In this story, Susan* talks about her experience growing up with a dad who smokes cigarettes at least three times a day. She shares how it’s affected their relationship and her views on the idea of smoking as an adult.
I held my first pack of cigarettes when I was four years old. My dad and I should’ve been on the road trying to beat the rush hour traffic between our home in Festac town and my school at Victoria Island. But he’d forgotten a very important file upstairs, so I was in the back seat of the car waiting.
Whenever I found myself idle in the car, I liked to poke around, hoping to find some leftover sweets from my mum’s purse or change stuffed between the car seats. That day wasn’t any different, except what I found was a pack of cigarettes. Of course, I had no idea what I was holding at the time. I’d grow up to realise it was my father’s addiction. But I remember how quickly he snatched it out of my hands when he found me taking out a stick from the pack.
Thinking about that moment makes me wonder how many things we witness as kids with no understanding of how much trauma they cause in our lives. My dad was an addict who loved the high of alcohol. My mum had been doing a good job of hiding it, so my dad was my hero. He’d pick me up from school almost every day, and we’d spend at least an hour at a restaurant close by, talking about my day. I loved those moments.
But as I got older, I slowly realised my dad wasn’t everything my four-year-old mind had summed him up to be.
When I was six, my family moved to Abuja. And then I became a lot more aware of how much time he spent outside of the house and in the backyard, smoking and drinking. My Primary three health class had taught me a little about what smoking was and why it was bad, so to me, Daddy simply become a bad man.
But I was a bit conflicted on whether smoking was really bad. Part of what my health teacher said was that cigarettes were only okay in colder regions like Europe and America. My dad had spent the last two years in Wales, so maybe he was just cold and still needed it.
While I was conflicted, I can almost choke on the memory of the cigarette smell that came through my bedroom window every evening. Maybe he thought I was asleep and wouldn’t notice how he closed my window to keep the smell from entering my bedroom, but I was always wide awake.
I’d actually stopped sleeping when the backyard smoking began. Not just from the choking smell, but from the drunken arguments that quickly ensued between him and my mum when he was done in the backyard. By this time, I just never felt safe when he was home. If he was coming into a room, I’d greet him and leave almost immediately. But he didn’t care enough to ask why.
It didn’t get better in my teens. Whenever he was home, he was either asleep or smoking; we no longer had a relationship because he barely said anything to me, and when he did, it was to yell. Now in my 20s, I watch him smoke three times a day, every day — each cigarette stick comes at the end of each meal — not including the sticks he smokes when he’s out with friends before coming home from work.
I’ve had every opportunity to smoke, but I associate cigarettes with the angry, sad and distant person my dad became. You can say alcohol played a bigger role in his anger issues, but I’ve seen him smoke more times than I’ve seen him drink. It’s like he smokes for some kind of escape. From what? I don’t know.
But I recently got a little insight into why smoking is so important to him. First, it was a brief conversation with my mum where I outrightly asked her why she decided to be with someone who finds more solace in smoking than in being with her. She explained how he’d grown up with 13 step-siblings in Warri and a father who didn’t care much for him.
His mum had left his dad when he took in a second wife. My mum went on about how he may have felt abandoned by his mum, and his step-mum maltreating him didn’t make things easier. Without parents who cared about his whereabouts, he was off smoking and drinking with the neighbourhood guys as early as 10 years old. He’s been smoking ever since. He’s 50 years old now.
My mum was attracted to his bad-boy side when they met at the University of Benin. She’s quite reserved, so I guess it was appealing to have someone bubbly and outgoing give her some attention. But why did the marriage last? “I didn’t think he’d keep up the lifestyle when we had kids,” she said. And after that? “I stayed for my children,” she said. It was hilarious because the reason she stayed led to many sleepless nights for me.
Fear is the only good excuse I can make up to avoid blaming her. Yes, maybe the uncertainty of leaving someone she’s loved since her university days were too difficult to picture, so she said. That’s the best scenario I can make up for her. Sympathy may have been another reason, but I don’t have the energy to sympathise because they could’ve done better.
I never confirmed the story with my dad, but he has talked about days he didn’t get to eat at home because his step-mum refused to give him food. I understand how the hurt he experienced as a kid trickled into who he is now. It could easily trickle to me because I’m experiencing his pain physically and emotionally. That’s why I can’t imagine smoking.
I’ve chalked up his addiction to sadness, as, at 50, he’s now at a point where he’s worked all his life and has very little to show for it. Unlike his mates who’re driving cars or buying houses, he seems to be stuck. So maybe, this time, smoking helps him hide from the reality that he never did well for himself. But then, these are my made-up excuses for him.
Maybe I’m misguided for thinking I can be better than my dad. After all, we all think we’re different from our parents, but we sometimes end up slowly becoming them as adults. While I can’t fully control how my trauma manifests itself, the choice to smoke or drink is something I can control. It may not be enough in the long run, but for now, that’s my benchmark for not ending up like my dad.
The same applies to who I eventually marry. I don’t want a man who has vices more important than me or our kids. I know I’m aware not everyone smokes or drinks for the same reasons, but I don’t want someone who isn’t honest enough to admit when he’s deflecting worries and emotions with addictive substances.
I can’t say I’ll ever sum up the courage to ask my dad why he’s willing to spend his life slowly killing his lungs, but I’m so angry that dying doesn’t seem to scare him even though he has a family. And if he does get sick, his family will bear the burden. I’ve seen him cough around the house and drink agbo in an attempt to manage it. But who’s he fooling? All I can hope for is that my dad never gets to the point of a terminal illness.
I also don’t know if I’ve forgiven him enough for letting me choke on cigarette fumes since I was six. I haven’t noticed any side effects — and honestly, I haven’t bothered to check — but those experiences have kept me from indulging in cigarettes like my dad.
In our own ways, there are things we run away from to avoid being just like our parents.
*subject’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
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