On Smoking

In the summer of 1985, to escape the dullness that being young, bored, and in Winnipeg can evoke, one of my older brothers performed a vanishing act. He went away to Alberta to work.

Then, he was into punk rock and new wave during a time when having your hair short or spiky instantly branded you a “faggot”. He got beat up a lot. He also skateboarded, listened to Black Flag and Crass and The Damned and Hüsker Dü, sang in a punk rock band, and smoked. I looked up to him with that sense of little brother awe that only older brothers can rightfully claim. His bedroom was a treasure trove of cool older brother stuff. And he was gone for the whole summer.

In the summer of 1985 I smoked my first cigarette.

With my brother gone, I had the sudden and somewhat unexpected freedom to root around in his stuff. I spent long, summer afternoons reading his Skateboarder magazines, staring wide-eyed at his collection of Eerie comics, and listening to his Dickies and Elvis Costello albums. In the back of his desk I found a nearly empty package of Player’s Light filtered cigarettes. I distinctly remember there was only two left.

skateboarding.jpgThis was the pinnacle of older brother cool. Awareness of the dangers of smoking wasn’t pushed too heavily then - there was these terrible “Break Free” commercials starring the then well-known singer Luba, and that was about all I can remember. Smoking was still cool in the Marlon Brando “What’cha got?” rebellious kind of way. I took the cigarettes and carefully hid them in my room.

I waited a very long time before I brought them out again. My parents had left for the afternoon on a shopping expedition, taking my little sister with them. It was just me and those John Player’s Lights.

I remember the first cigarette not bothering me at all - I inhaled and smoked about half of it before stubbing the rest out on a tree stump behind the garage in the backyard. I buried the evidence in a deep hole. I didn’t feel cooler, but I did feel more adult. Smoking somehow seemed like the kind of thing that people just did when they were older. And now, so had I.

bowlRiding.jpgThat started a year-long sporadic habit of smoking. I would sneak a cigarette every once in a while with a couple of guys in grade eight, standing in the woods near our junior high school with cigarettes smouldering away between our fingers. At the time, I never once thought about the addictive qualities of smoking. I just though it was a cool, rebellious thing to do.

Slowly, though, the addiction began to grow. The times when I would have bummed smokes from someone else slowly grew more and more frequent, until I started buying (or stealing) cigarettes from the local 7-11. By the time I was in Grade 11 smoking was a full-time occupation. I was cutting classes and hanging out by the “Butt wall” with my friends, smoking and listening to music, and laughing at the preppies with their alligator shirts.

dogtown.jpg Now, I don’t care what anyone else says. I like smoking. I’ve always found it very relaxing to have a cigarette with a cup of coffee in the morning, or after a long, stressful day at work. With the fact that I’m allergic to alcohol removing one of society’s more acceptable ways of unwinding, smoking was one of the few things I had to relax. But I knew it was screwing me up.

I smoked all the way through my busier musician years, through aborted attempts at living elsewhere, and through many different roommates and employers. I smoked when I first met Renée (who doesn’t), and smoked on the train all the way to Toronto when I moved there to be with her. I had also completely destroyed my sense of smell, and by 1999 had started waking up with the annoyance of a rattling smoker’s cough.

wheel.jpgIt was this, combined with the death of my Uncle from throat cancer, and the simultaneous attempt of Renée’s mother to quit smoking after 30 years that inspired me to quit. I had attempted before four times with little success. Coldturkeypatchgumsmokingcalculator.

Nicotine cravings are a strange thing. I always found that if I had cigarettes and was able to smoke them, I could usually go three to four hours without a smoke if I needed to (though I was smoking around a pack a day up until 1998). But, as soon as I ran out or was forced to abstain for a prolonged period of time, my cravings would skyrocket. “You always want what you can’t have.” I guess there’s some truth in that.

pool.jpgMy physician in Toronto recommended a drug that was supposed to help control the cravings. It was the drug that the Kids in the Hall movie Brain Candy was based on - the one that was developed to treat depression, but which was found to help nicotine cravings. Presto, a “smoking cessation aid”. Not having a lot of faith in my self-control, I took the drug.

I smoked for 15 years. One-half of my entire life was spent addicted to a substance that is not only legal, but contributes billions of dollars to government coffers every year in tax revenue. I quit March 4th, 2000.

And my brother? He’s now a respiratory therapist. He quit, too.

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