I smoked for the first time at a pool party when I was 14. I was sitting cross-legged on a patch of dry grass in my dripping bathing suit when an older girl offered me a cigarette. I probably didn’t inhale correctly, and I disliked the ashy taste that lingered in my mouth afterward. I didn’t understand the appeal—how could anyone be addicted to something so unsavory? Nevertheless, over the next few years, I became a smoker.
First, it was just occasionally. I smoked on the fire escape outside the movie theater with my friends, on the ripped-up basement couch at an unruly house party, and in the backseat of my best friend’s SUV, windows rolled down. In particular moments, cigarettes hit the spot. I never bought them for myself, but bummed from others gladly and often.
Slowly, smoking shifted from a social activity to an addiction. After a week one summer of smoking a cigarette almost every day, I experienced a strange feeling when I abstained for a while. It was a craving. I wanted a cigarette. This was unsettling: I had never considered smoking a part of my identity, but suddenly, it was on my mind, disrupting my thoughts on a regular basis. My brain was telling me to smoke while my gut was telling me to stop while I still could.
I wasn’t the only one who smoked at my high school in upstate New York. Up the street from school, in the small, garbage-littered parking lot of a pizzeria and an “abortion-alternatives” clinic, kids would hang around and smoke. They stood wearing zipped-up hoodies and eating greasy calzones. Some of them were on lunch break, some were cutting class, and some were dropouts. They huddled together, resisting the winter wind by puffing on their cigarettes and spitting onto the asphalt. They seemed permanently fixed in their spot. Every day after school ended, I walked past them, breathed in their secondhand smoke and caught snippets of their conversations. At school, they were a source of ridicule. Girls crossed the street to avoid walking past them. Teachers made jokes about them in class. They were the example of who not to be, who not to become. They represented apathy and failure.
Even though I wasn’t friendly with the kids up the street, I related to them in a way. I understood the desire to spend your lunch period smoking rather than sitting at the dirty cafeteria tables, eating tater tots and panicking about your next class. It was easier to just worry about your next cigarette. Driving me to school one day, my mother looked out the window at the kids gathered in the parking lot and sighed. “It’s just terrible that they’re smoking. It’s so self-destructive.” She didn’t realize that I wasn’t any different.
I tried to smoke less, but instead it became something I did with shame, something that I tried to hide. I smoked when I was stressed out, but keeping it secret only generated more anxiety. By day, I would walk past the kids in the parking lot, casting a judgmental stare in their direction. By night, I would wait till my parents were asleep to sneak onto my porch to take drags in the moonlight. I prayed I would not get caught.
I shied away from smoking in front of other people unless it was somewhere “acceptable.” At a party, it was okay to smoke because you were enjoying yourself—you were being carefree. When you smoked simply to smoke, you lost your veneer of sophistication and became pathetic. You became the kids who stood outside the pizzeria, inhaling, exhaling, staring with zombie-like indifference at the world. I didn’t want to be associated with that kind of attitude. Instead, I pretended to be indifferent towards cigarettes. If someone offered me one, I’d tell them, “No thanks, I don’t really smoke much.” But I was lying.
I knew what I was doing to my own body. I had sat through health classes and seen the grisly pictures of blackened lungs and heard warnings of cigarettes laced with rat poison. One time, I had been smoking outside the mall, and noticed two girls looking at me disapprovingly. “I just don’t understand why people smoke,” one said to the other. “I hear that for every cigarette, you lose seven minutes of your life,” the other responded. I scoffed, but their words stuck with me. Before coming to college, I vowed to quit. I mitigated my cravings for nicotine with jogs in the park, deep breaths, tears, and punching pillows. Once I overcame the physical addiction, the mental yearning for a cig narette disappeared. I acknowledged my stress for what it was.
In New York City, everyone smokes. It is not the pastime of outcasts, but something commonplace and ordinary. You can walk down Broadway and it seems like every other person has a cigarette between her fingers, simultaneously flicking ash and shouting into a cellphone. And ironically, although I’m now in a place where I can smoke freely without being constantly judged, I’ve stopped–for the most part. Perhaps feeling ashamed of myself for smoking in high school was a positive thing. I’ve been conditioned to avoid an unhealthy habit.
More importantly, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my bad choices don’t define me. I think part of the reason I felt obliged to hide my addiction was that I was scared to even admit that I had one. To do so would admit weakness. It would mean I was not perfect. Making mistakes and exposing them to the world was an exercise in vulnerability that I hadn’t been able to accept in the past. Looking back, I always read the actions of the kids in the parking lot as an announcement. “This is exactly who we are,” they gestured without apology.
There are still moments when I slip up and accept a cigarette from a friend. I don’t beat myself up over it. And sometimes when I’m back at home and driving past the parking lot, I get the urge to be the person I was too scared to be in high school, to go buy a pack at the corner deli without guilt, to waste away those seven minutes of my life with a smile on my face. I know I would be surrounded by those kids, with their pizza and their spit. I know I wouldn’t be alone.