Monday, July 20, 2009

A Story

I wanted to tell a story. And it's my symbol. And I know it won't keep me quit - only dedication and discipline over the following days, months, and years can do that - but it creates momentum. And that's what I need right now. Momentum. For tomorrow, my sixty days.


It was Summertime in 1993. The gum trees in the bushland near the truck stop crackled. Under her feet, the ground was dry and hard, and the young girl squinted around the sun's white glare. The other passengers scattered around her, waiting with their dim-sims and cans of coke. She took a sandwich out of her bag.

It was her first journey away from home. This wasn't like a school camp or a slumber party. This was ten hours on a bus, all by herself. She had never been alone like this. It melted into her like chocolate - deliciously, deleriously.

On her tinny walkman, The Concert in Central Park played. The track was America. She'd found it in a big box of old tapes in her parents' cupboard. They were her discovery, Simon and Garfunkel. Just for her. And as she sat cross-legged at the wooden picnic table smoking her cigarette, she imagined she was a character in a movie, some sad, sorrowful runaway leaving for the big city: It took me four days to hitchhike for Saginaw.

As Garfunkel's voice rose to crescendo, the girl wrapped her arms around herself. The world was misty in the brightness of the day.

It was a perfect moment.


Years passed - five, ten, fifteen. The young girl was now a woman of thirty-one.

On this particular day, the woman was sitting in a stadium in the city of Melbourne. Her younger sister sat beside her, heavily pregnant with her second child, a daughter.

The woman felt nostalgic. She'd been waiting a long time to see Simon and Garfunkel, and though they were old men now, she knew that their voices on this night would send all her past selves rolling back to her like the Old Friends in the song: the girl at a lonely truck stop, the young poet sitting on the grubby doorstep of her city flat, the newlywed puffing dim circles of cigarette smoke into the night air.

She waited for them. And waited.

As America played, her sister reached across to the woman and grabbed her hand. Inside, the baby girl kicked and rolled to the music. And there the woman sat, both hands clasped over her sister's swollen belly.

Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat.
We smoked the last one an hour ago.
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine,
And the moon rose over an open field.

At that moment the woman realised something. Some things are not about the past. They are about the future.

And Art Gunfunkel sang, his voice rising to crescendo:

We've all come to look
for America.


Tomorrow my sister is going to be induced.

Baby Milly and I will be beginning our new lives. Together.

Sixty Days

Tomorrow is the day. 21st July. Sixty days.

I wanted a symbol; a lucky charm I could hang onto and know I was never going to smoke again. I wanted finality, some great epiphany to show me that at last, this was it. How do you differentiate between attempts when you've made so many of them? How can you know that this is the attempt you've been working towards for more than three years?

The answer is that you can't. There's no magical solution to addiction. You can't just wake up and have it gone for good, whether you've smoked for five or twenty-five or fifty-five years. It's always going to be there. And the way that alcoholics never drink again is the way I have to never smoke again. Never Take Another Puff.

I've been feeling, increasingly, that I'm now at a crossroads in my life. It's such a cheesy phrase, crossroads. But it's true. I feel like there's two very clear choices in front of me. I'm almost thirty-two years old. It's not an old lady by any means, I know that, but at the same time, I don't have the vitality of youth on my side anymore. I can't just continue to have the lifestyle (with the smoking, lack of exercise etc.) I have and not pay for it. Looking after myself really well is something I have always left for later. Well, it is later. Later starts now.

I started losing weight a year ago because I knew it was either that or face the rest of my life as an overweight person. It was really clear to me. My metabolism changed after I became pregnant with Jasper, and I gained weight quickly. More and more of it, even after he was born. I could see these two disparate visions of my future in front of me quite clearly, almost tangibly.

I now weight about 25 lbs less than I did this time a year ago. I've been rescued from myself.

That's what I want to do here. Invest. There are amazing gains to be had from quitting smoking even now, in the moment. I felt them, just a week ago - the energy, for one - my ability, quite suddenly too, to wrestle with Jasper on the bed, or chase him back and forth up the hallway. And there's the sense of freedom - knowing you don't have to leave some non-smoking place early because you can't bear not having a cigarette for any longer. And there's more.

And that's wonderful. But it doesn't keep me off them. Because you forget quickly how awful it makes you feel, and that one cigarette late at night is easily rationalised away as just one. Though it isn't - it's just the first, no matter how you try to trick yourself into believing otherwise. It's always just the first.

So I need to keep that long-term vision in my head. That it isn't about the one. About just being able to get back on the wagon tomorrow morning. It's about staying there, creating that future self that I want to be.

The self that I see doesn't smoke. She isn't crippled by all the things I am crippled by daily as a smoker. She is balanced, vital, fit - she has the energy to be creative in the way she wants to be. That layer of anxiety (all the nicotine in the world can't ease the withdrawal when you truly smoke!) that coats my life as a smoker doesn't exist for her.

And she doesn't live with all those shadows at the back of her mind. She knows she's forging her future every day, and doing all the right things to make it a positive one.

There's no regret.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I have about three days left until my sixty days are up.

I thought I wasn't going to need them. About three weeks ago, I stopped smoking. I even got my tatoo.

And then I didn't. Stop. Or I did, for a couple of weeks.

I was doing great. Not a problem. I felt good. And then I went out for a friend's birthday. It was one of those rare nights out in the city, where you can almost pretend there isn't a husband and child waiting for you at home; where almost everyone there is single and childless. And all of them, old smoking buddies. And you drink. And then somehow you wind up with a cigarette in your hand.

It's not an excuse. My retardation is my excuse. Except it isn't an excuse.

I don't think any time I try to quit is going to "be different". I don't think there's any way I can mark whether an attempt is going to be for real. I must be the only person with a tatoo of a non-smoking symbol on their body who dares to light up. So what will stop me? What on earth will stop me, ever?

Only me. I know that. Nothing will "hold me to it". That's something I have to do for myself. Day by day.

And I feel incredibly disappointed with myself; very demoralised. It's amazing what your mind will trick you into to get that fix. The things you will tell yourself about one not hurting etc. etc.

I mustn't listen.

But for now, I need to beat away that fear and get the courage up again. Soon.

I promised myself I would be a non-smoker in sixty days.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A friend of mine from work told me once: You do know Allen Carr died of lung cancer, don't you?

Wikipedia confirms this, as much as Wikipedia confirms anything. He did die of lung cancer.

But you know, I don't think that discounts anything he wrote about smoking. It doesn't make it irrelevant. It doesn't mean we can all go about our smoky ways thinking there's no point in quitting.

The other reason there is a point- even if a smoking-related illness gets me in the end - is that actually I can't continue to live like this.

It sounds stupid and dramatic. It is.

As a smoker, I'm living this weird kind of half-life. I can't enjoy things. I can't go visit my mum for any length of time without manufacturing an excuse to go off for a cigarette (I'm still in the closet with her). I can't enjoy a full movie without getting edgy. My enjoyment of my work has dropped. I'm not able to exercise properly, I'm not motivated to look after myself well. My back problems have re-emerged because I haven't been good with my physio. My son watches too much television because I have to keep nicking out the front door for a fag. I spend half the time wishing I was smoking and the other half wishing I didn't have to smoke.

I tire myself.

I want to be able to enjoy all of my life. I want the relaxation I remember, the absence of the desire to smoke. The freedom - not having to feel edgy day in and day out. I'm tired of being a slave to it and despising myself for it.

I'm tired of feeling like I don't have control of myself.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Never Too Late

I think sometimes people don't get around to quitting smoking because they think it's too late.

My husband is one of these people. Actually he's never said that to me at all, or even given me that impression in any active way... but I dunno, I just reckon he is. Never mind that although he's been smoking much much longer than me, we've probably actually smoked the same number of cigarettes in our lives due to how much more heavily I've smoked.

This probably puts me in a similar risk category for the really big baddies.

I'm not really under any illusions about that, though. (This is a lie; I'm just not in as much denial as I could be.) Part of me understands that after seventeen years of self-abuse, an eventual terminal illness as a result of it is not an unlikely scenario. Even if I stop very soon, and for good.

You can't undo that damage. Not completely.

To be honest though, I don't think this changes anything about wanting - or needing - to quit. In fact, it makes my desire to stop stronger.

I think of it this way: If I found out I had lung cancer - ten, twenty, thirty years into the future, the way I would feel about it knowing I had quit smoking would be entirely different to the way I would feel about it knowing I was still a smoker; that I had never stopped.

It's the difference between regret and not-regret. It's knowing you did the best thing for yourself in the end. Even if you made mistakes that have cost you your life ultimately, it's knowing that you tried to rectify them in the best way you could when you had the opportunity.

Anything beyond that can't be helped.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


I realised I've been writing an awful lot about the reasons I've continued to go back to smoking. They are so easy to remember, after all. They dig their way into the bones of you, and they are hard to pry away. If I count from the day I first started smoking until now, it's been seventeen years of giving myself those excuses. Seventeen years. It sounds so long. It's horrifying to think about.

But I want to counter them. I want to debunk the crap out of them. Make myself ready, so I know I'm doing the right thing, even though that's obvious. I'm heading towards the halfway point here. It might even be sooner.

It still fills me with a little panic.

The fact is, all smokers do and don't want to stop, whether it's now or some time in a nameless, faceless future. But the thing is, it's never going to get any easier. That day, the one you sometimes hear about, when you miraculously wake up and don't want to smoke anymore - it's never going to happen. It's never going to be easier tomorrow than it is today. Not after exams finish, after you get pregnant, after the holidays, or at the end of this packet.

You just have to suck it up and do it.

For me, that hasn't been the hard bit. Truly, nicotine withdrawal is not that bad. It's a bit edgy - you're not sure what to do with your hands - but it doesn't physically hurt, you know. My headaches hurt a zillion times more. It hurts more to cough up the phlegm in the morning, you know? If you're in the right frame of mind you just go "Ooh, that's not much fun" and go onto the next thing. IF you're in the right frame of mind.

The problem is hanging onto that frame of mind. Because if you're me, what happens is the nicotine is out of your system - all traces of craving have left - and, more importantly - all traces of feeling sick. You are energised, feeling good, making positive steps in all kinds of areas of your life as a result of your having stopped, and then. What? You start to wonder. You start to wonder if it was so bad to be a smoker. What you remember is the long talks, the relief of the first cigarette in the morning, the Reality Bites stuff.

It eats away at you for a while. You don't do it. But it's already there. You haven't been able to hang onto the momentum of your quit; you've forgotten not to take it for granted, to be grateful for what - truly, and I'm not being dramatic - is a second chance at life.

The trouble is the worst of the effects don't start for a while, not till you're back into it regularly, and heavily. So meanwhile, you're holding back, and every single fucking cigarette becomes special to you. Becomes the most valuable thing on earth - you've been waiting since last week for it. None of this helps.

This time, I just admitted it had me right away. All the better for quitting. I could've dragged out the "I'm not a smoker, I just have the occasional puff" bullshit out for months. But what's the point? It all leads to the same thing in the end.

I need to stop, and forever. For good. Like, never put another nicotine product in my body ever again for the rest of my life stop.

There are so many reasons. I don't need to list them here and now, but I'm sure I will at some point, at least as a quick reference.

What I need to remember for the time being is that the truth of smoking is that it is an addiction. We don't really smoke to bond with others, to enjoy ourselves, to deal with stress or any of the rest of it. There are a zillion easier ways to do these things, that don't involve paying money in order to kill yourself slowly.

We smoke to relieve the withdrawals. We smoke so that we won't feel that edginess that we know as "I need a cigarette". When we have one, that feeling goes away. And we are happy. For a little while. Until the next time.

But when the nicotine is out of your system, you don't have that feeling. If the quit isn't going well, you might mope and pine for one, sure, but it isn't the same.

One of the best examples I've considered as to why smoking is really just nicotine addiction wrapped up in our excuses is the experience I had with nicotine patches before I quit smoking the first time. I don't even count it as a quit. It was five days. Five days longer than I'd ever stopped before, but that wasn't the point.

All I remember of that five days was the painlessness of it. I remember driving to work - usually I'd chain-smoke my way down the mountain - and just thinking: Heh. This is really weird. I don't even care that I'm not smoking.

It was a really strange feeling. The absence of needing to smoke. And it just showed me that all the things we say about it being a habit, and being a part of our day and all that stuff... they are all bullshit. It's addiction. That's all it is. If the chemical we want is already there, we don't need to do it. The end. And all the mythology we build up around smoking; that's all it is. Mythology.

Becasue smoking isn't all those mythological things. Not when you really look at it properly. I'm not even talking about cancer and heart disease and emphysema and all the rest. Forget that stuff for a moment. Even just the ritual of it is not all it's cracked up to be.

Since when did smoking turn me into Winona Ryder circa 1994 anyway? When exactly is this smoking so wonderful? Is it when I'm having these long tlaks with friends over glasses of wine? Because, I'm telling you, I didn't even realise I was smoking most of those cigarettes. Is it that first one in the morning, after eight hours of sleep, sitting on the front step with my mug of coffee in my hand? You mean the one that literally made me almost faint this morning because my body couldn't cope with the chemicals?

The reality of being a smoker, it's just not that exciting. It's 30 cigarettes a day of essentially nothing. Unconscious puffing, not even thinking about it. Certainly not sitting there deeply inhaling, thinking: Oh my God, I am sooooo glad I'm a smoker. This is the best thing on earth.

I read this great quote recently which was 'The believing we do something when we do nothing is the first illusion of tobacco." It's so true.

And it's only the first illusion. There's so many more.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


It's amazing how quickly everything I do has become punctuated by smoking this time round. Wake up, have cigarette. Make coffee, have cigarette. Make porridge, have cigarette while it is cooling down. Eat it, have cigarette. I don't even realise I'm doing it.

Allen Carr talks about the triggers for smoking being a series of opposites: Boredom and concentration, stress and relaxation. I'd argue that there doesn't even need to be a trigger for it, but certainly these are the ones it's hardest to imagine being without. And the "combination" cigarettes, where there's two of these emotions at once.

When I try to visualise myself as a non-smoker, certain situations are harder for me to visualise than others. I have no problem imagining day-to-day life without a cigarette - it wasn't hard to adjust myself away from the "habit" of it other times I've quit, because smoking is an addiction, not a habit. And because I want to be free of it so much, I guess. It tires me; I literally find it tiresome.

The real triggers for me are the "combination cigarettes". They're the ones I need to guard myself against, develop strategies to deal with so my reasons for quitting stay on top of my reasons for starting again.

The number one trigger that is difficult for me is getting angry. This one got me to buy my first pack earlier this year when I picked up smoking again. I've never considered myself a particularly "angry" person - it's not something I feel very often (more often since I became a teacher!) and when I do feel it, I most often end up in tears. It's extremely uncomfortable for me to get angry.

Getting angry always makes me want to smoke. Even when I was at my surest, my deepest into being a non-smoker, having an argument with my husband caused me to doubt it for at least a moment.

The second trigger for me is being at social events, around smokers. These days, most of my friends have quit, so these are rare. But they do happen. Usually it's a writer's event of some kind - a poetry reading or the like, and the room is filled with these cool young creative types, all smoking like chimneys. In those moments, it doesn't seem to matter if I have one too. This situation brought me back after the first, and longest time I quit. It's stupid though. I think to myself: it doesn't matter; it's just a cigarette. It's not a matter of life death, but it actually is. It actually is a matter of life and death.

The third trigger is talking.

This one is probably the hardest for me. It's related to concentration, relaxation and stress. It's those talks with friends that go for hours; the long lunch, dissecting love affairs and childhood trauma. The glasses of wine that get slowly and imperceptibly filled and refilled until the bottles are gone and you start in on the coffee.

Those are the times I could just literally smoke non-stop for hours.

In the book, Carr says that it isn't the smoking that's special, though, it's the occasion. And this is absolutely true. It was a revelation to me to realise, when I was a non-smoker, that I actually just liked sitting at outdoor tables in cafes for the sake of it, not just because they were the only areas I was allowed to smoke in. Likewise, time spent talking with friends was no less pleasurable because I didn't have a cigarette in my hand.

It was the same time.

That's what's hard to get when you smoke. Life doesn't just change. You aren't a different breed of person because you don't smoke. Things continue; you are the same. Lying on a beach is still lying on a beach whether or not you have a cigarette in your hand. It's still nice.

And probably nicer in many, many ways.