with the stress and personal/social growing pains, not to mention my newly diagnosed depression and anxiety. Yes, I received effective therapy and antidepressants for the first time, but my life also consisted of just two main activities: studying and drinking.
After going out drinking with someone who smoked, I started to smoke a little but only when I was drinking. I quickly accelerated my tobacco habit to deal with the stress of school and my emotions when I broke up with my boyfriend and fell into a desperate, depressive episode. It was an easy jump from the casual drag to using cigarettes as a crutch.
Why I Smoked
I was always aware of the side effects of smoking and how much everyone hated it. I knew it was gross how my clothes and hair smelled like smoke for hours. I knew it led to cancer. I knew everyone thought I was disgusting and stupid.
Nobody smokes because they think it’s a good idea, or because it makes them smell good, or for any rational reason.
I smoked because:
I was lonely
Going home by myself, again, from the bar after losing my friends to various drunken endeavors, walking to and from class, driving by myself…I felt like I had to smoke in all of these situations. I was afraid to be left alone with my own thoughts for years. I kept myself busy almost constantly so I wouldn’t have to engage with my feelings, but when I was alone and the feelings started to creep out from under my intense denial, cigarettes were a way to push them back down.
I would think, It doesn’t matter that I’m alone. I’d rather be alone so I can smoke. I’m okay all by myself. Me and this cigarette.
That sounds like a person who’s really got their shit together, doesn’t it? Smoking made me feel a little bit like the “tortured soul” archetype you see in movies, and if I was like the broody characters in movies, I couldn’t be that alone, right?
I was anxious
When I was in college, I didn’t understand my anxiety, so I didn’t recognize when it was flaring up. I thought I was just busy, but I actually could not sit still. I had to fill every single minute of the day with activity. I still do, thank you high-functioning anxiety. And when my anxiety was creeping up to alarming levels, I would work harder to push it down by doing more and more. My legs would shake incessantly, I couldn’t even do one thing because I had to keep moving. So I’d feverishly do a million things, smoking cigarettes included, until I broke and had a panic attack.
I felt like crying
I am a big fat crybaby. I was especially prone to crying when I was in college. Struggling with school, friends, money, depression, anxiety, relationships, perceptions, and just generally being at war with myself — tears just happened, and often at the worst times. Especially when I was in the scary, uncertain terrain of college, my anxiety made itself known by tightening my throat and bringing tears to my eyes. This would happen when I was eating, at a party, in class, standing, sitting, breathing… yea, I felt like crying a lot. And so I choked down the tears by inhaling tobacco.
I didn’t like myself
Ultimately, all of the anxiety, crying, and loneliness were symptoms of the fact that I didn’t like who I was or even know who I was, really. Self-loathing thoughts were a huge motivator for smoking. I’d think, You suck. You don’t matter. No one cares about you. You have no friends. You’re stupid. No one loves you.
And sometimes when you feel like that, you just… give into it. It’s the angsty teenager in me saying, Idgaf if no one likes me. I don’t care about anything. I might as well just give in to the shittiness and keep self destructing because nothing matters.
Maybe at first I smoked because of peer pressure or because it seemed cool. But the smoking habit that I created was really a self-destructive way to cope with intensely low depression, extremely high anxiety, and just the difficulties of life.
If I focused on the rhythmic inhale of the cigarette and the exhale of the smoke, I could push down my feelings and keep moving forward. I lit the end of each cigarette hoping it would burn the demons inside me that caused me so much pain.
Smoking was a bandaid (albeit covered with infection) that I put on my wounds so I could keep going, keep seeming okay and like I was doing this whole college thing right–when in reality, I was barely holding on.
How I Quit
After a year or so of telling myself I wasn’t a “smoker” and only did it once in a while, I finally came to terms with the fact as I stood outside in the negative-degree weather to smoke and then sprayed myself down with Febreze so I wouldn’t have to smell myself.
Even though I used it as a coping mechanism, smoking became another reason for me to hate myself and feel like a failure…which then made me feel so down and hopeless, I thought “I might as well smoke.” It was quite the cycle.
No matter the reason you chose to smoke, quitting is murder on your self confidence.
I was so disgusted with myself after smoking, I’d throw away the pack and tell myself I was done. Then a few days later, or even the next day, I’d find myself at the bottom of an emotional valley, desperate to feel anything besides this gripping loneliness. It’s amazing the reasons I could come up with to rationalize smoking again. I’d break down and buy a new pack, telling myself whatever excuse it was that day for why it was okay to start again.
The worst part about smoking wasn’t that acquaintances judged me, or that friends and family begged me to stop, or that I was a smelly, yellow-teethed idiot just asking for cancer. The worst part was that I hated myself and I hated smoking, but I also loved it and I didn’t want to stop — that’s addiction.
So when I finally quit, I didn’t quit because of how I looked, or because my friends, family, or even Sean wanted me to. I quit because I eventually hated myself so much that I couldn’t handle it anymore.
Embarrassing confession part 2: I quit smoking because my cigarette fell in my car and burned a hole in my upholstery.
Big bummer, but not the end of the world right?
Wrong. After that happened, I had a panic attack and did not stop panicking for a single minute of the next 24 hours. I could not calm down or forget what happened. I felt sick to my stomach and just kept thinking,
How stupid can you be? What is wrong with you? Mom and Dad would be so disappointed with you. Your car is brand new and you fucked it up already like an idiot.
I truly felt like I should kill myself because I could not live with myself, my addiction, and my mistakes.
I know it sounds extreme to have suicidal thoughts over a hole in my car seat. Maybe it is. But that’s how I felt. It wasn’t about the damage to the material item though, it was about what that mistake meant about me and my worth.
After an expensive fix for the little hole in my upholstery, I came down from my sense of panic and knew I never wanted to feel that way again. Or at least, I knew I couldn’t risk feeling that way again by continuing to smoke.
And then the next day, I got in the car to drive home and felt the reflexive urge to have a cigarette — just like every other day before it. But this time, the urge was immediately followed by such intense self-hatred and screaming suicidal thoughts that I just broke down.
And that’s how I quit.
All of us have self-destructive tendencies. People binge drink alcohol or overeat terrible food, while knowing that liver disease or heart disease are a risk. You know it’s not a good idea but, sometimes, when you’re struggling with emotions that feel just too big to handle, you reach for things to numb the pain rather than healing the wound.