Smoking might kill you but it's still a celebration of life. Pass me another, says Elizabeth Heathcote
This week I discovered that, as a woman who smokes, my chances of contracting the most dangerous form of lung cancer are twice as high as they would be if I was a man. This is news, but then I already knew that I could look forward to a premature and painful death which would follow a life blighted by a) premature ageing; b) men screwing up their noses when they kiss me (assuming any still want to when I resemble a prune); c) respiratory complaints; d) outcast status and e) the knowledge that I've missed out on a full and varied life because I've spent the money on fags instead. Sometimes I don't even like it that much - I just do it because I do it. But still I don't give up, or if I do I start again.

So why? Well, first of all it's my weakness. It is the only facet of my life where I exhibit unbridled compulsive behaviour. If there are cigarettes available, I will smoke them. Will-power doesn't come into it except as a full-stop - I cannot deny myself unless I deny myself completely. The whole concept of social smoking - ie moderation - is a mystery and one that I almost don't believe in. I relate instead to Martin Amis's character Richard Tull in The Information - he wanted another cigarette before he'd put the last one out. Me too.

Having said this, I have given up successfully in the past, for nearly seven years. I stopped dead, having not gone a day without a cigarette since I was at school, when I committed to my then boyfriend, a non-smoker - until a year and a half ago, when I had a puff for a joke at a party. And the bliss! That feeling as the smoke hit my throat and snaked into my lungs, filling them up and making me dizzy the way it did when I was a kid! Smoking re-entered my sub-conscious - I started dreaming about it - and three months later, when that same boyfriend left me, I tumbled headlong over the edge.

In part it was obviously a crutch. I'd been propelled by grief into a nether world where I'd wake at five in the morning consumed by agonising pain or bottomless anger, and all there was for me to do was pace and mutter - and smoke. There was a self-destructive streak in it as well. My self-esteem had taken a battering and although I didn't actually feel that the future held nothing for me, it wasn't exactly the most optimistic period of my life. Sometimes it feels that my (numerous) decisions to give up smoking are a vote for life; sometimes my decisions to start feel like a step into oblivion.

But most of the time it's not like that at all. Quite apart from the sheer pleasure, there was something fantastically positive about starting to smoke again. It felt like sticking two-fingers up at everything I hated in the life I'd left behind. Cigarettes and the culture that surrounds them embodied freedom and acceptance, and my relationship, at the end, had been too much about control and shame. I wanted a life that was about now, this minute, about broad horizons not boundaries, about minds wide open, not bowed by fear; about the intimacy of human frailty, not the sterility of personal high standards. Smoking and smokers are about all of those things for me.

Smokers are good guys. They're forgiving, welcoming people who know how to live and to love. Sometimes, when I'm pretending that I've quit and I'm desperate for a fag, I'll just ask a stranger who's smoking and they never say no. They're more likely to use it as an excuse for a chat. Smokers are cavaliers and non-smokers are roundheads and I know which side I want to be on.

It's about my sense of myself as well. Smoking is intimately tied into the bad girl in me. You can't really get into trouble on a night on the town without a fag in your hand - it just doesn't work the same. And smokers are the people that I want to be - poets and fighters, not lawyers or accountants. More than once I've ended a spate of abstinence because I've been sitting in a cafe and I've seen a women looking hip and jaunty sporting a Marlboro Light and I think - that's me, that's me! It might read like the behaviour of a suggestible teenager but it feels like a celebration of life.

I know a lot of it's delusion. I know that middle managers smoke and that there's nothing cool about lung cancer. I know I'm addicted and that getting over that isn't about some strangling control thing, it's about a functional control thing. And one day I want to have a baby and I know that ultimately I want to CHOOSE LIFE.

Maybe next week.

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