Wednesday, 25 July 2007

One Last Drag

I gave up cigarettes because I felt increasingly guilty at smoking in front of the new man in my life - it was worse than trying to smuggle another man in. We’d been living together for two weeks and were sitting in a pub with a friend who smokes at least 40 Players a day, when my partner suddenly announced that the packet of B&H he had just bought would be his last - any left over after that evening would be given to me. I stared at him in total incomprehension, and the ashtray soon overflowed in compensation for the forthcoming event.

I smoked my first cigarette at the age of 18, encouraged by a NHS nurse who thought it would stop me “being such a fidget”; I was an inpatient at Westminster Hospital at the time. Twenty-four years later I was still smoking at least twenty a day, more at weekends and never contemplated the idea of stopping. I had appalling circulation - a condition I was born with - but this was exacerbated by years of anorexia and nicotine. Every time I got a cold it went on my chest and turned into bronchitis, and resolutely I puffed my way through it all.

Prior to my last puff, I had contracted a sufficiently bad bout of bronchitis to frighten myself that my lungs were in their last throes. Combined with the embarrassment at smoking in front of Himself (who had given up three weeks earlier), this was enough to make me give up. I had not considered mental preparation, a vital part of undertaking anything important, but essential in tackling a nicotine habit.

I was therefore unprepared for the ferocity with which my mind and body complained. I was further outraged and betrayed when my "best friend" of the last 20+ years was revealed as a promiscuous, filthy, lying and stinking murderer. And worse of all, no-one had told me (Government health warnings, posters and TV documentaries counted for nothing in this argument). I wept copiously into my partner's jumper at the injustice of it all, hated myself, hated the world and most of all tried to hate cigarettes. After four days I realised a strong bout of mental gymnastics was needed if I was to get through this ordeal and not give in. I had to want to give up more than anything else, be absolutely firm about it, look forward to it.

It was a tussle, but the cerebral backflips and triple somersaults were worth it. The relief of finally flicking that switch was so wonderful that, in front of my mother who had arrived to stay for the weekend, I conducted my own private party (being the sole invitee), arrived in a slithering, giggling, drunken heap on the floor at my partner's feet and was put to bed. The next morning I had a hangover but no parrot cage mouth.

The surprising part of this nicotine-free life was that my hitherto small breasts sprouted. Every morning my partner inspected them with awe until I reached the giddy size of 34C. (As a rare man who prefers small breasts, he bore this phase with admirable fortitude.) The increase in weight (several pounds) landed mostly on my bosoms - the equivalent of egg on your face I wondered? However, these miraculous breasts dwindled in time, leaving me with a happy man and larger but empty bras.

Like most of us, I was terrified of putting on weight if I gave up smoking. Many women are subject to scrutiny from the media, if not in everyday life, over our outward appearance. As an ex-anorexic I still bear the scars, and for me the latter phase of anorexia involved a terrifying bout of bingeing; I knew I couldn’t go through that again. There was also the very important matter of my new relationship and adjusting to living with a man after a long period of independence.

A friend lent me Alan Carr’s “How To Give Up Smoking” which I found very helpful, particularly the chapter surrounding food, our attitude to it, the psychology surrounding what we put in our mouths and why. I can only speak for myself but it made me think about the attention my mouth had been receiving, and, with a lot of effort, ensured that I didn’t eat when I really wanted a fag: consequently I learned to cope.

I had a lot of support which is vital, my circulation started improving instantly, and whenever I had that blinding urge to grab a stranger’s cigarette, stuff it in my mouth and inhale, I took a deep breath of air and exhaled slowly. (Try it – this is not as stupid as it sounds.) I also thought of a friend who suffers increasing agonies every time she attempts to give up, and this made me determined not to give in. Yes it’s hard, at times it’s hellish, but when has anything worthwhile in life ever been easy?

It is possible to give up smoking, and it is possible to be happy without cigarettes. It is further possible to live without nicotine and not put on more than a few pounds. I am always aware, though, how easy it would be to have that one fatal fag, which keeps me on my guard. The relief at not being chained to the endless cycle of guilt and discomfort is incredible - no more freezing on street corners or furtively glancing around a room for an ashtray. I don't have to stagger out in the pouring rain, with flu or bronchitis to get that all-important packet. I can sit at my desk without wondering when I can escape the building to have that much needed gasp. Dignity and self-respect are restored, and my legs are no longer in danger of being amputated.

I can still remember the place where I had my last fag, what I was wearing, how I felt when that nicotine rushed through my system, causing my legs to go numb. How I had one puff, crushed the offending butt in the wastebin and walked away. For good.

First published in Stop! magazine, September 2000.

4 comments:

Akelamalu said...

I gave up 10 years ago (cold turkey) and am so glad I did especially now, when people are in and out of the pub, like a fiddler's elbow, going for a fag! :)

Miss Understood said...

No comment, lol.

No..seriously, I'm so glad you did it. I gave up once for just over a year and stupidly started again. I told myself I was giving up on July Ist this year in preparation for my run, but for some reason I keep saying "I'll do it tomorrow."

I just hope tomorrow 'does' come.

I've read Allan Carr's book a few times. Perhaps I should get it out again?

Flowerpot said...

Yes, akelamalu, this is not a good time to be a smoker.

MissU - there's never a good time to give up, but just because you started again doesn't mean that you can;t give up. Of course you can! You've done it once! You'll feel so much better, psychologically as well as physically. Get that book out and best of luck!

Em said...

Just read this... I gave up on 2nd February 2006. I had a rotten cold and it had gone on my chest, so I stopped smoking while it cleared. Then I thought I'd try a day of not smoking when i went back to work. Then another... and I haven;t looked back. I did put on a bit of weight as I compensated by eating chocolate!! But other than that I was fine, as I'd already changed to roll-ups and cut right down before I gave up, so was mentally prepared.

Well done you for getting through it. Isn't it nice to not have colds go straight on your chest in the same way?