I can say with certainty that it was mid-20's for me as well. I'd first smoked at 14, was smoking regularly by 16, and daily or nearly daily by the time I was 19 or 20. Through all of that and beyond, I never let myself stop to consider that I was becoming--and then had become--a smoker.
What eventually cemented my self-identity as a smoker was need--I'd been hooked for years already, but around the time I was 23 or 24 the fact that I was addicted A) became impossible to deny to myself, and B) became something that I recognized in a very powerful way was the actual source of the immense pleasure I got (and get) from smoking.
The closest I can get to pinpointing a moment in time for this mental transformation is this: I'd been used to reserving certain times of day for smoking (usually morning and late afternoon or evening). I was fine with it working this way for several years--after a cigarette or two in the morning I did my thing as a nonsmoker during the rest of the day and saved smoking as something to look forward to at the end of work and school. Then there were several incidents in which I was working, or in class, or shopping, or whatever during the day and suddenly got hit by cravings the likes of which I'd never experienced before. I remember very well how they felt: They were my first experiences with full-blown desperation of the kind that most daily smokers eventually get to know, the kind that you feel through your whole body. The kind I haven't felt for a long time thanks to a steady habit. LOL Tight stomach, cold hands, zero focus or thought or concentration on anything other than the fact that I needed a cigarette more than anything in the entire universe for those few minutes. They lasted forever it felt like, and of course they kept coming back, and got worse, the longer I went without. It kind of scared me to be honest; I'd felt cravings before and thought I knew what they felt like because of that but these were nothing like the relatively little urges I'd felt before. I remember wondering for a few days on and off whether something was seriously wrong with me (aside from needing nicotine). I think it just finally dawned on me that that's what happens when you need tobacco and don't have any. It's definitely the reason for the unwritten rule that a smoker never lets a fellow smoker go without if it can be helped.
Anyway, the effect of those 5 or 6 incidents of full-blown withdrawal fits was that I consciously realized that my days of leaving the smokes at home were over. I started putting my pack and my lighter in the same pile as my wallet and keys at night. I wanted to make damn sure that I didn't feel that kind of withdrawal again if I could help it--though regular cravings were fine, since I started thinking of every craving as an opportunity to light up and enjoy the pleasures of smoking all over again. (Really--What else is there in this life that you can do 5 or 10 or 40 times a day, that never ever gets old, and that is so enjoyable and so satisfying each time that life would seem bleak if you were forced to give it up? When I think of it this way, I feel genuinely sorry for non-smokers.) And though I just thought of this as I'm typing, I guess that was the origin for me of the typical smoker's reassurance checks: Do I have my pack with me? How many are left in it? Is my lighter fueled up? Do I have enough to last if I have to stay late? Etc.
It was sometime after I began making sure I always had cigarettes on me that I realized I'd already started thinking of myself as a smoker. The change in my self-concept made being closeted suck SO much more than it ever had before. When I wasn't a smoker in my own head it was simple to behave like I wasn't a smoker in everyday situations with people I knew. After maybe a year of really BEING a smoker identity-wise I'd internalized it to such an extent that it was utterly unquestioned and automatic in my own mind, and I had to prepare for situations and expend energy consciously to keep from revealing my secret. A few people got suspicious when I slipped up and said stuff like "I gotta stop by the store for a pack of cigarettes...uhhh, for Scott at work." And too many times to count, I caught myself as I was pulling the pack out of my pocket to light up upon exiting a store with a friend who didn't know--and then of course I had to put up with the accursed annoyance that is getting all set to smoke and then not being able to. After I came out, things were MUCH nicer--and since I'd already been smoking a pack a day for years and no longer had to hide it or go 2 or 3 hours without lighting up, so was I. Towards the end, I'd actually begun to pull away from friends and associates just to be able to spend time as the real me--I'd do stuff like go out to eat alone so I could sit in the smoking section. Not to see other smokers or to be seen by them, but just to enjoy being ME. It was like a little luxury to realize every once in a while that I'd eaten and enjoyed both the meal and my post-meal cigarette without self-consciousness or other BS complications. I'd say that anyone who arrives at that point definitely needs to come out or risk some serious problems. (This is also where my attitude toward militant anti-smokers comes from: I split my life in half and pretended to be what I was not because I bought into their bullshit. I won't go back there no matter how much they moan and scream and wag their fingers and try to guilt and shame and bully people into conforming--#%&$ them. I'm a smoker. I love to smoke, and if I ever quit the only reason will be that I made the decision myself.)
And finally: Despite my identity as a smoker, there was and is still some cognitive dissonance involved for me. You can see it in many of my posts. But 99% of the time, dissonance caused by the fact that I truly love to smoke yet often wish that I did not is FAR easier to handle than the self-imposed schizophrenia of knowing myself as a smoker while pretending not to be.
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