Ryan Crawford, Quit Coach Supervisor, Service Delivery:
“What do you love about smoking?”
Lark’s question is greeted by silence. The meeting starts off quietly—everyone is still becoming acquainted. Today, Tuesday 1/12, is the second meeting for the Out To Quit group. We have 9 returning gay men seeking support in quitting smoking. This meeting, Session 2, is their first step on that road.
As a facilitator, Lark calls on each participant to get their thoughts. Dan and I assist by taking notes, but Lark asks me first, “Ryan, what did you love about smoking before you quit?”
The question was a surprise. I explained to the guys how I used to smoke hookah tobacco. “It was a fun social activity. I could do it with my friends and family. It was a Mediterranean cultural custom for me, too.”
Dan writes my answer on the whiteboard. The rest of the responses snap out like popcorn.
Dustin talks about his hectic days at work in politics, and how smoking relieves his stress. “It’s a reward,” he says.
Ergane explains that he uses cigarettes as an excuse to take a break.
Matt relates smoking to a creative ritual, always having cigarettes while he develops art.
“I’m gonna be honest,” Lark says. “I smoked because I looked damn good doing it.”
Why does anyone smoke? And more particularly, why do gay men smoke more than the general population? Check out Part 1 of this series for historical insight. But for the individual, day-to-day sense, the guys laid it out perfectly:
Dan, before he quit, loved the taste. It gave him a sense of rebellion.
“I love the way it makes me feel,” James says. He has a military tattoo inspired by Lucky Strike. “The chemical rush,” Michael adds.
Lark then asks the guys what they loved about their very first cigarette.
James started smoking after his experience with the military to cope with his traumatic experiences. He describes the memory of smoking’s glamour, like in Old Hollywood movies.
Ergane laughs and fiddles with his dreadlocks. He started smoking for a guy. He recalls wanting to look cool and edgy and “new” to impress his crush.
Smoking’s appeal for Lee and Dustin was to appear more masculine, to seem more attractive, and to mask the fears of their own femininity. “I didn’t want to be gay,” Dustin says. “Give me a horse, I’m the Marlboro Man.” Lee, a trans man, recounts starting smoking in the lesbian community and carrying the habit over through Lee’s transition into the transgender community in an attempt to look and sound more “butch.” Even after these men have accepted themselves for who they are, the addiction remains.
Then we start opening up to each other, begin trusting each other more.
Matt tells us about his absent father, how smoking reminded him of his dad, and how continuing to smoke was like keeping a part of his father in his life long after his father had left him.
And Michael speaks. He illustrates the story of his first tobacco use: his friend’s older sister gave him his first cigarette when he was a young teen. He reminisces fondly about it, about her, and then tears up. You can see the dots connecting in his mind.
“She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer that has now spread to her stomach,” he tells us. “She’s three years older than I am.”
The room is silent again.
This is the reason why we’re here. Any one of these smokers could be in the same shoes as Michael’s friend. He’s scared that it could be him.
There are things that we love about smoking. There are happy memories associated with tobacco, comforting rituals and benign habits that repeat every day with each cigarette. Nicotine gives us a chemical rush. Cigarettes save us from awkward situations and give us excuses to take time to ourselves. Tobacco reminds us of home, of who we are, of those we love.
“We’re not bad people for having the cravings we do,” Lark explains. It’s all too easy to become addicted to cigarettes. “But we can satisfy them in other ways.”
Looking at the whiteboard, Dan, Lark and I explain that most of these things the guys love about tobacco are not because of the cigarettes themselves. The best parts of smoking are only the best parts of ourselves that we’ve given to cigarettes. We can still be cool, attractive, relaxed, beloved, culturally valid people without tobacco.
Our next session will discuss the opposite of today’s theme: what do we hate about tobacco? What will these smokers’ lives look like without cigarettes?
Check back next week for what the group has to say. Feel free to contribute your own thoughts below in response to this blog.