I’m thinking of taking up smoking, and here’s why.
I was born an introvert, too terrified to answer a phone or talk to a stranger. Interactions with unfamiliar human beings required rehearsed lines and zero eye contact. I was content to spend my evenings reading in my room, and would be struck numb with fear whenever I was tasked with returning library books or buying bread. I could visualize the conversations I wanted to have, or the way I wanted to behave, but I could never bring myself to talk or act the way I imagined I could. Gradually, I began to recognize a separation in the way I was and the way I perceived myself:
There was the Real Me – the introvert, too afraid to remain in the company of others for more than a few moments at a time. The one who was unable to sustain a conversation. The one who smiled at everyone in an attempt to avoid conflict. The one who never knew what to say or what to do with his hands.
Then, there was the Imagined Me – the extrovert, the socially confident one, the funny one. The one who moved gracefully and always looked you dead in the eye while saying exactly the right thing. The one who was unafraid to start a conversation, unafraid to linger, unafraid to put his hand on the shoulder of someone he’d just met. My Imagined Me was always better looking than me, better dressed, and more adored. He carried himself better, and had a magnetism that I wanted but was too afraid to grasp. Whenever I went out, I could always see him clearly, on the other side of the room, laughing with a group he’d just met, or flirting successfully with a gorgeous woman. A curious detail about my Imagined Me is that he is always holding a cigarette. He holds it down at waist level, or away from the people he’s talking to, but sometimes when he speaks he moves his hands, drawing pictures in smoke. Somehow, he makes it look cool.
The frustrating thing was how perfectly attainable it was to become my Imagined Me. I did know what to say, and I could imagine how to conduct myself. My Imagined Me was right there, always a few seconds in the future, showing me what to do. All I had to do was to make the choice to become that person that existed so clearly in my mind, but I would always veer away from that choice at the last possible moment. I chose silence over charm, awkwardness over presence. I knew that I could never be as cool and natural as my Imagined Me, but at the very least I could pretend to be him.
I was seventeen years old when I first heard the phrase “Fake it ’til you make it” spoken in earnest. It was said to me by a shy singer who had enchanted an entire ballroom filled with elderly holiday makers.
“Fake it ’til you make it,” she said, “and eventually you’ll learn that you’re not faking it anymore.”
I took drama in high school, and that went some way to showing me how to fake certain behaviours, but only up to a point. I was still terrified of people, and would avoid interactions when I could.
After high school I worked as a waiter, and that forced me to interact with adults. I hated every moment in which I had to meet a new guest, but with every interaction I became slightly better at faking confidence, and got closer to becoming my Imagined Me.
In university, I was still afraid, but in that new and exciting environment I put renewed energy into impersonating someone that wasn’t me. By then the idea of my Imagined Me was clearer and better defined, and I made a concerted effort to inhabit that person. I took dancing classes, and that gave me a certain control over my body that I hadn’t had before. I performed in a play, and modelled in the art department. I pushed myself to be in the public eye as much as possible, to teach myself to get comfortable in it. This gave me a certain type of confidence, but it was unbridled and lacked finesse. My charisma was explosive. It would start strong and then fizzle quickly. I became comfortable in groups but cowered in one-on-one conversations.
In my mind’s eye I could see my Imagined Me doing the things I was trying to do, but better, and always with a cigarette in his hand. At times I could engage people in conversation – total strangers even – but my enthusiasm and interest would evaporate after a minute or two, and I’d make an excuse to leave. As cool as I looked from the outside, I was still nothing like the charismatic version of myself I could envision. He had his cigarette; I just bit my nails.
After university I went and taught English in Thailand. That helped me get over a lot of anxiety, and for long stretches I forgot that I was faking anything at all. But still, in the wings, I could always spy my Imagined Me, better looking and with better hair, and smoking.
In Chile I have been teaching adults, and that has been quite the challenge. I’ve spent my life fighting the notion that I am a grown up, and now my job involves having one-on-one conversations with other grown ups as if I am one of them. These sessions can be up to two hours long, and I spend every moment of them fearing that they can see that I’m not a grown up at all. I’m a terrified child, with hands that shake and nails that have been bitten to the quick. But I figure that as long as I pretend to be my Imagined Me, they’ll never notice.
I now feel closer to being my Imagined Me than ever before. He is right in front of me, so close I can touch him. I have learned his habits, and his turns of phrase, and I’ve learned to impersonate him for long periods at a time. But when I socialise I still see him there, cigarette in hand, and I think to myself, “Maybe I should take up smoking.”