Graphic by Andrija Klaric

Inhale, Exhale: Smoking and Coping

Lots of us started smoking more at NYUAD not because we’re less smart, but because among many other reasons, it’s a means to avoid loneliness.

Do me a favor. Go to the Welcome Center and walk toward the street until you see the rusty-looking red rocks that were originally thrown there for aesthetic purposes. Now walk toward the east, along the border that holds these rocks.
You’ll notice that there are almost as many cigarettes as there are stones. You’ll notice a couple of them still have the red lipstick smudges of the women to whom they once belonged. You might notice that most of them were smoked to their very butts, whereas a few were left half-smoked because their owners were probably waiting for a taxi that happened to arrive right after they lit their cigarettes and not, as you might hope, because their owners had an epiphany where they realized how much damage they were doing to themselves.
The irony. NYU Abu Dhabi claims to accept only the smartest, most talented and most promising students from around the world. John Sexton used to tell us in his Candidate Weekend speech that if you got this far, it means you’re among the best of the best. Sexton told us that you should always ask about the SAT score of your romantic interest because you don’t want to end up with someone dumb. Most people laughed in agreement, as if to say, That’s me, and that’s exactly how I feel about smart people!
I felt awkward, and I’d feel the same alienation in the Marhaba Dinner with Al Bloom reaffirming how smart and special we were.
I felt awkward, not only because I didn’t take the SAT, but also because I knew that I was certainly not the smartest person in my class. I didn’t have the highest grades, I was an excellent procrastinator and I wasn’t in the National Honor Society, Model United Nations or president of my high school’s Student Government. All these qualities, or lack thereof, became conspicuous because of the one quality I did have: I was a smoker.
I knew the prices of most cigarette packs sold in my country, the difference between Marlboro Silvers, Golds and Reds and what each color said about their respective smokers. I could tell an experienced smoker from someone who was new to the vice. I could flick my ash naturally instead of tapping it, and I could make new smoker friends very easily with the confidence brought about by my habit.
In an intellectual environment as particular as NYUAD’s, it could be seen as ridiculous or even pathetic to know all these things, or to smoke in the first place. If I were as smart as John Sexton and Al Bloom claimed, then how is it possible that I smoke despite being aware of all the health hazards that it entails?
I think the underlying reason is that smoking doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. Smoking does say something, however, about how you adapt to the environments you’re in. Recently, I stumbled upon a Huffington Post opinion article by Ben Michaelis, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. What I found most enlightening about his piece was that it urged us to stop asking questions about intelligence and start asking questions about adaptation.
The amount of cigarettes you’ll find whilst walking along the edge of those red rocks indicates that many people at NYUAD smoke, including faculty. Yet, professors are not typically categorized as dumb. Honestly, I don’t think I or any of my friends who smoke are precisely dumb either. I think our smoking is more a reflection of adaptation to unfamiliar situations. Coming to NYUAD requires the act of letting go of things and people you’ve always relied on. In a new environment, you need something to hold on to. Cigarettes can be just that.
Out of the eight student smokers I asked, seven admitted to smoking much more when at NYUAD than when at home, and two of them admitted to only smoking when at NYUAD. I personally fall into this pattern as well, since before coming to NYUAD I smoked almost uniquely when in social situations.
Although there are many reasons to explain this trend, I want to talk about a specific one. We all need to depend on others at times. Cigarettes can be there when people can’t.
In fifth grade, we had to do our first research project, on any topic we preferred, and work on it for a month. I chose to do mine about Armageddon, the end of the world as we know it. I didn’t realize how much the research got to me until one night after I presented my findings. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was thinking about all of these formidable things: God, eternity and death. If God created the world, and if God has existed eternally, he must have felt so lonely. If paradise meant eternal life, how could we possibly escape loneliness and uncertainty and fear? I didn’t know, and this scared me.
I showed up to my parent’s room and was immediately welcomed by my mom lifting the blanket on her side, signalling for me to come into the safe haven of her company. Although I was still frightened, I was able to fall asleep cuddled up next to her. There’s something about going through fear in the physical company of someone that is comforting.
Growing up, every time I felt extreme emotions I could repeat this ritual of going to my mother. I’ve always been able to depend on my family. They are the one group of people I know will always be there. I know that regardless of all the mistakes made and yet to be made, I’ll always be able to depend on them because for the 19 years that I’ve lived, they’ve never let my trust down.
To come to NYUAD, most of us travel thousands of kilometers away from our families. Those people that many of us were always able to depend on are now far away. For some of us, they are so many hours ahead or behind that we can no longer depend on them as we did for so long. Although we have our friends, it’s different to depend on a friend than on your family. I can’t rely on my friends as blindly as I can depend on my family. On one hand, it’s not fair. On the other, it’s not healthy.
What I can depend on, however, is my box of cigarettes. If I’m reading about Durkheim’s theory of suicide for my Logic of Social Inquiry class at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, and the reading starts frightening me, or making me feel lonely, I can go outside to the benches close to the dining hall. I can hope to meet some other smoker there and even if there’s no one else smoking, at least I have my cigarette.
If you come to think of it, there is nothing more alive than a cigarette. From the moment you light it, it is alive, showing its soul in its orange light. It’s a metaphor for life. And then, when it’s about to be finished, the soul slowly begins to dim until it’s nothing but a filter, a dead body. Life and death epitomized in a cigarette; a performance of five minutes that tells the tale of a life.
All this is to say that a cigarette gives me company when I feel lonely. It’s something I feel is alive, something that can actually give me physical contact whenever I want. I can always depend on my cigarettes to ease the loneliness or fear or uncertainty that I feel. It’s easy to get used to something you can depend on every time. Although these unpleasant feelings are not always within me, the fact that I’m so used to the nicotine keeps me smoking even if I’m having a great day.
Lots of us started smoking more at NYUAD not because we’re less smart, but because among many other reasons, it’s a means to avoid loneliness. It’s a means for us to adapt to our new circumstances. We come here alone in our freshman year and slowly start making friends. But because lots of us feel alone or bored or uncertain from the day we arrive here, we turn to smoking. In the process, we meet other smokers. Lots of our closest friends end up being smokers as well.
For some, it’s exciting to meet people who speak the same language as yourself in another country. For others it’s exciting to meet another musician just like yourself, since you share a common language in music. For many smokers, it’s exciting to meet another smoker because you speak the common language of smoking. This common knowledge with another individual gives you a sense of belonging. And, like it or not, we all need to belong.
Inhale. Exhale. What people often tell us to do in order to relax and feel better.
I do it, yes. But with an added twist. I inhale the smoke, then exhale it.
Josefina Dumay Neder is Features Editor. Email her at
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