I take a breath in, and then a breath out. It’s so strange that what should bring me life is slowly killing me.
The smoke tumbles through the air into the humid summer sunlight, escaping my body and entering the world—a new bird finally in flight, lying dormant so long in a stick filled with little leaves. I breathe again, and again, and again. Each time, I feel my body destress—untense—and my mind comes to rest. With each breath, however, I reflect on my self-hatred for loving the smoke so dearly. It has become like a friend to me, in addiction. Every smoky exhale brings me peace and respite from the harsh realities of day-to-day monotony.
I hate myself for smoking, and if you’d ask me one thing I regret doing is starting smoking. In my entire life, I’ve never made a mistake that loomed so large. Each day that I wake up, exit my apartment to sit on my balcony and breathe my body-destroying, meditative breaths is another day that I can’t be satisfied with who I am as a person. I’ve tried to quit so many times, but each time I come running back to the gas station counter, begging for more.
In total fairness, I’m the epitome of a targeted individual for tobacco companies. I’m a mentally-ill 20-something-year-old with low income but just enough to afford just the next pack. In a paper entitled “’We Mentally Ill Smoke a Lot’: Identity, Smoking, and Mental Illness in America,” the author, Laura Hirschbein, examines the history of mental illness consumers and tobacco companies. She examines many letters sent from mentally ill citizens in America (and a few internationally), who write to tobacco companies, often siding with them amidst the legal battle for and against smoking regulations. However, she also writes, “From the internal documents, it is clear that the tobacco industry was quite aware of the connection between smoking and mental illness (and probably knew more About it than most psychiatrists).” And lest we forget, tobacco companies are companies, which means that they largely care about profit, and not their consumer’s well-being. I think that can be doubly stated for tobacco, as the health risks are immense.
So many of the consumers who wrote for support from the tobacco industry felt the same strong attachment that I do to my cigarettes—it brings them stillness amidst the chaos of their minds. She writes, “Further, while we might expect that a vulnerable population such as the mentally ill would be at significant risk from the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry, individuals who acknowledged their mental illness instead felt supported by cigarette companies.” I think, however, that so many people forget that the industry cares not for the emotional benefit of smoking, but rather utilize it to prey on those with internal, emotional weaknesses. Smoking may help our thinking, but so does methodical, clinical treatment in the form of therapies. It’s just that smoking is such a quick fix for something that otherwise takes a long time and a hell of a lot of practice. As Hirschbein writes, “The difference for them was that they viewed the emotional benefit to be more important than the risk of physical harm.”
Fact is, I can’t speak for others. All I know is that I was an easy target, and I fell for the bait—hook, line, and sinker. Every day that I continue smoking is another reminder of my failure to forgo the easy way out and take my time to rewire my brain through therapy and treatment so that I can live a fulfilling life in between smoke breaks, not just during them.
It’s over for them, now. I’ve slapped on the patch that has become the life-ring in my next big attempt to quit smoking. I’d say “the last big attempt,” but what if I fail? I can’t afford to think like that.
I breathe in, and I breathe out. For once there’s no smoke and therefore I’m free.
Hirschbein, Laura. “‘WE MENTALLY ILL SMOKE A LOT’: IDENTITY, SMOKING, AND MENTAL ILLNESS IN AMERICA.” Journal of Social History, vol. 44, no. 1, 2010, pp. 7–21. JSTOR [JSTOR].