A menthol state of mind

Only a handful of people know the reason I started smoking. Or when it happened. I don’t usually share this information freely with people because it’s embarrassing. Every time I think about it, I feel like I was weak and vulnerable. I was. Most people start in their teens or early twenties because of boredom, curiosity, peer pressure, or possibly all of those reasons. Not me. No. Nuh uh.

I started smoking twenty years ago because of a boogeyman.

Okay. Now that you’ve picked yourself up off the floor from laughing (or fainting), let me explain. If you’ve done the math right, that means I started really early in life. Like I-was-nine-years-old early. Yes. Nine years old. Are you still there? Did you faint again? Have you finished laughing at me?

Okay. Let me explain.

After my parents’ divorce, my brothers and I lived with my mom at my grandma’s house. My grandma also had her two youngest children and her second oldest grandchild (my cousin) living there. My cousin, who was four years older than me, bullied us on a regular basis. Especially my younger brother and I. He’d tell us stories in order to get us to do the things he wanted. To get us to start smoking, he made up a boogieman.

One night after all the adults were asleep, my younger brother and I stayed up giggling and playing on the bottom bunk of our bunk bed. For light we used a small flashlight and the streetlight streaming through our window so we wouldn’t be detected. Except we were. My cousin came into the room after hearing us giggling while passing by our door. He asked us what we were doing and why we weren’t asleep yet. We were so afraid of him that we couldn’t answer. That’s when the story started.

“Do you know what happens to kids who stay up late at night? No? Well, look out the window and down the street. You see where the light from the streetlight stops and turns into shadows? In those shadows there’s a really big scary man, bigger and scarier than me, who takes kids who stay up late. He keeps them locked up in a basement where they are never to be found again.

You can’t fool him and pretend to sleep, either. He knows. And there’s only one way to keep him away.”

By then we were freaked out. Remember, I was nine. My younger brother was about seven. We believed most stories people told us. So we asked him to tell us what we had to do. I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now, but I’ll continue anyway.

“The only thing that keeps him away is cigarette smoke.”

He says while shaking the pack he’s got in his hand.

“You have to blow the cigarette smoke out the window. And when you’re done, you have to flick the butt into the yard. That will keep him away. Here. I’ll give you kids my pack. Smoke a couple tonight and save the rest for whenever you can’t sleep.”

We knew it was wrong to smoke, but we were scared. We couldn’t sleep and didn’t want the scary man to get us. So we asked him to teach us what to do. And he did. Every night for a week, after the adults went to sleep, my brother and I would curl up under the covers and hide. We couldn’t sleep even more because we thought we could see the scary man standing in the shadows. Every night my cousin would come into the room to see if we were still awake. When he’d find us quivering under the blankets, he’d tell us we needed to hurry up and smoke those cigarettes. So, even though we knew we’d get in trouble, we’d do it.

Then he stopped coming to our room and we ran out of cigarettes. So we started stealing them from anyone who left them out. My mom, grandpa, aunt and uncle. We’d sneak into their rooms and take a few from their packs. If they had a carton, we’d take a pack. We continued doing this for a while until one day we got caught by my grandma.

She caught us taking cigarettes from my grandpa’s stash and scolded us. I’m not sure if she ever told my mom, but threatened to do so if we kept doing it. She also said she knew it was us who were throwing our butts into the lawn. I’m pretty sure now that my cousin’s intentions were to get us in trouble for smoking. That was why he told us to flick them directly out our window into the lawn. Because grandma will find them when she does her gardening. We never told her, or anyone, what my cousin told us.

Anyway. My little brother didn’t want to get in trouble again, so he wouldn’t smoke anymore. Being the protective older sister that I was, I didn’t want that either. I came up with a plan. We’d be okay if only one of us did it. I decided that I would continue to smoke to keep the boogieman away from us. If we got caught again, I could tell them that it was just me and that my brother was innocent. I continued to steal cigarettes and smoke for months after that. Every morning I’d go out and pick up all the butts. Either my grandma never found out again, or she didn’t care. Whatever the reason, we never got in trouble again.

This continued for months before I started smoking during the day when I was bored and no one was home. Eventually I figured out that my cousin had lied to us just to get us in trouble, but by then I was addicted. I smoked for three or four years straight since then. Always finding ways to get ahold of some. Then when I tried to quit, I would last a few months to a year, but start right back up. It’s been like that since. I can quit for up to a year, but I always start again.

You know, I’ve always wondered if my brother and I just imagined the figure in the shadows, or if it was my cousin trying to make his story seem more real. I guess I’ll never know.

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