My boyfriend saved me from myself -- but now he acts like my jailer

I'd just like to have an occasional cigarette -- without that disapproving look.

Published August 17, 2006 9:02AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been with my boyfriend since the very last throes of my painful and self-destructive adolescence. We met when I was a sophomore in college and drinking too much, smoking too much pot and engaging in too much joyless sex with friends and strangers. It had come to a point where it was either off myself (or similarly give up on my future) or confront my problems head-on and emerge victorious (grow up, if you will). My boyfriend came into the picture and, by initiating a healthy and sustainable friendship with me, helped me hang on through the last few rough spots.

Before we became romantically intertwined, I swore off smoking, cheating and abusing drugs and alcohol. It was wonderful. I still feel incredibly grateful that I was able to do this through my own strength and with his support. Fast-forward four years: I have maintained my mostly sober life and continued on the path of self-improvement, always keeping in mind that my history indicates a weakness for escapism.

I also began smoking cigarettes here and there, only while drinking (which is to say "occasionally") and always with his OK (smoke and smoking generally bother him.) As our relationship grew, I began to feel more comfortable asserting my separateness from him in friendly and nondestructive ways. For the most part that has made our relationship stronger. The problem I'm having now is that I want to feel free to smoke cigarettes whenever I want to (which really is not that often), but he's conspicuously worried that I will readdict myself. I am clear to myself and to him that becoming a regular smoker is the last thing I want, and I've rehashed the revelations that came along with sobriety often enough that I think it's verging on overkill. I just want the freedom to smoke sometimes, health risks acknowledged, without him looking at and talking to me like I'm disappointing him.

It's worth noting that he's more morally rigid than anyone I've ever met, and I count this as an asset, since his morals and mine are well aligned. I'm really glad that someone cares enough about my health to give me that look (although I already have one mother). But I feel like he's made his point; I've promised to be careful with it, and yet I still feel like a bad child when I light up.

I mean, I don't hound him every (or even any) time he goes off into the woods to break a bone or two on his mountain bike, though I do worry. Is this a respect issue? Am I wrong to liken smoking to independence? I'm not 16 anymore, so why is he making me feel like I am? I worry that this is symptomatic of a bigger dynamic, one that might come up in other ways if we were married (and we plan to be).

Nine Out of 10 Doctors Prefer Camels

Dear Nine Out of 10,

Your boyfriend doesn't approve of your smoking. That doesn't mean you can't smoke. It's just something that you're going to have to accept: He doesn't approve. You can't make him approve. He has his own opinion about it. If you smoke in front of him, you're going to get that look.

It sounds like you have given him permission to be the enforcer. You have given him permission to give you that look. But now you would like to revoke permission. You would like to say when he is to be the enforcer and when he is to lighten up. But that's very hard to do. For one thing, you have given him control and now are trying to take it back. For another, you are asking him to behave with a kind of flexibility that may be beyond his ability. He is rigid. That's who he is. He is Mr. Inflexible. He's not being a jerk about it, but a person can't necessarily turn it on and off like that, not if it's his true nature, not if he is truly Mr. Rigid.

He thinks it's his job to police you, and that's what he's doing, and you mostly appreciate it, in the same way that we mostly appreciate the police around us who keep us safe -- except when they pull us over for speeding, and then we wish they'd chill out.

Your worry that this is "symptomatic of a bigger dynamic" is worth thinking about. It probably is; if it weren't, it wouldn't bother you.

The larger dynamic is that the moral authority resides in him, because he rescued you from your bad self and brought you into the light. He lends you moral courage and strength, but at a price: You must cede some control to him.

Smoking may be your way of symbolically taking back some control, and staying connected to that earlier, wilder self -- who, let's remember, was not all bad, who was pained and frightened and lost but also I'll bet very passionate, powerful, explosive, alive. Maybe you weren't completely ready to be as pure as he is. So you still smoke. It is a way of keeping that part of yourself alive. That's a good thing. It would be unfortunate if you ceded all control to him. It might kill you.

Cigarettes will kill you too. Life kills you. Living kills you. Everything kills you. (May I make one aside: When I quit smoking it was because I realized not that I was giving myself disease but that I was actually killing emotions with the cigarettes; every time I started to feel certain things, I would smoke, and I did not want to remain numb to those things forever -- the anxiety, the panic, the fear; I wanted to feel everything. So I quit. And, indeed, I felt everything, and went a little mad, but c'est la vie! I could at least feel!)

Maybe what you need to "deal with" is not smoking per se but the passionate forces that left you so ill-equipped to "deal with" adulthood -- that is, it may be that in reacting so strongly to the chaos of your youth you have created unattainable goals of purity and discipline for yourself. If so, when you feel yourself slipping, it may be excessively frightening, as though you might slip all the way back to your suicidal self. But if you try to take certain elements of your past one at a time, you may find you can handle them -- straight, no chaser. It also may be that in smoking an occasional cigarette you are trying to strike a balance, to find the middle ground, and you need to do that.

I note that you refer to yourself as sober but you still drink. If you were not an alcoholic, that's fine -- "sober" may have a different meaning for you than it does for someone who has had to give it up altogether. Still, I sense a yearning for both moral perfection and flexibility. You can have those things, but there will always be points of friction between them. I suggest you deal with each of those points of friction individually: The fact that you want to smoke doesn't mean you're going to fall apart or slip into your former self. Like I say, it could be symbolic to you, symbolic of a vice, or a pleasure, that you can still control and enjoy in moderation.

I mean, it's a filthy habit. Then again, so is life.

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