Cigarettes, Shame and Self Compassion
I loved and hated those little fuckers, felt equal parts freed and imprisoned by them. It’s been almost 32 months since my last cigarette. I still sometimes crave one on those days when life feels too big, too busy, too stressful or on those days when I feel like I’m just holding my shit together. Those nasty, seductive little things helped me hold my shit together at times I needed holding together most.
My dirty little secret. The toxicity of shame on the body is so much worse than any other toxin we can put in. Shame eats away at us, pulls us down, makes us want to hide; hide secrets and put our public self and appearance before our truth. Shame makes us sick, physically and emotionally. We can only keep it bottled up for so long before it turns caustic and eats away at us from the inside.
Over the several years I smoked on and off, sometimes I smoked for fun, out of boredom, out of habit. Those are the times I regret the most. At the worst of times, truth be told, I occasionally would sneak a cigarette between clients. Those were the most shameful cigarettes. I felt an intense dissonance praying I had hid the smell sufficiently but surely I had a client who graciously ignored the smell and said nothing.
The times I have no regret over are the times that cigarettes were a survival resource. Regardless of how bad smoking was for me, it helped me in moments where I needed something I couldn’t get anywhere else. Judge me if you will. You clearly don’t know yourself enough to know how fallible you are, how there are likely many things you do in your life that aren’t ‘good for you’ but help you keep surviving.
You see, there’s a reason people don’t feel shame in sharing their deepest darkest pain with me, their addictive behaviours, their traumas. It’s because I know my own shit and shadow enough to know that I have NO PLACE TO JUDGE other people who are doing their best to keep their shit together as well. People’s stories don’t scare me because my hope is to be able is to serve other people without having to hide behind an image of what I think I should be. I don’t pretend to have myself all sorted out. I’m a wounded healer. I’m proud and grateful for the experiences of healing and learning and growth I share with other people in spite what I carry with me and am working through. I can partner with other people in their healing and recovery because I’m actively and constantly engaged in my own process. I’m not trying to rise above anything. I’m in the fucking trenches. And, I have a good life filled with so much richness and a full heart. I am loved.
We all have survival resources until we build up a capacity to build more creative resources that are less harmful. I loved hearing the phrase “survival resources” in my Sensorimotor Psychotherapy training this last year. That phrase takes away the shame. The things we do in crucial moments in our lives where it feels like the choice is fall apart or engage in behaviour that serves us now and hurts us later can only be held in self-compassion.
I remember being on the phone with a mortgage broker a few years ago. It was after a nasty, toxic separation with my last husband. Yes, more than one ex-husband in my past. For another day. Even writing that makes my face flush with shame. There’s that shame again. Wounded healer, remember? Makes me a shame expert because I know it. No more weddings in my future. Rest assured. The messiest area of my life is intimate relationships, remnants of a tenacious attachment deficit and complex and often toxic upbringing riddled with the pungent fragrance of intergenerational trauma cloaked in denial as solid as cement. Don’t get me wrong. I take full responsibility for my life and circumstances, almost too much in a self blaming kind of way. Stubborn neural pathways.
It was winter and it was snowing. I was freezing. Chilled to the bone but dead set on taking care of my survival, my financial future, securing a place for me and my daughter to settle next. My daughter was inside our temporary rental apartment. I had snuck out for a few precious minutes and was working out some very complex details and needed a level head. The deal had become a confusing mess. Now what? Holy shit. I had a cigarette in my hand. Taking drags while talking calmly to my broker, wondering if he could tell I was smoking. He said, “I’ve never had a client in these circumstances who had it so together.” I looked at that cigarette and knew its part in me keeping my cool in that moment.
That’s right. I kept my shit together in the moments I needed to in order to take care of my future the best I could. All worked out in the end but I had turned to whatever I had available in that moment to help me cope and survive. I was there for my daughter throughout that ordeal despite the extra teeth brushing, hand washing and scent cover ups. I had to cancel one client over that six months things were a mess. I took care of things. And, I smoked for a few months while doing that. Then, after my last move 32 months ago, I quit that day. I know I can’t even have one drag now. I’m grossed out just thinking about it.
I have no regrets about that cigarette that night or any of the others that helped get to me where I am now. Feel that judgement creeping in as you read that? Humility my friend. Humility. I have some clients who admit to having a cigarette a day and given what they are dealing with, I’m amazed they aren’t turning to hard drugs to numb out the severity of the pain that could easily cripple them.
If it needs to be said, I’m not saying start smoking to cope better with life!!! My own addiction to a less healthy anxiety survival resource has made be obsessed with resourcing people with better fast working, body hacking, anxiety coping resources!
You can get your free BODY HACKS FOR TRAUMATIC STRESS by signing up for my newsletter, BTW.
That’s the crux of being trauma informed. We need to help people have compassion for the ways they learned to survive until now, to de-stigmatize, de-pathologize, and turn that shame around into self-compassion. If self-compassion could time travel, I’d send it back to myself in those moments where I felt shameful for smoking in the worst of times. Might not be as self-compassionate for those cigarettes I smoked while out dancing or cocktail waitressing in my twenties. Haha. I show people how to do that real time, sending embodied self-compassion to their past selves, knowing in some way that the part of our body stuck in the past receives it and can then help move forward into present day reality.
How on earth can we show people how to loosen the grip of shame for the way they’ve survived if we can’t do that for ourselves. This is where being a wounded healer can make us all so much more able to guide other people along. We practice it, and not just in an esoteric kind of way. In a fucking raw, honest, human way.
We have the real world map of the bumpy, confusing, messy journey etched into us, along with the humility and self-compassion that alone is enough to hold space for others to show us their whole selves, shame, maybe cigarettes and all.
If me showing a slice of my flaws and fallibility to anyone makes me a less attractive or appealing ‘expert’ to you, I’m glad we figured that out now.