I have a running joke with my family WhatsApp group, where we share photos of things that would have made our pre-pandemic heads explode. I sent a flyer to the chat the other day offering a “FREE food voucher with your vaccine” at a mini festival in Tower Hamlets. Back in May, my mum screenshotted a headline announcing that the “ban on hugging” would be lifted – imagine explaining that to your past self. But personally, nothing would have surprised early-2020 me like the news that, just a year and a half later, I would have stopped smoking.
Until about a month ago, there was always a cigarette in my hand. Rain or shine, bored or concentrating, happy or sad, in company or alone, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, my nicotine habit has been one of my defining features since my teenage years. So when the pandemic bounced into view and the world shifted beneath our feet, I saw no reason at all to change course – in fact I doubled down. Some people went on a health kick, but you could say I went on a death drive.
At one point or another, every smoker has justified their habit to themselves with the argument, “I might die tomorrow” – and for that adolescent brand of nihilism, the pandemic’s ambient danger was manna from heaven. In an unjustifiable, senseless situation, my unjustifiable, senseless behaviour suddenly took on a warped kind of logic: memento mori? You didn’t have to tell me twice!
At the height(s) of lockdown and my lowest ebbs, every cigarette felt like a “f*** you” to a virus that was going to kill us all anyway – so why not die by my own smoky hand? You might not have taken up smoking (though a surprising number of people did). Your thing might have been alcohol (the number of high-risk drinkers rose by 40 per cent in the first lockdown), or hamburgers, or something altogether weirder. Whether it was booze, cigs or Netflix binges, we all cultivated one twisted coping mechanism or another in the audience-less melodrama of lockdown. And with so much off-limits, we enjoyed it – whatever “it” was – comparatively guilt free.
Now that we’re staggering out the other side (or at least into a new phase), we’re having to reassess our lockdown crutches – to decide whether to haul them into this next chapter or jettison them altogether.
The pandemic has a lot to answer for, and my disillusionment with smoking is the least of its tragedies. Still, I miss my old friend who shared every morning coffee, heralded every work break and joined every evening catch-up over a bottle of wine before walking me to the Tube – faithful as a doting dog – my whole adult life. It broke up the monotony of endless months in a studio flat, and represented a little indulgence when the world felt so barren. It might sound silly to compare cigarettes to a career or a relationship, but smokers (ex or active) will know exactly what I mean. Stubbing out your last ciggie makes a lot less noise than storming out of a meeting or leaving a marriage, but I promise you the rupture is no less profound.
Over the course of this pandemic, which has touched me hardly at all but also rewired me completely, I have transitioned from my mid-twenties to my late twenties. Quitting, I suppose, was always part of the plan (no smoker thinks they’ll still be puffing away when their grandkids come over), but I don’t feel smug about it – on the contrary, slightly embarrassed. Like I lost my nerve – or at least, I lost that bulletproof confidence that props addiction up in the face of facts and health warnings.
It’s nothing less than magical thinking that lets a smoker keep smoking, and I nurse a protective tenderness for the memory of addict-me, invincible little idiot that she was. Equally, I hope I never see her – or the lockdowns that saw her flourish so strikingly – as long as I live.