Wednesday 26 June 2019

Cigarettes: I'm giving up my first love... at 30

Shane O’Reilly

I can remember one of our first dates. My palms were sweaty with anticipation. When we finally first met, it was a nauseating experience. People had told me it would be like that. But if I stuck with you, there were rewards to be had.

I was a 14-year-old boy at the time. I heard warnings even back then about you but I did the chasing nonetheless. My first packet of Camel Lights.

I remember walking from the bus stop to my house, hiding the packet at the bottom of my bag, chewing three gums at once, taking my jumper off. I'd rub gum over the pink digits and bite at the tinges of yellow.

There was so much up against me, it's difficult to see why I continued to smoke. It wasn't peer pressure, as a lot of people will be quick to state. It was a social scene though. The Smokers! -- cool kids and those of us still trying to figure out how in God's name you became 'cool'.

We met around the back of the gym or the alley near the school. The pros watched the novices. The days were measured in nicotine units.

I feel I was led astray. I've got to point the finger of blame somewhere, other than at myself.

I blame movie stars. Try watching Belmondo in Godard's Breathless without pausing to light up. Or any number of Jim Jarmusch films. Or anything with Humphrey Bogart in it, an icon for smokers.

I blame rock stars too. Hendrix, he smoked. Richards too. Cobain. The Gallaghers. I bought a guitar. Realised I was utterly rubbish and gave up. But I kept at the smoking. Much easier. After the first 300 cigarettes, it began to taste, well, agreeable. My poor healthy lungs slowly, gently, turning black, being poisoned day by day, smoke by smoke.

At the time, and up until recently, it really didn't matter. I couldn't see my lungs, so who cared? I felt okay. I couldn't run any more but why would I need to?

When you're that young you feel invincible. You have plenty of time to quit, to get healthy, to shape up and start over.

I'm turning 30 soon and now it does seem to matter.

During my 20s, smoking mutated into a different animal. It became a social crutch. I couldn't stay still or enjoy a single pint without a smoke. I used it to get out of conversations, awkward situations, boredom. I even used it on dates to gather my thoughts and plot my next conversation piece.

So what are my reasons to quit now, after 16 years? Well, for a start, I'm turning 30 and it just seemed like a clean turning point. But it's not just that.

I don't enjoy my cigarettes as much as I used to. There are horrendous bowel movements directly attributed to the nicotine. I've begun to gag at the smell of ashtrays and stale smoke.

My immune system is a disaster. Colds last for three months. Swollen tonsils occur seven times a year.

And the cancer issue. I found myself thinking: "Well, we're all going to die from it anyway, so why bother stopping now?" And I knew that there was something fundamentally wrong with this attitude. I had not only given up, I had given in to cigarettes. Life is fleeting and there's just too much to see and do (I've a list).

As Nabokov once said: "Existence is but a brief crack between two eternities of darkness . . ."

Then this happened: I was going to catch a bus and standing on the opposite side of the road, I saw one heading my way. Traffic barred me from making a dash to the other side.

Once clear, I had only seconds to catch up and hail the bus that had already stopped. I ran, for the first time in maybe months.

By the time I reached the bus (a distance of maybe 20-30 metres), I was completely breathless.

The driver quipped: "Not that bad are ya?"

I responded: "Cigarettes."

He understood with a nod and said: "Ah, okay. But no heart attacks on the bus, thanks."

I smiled, hauled myself upstairs and tried to catch my breath. Pathetic, I thought. I felt my forehead pouring sweat.

Looking back at all those movie and music stars, only a few have survived (I would never have put money on Keith Richards being one.) The ones still walking the earth -- their faces are maps of excess, of fragility; their bodies weathered and beaten.

So, on my 30th birthday, our 16th anniversary, rather than celebratory inhalations of smoke and the draw of heat at my fingertips, it is a funeral I give to you, my love.

Irish Independent

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