The one about ending a romance.


I’m talking about the boyfriend I’ve been with for more than half my life. He’s romanced me, sat in my hand through the worst days and been my accomplice at – almost – every celebration. I’m talking about tobacco.

Mentally, I’ve always added a cigarette to my identity. Wafts of smoke have peppered my nights and smoke breaks have been an important part of every day. Since I first thought “I like to write”, that little boyfriend had become an essential. I’d convinced myself I could not write without him. Earlier this year, though, I proved that thought wrong. That was a turning point for me. Realising I could write without using a cigarette as a muse was a moment I wanted to happen and, when it happened, I felt relief.

I don’t know who I was looking at in this photo but I don’t think I liked them much.

Tobacco and I had a romance that started when (I am sad to admit) I was thirteen. We dabbled through our dalliance throughout high school and I actually quit him during my second year of University. For a whole month. And then tobacco and I lit up our love again after I’d had a particularly cruddy day.

That love life continued until I was 24 and found out I was pregnant. I was smoking at the time that I looked at the test results, and crushed it as the two blue lines appeared.

But, when my dad died, shortly after my daughter was born, the first thing I did after getting the phone call, was reach for a cigarette. And, well, the love affair began again.

I depended on that tobacco through the best days and even more so on the worst ones. It was my calling card and my relief. Finish working on something? Light up. Start working on something? Light up. Wake up? You go get that morning cigarette. Going to bed? Don’t forget Cath, you should totally have a smoke before you do that.

Cape Town. 2009. Weirdly, most photos I have of me smoking, were taken in Cape Town.

I’ve tried to quit, quite a few times. Really, I have. I started diaries, I’d mark them and count them, push them away from myself and then end up pulling them even closer to me at like 2am, when I felt overwhelmed. Those diaries I penned my thoughts and times I smoked into, sometimes scribbling with one eye, helped though. I learnt that I had a behavioural pattern, and I had proved it to myself.

But, I’ve known for about the past six months that I was slowly getting cheesed with this dependency. The more I started to hate it, the more I wanted to quit lighting up. I ended up in this weird ping-pong of self-loathing, where I’d hate smoking and yet feel sweet relief when I had one. I ended up just hating myself more and more, and disappearing into clouds of smoke that were a weird mixture of loathing and tobacco. By the time I crushed my last cigarette, I was smoking 40 a day on a bad day. When I had a horrible health scare earlier this year – one that should have frightened me away from smoking too – the first thing I did was reach for a smoke. You could say, my friends, that the love affair was a lot like a previous relationship of mine (we all have one of these infatuations in our history books, admit it) – both of us so desperate to leave but both of us so desperate to stay.

Both my parents died of cancer. Yes, they were smokers. No, I don’t think that their smoking was the ultimate thing that caused their cancer because there were a lot of other variables at play (and, before you start – you don’t know what I know, especially if you do not know our family tree’s history). I don’t debate that smoking can cause cancer. I do debate that it was the central cause of my parents’ deaths (and I’m allowed to do that, thanks). A lot of the people in my family were or are smokers. It’s said that if your parents were smokers, you’re more likely to become a smoker. Smoking was like part of our furniture. No, actually, cigarettes were in our furniture, and a fine (and not so fine) layer of ash kinda covered everything. Especially our keyboards.

Perhaps that’s why it felt like such a sin against my own identity to drop that little blue box from my life. To eschew cigarettes meant, for me, to rid myself of something that had defined my connection to my parents. The early morning tea and smoke, the late afternoon chats with my dad over a whiskey and smoke…I was bidding all of those moments farewell by doing this. I felt like I was cutting a connection. Except, I now realise, that that connection doesn’t ever end, because they are memories that’ll stick with me, and they had nothing to do with cigarettes.

Some weird artsy fartsy silhouette attempt.

When some particularly wonderful people in my life (yes, you know who you are :D) gave me an electronic cigarette for my birthday, I was stoked. Stoked beyond words. After all my attempts to ditch the beau of tobacco, this has proven to be the most successful.

I will confess that I have wobbled. There have been days when I’ve wanted to do the equivalent of late-night-drunk-text-to-an-ex and run outside, light up and feel a sweet relief. There have been three particularly bad episodes of this, where I have felt that if I didn’t have a cigarette *right now*, I’d explode. It got so bad one day, I found myself searching for images of people smoking, just so I could, at least, vicariously, live through the “celebration” of lighting up. You see, lighting up that smoke was a celebration for me, and I felt like I’d uninvited myself to the party. 

So I chose to tweet my way through them, and the support of my lovely online people has been immense. There have been people who’ve yelled at me, tough loved me and outright threatened me. There have been people who’ve commiserated with me or cheered me on. And, thankfully, there have also been people who have completely ignored me and this stupid, very #firstworldproblem.

Most importantly though, having my very real, very permanent Shmooshy do this with me, has been a guiding force. I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done it without him.

I have felt a weird sense of grief. I will admit, shamefully, that I feel more and more like I’ve gone through this horrendous breakup, and can’t call my ex to cry on the phone to him, in some weird bid to get him back (disclaimer – people – those phone calls never work out. Stop it). Every day though, the desire to “call” that smoke up, has faded and, in fact, today, just over a month after I ditched the zero and got with the hero, I think I’ve deleted the zero’s number off my mental phone.

I’ve been given some grief about this, and I think I’ll chat about that now. Because I’ve moved to an e-cigarette (which is low nicotine, and I am in the process of moving to no-nicotine), someone decided to tell me that “I hadn’t really quit” and that I was “just being a baby and (this one’s my favourite) “going to kill yourself anyway”. Nice conversation, that was. Hugely positive and inspiring. *sarcasm*. I’ve decided to actively ignore anyone who gives me this kind of grief. This is, after all, my story and not theirs.

I can smell nowadays. I can smell like never before. Sometimes that’s wonderful and – at other times – it’s really not. I can run faster than I used to be able to, and I can run for longer without wanting to collapse.

And, as for my forgotten beau? I found a box of him in my kitchen yesterday, where I’d obviously stashed it “in case of emergencies”. Just looking at the box, holding it in my hand and turning it over, I felt ill. Maybe it is how my friend Melanie says:

“Nothing like seeing your ex and thinking eeuw!” 

All I know is that, somehow, I’m getting over this weird romance. I’ve become one of those militant and annoying people who can’t stand the smell of smoke (sorry guys, seriously, but when we get our sense of smell back…) I’ve actually written apology notes to people for how badly I stank. They’d complain and I’d laugh it off. I’m sorry, really. Wow.

As I’ve removed what I thought was a critical facet of my identity, I don’t find myself lacking anymore. In fact, as the smoke has literally cleared, I’ve realised, as all girls do after they get ditched by the guy who led them on for years…

I didn’t need him anyway. 





The girl who did everything wrong.

A very dear friend of mine died on Sunday. Cancer. I’ve tried to write about her but I cannot, as yet. Every time I try, I well up and feel futile. So, I’m sorry, Bee, this post is not about you. There will be one, but not today. Today’s post is about me.

When I was about nine, I went with my dad to the shops one day. As was pretty normal back then, I stayed in the car and he went in to pick whatever it was we needed at home. As I was sitting there, a kid walked past, stuck his head in the window and said:

“You’re so fat. You are an ugly girl”. He then swore at me in Afrikaans and ran off.

I didn’t know the kid, I never saw him again, but I think the shock of it stuck with me. I have a good idea as to why this happened to me (considering my parents’ heightened profile in the neighbourhood, to put it diplomatically, along with the bumper stickers that adorned our car) but, it has stuck with me.

I have always believed him. I am not here to blame him, though. For all I know, he was some bored kiddo who didn’t like English girls. That’s irrelevant today.

The years of my life between the ages of 9 and 13, are blurry in my memory. So much so, that I cannot tell you about a birthday, who I sat next to in class, who my teacher was (I only know, thanks to those lovely class photos we all hoard away in photo albums) and I absolutely cannot remember any significant events from that time. I know that there were many, and I know that they happened, but I cannot tell you what they were or are. By contrast, I can remember my 13th birthday like it was yesterday. I can remember my early childhood like I can remember what I had for lunch today. There are absolutely no defining reasons that I can find for that gap in my head. When I was in therapy, years ago, my therapist tried to make me think about this time. She got absolutely nothing out of me, and I still cannot remember a thing properly. I have learnt to be okay with it. It bugged me, for most of my twenties. When I was really ill with that kidney infection that, when mentioned, makes my BFFs quiver in fright, I tried again to think about it. Still nothing. In the quiet of bedrest and fully focused on just getting better, I could not find 10 year old me, anywhere. I still cannot, but I know she’s in there somewhere.

Why am I talking about this? Two reasons, really. When I was 13, I had my first cigarette, and I remember it so damn well. When I was 13, I wrote my first poem. The two events are very, very closely linked in my head and, as a result (also because of the way my parents were, hehe), I am petrified that I cannot write without smoking. I have always been scared that I would not be able to find the words if I did not smoke.

I quit smoking once, when I was pregnant. As those 2 lines appeared on that pregnancy test, I snubbed out my smoke. I have absolutely no idea when I started again, but I do know it was on the same day my dad died. I remember getting the phonecall, putting my baby down in her cot, and walking outside onto the balcony to yell at the world, and smoke. The only thing that got me through the first five minutes of knowing my dad was dead, was that cigarette.

Cigarettes and I have had a deep and real affair. So much so that they feel ingrained into my identity. In my head, I see myself as a stereotypical keyboard basher, complete with mad hair and a billion ideas floating around the air, with cigarette in hand.

I can’t be that person, any more.

Why can’t I be this person? It’s as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone who knows me well. I have become frustrated with the process of being that person, and, through an off-beat weird thought, I’ve taken up running as a hobby.

I have never, in my life, done any sort of sport or exercise with any level of interest, spurred on by myself. In fact, as a kid, I refused to learn to swim (I have my reasons why…), I used to actively attempt to avoid school on PE days, and I just plain abhorred the idea of actually exerting myself for the purposes of anything other than getting up to turn the telly on.

But something changed in me, in that weird thought. Something changed in my head, when I started to enjoy my morning trot. Now I want to go further, not necessarily faster – I am not an animal that’s been built for speed. But I do want to go further. My smoking interferes with my ability to go further. So I want it gone.

Just like with this running-walking malarkey, I’ve adopted a measured approach. I know that this kind of perspective on it, works for me, because exactly the same approach is what got me off my bum to walk-run 500metres two months ago, and now I am averaging 2,5 kilometres on my regular little expeditions around the neighbourhood. I just made small goals, for myself, and then achieved them, and now I make more small goals.

But the thing that still frightens me the most, is the not-smoking-while-writing. It feels so foreign to me, like I’ve not done this before. It feels like algebra and calculus mixed together and, guys, I use a calculator to do basic sums. But, I challenged myself recently to write a short blog post without smoking. I did it, and it’s here. And it was HARD, because it was emotionally difficult content.

My second little challenge to myself was to write a longer blogpost and not smoke while doing it. At 1012 words so far, this is where I am. I have not smoked or stopped to smoke while typing this post. It still feels weird but, I know that if I can do this, I can start to delete the little “oh I need a smoke” moments from my day. And I want them gone, one by one. I know I’m not ready to let go of all of them but, if I can eliminate the ones where I smoke while I write, or think about writing, I can delete half of my daily smoking. Oh, and please, don’t tell me I should go work where I can’t smoke. I just end up spending less time at my desk working. Trust me, I’ve tried this.

But why is this post called “the girl who did everything wrong?”. Heh. You see, lovely readers, I have always believed negatively of myself. It didn’t matter if I was winning an award or rampaging through a nightclub at 2am. It didn’t matter if someone applauded when I said something, or if I was being dumped unceremoniously via text message. I have always, somewhere, believed I am unworthy of the good things, and deserving of the bad things. So much so, that, at one point in my life, I’d all-out refuse to do something that made me happy, because I was petrified that something bad would follow it. Even now, as I type that, I feel like I’m taunting fate. But the thing is – I’ve always believed I was the girl who got everything wrong, because she had no idea what she was doing but, did it anyway. Like I had it all backwards but was determinedly pushing forward anyway.

You might think I sound like a crazy person right now. I’m okay with that. My uniquely branded level of crazy is not something I am ashamed of anymore. I’ve discovered something, in this funny 360 kickflip of my life…nobody has it completely sewn up. No one has their life fully in control and everyone has a certain spark of madness. Sometimes it overwhelms our lives, sometimes it serves as a little spark of inspiration.

And that little spark of inspiration I had one weird morning when I decided to go for a run, is what got me here. It created within me a desire to change. Those little sparks of inspiration started long before that, I know, because I became determined to change my life a while ago. I was sad for so long, guys. So sad I didn’t even know my sad. I can see my sads now, in hindsight. I still have them, every now and then. But they don’t scare me anymore. They don’t make me feel like I have everything wrong anymore. They’re just there, every now and then, much like when you find yourself staring at the expiry date on the milk carton and think “ag, dammit, this is off”. My sads are just a part of me, just as my smile is.

My ultimate point to this post? Is that I used to be the girl who did everything wrong. Mostly towards myself. Nowadays, I want to be the girl does what she can, right. I started that process years ago, and nowadays I feel like I am doing the right thing with my life. I’m not claiming to have everything right. I definitely do not. I’ve just learnt to understand that I have to fail at certain things, I have to say no to certain things, so that I can be better at the things I want to be better at. The changes I act on right now? They’re part of this process.

All I can hope is that, somewhere, 10 year old me is smiling.

[1602 words. Not a single cigarette smoked].