I started smoking 11 years ago. I was with friends and for some reason we thought we’d give it a try. I don’t know why we thought this was a good idea. As children of the 90s, the dangers of smoking had been drilled into our heads since we were young. Every year since I was in primary school, there was always a unit on why smoking was dangerous and each year we learned about the health, financial, and social costs of smoking with added complexity until the day we graduated from high school.
I have been living with severe trauma and mental illness since I was primary school. A lot of people failed me along the way: parents, counselors, therapists, pastors, and more. There were people who tried to help me, but I needed more than they could offer and so despite there being a lot of resources available in my privileged upbringing, I didn’t get what I needed. What I got instead was a 10 year addiction to nicotine.
As far as I know, I am one of two from my friend group who kept smoking after initially trying it when we were teens. I smoked so much that I was always broke, I was always working to make sure I had enough for my next pack of cigarettes. I remember one time when I was so broke that I spent a few hours scrounging the house for coins to get a pack. It would not be the first or the last time.
One time, I got so desperate that I went for a walk and contemplated breaking into a closed down gas station in the hopes that there might be a few packs of stale cigarettes I could steal. I’ve stolen from other smokers, snatched a couple cigarettes right out of their packs when they weren’t paying attention. I sold pretty much anything of value: musical instruments, electronics, and collector’s items in order to buy cigarettes.
The US has become a fairly hostile place towards smokers. When I was a kid, you could smoke in a lot of places: restaurants, bars, and a variety of other places. State and local governments started passing laws restricting indoor smoking in public buildings and places of business. My generation will likely be the last to remember when a person could smoke almost anywhere. But my generation also became the generation that didn’t understand why people smoke.
We were taught that people smoke because of peer pressure, rebellion against authority, or to look cool. The CDC suggests that is patently false: it’s poverty. Among the many people who are more likely to be smokers: people with mental illness and LGBTQIA+ people. LGBTQIA+ people have been a marketing target for the tobacco industry since the 90s.
I didn’t know it when I first started smoking, but I was a walking statistic about mentally ill queer people.
No matter how many times I tried to quit, I’d eventually go back to smoking. I tried patches, gum, and pills; it all ended the same. I started seeing a therapist and told them that I wanted to work on my mental health in the hopes that whatever underlying issues keep me going back to smoking, I could one day quit smoking without going back.
Just over a year ago, I managed to quit smoking in two ways. First, I switched to vaping. Vaping is not like smoking, but it gave me the nicotine I needed and it was significantly cheaper. Second, I became consumed with a video game. As it turns out, the therapist I was seeing was not really equipped to deal with the lifelong trauma I was dealing with. I decided to immerse myself in a fictional world so that I didn’t have to deal with it.
I would not recommend the method I chose. My mental health issues didn’t go away and I was still spending a chunk of money on vape supplies. In hindsight I wish I had found a new therapist sooner, because if I had found a therapist who could help me work on my trauma sooner I might have been able to transition to vaping without losing an entire summer playing a video game obsessively.
What I would recommend to anyone hoping to quit smoking is this: find a therapist who will work with you on the underlying reasons for why you smoke, find friends/family who will support you quitting without judging if you don’t succeed on your first, second, or hundredth attempt, and lastly find new and healthy ways to cope with emotions.
Expect that for the first several months after quitting, you’ll probably feel emotionally raw all the time.
And unfortunately, there will always be times when you’ll wish you had a cigarette.