Small town identities can lead to isolation

Since quitting smoking, I have enjoyed being able to climb stairs and have become a social isolate. Certain people feel as though I have given up an integral part of my soul, that I have

Since quitting smoking, I have enjoyed being able to climb stairs and have become a social isolate. Certain people feel as though I have given up an integral part of my soul, that I have irrevocably altered my reality, and their reality of me. I have isolated myself from my pack of chain smoking friends.

I started smoking when I was 14 years old, in the backseat of my best friend’s older brother’s Oldsmobile on the way to a high school homecoming dance. It was a Marlboro Light. Prior to this, never having smoked a cigarette, I had dreams about smoking. I knew before ever taking a single drag that I needed to be a smoker. This I felt was a core part of my identity.

Since then, I have defined myself as a smoker, and although I have no real desire to start smoking again, I feel like I’ve let myself down by quitting. I also feel like I left others with a gaping hole in my personality that they need to fill in with different information. I am no longer a smoker, and people cannot seem to process this fact. A friend cursed at me and then questioned my integrity. She said she didn’t know me anymore and refused to blow smoke out of my open window. Instead she blew it into my closet. Smoking, she said, was my identity.

I come from Cape May Court House, N.J., population 4,704. I moved there around the age of 10 and lived there until I was 18. Small towns are hard; everyone knows the person that they want you to be, and you can do nothing to surprise them.

In a way, they isolate you because they provide you with a substantial amount of information about who you are, and you are left alone to deal with the person that they say you are.

From this small town, I went to a college with a student population about half the size of my town. It was Cape May Court House all over again.

At this school I was still “The Smoker.” I wasn’t bothered by this label, and neither was anyone else, except when I smoked in nonsmoking dorms, bathrooms, hallways and class buildings. This was my only identity, because the community knew me based simply on this behavior.

In other small communities, people are labeled and isolated as a result. How many towns have “The Drunk” and “The Crazy?” Apparently these people have been observed being drunk and crazy, and therefore that’s who they have become.

Eventually, I transferred to Temple, which has a considerably larger student population. I moved away from my roommates and into Center City. I was, for the first time, completely alone.

On campus I blend in with the thousands of people who are milling around in the city, I am just one more person on the street. This is a wholly different type of isolation. It is one of my own choosing and far less insidious than the forced isolation of the small community. I don’t find it remotely uncomfortable because there is an amazing lack of rules. I no longer had to be “The Smoker,” so I quit.

In my former surroundings, I was never able to be myself, and if I acted out of my prescribed personality I would get yelled at. I can relate to a passage from Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “First City.”

“… [In] suburban Colorado: a not negligible percentage of men…in their sport utility vehicles feel moved to yell obscenities at me. It’s hard to know why they do this… My guess is that they yell at me simply because I’m a stranger, and… I have no more human reality than the coach on their TV screens who has elected to punt on fourth-and-short.”

This is what I felt the whole time I was with my small group of friends: the isolation as a result of a lack of reality. This is the isolation that is far different than simply being by myself, which to the group was inherently bizarre.

So, to steal from Franzen again, “Familiarity… erodes the autonomous intelligence… Only in a crowded diverse place…, surrounded by strangeness, do I come home to myself.”

Meredith Lindemon can be reached at

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