Past Post: Time to Quit

A year ago today I finally packed in the fags. Pathetic as it sounds it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, so I really couldn’t be more proud of myself for reaching this milestone.

In honour of this great achievement I’ve decided to re-post the following blog entry from March 17 last year:

My biggest regret in life, absolutely and unequivocally, is starting smoking. At the tender age of fourteen when I had my first puff at a party and hated it, how could I possibly have known the impact it would have on my life and the misery it would cause when I tried to quit? When I look back at my teen self now I wish I could jump through time, snatch the cigarette out of my hand and stub it out, admonishing myself for even considering trying it. Because if I had never tried it I would never have got hooked, and I would never have known the mental and physical addiction I have suffered for the past fifteen years.

Don’t get me wrong, even at the height of my addiction I was never a particularly heavy smoker. Throughout my sixth form at school I smoked to be rebellious, sneaking outside the school gates with my friends during free periods and sharing a ten pack by the canal on a Saturday afternoon. By the time I got to university smoking was a part of me, and I relished the newfound freedom I had to do it anywhere I pleased, whether before lectures, during breaks or in my living room after uni (with a few sneaky spliffs thrown in for good measure). Everyone smoked, it was the norm, it never occurred to any of us to quit.

When I moved to London at the age of 21 and started working it began to bother me that I needed to smoke before work, during my breaks and in the evenings. I cut out the morning cigarettes, then the lunch time ones, then rationed myself to up to five on week nights (more at weekends). This seemed to work for a while, but gradually I started slipping back into bad habits. So I decided it was time to quit, and I bought the Allen Carr Easy Way to Stop Smoking book. I remember vividly reading the last page outside the Café Rouge at the end of my road, taking my final puff and stubbing it out on the ground, absolutely confident I would never start again.

Unfortunately circumstances, as well as willpower, were against me. My boyfriend at the time, with whom I cohabited, had no interest whatsoever in quitting smoking, and my request that he stop doing it in the flat was met with derision. How dare I suggest he change his normal routine of lighting up on the sofa every evening? And so he carried on, and within six weeks I cracked. Again, I remember it clearly – I was making the bed in the spare room when the smell of smoke seeping in from the living room became so acute in my nostrils that I couldn’t bear it. Something snapped in me, I stormed into the living room, picked up the packet of cigarettes, took one out and lit it. ‘Happy now?’ I asked my boyfriend. But of course he didn’t care.

Years went by and I went back to my five a day habit, trying to restrain myself as much as possible, congratulating myself when a smoke free day passed and deriding myself when I went over my limit. I wanted to stop, of course I did (two thirds of smokers do), but how could I when my boyfriend and entire circle of friends still smoked? I told myself one day everyone would just stop together. I would wait.

After splitting with my boyfriend I turned to alcohol and cigarettes to cope – there was no question of quitting then. Instead, I took a new approach. I got a new job where there was an on-site gym and started working on my fitness. I signed up for my first triathlon – a sprint distance – and began training. This was totally new to me, and I enjoyed the discipline. I felt healthier than I had in years, but still I didn’t stop smoking. Why should I? I reasoned, when I felt so well and it didn’t seem to have adverse effects on my training. But sometimes I would notice myself wheezing, and as I got nearer to the event I decided it was wise to have a month off smoking and drinking, in order to be fully primed for the event. So I quit. Just like that. No book, no gum, no patches. I went cold turkey and it was fine, though admittedly I also went cold turkey on my social life for those four weeks too.

How was it so easy? Because, and it shames me to admit it, there was never a shred of doubt in my mind that as soon as the event was over I would start smoking again. Just like that. Because I would have proved I could live without it and it wasn’t holding me prisoner after all. And I held true to my word – the very first thing I did after crossing the finish line was light a cigarette.

The following year I did another triathlon, adopting the same routine of abstinence and once again reverting to my old ways the minute it was over. It crossed my mind to try and make it more permanent – Lord knows I wished I could be strong enough to kick the habit once and for all, but being in some kind of control made me feel better.

The cycle continued. I went travelling, where inevitably my smoking increased fourfold. It bothered me, but smoking is such a social thing – in that kind of situation it can be a way into a group, the catalyst to a conversation. It is also a useful crutch when you’re at a loss for what to do, feeling lonely, stressed out or just plain bored. Although I wasn’t stupid enough to think that smoking defined me as a person, I was terrified at the thought of not having it in my life. It made me feel a bit edgy, bohemian, it relaxed me, calmed me down, took the edge off – or so I thought.

But the irony is that smoking doesn’t take the edge off. Not in the slightest. In fact, the truth of the matter is that it adds the edge in the first place. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances in the world. Once your body has had a hit, it immediately wants more, and if you don’t give it more it goes into withdrawal and you feel anxious until you do. It’s a total myth that you’re in control of your habit if you’re only smoking at the weekends – it might mean you deal with withdrawal better than those who have to smoke every day, but it does not by any means prove you aren’t addicted. How do I know this? Because I was that person for fifteen years, fooling myself I was okay and in control. How do I know this was a fallacy? Because if you put me in a social situation where everyone else was smoking I simply couldn’t go without. I had to have one.

My intention with this post is not to preach about the physiology of cigarette addiction. It is actually purely cathartic, because now I have been free of my addiction for ten weeks – having once again read the book, taken a puff and stubbed my ‘last’ cigarette out underfoot – and am well past the point of having nicotine in my system I am still struggling with the mental addiction that fifteen years of smoking has inflicted upon me. I have no physical urge to smoke, granted, but when I’m with a group of friends who are smoking I still find it hard knowing that I can’t. I am delighted to be rid of the poison in my lungs, the smell in my hair and the constantly anxious feeling between cigarettes, but that doesn’t change the fact it would be easier to smoke than not. As childish as it sounds to say this, it just doesn’t seem fair that every night out now requires a serious amount of effort not to smoke, whereas before I just did it without thinking.

Some nights are easier than others. The first one after I quit was a disaster, culminating in me accusing my best friends of not speaking to me all night because I no longer smoked (which was completely untrue), running outside and breaking down in the middle of the road. Not my finest hour. Gradually, however, it got easier, and as the health benefits became more pronounced (I have definitely noticed a difference in my fitness) and the weeks went by I felt stronger in my resolve. Fortunately I now have a boyfriend who is far more understanding. He has the odd cigarette now and again socially, but he seems to be a genuine example of someone who can let weeks pass without doing it and suffer no ill effects whatsoever. Most importantly, he doesn’t smoke when he’s with me.

Last night I saw a good friend who quit just before I did. She went to an Allen Carr seminar to knock her ten-a-day habit on the head but, after weeks of revelling in its efficacy, is now struggling. It was as cathartic as writing this blog post for us to admit to one another we are finding it hard to keep going. We both appreciate every one of the positive outcomes of quitting – we are richer, healthier and no longer unable to sit through a meal in a restaurant without repeatedly dashing outside to feed our addiction (at a friend’s birthday meal earlier this week five of the eight people around the table got up to smoke between the starter and the main course – once that would have been me, and I would have done it without a thought, but now I find it plain annoying and really rather rude). Neither of us has any desire to start again, not really, but old habits really do die hard, and tragic as it is there is something so hard about breaking a social tradition and, let’s face it, feeling left out.

I am, however, encouraged by a weekend that I spent with friends in – of all places – Bognor Regis a couple of months ago. I was only in week three of being a non-smoker and was terrified it would be impossible for me to get through it without smoking – it was, after all, a three day music festival, where lots of alcohol would be drunk and where I would normally be in my element lighting up every ten minutes. In actual fact it wasn’t hard at all. Why? Because nobody in our group was smoking. Well, one was, and I’m sure one or two had the odd crafty fag here and there, but in the main we were a smoke free group all weekend, and I barely thought about doing it even though I was drinking.

I hope in time such weekends will become more commonplace, as more of my social group decide that smoking into their thirties just isn’t worth the health risks. But in the meantime I have got to stay strong and stick to my resolve. Ultimately it wasn’t even the health risks that made me quit, it was the simple fact I hated being a slave to my addiction. Any smoker who tells you they are in control is wrong. And you can prove it if you take away their cigarettes when all the shops have closed and watch the way they react. That is the reason I gave up – I didn’t want to feel that pathetic sense of panic ever again.

I’m enormously proud of myself for quitting (again), but I’m far from being a sanctimonious ex-smoker. Every day that goes by without smoking is an achievement, every night out a challenge that I have to face head on. I appreciate I probably sound quite tragic talking like this – after all, there are worse things in life than smoking cigarettes – but it’s important to be honest. It frightens me to think how easily I could start again – just one puff and I’d be back in the cycle I have been trying to break for half of my life. Which is why I can’t have that one puff – and I won’t.

In my teens and twenties I felt invincible, and smoking went hand in hand with social status and fun. Now I’ve turned thirty the scales have fallen from my eyes and the negative aspects of smoking – the constant twitchiness when you can’t smoke, the risk of getting lung cancer, the fact it makes your skin like leather, the downright antisocial nature of it – far outweigh the positives. Granted, it would be easier to light up when everyone else does than to check myself, decline and, in doing so, feel I’m missing out, but ultimately being healthy and free is the greatest reward there is. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s nowhere near as hard as fighting lung cancer, or looking like a sixty year old at the age of forty. I want to be healthy for years to come so I can run around after my children and live to see their children come into the world. I don’t want to be on a mortuary slab before I’m even seventy. Maybe that sounds extreme – the majority of my smoking friends argue incessantly that ‘just a few’ on a weekend is hardly likely to give you lung cancer. And maybe they’re right. But maybe they’re wrong. And that maybe is something I’m no longer prepared to risk in the name of ‘fun.’

Image

To accompany this post I’ve chosen this picture, taken during my two week stay at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, India, last April. I was on a yoga vacation, which involved 4 hours of yoga and 4 hours of chanting and meditation each day, plus an entirely vegetarian diet and no tobacco or alcohol. We had to leave our mobile phones at the door – it was about as extreme a period of abstinence for a city dweller like myself as could be imagined, but I loved it!

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