No Smoke Without Fire

Recently a Greek friend enquired was I writing a new book.  I told him I had several in mind but what was really grabbing my attention was to write a book called “No Smoke Without Fire”.  Apparently, and as I soon learned, that saying is also popular in the Greek language and so he got my drift immediately and talked about the fire down below that needs attention.  I asked him did he smoke?  Curiously, his reply pointed to a possible hidden fire when he said: “Yes, but never in front of my mother”!  “And how old are you”, I replied.  “Thirty years” and paused and quickly cottoned on to the age question: “Oh, you psychologists always put everything down to mothers”.  Of course, what was interesting that it was his response that brought up the issue of his relationship with his mother and his remaining stuck in a child-parent relationship and having not yet established an adult-adult relationship with her.  I had noticed earlier how he had been somewhat panicky about having missed his daily routine time to ring his wife and his going for a cigarette immediately following the belated phone call.  All the indications – and these were only a few passing observations – that smoking certainly appears to be a case for him of ‘no smoke without fire’.

Many individuals struggle with ‘giving up the fags’ and try all sorts of ways to forego the ‘demon weed’ (another wonderful metaphor – ‘what are the hidden demons that represent the fire that leads to the smoke’?)  It is the case that some people do manage to ‘smoke their last cigarette’ through sheer willpower or wearing the nicotine patch or being hypnotised.  However, whilst this development is to be welcomed I would have concerns that the emotional issues that gave rise to the smoking would remain unresolved and there is a distinct possibility that a future emotional crisis may result in a return to smoking, a not uncommon happening.  The other possibility is that a substitute for the cigarettes will emerge and it is not unusual for individuals when they stop smoking to begin to over-eat or to rely on tranquillisers or alcohol.

A common rationalisation given by those who smoke compulsively is that it is a habit and it is that which makes it very hard to quit smoking.  However, my own clinical experience tells me that there is no such thing as a habitual behaviour and that we are not victims of certain behaviours.  On the contrary, we are very clever creators and it is ingenious to view smoking as a habit as it protects from having to look deeper and ask such questions as: “what is it that the smoking is doing for me that somehow right now it is not safe for me to do for myself and what is it that the smoking stops me from doing?”

Certainly, the smoking – the inhaling – may be stopping you from expressing what might be emotionally and socially threatening to do; for example, to admit to feeling nervous or fearful or angry or controlled.  What the smoking makes you do is to tranquillise yourself with the substitute substance (nicotine) rather than finding calm through the realisation of an inner confidence and emotional independence – probably a bridge too far at that point in time.  The substitute responses are not weaknesses but creative and protective ways of coping until there is the safety and support to affirm (inhale) your own unique worth and to express (exhale) your own truth and that you are here to live your own life and not that of another.

The reasons for smoking – what is a-fire in you – lie in each person’s story but, inevitably, have got to do with conflicts in one’s earlier  and ongoing important relationships that to date have not been resolved.  The intentions of smoking are mainly threefold:

In attempting to understand any addictive response it is critical to appreciate that the reasons and intentions for it are unique to each individual and the challenge is to uncover what lies hidden – the fire down below – so that these issues can be brought into the light of day and resolved.  It is in this way that the substitute of the addictive substance will no longer be required and will quietly be replaced with real and authentic responses.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author and National and International Speaker. His book Whose Life Are You Living is relevant to today’s column.