by Kim Kelly

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SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Five years ago today I had my last cigarette. I’m not so much proud of this fact as relieved – daily, with every clean, clear breath. Free.

I hated smoking, but the claws were in deep. Twenty five years’ worth of addiction deep. A packet a day, for most of those years – at least. It wasn’t just the physical, chemical processes of nicotine that had me ensnared, but a mental bind that was, in a way, just as powerful.

I believed I wasn’t me without a cigarette. I thought my creativity might dry up if I stopped smoking. I thought I might not be able to think. Of course these kinds of ‘beliefs’ are just some of the most compelling of all the little lies that addicts tell themselves in order to justify their behaviour, but what non-addicts rarely understand is how devastatingly real these lies can seem.

For me, I never quite believed I was good enough not to smoke. And beneath this, I never believed that I was good enough to be respected by others, in any sense – as a mother, a friend, a colleague, a writer, a person. This is horribly sad – it was then, and remains so.

When I finally stopped smoking, it wasn’t any physical, chemical reaction that hurt. It was grief. Weeks and weeks of it. All sorts of dreadfulness dredged up from the centre of me. All manner of monsters of my own creation, and a few uninvited ones. I had to say goodbye to each of them and slam the door, even on those who’d seemed such firm friends. The experience was so profound, and so damn painful, I’m unlikely to take up smoking again.

I’m lucky. I had the assistance of varenicline tartrate, a prescription drug that reduces withdrawal symptoms (yeah, right) at the same time as short-circuiting any pleasurable or self-bullshitting effects of nicotine on the brain. It’s not for everyone, though, and must be taken under strict medical supervision, especially if you suffer from any depressive illness. But, as some kind of emotional convulsant, it worked for me.

And so did love. I couldn’t have even begun the course of this drug without the certainty from those near to me that it was as okay to fail as to try. I was incredibly lucky to find myself at that right place and time in my life where I was not only hanging around with some loving people, but ready to believe them when they told me I was worth the attempt.

When I see a young woman smoking now, my immediate response is one of despair. I know a lot of people enjoy their cigarettes, but I didn’t. When I was that young woman, smoking in the street, I was ashamed.

Today, I want to rush over to her, to tell her I love her. To make her stop, To make her see the truth: that she is good enough, and always has been.