Friday, 15 July 2011

Mentholated Dreams

And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the LORD being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.

And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.

And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my LORD.

Genesis 19: 16-18

I WAS NOT AWARE of actually lighting my cigarette last night. I always seem to have a lit cigarette in my mouth, or in my hand. When I am not sucking on the thing, I am stabbing the air with it, an extension of my small, stubby fingers. It is quite possible that my constant waving is somewhat camp, more so when I am smoking one of those extra-long brands. More. Are they called More? 120mm wrapped in dark brown paper. Menthol, I have always smoked menthol.

In 1967, at school in England, I smoked Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes, and then over the next few years Salems, and, finally Kools. Kools were so mentholated, so cold on the palate, and in the sinuses, that it was not unlike candy. I dare say that was the point of those minty additives, taste and a numbing sensation. What did my breath smell like? Did the raw tobacco fragrance come through? My clothes always smelled of tobacco, as did my furniture, curtains, hair. However, I thought that might be from the company I kept, I never attributed the foul effluvia to myself.

In 1973, I was chain-smoking in my office at AIG, drinking all the coffee the tea-lady brought round, and filling my ashtray several times a day. I do not remember whether I tipped the ashes into the bin under my desk, or if one of our janitors came round to tidy unpleasant things away.

In the autumn of 1973, I was investigating the Mormon Church (this was their wording, prospective converts were “investigators”, which may not be used nearly 40 years later when a careful investigation could catch the Latter-day Saints out) and through the missionary discussions (another of their catch-words) I chain smoked. Quite possibly leaving the young missionaries assigned to me with smelly clothing and watering eyes. I sucked up that mentholated smoke from my King Size Kools while I was inhaling the oddest doctrines and nodding and bobbing.

The Mormons encouraged me to quit smoking, but I was not having that wisdom forced down my throat. I could not join their church while I smoked (or drank alcohol, tea and coffee). The best part of a year passed. And in late summer of 1974, one night I had been to see a play (it was “Harvey”, performed by the students at the high school on the USNAS in Bermuda) and I was riding my moped home. I suddenly stopped my cycle, took my pack of cigarettes from my pocket, and removed the one I had been smoking as I rode through the night from my mouth and chucked them into a hedge. I did not smoke again for two years, and was baptized a Mormon during that time.

By 1976, I was involved in local theatre and it seemed that everyone smoked. I was no longer active in the Mormon Church. No guilt. The Mormons were sneaky and appointed me a member of the Branch Presidency, so that I had to attend and conduct meetings (three meetings on a Sunday at the chapel, and a Presidency meeting from time to time, and calls to minister to our flock). I did not smoke in the calendar year 1978.

Despite living in Salt Lake City, I managed to smoke in 1979 and the first few months of 1980. Back in Bermuda, cigarettes were certainly easier to find and buy than in Utah. I smoked heavily, at least two packs of Kools a day, at 55¢ each in 1981. That was about 30p, though cigarettes in the UK were further taxed so that a pack, purchased in England would set you back at least 80p. (In 2011, as I write this, in the UK a pack of cigarettes costs about £7.00, or over $11.00.)

In 1981, in July 1981, exactly 30 years ago as I sit here typing tonight, I was in a psychiatric hospital being treated for severe panic disorder. I was sectioned for about six weeks in late spring. I was taken off all the medications that I had been prescribed for a year or so, and those tablets I had managed to get on the sly. I was locked up to keep me from doing myself some harm. I sat in my tiny room with its tiny toilet and sink and chain-smoked. Night and day, I smoked. Then, in mid-July of 1981, one day, in the hospital, I ran out of cigarettes and was so anxious that I was unable to walk down the hill to the drugstore to buy more. I have not smoked since then, thirty years ago. I tend to suck on mint sweets.

Except in my dreams. Nearly every night I dream, and, in nearly every dream, I am smoking.

If I walk past a pub and there are people outside smoking, I try to hold my breath and walk quickly. I am aware that the stench of smoke attaches itself to one’s clothing so easily. I dislike that tobacco smell so much. So many very young people, as many little girls as boys, are smoking on the streets here, and the awful smell surrounds them. Sometimes one smells the breath of a smoker who is not smoking at that moment. It might be a stranger. It never goes away, no matter how much mouthwash and chewing gum one uses.

My doctor checks my lungs every year, because I had been such a heavy smoker over so many years. My father and one of his brothers, chain-smokers, died from conditions brought about by that unhealthy lifestyle. Died at around 70 years. My two grandfathers, smokers, died of cancer. The one of my grandmothers who smoked (now and then) died, quite young, of cancer. My mother, always surrounded by cigarette smoke (much of it mine) while not a smoker also died of cancer.

I do not know whether I might be at high risk as a former smoker, (has the damage been done?) or whether I just happen to be dealing with some genes that might give me trouble in, possibly, less than a decade.

In my life, until 30 years ago, and in my dreams as recently as last night, I am a rather flamboyant smoker. It is all fun. However, I wonder if the dream will come, in which I cannot catch my breath, which finds me wheezing beyond my annual hay-fever discomfort, that sees me propped up in bed and counting the last days out in tonics and tablets and cannulae.

Yes, it does occur to me that my crippling years with panic disorder in the 1980s might well have saved my life. I was unable to smoke and drink for financial and physical and psychological reasons.


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