Like someone who hitches up with a despised ex after years apart, I'm kicking myself for having taken up smoking again.
Until a few months ago, I was confident I'd kissed tobacco goodbye. In the spring of 2003, I triumphantly stubbed out my last cigarette – or so I thought at the time. For more than four years, I successfully kept temptation at arm's length. I'd heard from other smokers that you are never completely in the clear, even after decades without a smoke. Then, last summer, during a stressful work period, it all went up in smoke.
At first, I only had the odd cigarette, but I was soon back into the old swing of things. I should have paid more attention to my own self-knowledge. I have long known that, with cigarettes, I am incapable of a simple fling or of hooking up occasionally for some casual lip action. With me, nicotine is far more possessive than that.
Although I must admit that I enjoy a smoke while it lasts, I loathe the undoubted damage it is doing to my long-term health, the periodic coughs it causes and the diminished self-esteem of dependency. Moreover, smoking is becoming less fun, as smokers are increasingly treated by the establishment as social pariahs.
It is remarkable how far we have come in the last few decades. There was a time when doctors smoked in their clinics and ads made such outrageous claims as: “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette”, or that medical researchers say Chesterfields are good for you. Today, Marlboro Country has been wiped off the cultural map and smokers have been banished to burn in social purgatory.
I have no sympathy for tobacco companies and the way they have misled and even outright lied for decades. However, I feel the stigmatisation of smokers has gone too far, as has the obsession with passive smoking. If cigarette smoke was the only type of toxic fume in our environment, then I would be able to understand the extent of this apprehension. But I would hazard a guess that, particularly in large cities, we suffer far worse health consequences from the second-hand smoke of vehicle exhausts, yet I see no concerted effort to pass legislation to limit the size and number of cars on our roads nor, say, to force city dwellers to take public transport during peak hours.
By all means, ban cigarettes from work places and restaurants, but why on earth in bars (luckily, it hasn't gone this far here in Belgium yet)? They're not exactly health clubs and alcohol is hardly carrot juice. Besides, shouldn't we give people the choice of where they wish to spend their spare time? Why not have smoking and non-smoking establishments and let the punters choose for themselves? Ostracising smokers is not necessarily the best approach to making them to quit.
I don't know how much of my addiction is chemical and how much psychological. If I have been without a cigarette for a few hours, I do feel physical pangs. But another problem with tobacco is how smokers eventually associate cigarettes with a wide spectrum of emotional states. Feeling stressed? Have a cigarette to calm your nerves. Excited? Chill with a ciggi. Bored? Kill some time with a cancer stick. Out with mates? Why not bring along your fag friends to the party.
After all the effort it had taken to kick the habit, I am now kicking myself that I allowed my resolve to crumble so. And giving up this time is proving to be no easier than the first time, apart from the reassuring knowledge that, if I've done it before, I can certainly do it again.
Looking back, there was no single magic bullet that enabled me to quit. I managed it without the aid of nicotine patches, partly because I was somewhat concerned that I might swap one addiction for another, nor self-help guides, even the much-recommended one by Allen Carr, because I am sceptical and distrustful of such literature, which usually helps the author (financially, that is) more than the reader.
I suppose motivation was an important factor. At the time, I was a few months away from 30 and was hit by two realisations: if I didn't give up soon, I would've puffed away my entire 20s; and, by the time I was 32, I would've smoked away half my life. In addition, for the first time, I was beginning to feel the accumulated effect of 13 years of smoking in my lungs.
Over my smoking career, I had taken a number of unsuccessful stabs at quitting. The approach of cutting down gradually, in particular, tended to fail because, sooner or later, something would happen to spark a relapse, such as a hectic workday or a social event where there were a lot of smokers around. Also, telling people around you of your intentions to quit raised expectations and, with them, stress levels, so I avoided informing friends and colleagues until I was in the clear.
For me, perhaps the toughest part of giving up was the dread associated with the idea that I was committing myself to not lighting up ever again; never again meditating on that (un)holy smoke; never again dragging on the essence of the peace pipe (writing this article fills me with the urge to light up, but I am resisting).
The way I overcame this was to take a more fatalistic approach to my days, to dwell, Zen-like, on the present moment and leave the future to its own devices. Of course, the first few days were the toughest, because there was the additional factor of dealing with the chemical withdrawal symptoms. However, I surprised myself in that I did not become more irritable or high-strung and most people did not even notice I had given up (perhaps it had something to do with my self-imposed meditative fatalism). Bars were also a no-go area for several weeks, since beer and fags go together like salt and vinegar or cheese and onions.
I have not yet mustered up enough determination to go through the ordeal of giving up again, but I'm working on it. I've cut out smoking during the day and only smoke a couple of cigarettes in the evening. But I know how fragile such efforts can be, if not consolidated rapidly with complete abstention.
This article should not be read as a pledge to give up but as an exploration of the trials and tribulations of nicotine addiction. All I can do is promise to seize the right moment to give up, without any public announcements, when it presents itself.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 19 April 2008.