Embers crackle orange against the quiet of the night, bright and loud and flush with oxygen. Silk-thin strands of smoke trail weightlessly into the sky, twisting upon invisible imbalances in the air.
Lungs expand, drawing in heavy fumes. Viscous gas hits the back of the throat and drives down the windpipe, expanding into every gap, every thin branch of alveoli. Breath is held for a moment in limbo, like water cresting over a weir, before being released slowly and patiently through pursed lips, its every molecule savoured.
A great opaque cloud gathers and fades, revealing endless darkness. As the view clears, so too does the mind. In this last act of the day, the final five minutes, sense is made. A day’s chaos is ordered into narrative.
That hand rises once more, carrying with it that glowing amber cherry.
I take another drag, and the cycle crackles alive again.
And every night for a dozen years.
I was a smoker before I was an adult, from the age of fifteen. I started as many do, in the empty carpark of a derelict pub with a disreputable classmate. More than peer pressure, I recall curiosity: an enthusiasm for new experiences, and a suspicion of the wisdom which warned against them. There, on some innominate patch of the sprawling suburbs, far from the stomping grounds of familiar adults, the stuttering spark of a plastic lighter ignited a habit that would burn for a decade. One that would outlast relationships, beliefs, and identities, and provide a rare constant across the peaks and troughs of my life. One that would become a part of everything I did, a consideration factored into every day.
But not, now, for almost a year. On a damp, mild night last summer, a few days short of my twenty-seventh birthday, I played out that scene for the final time.
Doing so was not pure liberation. Too often smoking is characterised exclusively as a burden, a prison in which the smoker is bound, but it is not only so. I loved smoking. I loved its base, animalistic pleasures: the rich plum scent of a plug of fresh tobacco and the primitive aroma of plant and paper alight together. It paired perfectly with oil-black coffee on brittle mornings, or clinking nightcaps before bed. I loved the ritual and culture infused in the habit, the pride of the perfect roll-up and the camaraderie in the circle of smokers braving all weathers together. Smoking was something I shared with friends and family, a longstanding bond with some of those closest to me, and a link with perfect strangers who might lend a lighter or borrow a paper.
No complete account of smoking could overlook these pleasures. The smoker loves smoking so much that it is not merely something that they do. It is something that they are. For a decade and more, I was not just someone who smoked; I was a smoker. When I imagined my past or future, those thin white sticks were ever-present. Appropriate shelter was a factor when choosing a home. Cost was a consideration when travelling abroad. Smoking did not define me in the way that other addictions might; it did not direct or inhibit my life choices; it was never the focal point of my own self-image. But always in the background of that image hung the pale haze of tobacco smoke.
Equally, though, no honest account of smoking could overlook its disastrous harms. David Hume once famously claimed that causality cannot be seen or proven. We can see a billiard ball move across a table and strike another. We can see the second start to move. But we cannot, Hume claims, see one event cause the other, only infer that it has. The causal link between smoking and serious bodily harm is now so well documented that only this sort of deeply unpragmatic thinking could call it into question. For all but the most obstinate of sceptics, to be a smoker in modern times is to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance, caught between an innate interest in physical health and the undeniable knowledge of the damage done to it.
The smoker labours to resolve that tension. I have at different times claimed that I have no desire to live past sixty, insisted that a shorter life would be better for our planet and society, and accepted without question inexpert advice about the ability of the young body to regenerate. I have told myself that I would rather live a short, authentic life as a smoker than another life long and disingenuous.
All attempts have ultimately failed, and as that drive to remain alive has over time become undeniable all I have been left with is a lingering sense of injustice.
When smoking that final, favourite late-night cigarette, the peace was all too often pierced with the sounds of the local inebriated. Students, legless, shouting and singing. Street drinkers in their perpetual dramas with police. The reptilian hiss of nitrous oxide cannisters being emptied. With quiet contemplation made impossible, I often thought how unfair it was that my indulgence was the most harmful of them all.
Smoking is a calm and calming act. It is not an act of manic reverie, but of quiet, meditative repetition. It did not cause me to rage or shout, lose control or become aggressive. I never stole to feed my habit, nor shirked responsibilities to pursue it. In a world subject to the smoking ban, where the second-hand effects are minimised, the harms can be contained almost entirely to the physical effects upon the individual. Yet those harms will eventually exceed almost any others. Few habits have as high a mortality rate as long-term smoking.
It is this self-pity which lingers even now, long since that cognitive dissonance was resolved. I still consider it unjust that such a peaceful act should be so violent, that such a harmless act should be so harmful. I still believe that there is something deeply unfair in the uniquely pernicious effects of smoking.
But life, as my father is fond of saying, is unfair. That peaceful pleasure would eventually have turned on me with likely fatal consequences, and so I was compelled to quit. In an unanticipated end to an era, doing so came with remarkable ease. I stopped one night and have done little looking back. For the first few weeks I sometimes found my mind drifting towards cigarettes like those all-too-familiar strands of smoke caught on the evening breeze. I avoided certain social events, even certain friends, to remove myself from the most difficult situations. But when cravings did flare up they lacked urgency and longevity.
There are a few reasons I could give for this. I had cut down gradually over time. I was initially noncommittal, only admitting I had quit long after the fact. But more than anything, quitting finally appeared easy because before it had appeared impossible. I had smoked so steadily for so long that it had come to seem an inevitability, like eating, drinking, taxes or death. That smoker identity was, I had thought, my identity, and my identity was a smoker. When at last the two divided, I was struck by the ease with which they came apart. Quitting came quite easily to me, but what were harder to shake were the existential questions that came with it.
Just behind the human nose, between the nasal cavity and the brain, is a bony plate riddled with holes. Through these holes olfactory nerves, the sensory receptors which process scents, have direct access to the limbic system, the part of our brain that deals with memory and emotion. Aromas are processed in the same manner as emotions, stored in the same place as memories. It is this which imbues scent with its unique ability to invoke. More than sight or sound, smells – a certain mix of spices or a familiar perfume – can remove us in a moment to other times, places and modes of being.
For a dozen years, the smell of smoke clung close upon me. It sat deep in my hair and my clothes, even in my skin. It coloured every memory for a significant stretch of my life – it was the smell of high school, college, and university, of multiple relationships, of wild summer parties and cosy winter evenings. It was a smell I loved in all its forms, from fresh product to spent ash.
But as my last drag has faded into memory, that scent has, it seems, changed. That smell that I had loved so long – my smell – has become something unfamiliar. What was once fresh and complimentary has become stale and overwhelming, a crude stench that overruns all before it. All cigarettes now smell to me like that overflowing ashtray of the morning after that can send even the most hardened of smokers dashing to throw open a window.
As the smell I loved has shifted into something other, as days have turned into weeks and weeks into months and my airways have cleared of tar, more loving memories have curdled with age. Standing out in driving rain strikes me now as absurd. The justifications I offered to myself and others I now see for the laboured half-truths that they are. Even that hit – that singular, inimitable hit of smoke against the back of the throat – now invokes more than anything the tight chest and palpitating heart that inevitably follows.
With that literally toxic relationship now drawn to its close, I have found myself faced with a question: did I ever really love smoking, and those smells and tastes and experiences that now appear so unpleasant? Chemical dependencies certainly helped form that relationship, but were they in fact the primary parties in the contract? Was it not so much that I loved cigarettes, but that narcissistic nicotine loved itself through the form of my addiction? And if it was genuinely me that loved these things, why do I no longer?
The relationship between addiction and the self is a long-established concern for philosophers and psychologists. Chemical compulsion poses difficult questions about free will and personal responsibility and offers surprising insights into how we operate. Identity has been shown to play a significant role in the progress of addictions. Studies have shown that those who self-identify as an ‘ex-smoker’ early on are much more likely to quit successfully than those who do not. Even psychedelic drugs have been used to good effect in clinical trials, helping participants to shed their addict identities and quit.
Ultimately, the matter cuts to the very core of the human experience and the fact that we are, at least in part, an amalgamation of firing synapses, electrical impulses subject to universal laws of chemistry and physics. The most concerning questions posed by such insights do not necessarily relate to habits and addictions, but to other, more fundamental elements of human life. If chemical dependencies can form a convincing mirage of love in one domain, they could surely do the same elsewhere. What does this false love entail for my others, for partners and places which I once thought indispensable but that I have long since learned to do without?
I do not now deny the pleasures of smoking altogether. I still and will forever miss some elements of the habit -- the irreplaceable respite of the smoke break or that peaceful, ritualistic cigarette before bed. I still sometimes catch myself thinking like the smoker that I lived as for so long, my hands reaching for absent packets of cigarettes. But when I do, I find a new identity drowns out any doubt.
Now, one year after my final cigarette, I think of myself not as a smoker, nor even an ex-smoker, but as a quitter. When temptation beckons, when I watch a friend taking that first drag, I do not think of how much I once also loved that fix. I do not think of myself bereft of some component, a self diminished by denial. Instead, I think with pride of a habit broken, bonds thrown off, a self actively affirmed through refusal. Like a long-suffering ex-lover, I think of cigarettes with a cold fuck you, focussing not on the good times we had together but on the harms they caused me.
I step out, away from my old self, and find the quiet night silenced. Now no paper rustles, no flint sparks, no embers crackle. No silken strands trail and there is, at first, no smell. No petrol fumes or charred paper straying towards sinuses.
But then they come in their thousands. In an infinity. Of tree sap and tarmac, rainfall and cut grass, dinners and bonfires and petrichor. A kaleidoscope of scents swirling like oil paint on the black palette of the sky.
Lungs expand, drawing them all in. The unadulterated night surges into my body, pours down the windpipe. Ribcage widens, chest deepens, further than I ever thought possible, further and further until it feels like they will burst.
I hold them for a moment in limbo, in a breath deep and clear as an eddy shining emerald in sunlight. Then, like the sheer roar of a waterfall, it floods out, pouring almost for an eternity until finally empty.
I take in another breath, and an old cycle begins a new revolution.
A version of this article was first published in Beginnings, the inaugural edition of Epoch Press.