I am not sure how long my teenager has been smoking, but she smokes.
I could live with her smoking some weed, even blacking out from a few drinking binges, but oddly, seeing her light up a cigarette and secretly smoke in our backyard makes me feel as if I no longer know who she is. I am not crazy about any of it but everything else feels less permanent, just a passing teenage phase. I worry this kind of smoke – this dismal haze – may never lift.
It’s the cigarettes stashed in her backpack, the Camel package chewed up and spewed out from the last load of laundry, the lighter laying in the driveway, that make me feel as if some alien has snatched my daughter.
This is the kid who despised cigarettes and smokers, always quick to judge and always disgusted by any cigarette smoke.
Growing up, she loved our next door neighbor Linda but Linda smoked and Linda smoked a lot. Our neighbor was a pretty gal, not much younger than me, but her habit aged her. She would call out to my daughter in her deep throttled, husky voice to come see a ladybug or wayward toad in her little garden. And sometimes, we’d hear her hacking like an old lady early in the mornings as we headed out to school and work.
Some evenings Linda would sit out on our front porch and smoke, my daughter growing uneasy, loving the smoker but not the smokes. My girl was easily grossed out with all things nicotine.
When she was five, she flipped through a Rolling Stone Magazine and became intrigued with the camel on the back cover. “What’s this camel for?” she questioned. “I’ve seen this same camel at gas stations.”
In some funky space where I was afraid to reveal the humpback’s real meaning, I pretended to know nothing about the infamous Joe Camel. Suspecting I was withholding something, she persistently goaded me for answers. Exasperated, I finally said:
“Okay, it’s a camel that people use to try and sell cigarettes to people. It’s a bad camel.”
Vehemently defending the dromedary, she fired back, “It’s not bad. Camels don’t smoke.”
Nowadays, my kid comes home reeking of some potent perfume, trying to mask the smoke. Other times the nauseating, sickly sweet smells of vaping clings to her clothes and every pore.
There are lots of things as a parent that you can’t prepare for and for me, this was one of them. I hope it’s just a passing phase but what if she can’t ever give it up? What if it’s too late for “I’m going to quit cold turkey?” Or what if it’s too late for cessation classes or patches or nicotine gum or all the other things she’ll have to do to try to undo what she has already done? (God knows I have friends and family who say it is the single hardest habit they ever kicked and some have silently succumbed.)
Sometimes I still see that little kid who took a hard line, certain she would never cross over. Other times I gasp when I think of my daughter growing into her 30s with yellowed teeth constantly needing Crest white strips, puffing away with an old-fashioned plain Jane cigarette or hooked up to what looks like an oxygen tank, vaping.
Baffled, my husband and I have tried various approaches but to no avail, thinking we could somehow fix this, control it or turn back the clock and right the world. Beyond groundings and pleadings, we’ve tried:
1) You will be wrinkly, leathery and cough like an old geezer sooner than later.
2) Your lungs will be roadkill.
3) You may want to quit but smoking may never quit you.
And yet, she still smokes. No amount of badgering, factoids, truth telling or fat-chain-smoking-truck-driver pictures I float in front of her matters. She smokes.
Sometimes I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to imagine that young girl and how adamant she was she would never smoke. Then I open them and realize this is just one of many choices she will make for her life. It’s her life.
Cough… That’s hard to swallow.
By Gertie Haddox, pseudonym