Mark's story: The stigma of being a smoker

Mark's spent a good part of his adult life feeling judged for being a smoker. After previously quitting smoking successfully, the loss of a close family member led him to smoke again. In his own words, Mark tells his brave and honest story of smoking to fit in, his pride in quitting smoking and the stigma he feels in being a smoker again. Mark’s story reminds us that every quit journey is individual and it often takes several attempts to quit smoking for good.1

When I was 16 years old – gangly and awkward and very unsure of myself – a friend of mine asked me to join them outside at a party. They handed me a cigarette and a lighter. I’d never smoked before and, to be honest, I’d never been tempted by the idea of smoking. Both of my parents had condemned cigarettes and very few of my friends smoked. There didn’t seem to be much about it that was particularly enticing. I lit the cigarette I’d been given and coughed. I didn’t want to give it back or put it out. I wanted to show that I could fit in. In my mind, however, it tasted horrible, and I certainly didn’t feel any less like an anxious teen. 

And then smoking became a habit 

I didn’t smoke again for over a year. The bad taste still seemed to be a lingering memory. I was only tempted by a cigarette again when I noticed a group of people I admired (the ‘cool’ kids from the year above) one day after school. Asking for one cigarette once turned into asking for one every week, then one every day. Before I knew it, I was squirreling away my pocket money to buy a pack and spending what I had left on cheap deodorant to try and hide the smell from my parents.

When I left high school and went to university, what started as a teenage phase quickly turned into a full-time habit. Smoking had taken on a new meaning for me. Gone was the thought of it as a cheap, rebellious thrill to impress anyone. By now, smoking had become a part of my identity, as much as how I dressed myself or the music I listened to. I felt like I wasn’t quite myself if I didn’t have cigarettes in my pocket. I felt even more uncomfortable without my cigarettes in social situations – having a drink or a coffee without smoking would make me physically uncomfortable.

The 'luxury' of smoking 

At 20, I moved interstate to attend a different university. Working at a restaurant for little pay in-between classes to pay my rent forced me to rethink my spending. All of a sudden, cigarettes were a luxury. I was constantly torn between buying enough food from the supermarket to make a substantial meal that would last for days – and buying a pack of cigarettes. The cigarettes often won that battle. I convinced myself that I could always survive on some cheap, unhealthy food, because I knew that not being able to smoke would make me irritable and restless. This was based solidly on the ever-present notion that smoking was fully entwined with my sense of identity. “You’re a smoker”, I would think to myself, as if it were a natural (and almost positive) thing to be.

Not everyone thought smoking was cool after all 

When I left university, I started realising that many of the people I worked with didn’t smoke, and not only that, they really didn’t like the idea of smoking at all. I began to realise my smoking habit was an addiction – I needed to take regular smoke breaks at work, and would be craving a cigarette multiple times throughout the day. Having that word 'addiction' in my head frightened me. I didn’t like the idea of something having control over me. I also felt like an outcast: my colleagues remarked on how horrible I smelled, and ducking off into the outdoor stairwell next to the bins to have a smoke felt shameful. 

As the weeks and months rolled on, I kept smoking, but it felt like something was shifting. I didn’t like myself as a smoker. The problem was, I didn’t know how to stop. I would be angry at myself for lighting up before getting on the train in the morning, dreading the disgusted glances I’d be sure to receive on the packed carriage because of the smell lingering on my clothes. I still couldn’t make myself stop.

A successful quit with some challenges 

One day, after taking some time off work from being sick and feeling unable to smoke, I decided to try something. I walked to a local pharmacy and bought a packet of nicotine replacement patches. I used them for a couple of months. The process of nicotine withdrawal was difficult. Among other things, I wasn't sleeping well and as a result had difficulty concentrating. Still, I didn’t smoke. With each passing day, I grew prouder and prouder of myself. Finally, for the first time in my adult life, I felt like cigarettes weren’t a part of me

But I had one major challenge: my partner was still smoking. Although she was patient, kind and extremely supportive, she considered herself a ‘social’ smoker with no immediate intention of stopping for good. One night, when out with friends at a wine bar, I went to look for her in the courtyard. Sure enough, there she was, smoking. As soon as she saw me, her cheeks went red and she started apologising while rushing to stamp out her cigarette. I saw in her that same shame I had felt before, and I told her it was okay. After all, I was now an ex-smoker, and knew that being annoyed wasn’t going to do any good.

In 2012, I moved cities again – this time, back home. My partner and I decided to maintain a long-distance relationship. It was emotionally draining, and I noticed that every so often, the idea of a cigarette didn’t seem half bad. I refused to give in, even when I was out with friends and had to sit inside by myself as they filed into alleyways and smoking areas.

'Just one' smoke usually does hurt 

Then, unexpectedly, a close family member became very ill. They passed away suddenly, and I felt completely lost. After their funeral was held, I spotted someone about to light up. I walked toward them thinking “just one, I’ll just have one”. Hours after I’d asked for ‘just one’, I was on my way to the local shops, craving the familiarity I once knew. The pack that I bought that day led to me smoking regularly again.

Finding new reasons to quit 

It’s been five years since I started smoking again, but I’m ready to quit again. I’ve cut down the amount I smoke, and I’ve started using the ‘stigma’ I feel to steel my resolve. If I feel like I’ll be judged for having a cigarette somewhere, I concentrate on that, and focus on doing something else until the craving passes. I spend those moments I would have smoked previously focusing on the future. Specifically, I think about upcoming events and times when I know I won’t be able to smoke. I imagine what it would be like to not be challenged by cigarette cravings at all. The thought of taking a trip overseas later this year without craving a cigarette on a long-distance flight feels especially relieving.

My new partner is a non-smoker, and her support is invaluable. She won’t ever badger me, but she openly expresses how proud she is when I resist the urge to pick up a cigarette. She understands that it’s difficult, and her way of having my back is to talk with me about my goals and plans openly. She wants to be there for me on my quit journey, and part of that is accepting that I struggle sometimes.

Exploring different ways to quit 

With time, I’ve been able to reassess what I think will help me quit. I’d never considered having a quit chat with my doctor in the past, but I’ve realised that I wouldn’t think twice about seeing my GP for anything else related to my health. It took me years to realise that having someone to create a plan with might just be the best way forward for me. I’ve spent a long time feeling like I had to hide my smoking from doctors – just like I did from my parents. I don’t feel that way anymore. After all, I know my doctor would want me to be the healthiest I can be.

©Pfizer 2020. Pfizer Australia Pty Limited. Pfizer Medical Information: 1800 675 229. Sydney, Australia. PP-CHM-AUS-1102, 05/2020
1.Chaiton, M., Diemert, L., Cohen, J., Bondy, S., Selby, P., Philipneri, A. and Schwartz, R. (2016). Estimating the number of quit attempts it takes to quit smoking successfully in a longitudinal cohort of smokers. BMJ Open, 6(6), p.e011045.