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Blowing Away The Smoke

by Karol Ann Barnett c1996


I am a non-smoker. Now. But for 20 years, I lit up, coughed, choked, craved and cringed at a rumpled pack with only one cig left. Like the famous credit card, I never left home without 'em. Or if I did, it was to the grocery for more. I was a REAL smoker.

Through all the years of smoking, I knew it was unhealthy. I knew I was hurting myself. I took the humiliation when doctors implied that I must not be very smart if I chose to smoke. I answered that insult by lighting up another one. It wasn't an intellectual decision that started my smoking habit. It was an emotional one.

But before I understood why I smoked -- the real reason -- I told myself all the lies. I told myself that I was nervous and that smoking helped me calm down. I told myself that I would be the one person to escape the ravages of cancer, especially if I didn't think about it much. The fear would then just go away -- poof! -- like a puff of smoke. I told myself that everyone had to have at least ONE vice. Mine was to smoke.

In fact, I had at least two. The other was my capacity to lie to myself.

I told myself that I couldn't quit because I was too addicted, but if by some miracle I could quit, I would gain weight and be fat and everyone would think I was ugly and I couldn't bear the rejection, so I HAD to smoke in order to be happy and skinny and acceptable to a world that didn't care what I did to myself, as long as I was skinny.

ANYTHING is better than rejection, I told myself.

In point of fact, I did quit, I did gain some weight, but I have not been rejected because of it. I know that my temporary weight gain is my body's way of healing itself and after 20 years of abuse, I'm gonna let it do whatever it needs to do to heal.

But it took time for me to get to that point of quitting. It took time, self-examination, and the will to look past the smokescreen of lies I had been telling myself. When I was finally able to get the smoke out of my eyes and to see clearly, I was shocked by what I discovered.

At the core of my desire to smoke, was a smoldering inferno of anger and rage. The kind of anger-rage that's ageless, the kind that every woman feels from the moment of consciousness and then throughout life. It's the kind of anger-rage that develops from a state of powerlessness. It's the kind of anger-rage every woman feels, at some level, as she lives a life where no matter what she does, she will always be a second-class citizen to most of the world.

Every time I was denied basic human rights, or treated like a brainless body, or a child, I got angry. And every time I got angry, I stuffed another lit cig in my mouth, puffing and fuming until the anger and rage died down to a manageable level. Most of the time I was not even reacting on a conscious level to the lack of respect that much of humanity has for women. But some part of me felt it. Some part of me got angry about it. Some part of me hated it so badly I was willing to kill myself with cigarettes in order to quell the raging force within.

When finally I understood the underlying motivation for my need to smoke, I quit easily, quickly, forever. Anytime I had the addictive craving for nicotine, I would mentally remind myself that cigarettes could not help me solve whatever problem I was experiencing in body, mind or spirit. The craving would pass. I would then go about handling my problems more productively.

My 20-year relationship with the "poison wrapped in white paper" -- one psychologist's definition for a cigarette -- has been a learning experience about myself and about the world in which we live. Though women's issues are rapidly being addressed today, it wasn't always so. And there is still much work that needs to be done.

Not all of the focus should be on Chauvinistic men and their denigration of women. There's also much to be done with women and how they denigrate themselves. When women smoke a poison wrapped in white paper because they don't want to gain a few pounds or because they don't trust themselves enough to tell themselves the truth or because they fear rejection at any level or because they are raging with anger at the inequality in the world, there is much work that needs to be done to enlighten a gender that is wont to destroy itself.

But the work has begun. And the momentum will gain such a force that it cannot, will not be stopped. Eventually women will learn to love themselves as much as we love others. We will learn that we need not sacrifice our health in order to be loved. The love of self will be reflected back from others. When that happens, the world will finally bear the glorious fruits of our propitious labor. We will have helped to evolve the human race. And we will have accomplished our great work.


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