I have an announcement to make: I haven’t smoked a cigarette in three weeks. I want to boast into a loudspeaker, and get showered in praise and gold stars. This is a big announcement.
I never got used to calling myself a smoker. A smoker: one of those dirty people who hang about outside in beer gardens and on street corners, throwing cigarette butts all over the streets, smelling stale and sour when they walk into a room. I should never have been a smoker, but one pack led to another and all of a sudden I loved cigarettes, craved them, needed them. I always said I could quit whenever I wanted. And then I tried—once, twice, several times—and I realised it was much, much harder than it looked. You know the cliched smoker who tells non-smokers never to start? They’re right. It is so, so much easier never to start smoking than to smoke and then quit. Aside from, you know, the myriad of health benefits and the amount of money you’ll save, being a non-smoker forever is just less painful than having to struggle your way out of smoker status.
People tell me that it takes three weeks to break a habit, and I’m not entirely sure if this is true. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in three weeks, but that’s because my husband and roommates have assumed the role of Thought Police, eliminating every craving as soon as I dare think it. I also have an e-cigarette. Willpower is fine; it has, at least, prevented me from walking two miles to the nearest 7-Eleven and buying a pack whenever I have a craving. But I still have cravings. So I don’t feel like I’m out of the water just yet.
The problem is, I loved smoking. I loved waking myself up in the mornings with a strong coffee and a cigarette, and relaxing in the evening in the backyard, watching smoke unfurl into the night sky. Some of my best memories are smoking memories: watching sunsets with my boyfriend, moments of solitude in my favourite cities. Smoke breaks made stressful days at work seem manageable. I have terrible bouts of social anxiety, and in those moments, smoking was my get-out clause and saviour.
But this is the addiction speaking. I know it. The force of the addiction is strong—strong in a way that non-smokers can’t really imagine. It made me believe that what I was doing was completely justifiable; it was the same logic that makes it seem OK to spend my last fiver on a pack of cigs (even when I had no food in the house), and the same logic that made me very convinced that I would be one of those people who can smoke all their lives and live to be a hundred years old. It’s this logic that makes it so freakin’ difficult to quit.
Ultimately, as much as I could try to justify my smoking, it was still a dirty, antisocial habit that became a burden on my life. Slowly, over the few weeks that I’ve been smoke-free, I’ve started to peel the metaphorical wool away from my eyes. I am, quite honestly, being freed; when you’re a smoker, your life literally revolves around cigarettes. If I wasn’t smoking, I was planning my next smoke break. If I didn’t get a break for a cigarette on a busy afternoon at work, my temper increased tenfold. Being denied cigarettes made me a truly vicious person. I got ratty and antsy if I couldn’t have a cigarette; I could go for a few hours without, but as soon as my supply was cut and I couldn’t get hold of any more, I felt like a fish out of water. What kind of a life is that?
Smoking also took a huge toll on my health. I mean, I am—for all intents and purposes—a “healthy person.” I eat my greens and do my squats. I keep alcohol to a relative minimum. I sometimes wonder if someone installed “MyFitnessPal” in my brain (I can recite a very accurate calorie count of pretty much all the foods). I barely ever get sick, maintain a healthy body weight, and walk as much as possible. Unfortunately I haven’t turned into Jillian Michaels just yet, but neither am I at risk of becoming a Mama June any time soon. But who am I to sit here on my high horse—smiting cholesterol and cheeseburgers in the pursuit of “good health,” preaching about fitness and phytonutrients—with a cigarette hanging off my lips? Who would listen to health advice from a girl who eats a diet designed to reduce her chances of cancer, when she smokes upwards of 10 cigarettes a day? I was a hypocrite. And, furthermore, I felt the tangible effects that the cigarettes had on my otherwise healthy 22-year-old body: my lung capacity was appalling, I could barely run a mile without keeling over with exhaustion, and I was developing a smoker’s hack. This, more than anything, was one of the deciding factors in my resolution to quit.
So, three weeks ago, I finally did it. I said, “This will be my last pack of cigarettes,” and so it was. I was quitting smoking. On my first smoke-free morning, I bought an e-cigarette, and hunched over it like Smeagol crooning to the One Ring. Then I started hacking up the remaining grub in my lungs and became Gollum. Over time, I began to forget about cigarettes—very, very gradually, mind you. I made it through my first night of drinking, and a second night, and a third. Then suddenly I realised two weeks had gone by and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to smoke at all any more. And now—now I just don’t think I could go back, simply because the past few weeks would have been entirely wasted.
So, what’s the secret? First of all, I’d be lying if I said my e-cigarette wasn’t still a massive crutch. I crave it less and less, but I still keep it close by, for when my cravings start turning green and Hulkish. Constant surveillance helps, too; enlisting vigilant friends and family to slap your wrists every time you so much as think about lighting up a real cigarette. Most importantly, though, I think it’s a shift in mentality that you must train yourself to maintain. It doesn’t happen overnight—at least, it does, and you start out with the best of intentions, but slowly (and surely) your resolve tends to wane, before gradually getting stronger again when you start to notice the positive effects. Focussing on my clearer lungs, my heightened sense of smell and taste, and my freedom from dependence—amongst other things—is what really helped get me through the “off” days.
Quitting, I have learned, is hard work. But, contrary to what I might have believed a few months ago, it is possible, and it is not the worst experience in the world, and I know that ultimately it will be very, very rewarding. To any readers who might be in the process of staying smoke-free, I applaud you and wish you the best of luck. And to anyone who has never smoked: Please don’t start, and please don’t undermine the efforts of anyone you know who attempts to quit. Most of all, don’t take it personally when they start snarling at you as soon as they get a whiff of someone’s second-hand smoke. Give them time; three weeks is not enough time to truly break a habit.