Tracey Emin: My Life in a Column

I was so desperate for a cigarette in freezing New York that it nearly cost me a finger
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The Independent Online

Now this could be one of the most interesting weeks I have had for a long time. Monday night: dinner for the opening of the Frida Kahlo show at Tate Modern, surrounded by HSBC bankers and half the Mexican Embassy, and I was having a great time. Tuesday: opening show for The Postman Only Rings Twice. Wednesday: I flew to Venice with Jo and Ronnie Wood.

At one time, all of this could have been agony for me. Why? Because I smoked. I chain-smoked. I smoked a cigarette every five minutes from around three in the afternoon until I went to sleep. I was followed around by the strangest cloud of smoke. I did stop in 1990, on April Fool's Day. I was pregnant and smoking made me feel sick. Even though I knew I was going to have an abortion, I couldn't bring myself to smoke.

I didn't smoke for two and a half years, mainly because I didn't have the money. But as my friend Gary Hume said: "My God, Trace. I've never seen someone go from no fags to 40 Marlboro a day". I could be at a really great party, having a really good time, but the moment the cigarettes ran out, I was out of there.

LA was just a total no-no - and New York would see me standing outside in Arctic conditions. That's how I nearly lost a finger. It was so cold that I started to neigh like a horse, and as I puffed my smoke into the New York skyline, neighing and cantering, cantering and neighing, I was flat on my face with my fourth finger snapped in half. But hell, that didn't stop me.

After clubbing and breakfasting, I packed my bags and headed to the airport. Those were the days when I would say: "Please God, please God, give me an upgrade." As I went to check-in, I looked down at my finger, and saw that it had gone completely grey, my fingernail was black, and between my ring and my knuckle there appeared to be some weird ping-pong ball. I thought it could help, and waved it at the check-in lady. She immediately called security, who all got on their walkie-talkies, "Jus' come down to Virgin see this finger..."

Mind the doors

And then they called an ambulance. I felt like some mad extra out of ER. In fact, I felt embarrassed. The first thing they did in the hospital was try to remove my rings. One of them was my grandmother's eternity ring and another I had been trying to get off for 20 years. The swelling was too much, and the pain was excruciating. Oh yes, I started to sober up now. They wanted to give me a general anaesthetic, but needed to know my next of kin, because, wait for it, they might need to amputate my finger. It was at this point I started crying.

In the end, five people held me down and they gave me a local anaesthetic. They cut the rings off, put a splint on my hand, gave me enough valium to last a lifetime and said, "The taxi driver will have your name on a card, do not stand close to the automatic doors, because you'll get mugged. After flying back premium economy, and having to keep my hand up in the air throughout the flight, the doctor at Guy's hospital said one of two things would have happened if I had got on the flight with those rings on: a) My finger would have exploded on the plane; b) If it hadn't it definitely would have had to be amputated. It all started with a cigarette.

Guilty Christmas

I finally stopped smoking on Christmas Day 2003. I was going to spend Christmas alone, mainly because I dislike Christmas, but it's a good time to get my head sorted out. But my friends weren't having any of it. Vivienne (Westwood) and Andreas picked me up and took me to Joe (Vivienne's son) and Serena's.

I took a magnum of champagne and 60 cigarettes. The only time I didn't smoke was when we were actually eating dinner. At one point, when I was a bit tipsy after we played charades, I was thinking: why is the window open? Like I was some demented dragon, a perpetual column of smoke billowed from my nostrils and lungs. I had smoked all 60 fags.

On the way back home, Vivienne and Andreas dropped in on a friend. In my drunken stupor I'd fallen asleep in the car. I woke up to find myself locked in, and as I banged on the window of the 1970 Mini and waved my arms around like a lunatic, Andreas spotted me and, in his mellow Austrian tones, said "Oh dear, the poor darling. She must be desperate for a cigarette."

The next day when I woke up, I thought about what a sweet lovely time I had had, and how brilliant and funny her family are. And then the guilt hit me - there had been children there. I haven't smoked since. If I ever have any moments of doubt, I look in the mirror and smile like some smug git and say to myself, "I DON'T SMOKE".