Do you know those people who dip in and out of smoking? The ones who have a couple of cigarettes when they’re drinking and refer to themselves as a “social smoker”?
How I envied people like that. Because I was not a social smoker, I was the other thing. When I was 18, my New Year’s resolution was to start smoking. And I did, relentlessly.
I had always loved the idea of smoking. To me, it was cinematic, mysterious, romantic… all the adjectives that as a teenager I was desperate to embody. Even worse, I took to smoking like a duck to water. I slipped into the habit like a well-cut evening gown.
I became the girl I had always wanted to be: smoking at a pavement café while gazing wistfully into the distance. Asking a stranger for a light in a candlelit bar, voice lowered, eyes sparkling. Leaning on my front, one arm dangling languorously off the bed as I pulled on a delicious, post-coital cigarette.
I smoked religiously for 5 years. All my friends smoked. It was what we did; we’d meet up in a bar or at someone’s house and talk and smoke. We smoked like it was going out of fashion, which I guess it was.
But I was never a social smoker because my favorite cigarettes were the ones I had on my own. In the bath, in bed, anytime I could take a moment, just for me, and indulge in some contemplation for the duration of a cigarette.
Smoking was both an accessory and an excuse for my alone time. It was through smoking that I learned to take myself away from the crowd and focus on my thoughts and emotions. Smoking became, if possible, even more, addictive because now it was fuelling my burgeoning self-knowledge project.
It was glorious. But there were dark days, too. At times, your lungs hurt so much you wonder if you might die right there and then. My friend and I used to joke about our chest pains. “The other day, I had one that was so bad,” he said, ”I had to have a cig to calm down.” Then there was the smoker’s cough, all the money spent, and the general feeling of existential dread when you contemplate your motivation for actively participating in such an insipid ritual of self-harm.
But how do you stop doing something when it has become so ingrained in your identity? I was a Smoker, capital S. Whenever I tried to quit, it wasn’t the physical cravings that bothered me – they actually disappear after 3 days – but rather the feeling of emptiness. As dramatic as it sounds, I just couldn’t see the joy in living if I couldn’t smoke. Drinking coffee lost all of its appeal, as did wine, sex, taking baths, eating – because all of those things were just preludes and epilogues to cigarettes.
Smoking is often compared to a toxic relationship. I‘ve been in one of those too, and where I see the most similarities is when you contemplate the future. When I was in the relationship, the idea of a future with him was terrifying, abhorrent even, yet I could not imagine myself without him. I felt like I was hurtling uncontrollably towards something I did not want and which I knew was not good for me. With cigarettes, it was the same. I wanted out, but I couldn’t picture myself without them.
And then one day, I stopped.
There was no dramatic event or a particular trigger. It was supremely difficult, but I never gave in. I tried not to make a big deal out of it like I had all the other times I tried to quit. I didn’t tell my friends. In fact, I would drop it into conversations in the months to follow. “Oh, I haven’t smoked in 3 months”, I’d say casually, while inside me, a burning flame of pride glowed fiercely.
And that was one of the key factors: understanding that people would not treat me differently if I stopped smoking. As obvious as it sounds, I hadn’t realized that other people do not care whether I smoke or not.
Even though to me, it seemed like such an integral aspect of my personality, to everyone else, it was frankly inconsequential. The question became not passively wondering, “who will I be if I don’t smoke?” but actively deciding, “Who do I want to be?” I wanted to be someone who didn’t need cigarettes to define herself.
Slowly, I realized that life can and will make sense without smoking. Coffee is still fragrant and delicious and too much wine still makes me drunk. I still take time for myself, perhaps even more so now that my introspection is not constrained by how long it takes me to finish my cigarette.
6 days after I quit smoking, I came up against my first real challenge. At a party with lots of my smoker mates, I fidgeted anxiously against my urge to ask someone, anyone for a cigarette. Then, luckily, I started chatting with a friend who had quit around 2 years ago. I asked him what to do when I wanted a cigarette. “Tell yourself you’ve just had one,” he advised.
That sentence saved me. Why? Because it broke the cycle.
A smoker, I have come to realize, is never satisfied. As the burning ash of a cigarette edges ever closer to the filter, it brings no sense of completion. A cigarette can only satisfy you for the duration of a cigarette.
As soon as it’s over, the craving begins again. The more you smoke, the shorter the time between finishing a cigarette and wanting another one becomes. For me, it was about a millisecond.
Conversely, stopping smoking is the only way to get any real, lasting satisfaction from cigarettes. That’s why I think you have to go cold turkey. Because, no matter how long it’s been since you stopped, as soon as you have one, you’re pulled back into that interminable cycle.
It was the greatest love affair I’ve ever had. Yet loving something is not reason enough to let it completely define you, particularly if that thing causes you harm. It’s over, but it hasn’t disappeared just as I didn’t disappear when I stopped smoking.
Do I still crave cigarettes sometimes? Of course I do. But I’ve just had one.