I have always been on guard against any form of addiction. Even as a child, I hated the thought of it. I hated it for myself, and I hated it for the people I loved. I remember the time my father was sitting on the floor near the fireplace with his brother, whom he hadn’t seen for a very long time. My uncle offered my father a cigarette. How old was I? I think I was about 9. I immediately protested, “No, don’t! Don’t smoke!” I might as well have been invisible — the attitude was that it just wasn’t any of my business. It was distressing watching it happen because I knew where it would lead.
And that was the beginning of about twenty years of him smoking. And back then, smoking wasn’t restricted to the outdoors. People smoked everywhere: in their homes, in their offices, and in their cars.
So it was the air I breathed.
I have had a low view of cigarettes and smoking for as long as I can remember.
I remember the time my cousin Corinne came to visit me. She is two years older than me, almost to the day. She’s the only child of parents who smoked marijuana when it was a criminal offence. Maybe they felt that it would be hypocritical to restrict their daughter when she started smoking, or maybe they just didn’t care. In any case, Corinne was visiting my house for perhaps the first time.
While our parents were talking in the living room, Corinne and I were in my room sitting on my bed. She took out a cigarette and started smoking. She was about 14 maybe. I didn’t say anything, but of course I was watching her. I noticed that when she exhaled, it didn’t come out her nose, the way it did when my dad smoked. I wondered whether that meant that she wasn’t as committed or as addicted as my dad was. It seemed to me that she was doing it just to be cool.
Perhaps Corinne thought I was in awe of how adult-like she was, but those weren’t my thoughts.
In any case, my favourite visit with her was when we were both younger. Our family went to a place called Ralston in southern Alberta, which made Medicine Hat look like a bustling metropolis. Medicine Hat is where she’s from. I was about 8. She had more independence than I did, and she knew about buying things. For one thing, she was very knowledgeable about Dairy Queen sundaes. I don’t know if I had even had one before then. Maybe. I chose rum and raisin or something like that. I liked it, but then while I was eating it, she told me that it had liquor in it. So I lost my appetite for it and threw it out without finishing it. Corinne made fun of me, saying that I didn’t want it because of the rum. I was embarrassed and pretended that had nothing to do with it, but of course she was right.
Liquor was on the list of things I never wanted to get addicted to.
The rest of the visit had a lot of fun moments. I was sitting in the back seat with her, and when the car went around the corner, sending me sliding over to her, she said, “Aw, I didn’t know you cared,” as if I had just wanted to cuddle with her. It was so funny! I burst out laughing and couldn’t stop for a long time. It still makes me smile. That visit included sleeping in a blue tent in the back yard of my grandparents’ place. The thing that amazed me was that we had several bags of chips for snacking on. It started raining at some point and we scrambled back to the house.
She was the one who showed me how to wrap a towel around my head when my hair was wet. She had to show me two or three times because I couldn’t follow how to do it.
I don’t have many other memories of her. I remember how my grandfather pitted us against each other by making us compete with each other over spelling and geography. He had been a airplane navigator in WWII and used geography as a way to put me on the spot. Corinne and I had an unequal relationship with the grandparents for a couple of reasons, one of them being that, unlike her, I lived far away. The grandparents were somewhat intimidating to me, but she interacted with them freely and had a secure and comfortable relationship with them. My grandfather even called her Zowie sometimes. Her dream name was Zowie Skye.
As I’ve grown older, I have seen how grandparents often foster competitiveness between cousins. They watch their grandchildren from one child and compare them with their grandchildren from another child and note the differences. They provide ‘innocent updates’ which are precisely aimed at causing trouble: “Oh Jennie, your cousin Mickey is captain of the baseball team, did you know that?” “Oh Gracie, maybe you will be able to win a scholarship, just like your cousin Macie.” Such remarks have a dark underbelly.
Corinne ridiculed me for being afraid of liquor, and as she sat there smoking her cigarette in my room, I am sure she thought that I was a goody-two shoes and very unaware of the ways of the world. The thing is, I knew enough about the ways of the world to distrust those ways. Our lives followed different paths, and she was soon a mother and soon a grandmother.
As I grew older, I continued to shun anything that might entice me into an addiction. I even avoided coffee because it seemed that everybody was good at starting but nobody was good at stopping. Of course, caffeine is not considered mind-altering (though it sort of is), so it’s fine on balance, but I felt that I had the advantage over it if I just didn’t start in the first place.
Success is so often about what you don’t do, you see.
My abhorrence of addiction also affected my view of relationships. Addiction has the potential to destroy your life, so why would you marry someone who has an addiction? Is that not inviting disaster?
So this was a rule for me. I would not date someone who seemed to have a problem with liquor or drugs, no matter what other good qualities they had. Nothing — good looks, intelligence, humour, compatibility with me — could make up for that. It was simply a non-starter, the thing that removed them as a possibility definitively. If I man told me that he did drugs, he might as well tell me that he was already married.
And come to think of it, a man with an addiction is already married, isn’t he?
Whether it’s an addiction to drugs, drinking, or gambling, such a man is ready to ruin his life. A man ready to ruin his own life is probably going to have little regard for yours.
Now it did happen that one of the people I dated was a drinker. You can’t always tell. But then I did know it, and I saw that violence and drinking often go together. One time, he threw a telephone (not a cell phone) across the room. He was showing how angry he was. He wasn’t angry with me, but it made me feel scared. My first reaction was to psychologically hide and wait for the storm to pass, the way a child waits for her parents to stop fighting, but then I stopped myself and said, “Wait a minute, I feel scared. What on earth am I doing with someone who makes me feel scared?” I broke up with him very soon afterwards. I have no doubt that if I had continued with him, he would have become more violent.
The advice I would give to all women is to not become involved with any man who uses drugs or who has a problem with drinking or gambling. Make no exceptions. It is far easier to not get involved at the beginning than to break up once you have already fallen in love. Walk away while you still can. As I said, a man who is ready to ruin his own life will not have much regard for yours.
If I could go back and change the past, I would say to Corinne, “What is the point of smoking? You’re better than this. We are students, so let’s focus on studying right now. And look, your boyfriend is not good enough for you. It’s far better to be lonely than be with someone like that.”
And in my version of the past, she would say, “Aw, I didn’t know you cared,” and I would laugh, and then I would say, “Well, now you know.”
And in my version of the past, she would take my advice from then on, and she would still be alive today.
Rest in peace, Corinne.
(April 18, 1968 – October 25, 2021)