“…in my experience: smokers are dreamers who happen to be overachievers at the same time.”
I remember how much I enjoyed the opportunity to step outside, look around, and smoke a cigarette; it was an excuse to not be bothered by anyone or anything for 5 minutes. On and off I smoked for about 7 years and in all these years I don’t think I have ever gotten addicted to the nicotine itself, or as soon as I felt like that was coming I would “quit,” because I knew that in the long run smoking wasn’t a part of the future I was building for myself. What I was clearly craving is the physical experience that smoking made space for.
I smoked my first cigarette in high school with a group of friends because they told me it would make me drunker. A study conducted by Nicolaus Copernicus University shows that excitement seekers are “more prone to smoking cigarettes.” And I did find some excitement in the experience. It made me feel cool and it came naturally. Pretty much every movie character I aspired to be and most adults in my life that I respected were smoking at a time. My dad smoked at the time, and I grew up pretty much worshiping him. Long story short, me smoking my first cigarette was a perfect cocktail of peer pressure, teenage curiosity, and matching the image I saw as success.
Smoking when drinking soon became normal. Getting the extra spin was fun, but I think it was more about bonding with my friends. It felt like we had this secret activity we did together. It felt exclusive and special. Then it slowly seeped into our sober lives. We would meet for a cigarette before and after dance classes. Most of the dancers we looked up to (the “good” ones especially) in the professional dance company smoked, so it almost felt as though smoking cigarettes was something you did as a good dancer.
I don’t remember when I started regularly smoking by myself, but we all did eventually. And honestly I enjoyed it even more. It turned into my time to ponder and think. During my teenage years I learned that I wanted to be around people, but did not want to actively interact with them, so smoking gave me a “socially acceptable” excuse to be antisocial. Or if I am being completely honest, it became a tool that temporarily recharged my battery for handling an overwhelming situation.
I also started recognizing that I just liked the people who smoked. Most smokers I know are hyper productive professionals balancing out their productivity with short increments of mind wandering. Which goes back to the idea of mind wander deprivation that I mentioned in last week’s ‘We Zone Out.’
According to the research article “Out for a Smoke: The Impact of Cigarette Craving on Zoning Out During Reading” by Michael A. Sayette, Jonathan W. Schooler, and Erik D. Reichle, published in Sage Journals in 2009, “[cigarette] craving increased the frequency of zoning out [and] reduced the proportion of such instances that reached meta-awareness” — the ability to recognize that your mind is wandering.
Bottom line, in my experience: smokers are dreamers who happen to be overachievers at the same time. It also feels like we all shared some sort of common non-verbal communication tool which felt great, because at the time I never felt like words did justice to what I was feeling or thinking. I’ve had to learn that I am a much better communicator when I am participating in the same activity with someone. Anyway still to this day I relate and connect very deeply with people who smoke or used to smoke cigarettes. Somehow we just “get” each other.
However, over time, I started noticing the effects cigarettes had on my body. Continuous coughing and gray tinted skin didn’t fit into my future narrative of success. But also the cigarette propaganda started to quiet down, so I quit. Back then I was a cold turkey kind of quitter.
I picked up cigarettes again for a couple months in college but kept it a secret this time. I remember sitting on the grassy hill behind my apartment and staring at the street lights while having a cigarette. It felt like it was MY moment with myself to recharge at the end of the 12 hour days that I did not have to share with anyone. I think I needed that to get through the end of the school year, because once I left campus I kind of just stopped. And picked back up later that summer at a big dance festival for a similar reason. And then stopped when I got back to school. And then picked back up later in the fall when I felt like I was losing my grip on what was going on in my life.
Still in the cold turkey quitter mindset, I put myself through a complete reboot. I changed my diet, started doing Qi-Gong every morning, and added an intense workout routine to my schedule. That gave plenty of “zoning out” time, where I could claim that my time was mine. Cigarettes didn’t fit into this new lifestyle, so it was easy to let them go.
I changed my routine later but smoking stayed away for at least 2 years. I think I started again when I moved to the city. And quit again. And started again. And quit again. It has been a pretty cyclical experience. The craving would become stronger in the spring and fade away in the late fall or early winter.
When I noticed the pattern I also noticed that naturally these cycles shorten in their duration. So I decided to allow myself to go through this process without the pressure of quitting all at once and forever. This mindset gave me time to examine what smoking meant for me as an experience.
It is so different for each of us. Our habits and the reasoning behind them evolve with us over time. For me it has fluctuated between a bonding tool, an excuse to self-isolate and “zone out,” and an opportunity to claim what is mine — sort of a placebo stress relief pill. By making peace with the gradual timing of this process I was able to find practices that help me fulfill the needs that cigarettes “took care” of for me. Working out became a practice that satisfied all of the above for a while. So that is something I will be unpacking next.