“I grew to despise the way the space between my pointer and middle fingers stained yellow and smelled like lingering cigarette smoke days after my hangover had eased. It made me feel more like the binge smoker I didn’t want to admit I’d become – even more so when the stain lasted until the following weekend.”
Our aversion to our shadow self casts a shadow of its own. Toxic instant gratification is a symptom of the way we are taught to avoid the hardest things. Call it universal law, or simply the notion that things don’t change until they need to, but generationally, we seem to really suck with dealing with the hard truths. That is until we’ve run out of disguises and back roads, and they’re knocking on our door demanding that we look them in the eyes. Maybe we’ve been so illusioned by the idea that we need to have a skyscraping story that it draws us to the path of greatest resistance. Or is it because we’re afraid of who we might be without the omnipresence of struggle that we preserve our inner victimhood?
It’s funny because I hadn’t ever classified myself as a smoker – even though I used to buy a pouch each week to take with me on the weekend party circuit.
I justified spending such a proportion of my paycheck by the conversations it ignited in environments I’d otherwise felt alienated in, and I grew to rely on the authority it gave me to sit next to people I otherwise would’ve been too anxious to. If I couldn’t afford a pouch, I’d at least have a lighter on me for the same reason.
Eventually, I grew to hate that I couldn’t afford weekly pouches, and I also hated how I didn’t remember people’s names when I ran into them at the shops in the days after big social events. All because I’d spent hours with them, rolling from their pouch, because all I’d brought was a lighter to the pub as my social lubricant. It created an anxiety of its own.
I also grew to despise the way the space between my pointer and middle fingers stained yellow and smelled like lingering cigarette smoke days after my hangover had eased. It made me feel more like the binge smoker I didn’t want to admit I’d become. Even more so when the stain lasted until the following weekend.
But it begged the question: if the thought of being unable to smoke at parties made me feel unsafe to go, why was I going?
Reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits, I came across a diagram that laid out the relationship between the outcomes of our personal processes and how this affects our identity. In short, Clear believes that we spend too much time and place too much value on working on the outcomes of things, and need to reverse the process to centre on who we are in order to get better outcomes. Smoking was the process I had adopted in order to meet the outcome of feeling accepted in my social circles. Because I had prioritised the temporary existence of emotions and their outcomes, the inner identity I had avoided knowing and cultivating had, therefore, become an anxious mess.
I want to be able to tell you that deciding to quit buying pouches and the COVID-induced lack of social events had made a massive difference to my addiction. But suddenly, Juuls and vapes came along.
Initially, I had to order them online, but pretty quickly ‘vape dealers’ started popping up with local nicotine hotlines. Soon, I couldn’t even buy a second vape by the end of the week because my ‘dealer’ had sold out. One of my friends and I had joked about getting into the business since demand had become so rampant.
There is a blatant allure to vapes. In discussion with vape cult member Hannah, 20, she highlighted how vapes appease every sense. They taste nice, feel good to exhale, they look sleek, smell pleasant and add a sense of comfort by giving you something weighted to hold in your hand. You can vape wherever you want. You don’t even have to get up to do it. When I asked her the most ridiculous place she’s vaped, she responded: “In my bedroom at 8 am. I would never in my life wake up, sit up in my bed and roll a cigarette.”
The most hilarious part of her response was that it wasn’t at all ridiculous to me. I’d found myself having to leave my vape in the car overnight so I wouldn’t be tempted to touch it in the mornings. I’ve learnt that there is nothing more disorienting than nicotine in any form before you’ve had breakfast (even though some people will tell you coffee and a cigarette is the breakfast of champions.)
From the beginning of my unofficial romance with nicotine three years had passed, and I’d journeyed from Rothman Blues 20g to Champion ruby 25g to Juuls and, most recently, Cuvies. In the same space of time, I have evolved from my bipolar diagnosis to mild depression and anxiety, to what has been my clearest mental health bill ever.
Whilst my addictive personality is still something I have to reckon with, the thing that shifted the most was my awareness of who I was. Having to acknowledge that I was an image-obsessed, insecure, chaotically generous, unaccountable human being felt less than pleasant most of the time. Except for the days when embodying that kind of chaotic/church-deemed evil felt like a hilarious joke I enjoyed living and prolonging. But mania ended up just being a side-effect of true self-acceptance, of the process of realising how vast I was, and learning to find ways to be okay with that.
As soon as I decided the person I wanted to be when I was on my own was someone who was mentally well my processes had to change. They might still include vaping or stealing the occasional cigarette from someone, but my core is different. I’m no longer focused on fighting for survival or attention in social situations. I’m there with an outcome goal of enjoying being my truest self alongside people I love. When I set this intention, it meant I only ventured to places where I felt relatively safe enough to show up as my full self. And because of the confidence that was built in fostering self-acceptance and receiving genuine peer-acceptance, I find chatting to strangers semi enjoyable now. I can even tell that person at the supermarket that I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember their name but am working on getting better at remembering these things. I could actually guarantee you that I’ll even stop vaping if they reveal the true extent of how terrible it is for me – and be totally okay with that.
For now, I am just fine with my story being that I’m a social vape smoker. At least it’s the truth.