SMOKE: Being A Smoker
Originally published: 18 February 2004
As of April I will begin my 14th year as a dedicated smoker and on the eve of my anniversary I decided to take a look back over my smoking career.
The odd thing is - at school I was one of the most ardent anti-smoking lobbyists around. This was a result of an orchestrated campaign against my father's smoking habits by my mother and sisters, who would sniff out his boxes of Camel Filters or Senior Service flat-packs and destroy them with unnatural glee.
I could never bring myself to join in their savage, voodoo-like cigarette hunts, but only because I felt sorry for my dad. It was one of the few pleasures in life he enjoyed (that I was aware of) and I simply couldn't bring myself to take that away from him.
Instead I took my anti-smoking campaign to school, where I steadfastly refused to join my mates as they sucked back Rothmans Reds behind the Prefab, or in Buddy's dope garden.
(Buddy was the highly eccentric school janitor who kept a small patch of earth behind the cricket nets on which he cultivated his own marijuana, and whenever I went down to his little room in the basement of the main school building to give him a message or ask for keys to the music room, I would have to wait at least three minutes after knocking while he hastily cleared all the air inside with the help of a portable fan.
He would open the door a crack, peer round with bloodshot eyes and nobody ever got to see past him into the depths of his dark closet).
I never felt any pressure from my mates because they didn't apply any - I would tell them in no uncertain terms how stupid I thought they were and how there was no way Michelle van der Westhuizen would ever want any of their smoky, tar-stained tongues down her beautiful, wealthy throat.
Not that she wanted my smooth, pink, virgin one either, but that was a trifling detail. Michelle was special - not the sort to fraternise with acne-bedaubed thugs, smoky tongues or not.
But that all changed when I got to drama school at varsity. There used to be no such thing as an actor that didn't smoke (these days I believe actors are far more sterile - or is that professional?), so I was pretty much the odd one out.
I didn't mind - I've been the odd one out my whole life - and occasionally when out on the town and wasted beyond recognition I would have a drag of someone's fag and to hell with it, you badass.
The turning point came one night in April 1991, during a rehearsal for a show that was going to the Grahamstown Festival. I was witness to something very disturbing during that rehearsal and although I always dish up the dirt for you - in this case I won't.
A lot of people read this website and I have no idea who they all are, and were I to publish what happened some serious shit would hit a multitude of fans.
Unfair to do that to you - I know - but trust me when I tell you that I really can't say any more.
Suffice it to say that once the rehearsal was done I walked straight out, headed out of the campus at pace, strode purposefully into the 7-11 and purchased my first box of cigarettes - a 20's pack of Gauloises Unfiltered (no mucking about).
I smoked all 20 in a row and before the night was out I was on my second box, and since then I haven't stopped.
My brands changed regularly in the first few months as I sought the one that suited me best, and after my virginity was broken on the back of a box of Gauloises I looked for less uncomfortable cigarettes thereafter.
I eventually - rather boringly - settled on B&H Special Mild, because it was mild enough not to cause vomiting 80 chain-lit ones later, but strong enough to do the job of keeping my nerves from snapping completely.
I got a lot of attention from my peers for my sudden and dramatic change in status, and with me there are no half-measures - within my first week I was the heaviest smoker on campus, which in itself accorded big respect.
I became the poster boy for cigarettes, regularly advocating that small children should be introduced - by legal mandate - to cigarettes from the age of three.
The more pro-smoking I became the more I was recognised for it, and at one stage it got to the point where I was regularly smoking 120 cigarettes a day - I shit you not. To this day I have yet to meet someone who can top that.
As I said - no half-measures. I am Michelle van der Westhuizen's worst nightmare.
So in the end my peers did me in as they do most budding young smokers, and by the time the novelty of being the Greatest Smoker On Earth wore off, I was hooked.
These days I've scaled things back to a more temperate 40 fags a day, but the damage to my lungs over the last 13 years must have been immense.
I'm a rational human being most of the time and I am fully aware that the last thing I want to happen is for me to be diagnosed with irreversible cancer.
Not because of the cancer, but because I will become yet another idiot sitting wasting away in a corner bemoaning the folly that ultimately I knew would cause my death.
I hate being part of stupid statistics, but I'm no different to any other smoker - I know that the possibility exists that my lifespan will be significantly shortened, but I tell myself that one day I will get around to doing something about it.
I won't, of course, which makes me no smarter than a bloke who leaps into a vat of boiling oil to see what effect it will have on his life.
But trust me - if I end up wheezing through a synthetic throat device I won't blame anyone else, and the last thing I'll do is sue a tobacco company.
So what does my smoking say about me? Do certain types of people gravitate towards smoking, or does smoking turn you into a certain type of person?
One thing I have noticed about smokers is that I have to yet to meet one who is judgmental of other people. Maybe that's just me, but try and picture the smokers you know - I'm willing to bet that most of them are extremely non-judgmental.
You also won't find a smoker who is a goody two-shoes - I'm not saying smokers are all career criminals like myself, but being a smoker means that at some stage of your life you have crossed a taboo line (you can't tell me you sat down with your folks one day and lit up your first ever cigarette with not a care in the world), and once that line is crossed you lose a certain innocence.
I'm sure all the non-smokers will treat that statement with scorn, and indeed - I'm sure there are plenty of people who have never touched a cigarette in their lives who have as much insight and understanding and loss of innocence as the next person.
However - the loss of innocence I am talking about is not something you'd know if you've never smoked a cigarette.
I suppose being a smoker makes me short on willpower, but to be honest I've never yet had the desire to even try to stop smoking. I enjoy smoking. But as yet I have no idea how I would fare if I attempted to give it up, but knowing myself I would seriously struggle to do so.
I don't believe it's the nicotine I'm after - it's more to do with that satisfying feeling of gripping one between two fingers and the blissful 'stop' of smoke that hits the top of your lungs when you drag suddenly and deep.
I also have to keep my hands busy - the concept of having nothing to hold while I watch television is too daunting to dwell on for any length of time without descending into semi-madness.
Ultimately smokers are a brotherhood - an 18-year old boy and a 55-year old woman can forge a common bond over a cigarette, because there is an innate understanding that both are on the wrong side of something.
I wish I wasn't a smoker, because I truly value my life. But since I am one I'll be one, and rest assured that I feel no shame or guilt in embracing my life-shortening habit.
Although, I'm pretty sure my last words - uttered on my last tortured breath as my lungs finally collapse from the sheer weight of accumulated tar - will be something along the lines of:
All Smoked Out,