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Opinion: All up in smoke?

September 1st 2014

Gemski found her singing improved when she stopped smoking (© St Mungos)

Smoking just isn’t cool any more. Recent research shows that young people’s attitudes to smoking are changing. Just 8 per cent of 15-year-olds claim to smoke, an all-time low, according to statistics. It’s banned bars, in cars. And now even a Liverpool pub is outlawing smoking in its beer garden. So while e-cigarettes are on the rise, are the days of real ciggies over? Gemskii gives us her personal take.

Why do any of us start smoking? Even in my youth I knew it wasn’t good and despite that first head-rushing, sickly puff I persevered. I quickly found smoking 20 a day a very easy thing to do.

Initially, I think it was a grown-up thing. Smoking meant you weren’t 14 but at least 16! It was also a nice thing to share with people and far cheaper than buying a round of drinks.

I used to dance professionally and in those days, smoking indoors was totally acceptable. As part of ‘my moves’, I learned some cool tricks one could do with lit cigarettes and a Zippo.

However, with every budget the cost spiralled, and pretty soon I wanted to stop and found that I couldn’t. I solved this problem by smoking cannabis instead, I figured that there was no way I’d be able to smoke 20 spliffs a day. I seemed to manage nine, but at least my packet of cigarettes lasted longer...

I never kidded myself that this was any better for my health: my spliffs came without a filter and and now my addiction to nicotine was joined by one to weed. I tried skunk neat, but found it unsatisfying – I liked nicotine.

Giving up spliff was an enormous task but one I knew I had to do because I could see that cannabis wasn’t really working for me. I hated it when people would smoke mine. I wanted to smoke it myself and silently resented passing it on. I also felt greedy when I knew someone was hovering in hopeful expectation.

In the end, I couldn’t leave the house without taking my paraphernalia. I also found it impossible to socialise without skinning up. It was the first thing I did on arrival; this let everyone and me know I was staying for at least an hour. It made me ‘cool’ and always welcome; more of the hoverers approached.

In situations where I couldn't smoke in public, I would nip out and skin up. I took it on planes and once made and smoked a spliff in Qatar airport as I waited for a transfer. In London, I smoked in Soho Square and got caught; my stash was confiscated. In Southend, I got arrested and prosecuted for possession.

In Stansted, I had checked in and went out for a spliff before boarding and managed to lose my passport. The plane left and I didn’t.

Pretty soon it made sense to stay at home. I occupied myself with tedious tasks like checking my receipts against bank-statements and making collages on glass jars with tiny bits of shiny coloured sweetie papers.

My short-term memory disappeared; I would stand up and think, “Why am I standing?”. Unable to remember, I would sit down again and reach for the cuppa that wasn’t there. “Oh yes, I want to make a cup of tea!” Up I would get, which took a little while. When on my feet I would think, “Why am I standing?”

Of course I tried to stop, but now I found that I had two addictions not one: nicotine and skunk. Either one was no good without the other. I white-knuckled it on willpower and after varying degrees of time the end result was the same: I relapsed.

I went slightly mad. I didn’t mind seeing things that I knew weren’t there, black shadowy forms. But one time, whilst driving, a ‘person’ appeared like a shadowy form and didn’t disappear. I was so lucky never to harm anyone, but I knew things were tilting too far.

A relationship I was in was changing because of an enforced long distance. Every time we spoke on the phone, I would prepare myself to behave well. And every night I behaved exactly as I wanted not to. My self-control had gone.

I had a dream that had a dead-line. But within minutes of entering rehearsals I started building a spliff! There was no way I was going to succeed if this first day was anything to go by. Time for drastic action.

I went to Narcotics Anonymous and plugged into it. I did meetings daily for three months and took on commitments. I cried, I had sleepless nights, I exercised, I rehearsed, I writhed and fumed, I got a sponsor, hugged strangers, started the steps. I never relapsed because I saw others doing that and it didn’t seem worth it. I lost my girlfriend but I did my show and it made a profit. And I had some five-star reviews too. Goodbye spiff. Goodbye cigarettes. You're not cool anymore.

Gemskii was homeless for many years before St Mungo’s stepped in to provide accommodation and support. She trained in drama and and created a show – Transformation – based on her own experiences.




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