A friend and co-worker had just returned to campus after making an initial recovery from a bout with pneumonia. We were about to begin our catch-up meeting, when I asked her how she was feeling.
She looked down and slowly shook her head. Her eyes filled with tears. She had landed in the emergency room a week before with what doctors initially thought might be a blood clot in one lung.
The wake-up call had come. Her doctor told her she had to quit smoking. This was her second attempt, after doing so several years ago following a struggle with bronchitis. She’d not had a cigarette in one week, and it was weighing on her heavily that morning.
She explained that the her effort to quit was more painful emotionally than physically. “It was my identity for 40 years.” While she had her favorite points in the day for a puff, the change in her early morning routine was perhaps the most difficult. No more cigarette with that first cup of coffee as she prepared for work. This was torture.
I complimented her courage and stoicism. She explained how she was trying to make it through each day. She said again that smoking being an integral part of her identity for all of her adult life. I suggested that perhaps her effort to quit would allow her to re-fashion that identity. Her response: “Bullshit to that.”
OK. Conversation turned to her memory of her mother struggling to quit smoking as well, and how her mother had often declared she didn’t want that “simple pleasure” taken away from her. I couldn’t help but think of my own mother and father as she shared this anecdote, since our parents were from the same heavy-smoking generation that hardly thought twice about lighting up under just about any circumstance.
It had been some time since I’d considered my parents’ smoking habits, and how this lifestyle choice not only did serious damage their health but cut their lives short. They both began smoking in their late teens, and built up a 2-3 pack-a-day habit. My mother experienced several serious health problems, including a heart attack, a cancerous tumor in her jaw, and eventually a cranial aneurism that took her life at the age of 69. My father died a year and a half later of complications from emphysema. He was 71.
Cigarettes, and all related symbols were ubiquitous during my childhood. Smoking was still considered glamorous. Movie stars peered into the camera with a cigarette dangling precariously from their lips. Frank Sinatra and all the members of the Brat Pack smoked while they sang (and often drank) before live audiences. Cigarettes were marketed to women directly, also. (Remember the Virginia Slims jingle? “You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby. You’ve come a long, long way.”)
Even children’s candy reflected this lifestyle. My friends and I were convinced we had entered Cool-dom as we puffed heavily on our candy cigarettes, sucking our cheeks in tightly, and knocking our heads back as we exhaled the sugar-smoke.
But these products were quickly abandoned for the real thing, as they were simply too readily available. I took my first gamble in fifth grade, as it was a suggestion by Chris, my next door neighbor, and because I was tall enough to reach the cartons of Marlboro and Alpines stored on top of the refrigerator in our kitchen. Marlboro was my father’s cigarette, while my mother preferred Alpine.
I sampled both, finding Marlboro harsh, and selecting Alpine for its lighter effect, and, probably, to identify with my mother. I was the main cigarette supplier for my band of four friends who I’d played with since kindergarten. We’d always had the run of the neighborhood, but when it came to smoking, we ventured into the woods north of our street, an forest thick with beautiful pine trees that would eventually be cut down for new home construction. We lit up among the trees and hardy kudzu vines, standing around or sitting in a circle, feeling secretive and dangerous. I became adept at striking a match with a careless ease, and practiced inhaling smoothly and exhaling through my nose, even as the vapors burned my nostrils. The initial buzz that centered at the back of my head would eventually give way to mild nausea as we moved to a second or third cigarette. Chris’ compliment of my dragging style motivated me to practice other cool habits, including talking with the cigarette in my mouth and holding the smoldering stick between my forefinger and middle finger distractedly, as if it belonged there. Holding it too tightly would only broadcast “newbie” to the entire planet, after all.
But smoking indeed made me feel important … cool … rebellious. This was about the extent of my childhood rebellion, though. As a naturally sensitive and pretty well-behaved kid — it was my personal experiment in being bad.
We were never caught. No trees or pine beds were harmed in the making of our youthful smoking habits. Talk about dumb luck.
This activity had a short shelf-life, though I can’t recall why. Perhaps it faded as we got a little older, and our friendships shifted.
Smoking wouldn’t emerge as an interest again until my first year at college, when I returned to the habit for a short time. It took a fairly goofy turn during a trip to Great America when my room mates and I purchased those enormous cigars that about the size of a human fore arm, and attempted puffing on them. Besides the obvious phallic symbolism that unleashed our immature laughter, they were simply horrible. We may as well have been trying to smoke soggy tree leaves. And we came close to burning our eyebrows off, as well.
During this time I recalled my mother admonishing me years earlier to never take up smoking as she had. “It’ll ruin your singing voice,” she warned. I don’t think I abandoned the cigarettes for that reason so much as for the expense and the general stench and nausea that they produced. The impact of the habit on my parents’ health had not yet fully emerged, but would in the next year. Those events likely fixed my decision to abandon cigarettes. Had I not, I’ve a feeling the I would have been a chain-smoker.
My parents’ social experience with smoking began to change around that time, though, as well. Smoking was losing its cachet, at least in areas of Miami where they lived. People were beginning to request non-smoking areas in restaurants and other public areas. My mother told me that one evening when she and my father went out for dinner not one but two different couples asked to be seated elsewhere to avoid the smoke from their cigarettes. They actually felt embarrassed enough to leave the restaurant.
Over time, I have somehow lost my own tolerance for smoking and second-hand smoke. Call me a wimp, but my throat gets scratchy within moments of talking to someone who is smoking or who has recently finished a cigarette. Nausea and headache usually follow. So I avoid it when possible.
The friend I described at the start of this essay knows this about me and accepts me anyway. Before she launched her effort to quit smoking, if we were out together I would simply sit upwind and she’d point the cigarette away. Not a perfect solution, but a thoughtful effort.
And here’s the thing. Smoking cessation must be one of the most difficult personal challenges a person can face. In my own family, all but one sibling took up smoking, for various periods of timer. Three of us smoked seriously for a while, and of those three, one kicked the habit using hypnosis. Whatever works, right?
I can’t argue with my friend’s characterization of her lifestyle habit as part of her identity. She may feel that this identity is under siege now that she is quitting. But I will argue that she is indeed recreating her identity by making this very fundamental change in her life. She has made a choice.
She feels like this right now. But at the time of this writing she is completing day 26 of her journey. And that, my friend, is cool. Way cool. Coolosity.
Happy lungs are on their way. Buh- bye, pneumonia.
I would argue, further, that this makes her a super-hero. It qualifies her for entry to the X-Men Community. And when you are one of the X-Men you must have a super-hero name.
I dub thee Pulmonique. With your newly-developing lung power, you will be able to run and jump and laugh uproariously and skip rope and leap tall buildings and literally blow someone away who is getting on your nerves.
Accept the name. Embrace the new identity. You have all my admiration.
You go girl.
My thanks to Yvonne, for her permission to share her experience in this essay.