With a cigarette in my hand…

 

…is how I spent a large part of the last 2 decades. It is also a sentence that was part of a song that played on television in the 90s. It went… “With a cigarette in my hand, I felt like a man”, and was intended to help people quit smoking, hah! While smoking the roughly 73000 cigarettes I must have smoked in my life, I also had immense opportunity to reflect on the thought processes of most smokers. I made the following observations (and broad sweeping generalizations!):

  • Most smokers would tell you that they intend to quit.
  • Soon.
  • Any day now.
  • Most smokers would tell you it is easy to quit; they’ve done it so many times already.
  • Most smokers would tell you that they completely understand that it will kill them. But they would also remind you that life has a 100% mortality rate… everybody dies.
  • Most smokers will also be pedantic about the number of carcinogenic chemicals that constitute cigarette smoke and will probably enthusiastically discuss the ill-effects with their friendly neighbourhood cardiologist… over a smoke.
  • Most smokers would tell you that the gory pictorials on cigarette packaging has only increased their tolerance for disturbing imagery, and the dire but completely useless voice in the movies that drones “Smoking is injurious to health…” is the part where everybody checks their phones for messages before the movie resumes.
  • Most smokers would know exactly how much money they would save if they quit smoking, and exactly what they would buy with that money.
  • Most smokers will never quit.

Way back when, probably some 18 years ago, a well-spoken elderly gentleman accosted me regularly at a bus stop in Sion, where I would be smoking a little way away waiting for the bus, and we would have a conversation that went like…

Him – Hello, can I ask you a question, why do you smoke?

Me – Hmm… never really thought about it.

Him – I’m curious, I ask smokers this question.  You should think about it.

Me – OK, I smoke because I like it.

Him – Does it taste nice?

Me – Kind of…

Him – What does it taste like?

Me – Errr… like something burnt.

Him – How would something like that taste nice?

Me – I don’t know, it smells nice…

Him – No, it doesn’t. I can smell it from here.

Me – I feel better when I smoke.

Him – So how do you feel when you don’t smoke?

Me – I don’t know… not nice.

Him – So why don’t you find a way to feel better that will not kill you?

Me – Because I don’t have anything, or anybody to live long for… (Touché, I thought…) But here’s my bus… good chat, good bye!

Obviously I don’t remember exactly what was spoken, and I paraphrased here and there, but this is pretty much what we said to each other. The next time I saw him there; I ran and caught the wrong bus just to avoid him. But that conversation left me feeling strange… like if I’d carried on talking with him, I would have gotten some kind of closure, some kind of answer. I wouldn’t know then, that it would take me another 18 years to get there… but my curiosity made me seek him out the next time. However, he would always reset to the beginning of the conversation, and not remember that we had already spoken before… it was like a movie that stopped before the end, and always started from the beginning again, only to stop at exactly the same spot, in a weird kind of endless loop…  I never saw the old man again after that, but always remembered that little exchange.

Over time, I became a collector. A collector of reasons (excuses) – for why I could not/don’t need to quit smoking. Talk to a smoker and you’ll hear some or all of this.

  • It helps me think.
  • My job/social circle requires me to be around people who smoke.
  • I can’t go to the loo without smoking.
  • I smoke only when I drink.
  • I can quit any day.
  • I need willpower to quit, and right now my life is too stressful and is taking all of my willpower.
  • I exercise.
  • I don’t smoke too many.
  • I will put on a lot of weight if I quit.
  • My father/neighbour/friend smoked all his life and lived to be a hundred.
  • Who wants to live long?
  • I need a smoke…

Truth is, I had a hundred reasons not to quit, but apparently not even one good reason why I should. This is because I didn’t realize the true answer to the first question the old man asked me so long ago, until recently… the reason I smoked, was because I was addicted to it. My body craved the experience and the chemicals from time to time, and deluded my brain into thinking it was an enjoyable experience. Stark reality was that I was a slave to the habit. For a long time, my biggest fear was running out of smokes and not being able to get them or having to spend a night without being able to smoke. This made me hoard cigarettes, and consequently crave them even more.

Originally, I got hooked when I was dealing with a particularly vulnerable phase in my teens. During this phase, having to cope with anxiety was a challenge, and smoking (along with the social experience with co-smokers) helped me tackle it better. It is only now that I know how tightly it grips you. It is probably one of the strongest addictions in existence. Any smoker will vouch for that, and I kept telling myself and everybody else that I wasn’t strong enough to deal with the experience of de-addiction. There are medical/assistive options like patches, gums and lozenges, hypnosis and even medication that could help, but these assume that you are addicted only to the nicotine. But I assure you, willpower is highly overrated as a factor that helps you quit. At least for somebody like me, I don’t believe ordering myself not to smoke would have worked… My parents, teachers and former bosses will tell you that I am not very good at taking instructions, even from myself!

Nearly 8 years ago, I made two promises to the woman I love… a woman who I first met when I was smoking two packs a day, and despite not approving of the habit, never made purely emotional demands of me to quit smoking. These promises were voluntary, and I suspect also intended to buy me some time. I promised her, when our little princess was born, that I would never smoke in her presence. And secondly and more importantly, if (and when) our daughter brought up the topic of me smoking, and even hinted that I should quit, I would quit… no questions asked.

So, an innocuous comment from our six year old in the middle of June last year, while we walked through a cloud of second-hand smoke blown by a couple of kids hiding out in our apartment parking lot changed my life. She was surprisingly scathing in her opinion of people who made other people suffer because of their smoking, in the typically innocent and endearing way in which a six year old complains about the world around her. And then she said… “But you don’t smoke any more, do you, Papa?”

And through this little conversation, my baby unintentionally called me out on my promise, and I kept it! Wasn’t easy, but it definitely wasn’t as difficult as I told myself it would be, all these years. Almost exactly one year ago, on the 24th of June, 2014, I quit smoking. I like to think I’m over it, but we will see how that goes. How exactly I managed it, and the various changes that I went through deserves its own blog post, especially if it might help others do the same. However long story short – I can smell again, my mouth doesn’t taste like an ashtray, and my lungs are clear for the first time in twenty years. I’m not sure if all of the damage I did to myself can be reversed, and as a matter of fact I know some of it is definitely permanent. The colour of my gums, and the yellowed fingernail on each of my index fingers (I was an ambidextrous smoker) are reminders to my chosen method of slow suicide. But for the moment, I owe my wife and kid a husband and father who is not trying to kill himself, and that, dear reader, is as simple a motivation as that.

I know it’s actually not as corny as this, but it makes for a far better story when I imagine that perhaps the message that old man was trying to get through my thick head at that bus stop 18 years ago was… anything’s possible when you have somebody to do it for!

Comments

  1. An inspirational article, it made me think of being the slave of our habit. Now i Have to quit. Thanks a lot sir.