My obsession with cigarettes started long before I could formulate sentences. In a way, you could say that the thing I loved and simultaneously hated about tobacco was what I liked and hated about my father, a long-time cigarette smoker from his adolescent years. When I was just young enough to walk on my own, family legend goes that whenever my father would toss his cigarette butts to the floor, I would hurry after them moments later. To their horror, my parents found me crouched down with a burning cherry pinched between my little fingers and then pressed against my lips, not unlike the baby amateur smoker that I would become some 13 years later. What can I say? I had an innate love and admiration for my father like any toddler would; I wanted to be just like him. But as much as my father might have loved to see me follow in his footsteps, the cigarette smoking was not an acceptable part of that path. I hear that he quit after that– the one and only time he would proactively kick the habit in his entire life. I can’t say when it was that he picked it up again; some stories say a week, others a month, but the most important part of the story (at least to me) was that he tried to quit, and it was only for me.
It’s not hard to believe that I grew up thinking that love could save someone from addiction. I, like many kids who grew up in the 90’s, was shoved into elementary school Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) programs conducted by local police officers who told us that cigarettes, marijuana, and other drugs would all equally kill us or lead us to lonely homelessness with no money or family. That, paired with the anti-tobacco commercials sprinkled on our television screens, lead me to believe that my father would spontaneously die at any moment. But my father never took that to heart, and when I cried very suddenly while watching yet another “cigarettes will kill you” ad, he sat me on his lap and chuckled very loudly with his friends. At the tender age of four, I could not see the humor in that. I immediately felt a sense of loss. Not only because I was pretty certain I would lose my father, but because he wouldn’t quit for me like he did in the past. He must not love me anymore is what my child brain thought.
Would it come as a surprise then, that when I was a sophomore in high school, I would enter a relationship with an older teen and try to get him to quit smoking by picking up the habit myself? The first time I consciously picked up a cigarette wasn’t because I thought they made me look cool. I wasn’t particularly fond of the smell, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the circle jerk that formed behind the school parking lot every day around a single cigarette. I grew up in a youth environment overrun by alcohol, cigarettes, and weed, but I was a very proud non-participant. I considered myself smart. I took a stance on my decision-making. I was even part of a Xanga group called HxE, or “Hard-Edge” A.K.A. “Hardcore Straight Edge” for you cool kids. I was that kind of egotistical weirdo. The very first time I puffed a cigarette, I was just reverting back to my toddler self, convinced that love would save the day. That if I pressed the old cigarette butt to my lips it would get my then-boyfriend to quit cold turkey. I would call him every night, ask him how many cigarettes he had smoked that day, and promptly hang up. The deal was that for every cigarette he smoked, I would also smoke. So I T-9 texted an old friend with my little Samsung cell-phone: Can I bum a stoge? And I would sneak out of the house while my parents were watching television and meet him at the far end of the neighborhood park. I need six, I told him, and without question, he handed me Marlboro menthol after Marlboro menthol, teaching me how to handle the length of the cigarette to optimize the flicking of ashes, how to inhale the smoke through my lungs, to not lean a certain way against the chain fence unless I wanted to look like a cliché. My first time smoking was a two-hour-long chain smoking session filled with lessons and non-lessons. Needless to say, my throat and lungs were aching with that deep hurt accompanied only by non-stop coughing, which was the shining star of the phone conversation I had the next evening when I called the boyfriend again and demanded to know how many cigarettes he had smoked. That same night, I struggled to get through the next four menthols with all my coughing and wheezing, but I was determined to package my teenage love in the form of sacrifice and altruism. And guess what, the guy quit. Just like that. He said the incessant coughing had done him in. My mission turned out to be a complete success. And best of all, I wasn’t even the slightest bit addicted. Yet.
The following year would prove to be a rough one: that boyfriend and I had, of course, broken up messily– parents involved and lots of crying, my father’s health was on a fast-track to decline, my SAT scores were embarrassingly low, I was sneaking out constantly, lying, getting into fights with my father and running away from home, and my parents were in what seemed like one long, continuous fight that would stretch the hours and pick up where they left off the next day. At 17, I was ruthlessly unhappy and compulsive, battling a depression that had already been simmering for three years. When another fight between my parents broke out, I quietly snuck out of the second-story window of my bedroom to take a somber walk and found myself typing those familiar words on my cell phone, now a QWERTY board, Can I bum a stoge?
Except this time, my cigarette-toting friend was a skater and “tagger” who I never knew the real name of. He was a few years older than me, so when he offered to meet me at the nearby liquor store, he didn’t just let me take one cigarette; he bought me my own pack. Suddenly, I didn’t need to ask anyone to bum stoges; They were mine to take whenever I wanted. And so I did: I would sneak out of the house to meet my no-government-name-having friend for a cigarette on the evenings I craved escape from my parents, which I suppose is a coincidental full circle considering how this journey started. For the most part though, my nighttime rendezvous with cancer sticks was an innocent one, fueled by my need to have some alone time or to hang out with someone who knew nothing about my life, and frankly, didn’t care or ask a lot of questions about why I was hanging off the ledge of my window instead of walking out of the front door. The cigarettes from my first pack symbolized my need to create a life that was my own, but there’s little to be said about the irony of being slave to your addictions.
It didn’t take long for the addiction to become full-blown. When I could legally buy my own cigarettes, I was buying them in the super-long 100mm size to fulfill maximum cost effectiveness. I would be carrying at least four different packs on me at a time: Marlboro reds, Newports, Marlboro lights, Djarum cloves. I was leaving the house not to escape, but because I couldn’t help it. On a good day, I’d smoke something like 10-15 cigarettes throughout the day. On a bad day, I was smoking a pack and a half, an amount that would have put my father to shame, mostly perched on a bench outside of my dorm where I would drown myself in my sadness. When other freshmen came upon me at night, I was often alone, surrounded by a dozen cigarette butts and a drenched tissue in hand. As the years passed, it was obvious that cigarettes permeated every part of my life: the walks between classes, my car rides to and from work, work breaks, gym breaks, after dinner, first thing in the morning, with every cup of coffee, with every alcoholic beverage, the ash stains on my patio floor, inside my apartment, my bedroom, my bed. There came a time when I held a cigarette in every other photo. My car held a plastic bag filled to the brim with empty cigarette boxes and crushed bottles of water from the week. I carried perfume in my purse to mask the smell clinging to my hair. I tried smoking with chopsticks to keep my hands from being coated with smoke. I mouthwashed endlessly. I had a smoking jacket. I washed my hands, neck, and the entire length of my arms immediately after smoking. I did everything to normalize myself in a society that did not like smokers. I did everything I could except quit.
Because truthfully, I couldn’t and can’t quit. But I was never the type of smoker that exclaimed that it would be easy to quit if I ever felt like it. And to be really honest, I don’t want to quit, despite having come to terms with a lot of the reasons I became addicted in the first place. But most smokers couldn’t tell you when their initial flirtation with cigarettes turned into a full-time commitment. It’s much harder to pinpoint. If they’re honest though, they could tell you a lot about their first cigarette. They might even tell you, embarrassingly, that they started smoking because their cool older brother did it, because they wanted to impress a boy or a girl, or belong to a group of new friends. All pretty lame excuses if you take them for face value, but the true sadness of cigarette addiction is that their humble beginnings always point back to a kind of urge to be loved– to be liked by someone worth admiration. The weakness that accompanies nicotine addiction is less that of being unable to quit the habit, but one of not having enough love for oneself. Which is not to say that all smokers lack self-love, but that they might not have had enough of it at the time of starting. And perhaps this is why smokers tend to get along so easily– not only ostracized by an ever-changing, healthier and greener society, but bonded by similar feelings that could only be explained by who they were when they picked up their first cigarette. For me, it was love for my father and the need to feel loved back. So when I’m standing outside of my apartment (I am two years clean of smoking inside!) enjoying an evening cigarette and I hear someone ask, Can I bum a stoge? I can’t help but to offer one up, even if it’s my very last cigarette and there isn’t a gas station or liquor store within walking distance, and say Do you need a light?
Full print interview in UNDO MAG: Issue 7
Writer: Jeeae Chang
Photographer: Brian Tampol