I was about fifteen when I first started to fool my body and brain into a new way of thinking. Thinking that it was actually enjoyable to put burning cigarettes in my mouth and suck the smoke from them deep down into my lungs. It wasn’t easy to do though, to overcome the natural response to this unnatural act. To ignore nausea in my stomach, the severe coughing as my lungs tried to reject the incoming, overwhelming clouds of toxic smoke. But with perseverance, the ingestion of nicotine that got through the natural defences of my body into my system worked its magic completely and convinced my brain that it was, in fact, essential to my continued well-being.
The body adjusted to the new reality, I had become that most unnatural of humans, a smoker! It also didn’t hurt that it was perceived as cool by my peers and was a sign of moving from childhood to adulthood, it was a grown-up thing. Soon I would be able to do cool stuff like Humphrey Bogart in the movies and light two cigarettes at once before handing one across a nightclub table to a beautiful girl. I still remember thinking this was the coolest, romantic, manly thing! The coughing, nausea and general discomfort as my body resisted this un-natural state was a small price to pay for such gains. As the nicotine worked its nefarious charms on the neuron pathways in my brain all the discomfort was replaced with just the opposite sensations, relaxation and relief from stress which appeared to come from the regular ingestion of cigarette smoke.
From one cigarette in a week, it rapidly became one a day then a packet a day then up to 60 plus a day! I even went through a period where I had to have a cigarette in bed before I could face the world in the morning but I did manage to force this part of the habit away after a few years. Every event in my day was either preceded or followed by a cigarette and it was these habitual timing triggers that became the most difficult part of finally quitting for good. I shudder to think that I was having a cigarette roughly every 15 minutes for say 16 hours on a regular day. Every meal, no matter how good it tasted, had to be followed immediately by a cigarette. It was almost as if I could not stand any other tastes remaining in my mouth regardless of how much I might have enjoyed the meal, the taste memory had to be quickly wiped away with the foul smoke from a cigarette. The first beer I might drink after work also had to be accompanied by a cigarette, it was almost as if the two were meant for each other. And love-making, of course, had to be rounded out with a cigarette, sometimes shared. The obscene haste to get a cigarette going after being stuck in a movie for two hours was almost humorous if not so disgusting to recall. Let’s not even consider the panic going on in my brain as I worked my way through the airport terminal after a long flight. I do actually remember being able to smoke on aircraft and how a crushing headache I always got as we started to descend at the end of the flight was still not enough encouragement for me to desist from smoking during the flight.
Gradually though the wheels started to turn against me as more and more places became smoke-free. When I started all those years ago there were very, very few places where you could not light up. By the time I gave up there were very, very few places where it was still acceptable to smoke. I worked for a while in an area where we were all in closed offices and my boss, a newly reborn non-smoker, commented on the billowing clouds of smoke that escaped when he opened my office door. I think that might have been the last straw for him and a few months later it was announced at a staff meeting that smoking would no longer be permitted in the offices. My panic about this came out as hurt and anger that they would infringe on what I perceived as my right to smoke. Reason had little to do with it.
I then went through one of my frequent attempts, probably once a year at least, to quit for good. Three days always seemed to be my limit. Perhaps that has something to do with the clearance rate of nicotine from my system but three days was the longest I was able to go for before I would get this sheer panic, shaking, depression, anger the whole gamut of withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced by hard drug addicts. I felt I would not be able to stand it any longer and had to light up a cigarette. Magically as the nicotine hit my system all the symptoms disappeared and by the time I had finished my first cigarette I felt relaxed and stable again. But I did also feel like a failure at not being able to shake off this addiction and vowed to try again when I felt better or stronger and able to take up a fitness regime to combat the possibility of weight gain associated with breaking the habit. I did start to rationalise though that maybe I was using the weight gain as an excuse to put it off and perhaps I should just fight one battle at a time. Firstly quit smoking and then deal with any weight gain as a second battle on its own.
The turning point in my addiction came on a visit to my doctor. I had picked up a brochure in the waiting room about the new invention to assist with giving up cigarettes, nicotine patches. My doctor at the time, bless you, David Boyce, noticed I had the brochure and asked if I was interested in giving nicotine patches a go. Panic kicked in and I said maybe but how expensive was it? The initial supply for 2 weeks worked out to be about the same price as what I might spend on cigarettes for the same period so that was a starter. But how long would I have to be on them was my next defensive ploy? I think the recommended period was something like three months at varying degrees of patch strength. Something like 1 month on the strongest dose, 1 month on the medium dose and 1 month on the lowest dose I recall. At that time the patches were only available on prescription and I would have to revisit the doctor every couple of weeks to get a new prescription. But David said to me “Don’t worry about the visit cost, if you want to continue then just let the receptionist know and I will leave a repeat script for you to pick up”. This was starting to sound like a no risk operation then and off I went with a prescription which I filled on the way home.
Next morning I set off for another busy day coding with my first patch on my upper arm. I was most surprised and impressed that I didn’t really consider a cigarette until I went out for lunch that day. A little bit of willpower after lunch and then never thought about a cigarette again until I got into my car for the drive home that night. I was so encouraged by that result that I had no trouble resisting any further temptation that day. Next day the same, and the next, and the next and before I knew it I was a week smoke-free and the three-day barrier passed without any real recognition. There was no stopping me then. I did just two weeks on the strongest, another two weeks on the medium, and finished up with two weeks on the lowest dosage of a patch. That was it, smoke-free for the first six weeks since I first started all those years ago!!!
If that all sounds too easy well it was looking back in hindsight and that was due to the fact that the nicotine demon was kept in check while I dealt with, and overcame all the event triggers that prompted a smoke. Once I had weaned off this particular demon in my life after so many years of angst and failed attempts, there was no way I was getting back into that horror. The realisation I had through this experience was that like an alcoholic, one cigarette could put me back on the nicotine addiction train again.
Just one cigarette.
As the nicotine completely cleared from my system I began to feel better and better and so self-righteous of course at finally kicking the habit. It felt like I was becoming natural again, everything tasted better, I could smell better. All my clothes had to be dry cleaned or washed as I began to notice the foul smell that had permeated all my clothes. How did I not notice how bad I must have smelt? How bad smokers I now meet smell. Now, 20+ years later I am still natural and could not, would not consider putting one of those foul un-natural cigarettes in my mouth ever again.
As the saying goes, there is none so religious as the converted but I have not written this with that intention. Rather it is to help encourage a couple of mates who are starting on, or toying with starting on this same journey. You know who you are Shayne Soall and Riny Raijmakers and I fervently hope you may take motivation from my 30+ year struggle and make it back to your natural state, full of life, enjoyment and fun.
I would love to hear of your experiences with smoking that might help others “get back to natural” by sharing a comment below.