Living / 22 September, 2014

VIEWPOINT: Leaving empty handed

An open letter to a long lost friend. 

Ko Tuhirangi te maunga, ko Kakanui te awa. Ko Ngāti Whatua te iwi, ko Ngāti Rango te hapu. Ko Kakanui te marae, ko Te Kia Ora te whare nui.

Ko Leonie ahau, no Tāmaki Makaurau. Kei te kaiwawahi mātua o Mana magazine e mahi ana. My name is Leonie; I’m the editor of Mana magazine.

But you and I know each other very well.

I was eleven years old when we first met. There were three of you—Pall Mall Menthols. You came in a tape cassette case given to me by an older girl. I tried you behind the shed at my house and didn’t cough my first time like they always do in movies. I thought that meant I was pretty special. Soon my friend Lisa and I started to meet you before school behind the bus stop every day, even though we were only 12.

By the time I got to high school, Epsom Girls Grammar, we were inseparable. I knew I could have been heaps better at netball if it wasn’t for you, but you made me look tough and gave me something to do with my hands. You helped me make friends in my first year at that strange school where I didn’t know anyone. “Gotta light?” Those two words could always break the ice. We used to meet up with you before school at a place called Paradise—a shitty cafe with a back room that put up with us all going back there and smoking because we bought so many potato fritters and cans of Coke. Most of us girls that hung out in Paradise were Māori and PI. We thought we were rebels. To you we were statistics. When Paradise got shut down by the teachers we started meeting at a place we called the Fountain. It wasn’t really a fountain, just an alley with a busted water feature where homeless guys would hang out.

I think part of the reason I was attracted to you was that element of danger and taboo. I hated being told what to do, and adults were constantly telling me not to hang out with you, even strangers. I didn’t have much courage back then, and you gave me something to relate to when I didn’t feel like I could figure out other people or strange circumstances.

And then 20 years went by.

10 smokes on a good day, but usually closer to 20. Maybe 40 during a night out. Sometimes I would wake up in the night with my heart pounding, struggling to breathe. Winter colds hung around for months because I couldn’t put you down long enough to get better. But worse than the physical side effects was the guilt I felt that you would one day kill me, slowly and painfully, and all of my friends and family would suffer. I felt unattractive, I knew you were drying my skin and giving me lines and bad breath. I felt ashamed of our relationship every single day. But I convinced myself I needed you to feel relaxed; you were somehow supposed to reset the world to zero every hour, never mind that the thought of you was causing more stress. “I’ll just go have a smoke and relax” I would think, while mentally scheduling the next one, and the one after. 

When I was 28 I bought a copy of Alan Carr’s book Easy Way To Stop Smoking. It’s not judgmental and it doesn’t use scare tactics. It appeals to a sub-consciously imbedded logic that helps to alter your perspective. And so using logic and sheer willpower I quit smoking for three months, and it felt pretty easy. I felt so accomplished! So much so I decided after a while that I could hang out with you again occasionally. Just on weekends, at the odd party.

Then life happened, as is its habit, and my first thought when shit hit the fan was "I need you". And before I knew it, there you were, back by my side, bolder than ever before. 20, 30 a day.

Another few years went by. More sleepless nights. Guilt and shame on rotation, like the world's worst 24/7 news channel.
Just before my 32nd birthday, I went to a hypnotherapist on a whim. Her name was Camille Hartley and she helped get you out of my life once and for all. I went to two sessions and never looked back. That’s not where it ends—there are no happily-ever-afters with addiction. Even with Camille's help, quitting you all over again was hard. I had to use my own courage to do it but the hypnotherapy gave me that last bit of strength I needed to stay my hand when I felt close to reaching for you. The withdrawals made me ill, like a flu, but each day that I felt better I knew I was leaving you behind forever. Yes I ate a lot, the urge to put something in your mouth is hard to quit. But I discovered that doing a little bit of exercise alleviated the guilt associated with that. I favoured group classes like fit boxing and (shame) Zumba becuause I struggle with motivation and classes are hard to give up and sneak out of. For support I downloaded an app that told me how much money I was saving, and all the chemicals that were leaving my body each day. I found a stop smoking group on the website Reddit where I could vent with like minded-indiviuals and celebrate my little weekly victories. On the site, the number of days you've been smoke free appears beside your name. At time of writing mine says 634.

Sometimes I think about you longingly when I’ve had a glass of wine or two. But I don’t miss you. The day we said goodbye was the day I became myself for the first time—no crutch, no smoke screen, nothing in my hands. I left empty handed and never looked back.









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