Monday, 17 January 2011

How I stopped smoking.

I did promise you, rather smugly, that I would post up the story of how I quit smoking, hopefully for good. The day and events are clearly laid out in my mind. Sunday, the 18th of October 2009. It was a bright, sunny and unseasonably warm afternoon — too pleasant to be spent tooling round the supermarket for any measure of time. I rather like shopping for food as the designated cook in our house and delighted to be so — but it’s not what lazy Sunday afternoons were made for. Got no time for worry, as the redoubtable Steve Marriott so memorably put it. So, with chores done, me and Mrs M did the decent thing and hit the boozer.

A pint, a ciggie, a sit down, a spouse, all splendid. But a thought fulminated and fermented in my mind: maybe today was the day I try to give up smoking? I decided I would give it a try, but — as most people with a habit tend to reason — only once I had finished what I had left. Picture the scene. You’ve no doubt seen it acted out in some drama in film or television: the hand, clutching the open ciggie pack, poised over the litter bin. A pause. The eye, regarding with regret, disdain, but gathering strength — and then the drop. It’s not enough to let the thing fall from the opened fingertips, no — first the packet, its contents and by symbolic extension the hold they have had on the user are all as one crushed and then left to gravity to take the problem away from you, landing with the merest rustle in among the refuse. Only a faint rustle, but that sound is as resonant as a bell, chiming as it does the first moments of The Rest Of Your Life, a new, healthier regime: the nicotine dictatorship defeated, decisively. Ladies and gentlemen: The Future.

Well, no. I can’t do that and I suspect many of you out there can’t either. Maybe it’s a slightly demented variation on the gene spliced into me from childhood that cannot tolerate waste, but I was unprepared to  throw my existing packet of ciggies away, just like that. To smoke my remaining ones, make each one count and enjoy every moment, while simultaneously waving goodbye to the whole idea of them with each passing drag — well, maybe I could do that.

A swift audit of available pockets yielded half a dozen ciggies left from a 10-pack of Consulates. Yes, the prissy mentholated variety with the elegant 1950s-style packaging and the classy Continental white filter tips. I know some of you love this sort of detail and I’ll promise you a lot more before I’m done here. Yes, that was an elegant sufficiency to provide for an afternoon of quaff, chat and relaxation.

Instantly, the plan was derailed: the missus chose today to be one of her days of sympathetic social smoking duties, as is about the limit of her fascination with tobacco. I tended not to mind her poncing my fags (this phrase I appreciate does not travel well across the Atlantic in certain quarters, but I shall not apologise for it: you’re on the Internet right now — look it up).

I had not yet broadcast any intention to give up, but with my smoking allocation effectively halved and after the second or maybe fourth pint, we ran out of cigarettes with a mutual feeling that the day’s tar intake had ground to a premature halt. Since Mrs M had taken the last one in the pack, the unspoken rule was she had to buy the next lot. Duly, I despatched Mrs M with all speed across the road to the off licence in the hope that they sold my particular, fussy, feminine brand of fags in packets of ten. She returned presently, with a touch of a wicked grin and a packet of twenty, explaining that that was all they had.

“Oh you silly girl,” I chided gently, “now we’re going to have to cane the lot today!”

Oh yeah, and cane them we did. We had one pint more over a freshly minted fag or two, went home for dinner and then out again to another local hostelry for some dastardly school-night drinking. By the time we were done, the entire pack of twenty were ashen history. I wanted to make sure there were none left on my person when I started out on Monday morning. Naturally, we awoke with the kind of hangovers you can tell the grandchildren about and that by-now all-too familiar feeling that we’d been inhaling rusty iron filings. So far, so good. I don’t believe it’s the human condition to call time on a particular habit with effective finality when you’re in the act of enjoying it: rather try to hold a physical, chemical memory of how rotten you feel the day after and keep the thought handy come the next time you fancy your chosen fix. In other, less wordy words — learning by mistakes, the time-honoured way to transcend adversity and be educated.

No cigarettes have passed my lips, lit or otherwise, since that day. That’s how I stopped smoking.

Well, of course I’ve started my tale with the last minutes of the story — the 11.58pm if you will. Were I to leave it at that, I would not only be fobbing all you good and gentle readers off, but I’d not be entirely honest with myself as to how it came about. Were it that easy, why not several years prior? Why then? What about the earlier moments, the events and times that led me up to midnight and calling Year Zero on my habit?

If I have been glib, please forgive me. Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…

It’s probably worth mentioning before anything else that I suffer from asthma and have done so since the age of four. I have it under better control these days than ever as a child, but it persists and there you are. It’s an understatement of epic proportion to point out my grand folly in inhaling smoke of any description while remaining asthmatic. That said, I can honestly say I’ve noticed no direct effect on my asthma whatsoever: while I am sure the smoking may have done much to persist my disease, I cannot recall ever  experiencing a direct cause-and-effect, initiating an asthma attack by smoking — the only way I can describe it is that I seem to use a different part of my lung.

Just remember: I am an idiot, I am an idiot and thricely, I am an idiot.

Smoking held little fascination for me as a child. My father was an inveterate smoker, starting — so he said — aged twelve as a scrawny beanpole on the streets of Dublin’s Liberties district. Several of my aunts when approached on the subject told me that he’d massaged this figure somewhat and placed him closer to six years of age. I can’t stress too much how this would not have been seen as overt negligence or even child abuse. This was Ireland in the 1920s: I daresay priorities across the entire social strata differed considerably and there’s no need to discuss them here. The past is a foreign country, and Ireland still more so.

By the time this lanky, charming chap became my portly and distinguished father in the 1970s he smoked Player’s Navy Cut, or Senior Service cigarettes if Player’s were unavailable. Occasionally he would smoke a pipe with his chosen blend of Three Nuns tobacco (slogan: None Nicer), but not often. Both brands of ciggie were notable for having no filter and for being made, so my Dad maintained, with the finest Virginia tobacco. They were definitely cigarettes from an earlier, glamorous age, the age of Bogart, Bacall and Paul Henreid’s famous scene in Now, Voyager where he lit two simultaneously and passed one to Bette Davis. Hot stuff. None of this context mattered to me as a child, of course. I didn’t like the smell and any childish desires to imitate my father, such as they were, simply did not extend to smoking.

My older brother was, in adolescence, like many of us, a slavish follower of trends, fashions and that ridiculous, swingeing peer pressure that is simultaneously experienced and propagated by oneself and one’s cronies. I first caught him with a fag on the go when I was about eleven. He would have been about fifteen at the time. He swore me to secrecy with a brotherly blend of menace and offering me a chance to smoke a ciggie for myself. So there we were, stashed away as silently as we could manage in a dilapidated shed at the bottom of our long, thin garden. We used to call it the Goat Shed as its former  occupant for several years was a kid called Billy; my sister’s unlikely pet. Billy was retired to a farm not long after I was born when an accident involving the ornery beast and my thankfully empty pram caused my father to reconsider which one of us to keep. Anyway, the Goat Shed was how it was called from that time on. I can’t recall the brand I smoked that day: it was possibly pilfered from my Dad’s stash of Navy Cut, but more likely it was the mainstay of the trainee fumeur: Silk Cut.

Something you may or may not know about Silk Cut is that the filter tip has a perforation around its circumference about halfway along its length. There, you see? I imagine the idea is that some of the smoke and active ingredients escape through this vent and keep the ciggie’s quota of inhaled smoke, tar and other  pernicious components to a minimum. A certain amount of fresh air is also introduced in the exchange, so they certainly taste somewhat ‘watered down’ compared to many other brands. I suppose this is what draws the wannabe smoker to them at the first. Unfortunately, the vent’s action provokes a reaction in you to suck a little harder, so I fear any lower-tar lightness is sacrificed by over-compensation. I remember a smoking dude at my secondary school get past all this by sealing up the tiny holes with a strip of Rizla rolling paper around the filter. Now that’s hardcore.

All that aside, I didn’t enjoy the experience of my first ciggie. Who does, really? Beyond an inevitable couple of booze-fuelled wheezes at my school’s Lower Sixth Form Ball in 1988 aged 17, I out-sat my teenage years without need for a single, solitary gasper. In other words, I resumed my burgeoning flirtation with nicotine at an age when I really should have known better.

I’d like to say I failed my A-Levels at school in spectacular fashion, but there was no spectacle: I just turned up for the exams, wrote the essays and came away without a qualification. No amusing anecdote here, just a case of ‘oh, bugger.’ So, in the autumn of 1990 I landed an insurance job in London, worked with monstrous incompetence for a year, earned the money to go back to college and retake my A-Levels. I’ll tell you all about this in detail one day — they were great times. Anyway, everyone smoked at college. I was told I held a cigarette like I’d been smoking my entire life.

After college and the acquisition of some qualifications: University. Again, some things to tell you about later there. By the time I left University I was a fully fledged smoker: I bought my own cigarettes and everything. After an ill-advised spell experimenting with Benson & Hedges, Gitanes and Gauloises — and trust me, those ones will kill you — I settled on Superkings Lights. They came in macho blue and gold packaging and as the name suggests, were a good, hard centimetre longer than conventional fags. Dr Freud will see you now, Paulie. I never smoked anything less than 10 a day — three on the way to work, three on my lunch break and three on the way home were mandatory, to say nothing of the ones at home. Oh, plus another 20, guaranteed, if I went out of an evening. I was in my late twenties: how often do you think I stayed in?!

The other problem was cannabis. Not in of itself — at least not in those days. I tended to smoke it on a regular basis for about the last two years of the Nineties and always in crumbled hash form, which requires  you to cannibalise several conventional cigs to form, with the aid of some Rizla papers and an arcane knowledge of origami, a sufficiently stiff joint. I’d get through a considerable amount of ciggies in this fashion, and often find myself having a regular smoke between joint-rolling sessions as I found the taste of a cigarette whilst stoned to be excellent: it reminded me every time of why I got into this caper to begin with. Besides, cannabis really liked me in those days and the feeling was entirely mutual: “You’re like a kid with a new toy,” said one friend to me when I told her of my stoned ‘experiences’. The joint-rolling expertise led me to roll-ups and the relative cheapness of the DIY cigarette.

In 2001, I met the future Mrs M and although she was (as I was soon to find out) an occasional, social, sympathetic smoker, I stopped smoking overnight. It was an instant cessation — I made the declaration to stop one day and failed to light up another cigarette for over two years. This was the first time I ever attempted to quit. So, what effected this? I’m pleased to say it was for the love of a good woman: I told her I didn’t want to kiss her knowing that I smelled and probably tasted of the wretched things. Seriously.

Ah, but what got me back on them again after two clear years? Simple: cannabis. I had acquired an ounce of the finest Moroccan shit and was in need to crumble it into joints. It was not smoking proper cigarettes, I deluded myself — it was only by way of smoking a spliff. However, nicotine only needs the merest crack in your psychological armour and it will creep back in — and so it proved. My wife did not object to it as she never judged me on my habit to begin with, and so we hopped onto the ciggie-go-round.

There now follows several years of guilt-free smoking, with intermittent weeks or months of half-hearted non-smoking. Hop on the ciggie-go-round, hop off. On, off, on, off, and so on. I also had a dalliance with pipe-smoking (and Three Nuns tobacco, indeed) in the mistaken idea that it would be a very occasional pleasure. It’s true that the ritual of owning a pipe, scouring the bowl for the tobacco, the tamping down of the smouldering embers and enjoying the sheer Christmassy smell of it all requires more patience and preparation than merely sparking up a fag. I didn’t have that patience and soon moved back onto roll-ups. By this point, however, my attitude towards smoking was definitely changing.

Firstly, the whole cannabis thing was getting boring. When I realised that it wasn’t giving me the giggly jollies like it used to, and instead would have me retreating into my thoughts, self-auditing, was the moment the game was up. This kind of chemically assisted navel-gazing was never going to do me favours and I would view the prospect of getting stoned with increasing ambivalence and eventually, some trepidation. As a wise person once said, the moment it stops being fun, stop doing it.

I had also noticed in the meantime that I was changing tobacco brands constantly, to the point of distraction. Mostly I would oscillate (and indeed vacillate) between rolling tobacco, of which my favourite was Drum (but I wasn’t too fussy) with a menthol filter tip added — or Consulate, the mentholated ciggies that started this story. What’s with the menthol I hear you ask? Well, I think I had finally faced up to the reality: the minty flavour took away the essential element: the taste. I was forcing something into my body with the respiratory equivalent of a vegetarian getting a steak down them so long as it was slathered in enough ketchup.

Finally, after nearly twenty years, I was getting sick and tired of smoking.

Other factors conspired to help me: the smoking ban in July 2007 across England made its presence felt but gradually, as the opportunities to light one up in Beer Gardens grew shorter with the passing days and lengthening shadows. It grew tiresome very quickly to have to leave animated discussion simply to do something that had suddenly become very antisocial. Sure, you could meet all sorts of interesting people standing in the cold dark outside the pub, but your time with them was equally as curtailed as the need to return indoors beckoned.

The smoking ban also brought in its wake a succession of half-hearted attempts by several smoking colleagues of mine to give up, and while I had no wish to enter a competition on something I increasingly regarded as a personal goal, the knowledge that other people were trying too was heartening. Perversely, I found it particularly heartening when their attempts failed — it made me feel like I was increasingly the Last Man Standing, and if that sounds a touch sadistic and more than a little selfish, well quite, it is. I make no apology for it: you have to do this for yourself — no-one and nothing else. I keep this thought — and that all-important ‘chemical memory’ of how I felt the day after my last one — in my head as close to the surface as I can. Beyond the expected physical withdrawal symptoms of mild muscle cramp, I can’t recall having any cravings. I have convinced myself entirely that there’s nothing good about cigarettes and they literally cannot help me cope with things that would be better served by using my brain.

I know it’s not easy. My previous attempts to quit were punctuated — and ultimately scuppered — by that irritable itch that only nicotine can scratch. I can’t guarantee that I will never smoke again — and one lit ciggie is all it could take. Moreover, I am clearly not backing my claims up with any psychological or medical evidence. I am just some guy on the Internet. I am overweight to boot. However, I have at least reduced the sum of my Bad Things by quitting smoking, and that’s several steps in the right direction.

I read this back here and despite my best efforts to turn an entertaining phrase and reward your patience, I find this subject to be a wholly depressing one. I confess it has not exactly been fun writing it either as it has raked up decades of folly and failure among the cigarette ash. Maybe that’s the point, and the good of it: if reading it angers, saddens or — Heaven Forfend! — inspires any of you to deal with a pointless, pernicious addiction or habit, then that’s grand. Mine is not an unhappy or frustrated existence for the most part; my experiences have hardly been tough or underprivileged, and my life has not produced any greater share of misery than I can expect to have at my age. However, I do believe the brain constructs its own hardship to justify the addiction and my problems, such as they are, are mine to accept or reject — just as yours are.

Keep trying and be easy on yourself should you fail. Just not that easy.


Currently listening to:
Leader Of The Starry Skies: A Tribute To Tim Smith: Songbook 1 (various artists, 2010)
Leader Of The Starry Skies: A Tribute To Tim Smith: A Loyal Companion (various artists, 2010)
Hunky Dory (David Bowie, 1971)

Currently reading:
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Rob Young, 2010)

Currently watching:  
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection (DVD set of the 14 films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, 1939-1946)

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