In defense of a gross habit.

I am a smoker.

If nothing else, it’s a conversation starter. Sometimes people fling abuse at you – smoking is the perfect habit if you want strangers telling you you’re disgusting, because somewhere inside of you, you know they’re kind of right but it’s downright irritating nonetheless – and sometimes people ask you why you smoke, or when you plan on quitting, or how many times you’ve tried, or they try to give you advice. They’ll tell you stories about people they know who quit cold turkey and how they really respect those people, and they’ll throw passive aggressive comments about will-power and absolutely anything you think to say gets thrown back at you as ‘just an excuse.’

My favorite response is, “You know that’s bad for you, right?” Because I totally didn’t go to grade school in the U.S. in the ’90s and have D.A.R.E shoved down my throat like everybody else. If you want to know what’s bad about smoking, you don’t have to look very far to find out. And, for the most part, a lot of the horror stories are accurate.

My teeth are a little yellow. I lose my breath quickly and easily. I smell like a smoker and you do not want to be around me before I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning. I do have a voice in the back of my head that tells me to quit and I come up with about four different plans a month for doing so. I’ve seriously attempted it once and I couldn’t do it.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the good I’ve gotten out of smoking, because yes, there is some good. It can be hard to hear, and hard to listen to, and I’m not advocating that anybody start smoking. I would advise against it, but that would make me a hypocrite. What I want to say is this: smoker’s smoke for a reason. It doesn’t make them lazy. It doesn’t mean they lack will-power, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t pay attention to the warning on the label.

I started smoking around the middle of my freshman year in college. I was going through a rough patch. My grades were horrendous, I couldn’t stomach food, I couldn’t seem to find it in myself to make friends and I was incredibly depressed. It’s a period of my life I don’t like talking about, or even thinking about, but it happened, and I started smoking during the worst of it.

And I started to claw my way out of the mess.

Some of the benefits of cigarette smoking include a reduction in stress levels and an increase in short-term memory. Before becoming addicted, these two benefits markedly improved my life. Because I couldn’t smoke inside, I got out more. Not having friends, I spent a lot of my time at the local coffee shop simply doing homework. Smoking helped me concentrate on school work, and smoking helped me learn to socialize.

You see, that’s another benefit of smoking – other smokers. You can always bum a cigarette from a stranger, and you’re always happy as a smoker (at least I am) to have someone sit down and ask for a smoke. Maybe you talk for a few minutes, maybe they simply smile and thank you and move on. But either way, it increased the smiling in my life. It increased pleasant social interactions and took away the anxiety in talking to strangers. I felt more relaxed than ever before.

By now, three years later, smoking has become an addiction. As an addiction, the calm I get from cigarettes is no longer totally relaxing, but merely a way to stave off an artificial irritation with the world that I would not experience so frequently if I hadn’t started smoking. A lot of the time, I don’t notice a cigarette.

Sometimes I do, and sometimes it’s lovely, and sometimes I still get the nicotine buzz. It still helps to relax me around strangers and it’s a good way to get to know co-workers a little better. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s not something I’m ashamed of, either. Cigarettes were the cornerstone is my struggle out of depression, and for that, I can never judge another smoker, and I work to ease the judgment that they face in the eyes of non-smokers.

But the main thing I love about cigarettes, the main thing I have always loved about them – as far back as I can remember, even when I was a little kid, watching my grandma smoke in her apartment – is the smoke itself. In fact, that’s why I started writing this post.

I have a dark curtain over my window in my bedroom, because waking up to bright light gives me a migraine that will last all day. A little sliver of light does come in, though, right over my computer. Right now, I am smoking a cigarette and watching the way the smoke catches in this light, swirling and dissipating as if on a flat screen. The tendrils of smoke are graceful and fascinating. They catch my eye and hold my gaze and remind me that there is beauty in the world, wherever you look. It’s hidden behind the ugliness and frailty that is so easy to focus on as a human being. It’s everywhere, if you open your eyes.

I can’t make any sweeping declarations about quitting. I used to do that a lot, and if there’s anything that smoking has taught me, it’s humility. There are certain weaknesses as a person that are not so easy to overcome, and those weaknesses are no reason to be harsh. Harshness does not help them to go away. Smoking has taught me to look closely at what I am capable of, and has taught me the true meaning of will-power.

So that is my defense of smoking. It’s doesn’t take away the reality of how unhealthy the habit is, both for me and for those around me. It doesn’t take away my fear that I will never be able to quit, or the voice in the back of my head that is constantly telling me I should. But it’s a plea for everyone to acknowledge that gross habits don’t make gross people, and sometimes the only way to deal with a fault is to be gentle with it and try to understand that, no matter how unappealing it may seem, that fault is a building block of how a person has learned to survive a harsh and beautiful world.

So, yes, I am back to blogging.

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