I Am Thinking About Smoking Right Now

During the mid-years of my teens, as I moved from the precociousness of youth and inched ever closer to an age where I might fall into delinquency, our school had a cop come into our classroom to warn us of the danger of drugs. In America, this was the D.A.R.E program, but the Canadian version of something America has branded with an acronym and catchy slogan always tends to just be some guy. Our Just Some Guy was an older constable in the R.C.M.P (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, hey we can do acronyms too) who came in to warn us of the dangers of drugs. The babysitter who cooked a baby while high on angel dust, the kids who smoked too much pot and fell to his death from the roof thinking he could fly, the drinker who got into a car and killed a family of four. The smoker who lit his house on fire.

I am thinking about smoking right now.

In the eyes of many, an addiction was a morality clause, one that you could find yourself on the wrong side of. If you became addicted, you had turned to darkness. Angel dust, pot, booze, cigarettes. The four corners of personal downfall. At home, my parents never drank, never smoked or anything of that nature. The closest they came to partying was coffee after 6 p.m. Not even decaf — the real shit. My dad quit drinking shortly before I was born, as his dad had drunk himself to the depths of an early grave. The baggage of that loss was a weight attached to every bottle of alcohol. My mom had two brothers who were bikers/drug dealers. Head-to-toe tattoos. In and out of prison. But when she spoke of them, she spoke of how they were trying to be good fathers, trying to be there for their family. They weren’t bad because they used drugs or whatever; they just lived hard and dealt with the consequences as they came.

I started smoking when I was young, when I started going to bars and drinking a lot and finding ways in which I could belong in a group of my peers. It is extremely 40-years-old of me to tell you about the way it was when you could smoke inside of a bar, but here we find ourselves all the same, seated at a table in a dimly lit karaoke bar, surrounded by fake bookshelves full of fake books, the regular old-timer at the microphone with his perfectly shiny belt buckle and pressed cowboy shirt, singing Roy Orbison to the date he’s been bringing into this room for 60 years. Back when you could order a round for me and all my friends, a fresh pack of Players Light, and a book of matches. I only smoke when I drink, I would lie to myself out loud. It just so happened I drank a lot.

I am thinking about smoking right now.

In 2008, they banned smoking indoors in the Yukon, where I grew up. That first winter — when the weather regularly plummets to 40 degrees below centigrade — we all huddled in front of the aluminum doors to smoke our king-sized Players Lights, holding our hands around each other’s lighters as we lit each subsequent dart, prayer hands keeping the wind away from the delicate flame reaching for a desperate cigarette. The doors behind us frosted over with the breath of everyone warmly inside, safe at last from the toxicity of such a nasty habit. The people who chose wisely were safe from the elements, and those turned to darkness by their vice were cast out to the cruel fate of the outdoors.

I had quit smoking the year before, when a former lover passed away as the cancer that started in her rotator cuff moved aggressively to her lungs. I got the call I had been dreading the same morning my roommates found me asleep on our front lawn, where a cab driver dropped me off and left me to sleep it off in the fresh spring air. I’d been in my proper bed for 20 minutes before I got the call from her father letting me know she had died the night before. At her funeral, people talked in low whispers about how she loved to have a cigarette at night on her balcony, overlooking that obnoxiously busy stretch of road in downtown Edmonton. She and I would stand out there at night with Late Night with Conan O’Brien playing in the background as we smoked into the air, laughed in the night sky, and recounted the day with one another. When she was in the ground, people talked of how smoking put her there, as if she deserved her fate.

I am thinking about smoking right now.

In the years after she passed, I quit smoking and began to peacock about with the moral superiority of my feelings toward people smoking – the smell and the blasphemy of it all. How good I felt inside, the righteousness of my lungs and my teeth no longer yellowed by the toxins. I still snuck the occasional cigarette when I drank. And I still drank a lot. I was so deep in hiding from so many parts of myself at the time, and when we want to hide our true selves, we find a mental image we can turn real. I wanted to be the kind of man who didn’t smoke, except when he did, when he was being bad, who drank brown liquor and spoke loudly about the things he didn’t like. It was a caricature I put on, a holographic image of a false idea of myself that lived every day for me.

Not smoking became a thing that made me better somehow, like my morality had switched into the on position and I could pretend I was made whole in the process, trying to unlock some kind of inherent goodness by virtue of having one less active addiction in my life. I put smoking away for a long time, unless I was smoking weed, or smoking when I drank. Like putting a knife away by leaving it carelessly on the counter with the blade turned outward.

Sometime in my mid thirties — before I had quit drinking but after I had come out as trans — I found myself in Germany for a work function/music festival, which in the music industry was also very much a drinking function. As I walked down the avenue the festival had completely overrun, I commented about how this was the sort of city you could smoke a cigarette to. I found myself walking on the uneven pavement of a German street with a bottle of beer in one hand and two yellow packs of American Spirits in my pocket, a lit cigarette in my one free hand.

I had successfully quit for close to 18 years — my gap years old enough to buy a pack of smokes themselves — but the thrill of it came rushing back in an instant. I was newly out as trans, and I felt awkward and unsure of my footing in places I had known as an entirely different person. When I used to come to these meetings, I was a cishet white man in the music industry, which as you can imagine is what most of every room in that industry looks like. When I returned as something different, I felt defensive, unsure. Smoking gave me somewhere to hide and someone to be. I was new, but new me smoked out on the patio with a beer in her hand, casually looking out over thousands of festival goers and industry handshakers. Smoking was an identity I could pick back up again, the rose at the end of a cigarette surrounded by thorns of tobacco smoke to keep ne’er-do-wells at bay.

A year after that, I quit drinking, a vice that was increasingly becoming a persistent reason why my brain told me to kill myself. It was no longer serving me and was in fact actively finding ways to create harm in my life, and I had to walk away from it forever to save myself. The day I quit drinking, I walked downtown to a queer-owned tattoo/apparel store in Toronto and got a tattoo of a self-obsessed harpy staring longingly into a mirror. On the walk down to the shop, I smoked half a pack of cigarettes and felt the desire to drink burn away into the air with each passing dart.

I am thinking about smoking right now.

Smoking became quite literally the vice I allowed myself. I would tell everyone who did not ask that I was newly sober, and smoking was my little helper. Truly, no one cared what some 30-something transsexual did to her lungs, but I offered the information up all the same. This is my emotional support cigarette and her companions. It helped me bond with new friends as we sat outside of coffee shops and smoked through packs, downing black espresso with the occasional oat latte for the sake of our aging digestive systems. It bridged the gap between the personalities I was hiding from myself and the real me I had buried for so long that I wasn’t sure who she really was until she slowly, carefully revealed herself to me.

I quit smoking for the umpteenth time when the pandemic hit and the corner store was closed when I ran out. Afraid of the distance to the next store, I decided this was a sign from a force larger than myself that I should quit. I wasn’t going down to my usual coffee shop, not sitting on a bench burning through darts at a rapid clip. It felt like my vice had run its course. Maybe I didn’t need it anymore.

A month later, it felt safe to meet with friends again, and I bought a pack from the corner store on my walk to meet someone at a distance for coffee. The woman at my corner store lit up when the bell on the door announced my return, and with a rapturous joy she said she missed me. It felt almost sweet, like my cigarette habit was her husband returned from war.

I am thinking about smoking right now.

I quit again right before I had surgery, top and bottom (the big two). The doctor asked if I smoked, and I said no, which was a lie, but I felt guilty for lying to a doctor, the way one does when you lie to your mom, so I actually quit again. Six days before surgery. In the months after, it became easy to stay smoke-free, as I was largely relegated to my bed in recovery mode. For a long time, I didn’t even think about smoking. No stray thoughts of the burning of a cigarette on a bench with a coffee in my hand.

Like all stray thoughts, smoking creeped back into my mind. I started to dream about it. I bought a pack when things got stressful to help manage my anxiety and then left it in the freezer so I wouldn’t be tempted to smoke more. This, by the way, does not work if you are me.

But I thought about smoking every day. I felt shame, reluctance, and acceptance. I accepted my desire to smoke as I did my desire to drink, my desire for drugs, and my other addictions. These are just parts of my life that I cannot run from or escape. What matters is how I choose to live with their persistent nature.

Addiction isn’t easy to quantify. There’s no right or wrong way to be addicted to something, to get through it, live with it. Survive it. There’s no morality tied to your ability to walk away from something or manage your relationship to it. Some people just are addicts, just as some people are ambidextrous or tall. What matters is how we treat those of us who try our best to manage our relationships to the things we can’t stop thinking about, the services and support we provide, and the way we speak about the people who try to quit drinking, smoking, taking angel dust. To whatever degree of personal success we have with managing our addictions.

I am thinking about smoking right now.


Before you go! Did you like what you just read? We keep Autostraddle majority free-to-read, but it isn't free to create! And yet most readers don't support this indie queer site. Will you be one of the people who do? A+ membership starts at just $4/month or $30/year and they literally keep us from closing. Will you join? Cancel anytime.

Join A+
Related:

Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 23 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Beautifully written, thank you for sharing! “It was a caricature I put on, a holographic image of a false idea of myself that lived every day for me.” OOF I felt that. 2.5 years since my last cigarette, but I still catch a whiff of secondhand smoke and bite my lip like I’m seeing my ex in a thirst trap pic.

  2. This was beautifully written. (It reminded me of what David Sedaris has written about his own smoking habit.) I admire people who can distill something complex into a cohesive narrative and vivid vignettes, and you are masterful at it! You’re so right that being a smoker is an identity, like any other.

    During 2021, I started struggling with thoughts about smoking. I don’t know why, but every time I went to light a candle, I wished I was lighting a cigarette instead. At random times throughout the day I would think “I wish I could smoke right now.” Even though I had quit years earlier, the urge was still strong and very real. I resisted as best as I could for weeks until I finally discussed it with my therapist. Thankfully the urges have subsided. Right now, I feel less alone. Thank you for sharing your story!

  3. Wonderful. Really saw myself in much of the tale. “Some people just are addicts, just as some people are ambidextrous or tall. What matters is how we treat those of us who try our best to manage our relationships to the things we can’t stop thinking about” are words I need to hear and a comfort to help stop beating myself up.

    And, I too am thinking about smoking right now.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!