This is a harmless little story of how I finally managed to quit smoking without killing anyone or destroying any defenceless kitchen appliances or random pieces of furniture. Like you over there, puffing away on a smoke while reading this, I used to love smoking. I adored it, I loved it more than life itself. I was the most faithful smoker a tobacco company could ever wish for. What I lacked (still lack) in alcohol tolerance I made up for in cigarettes and I could smoke anyone under the table, down to the floor, under the floor even, right down to the basement.
Measured in drinks, I am basically drunk and yours after one, but I could have one cigarette after the other and still be standing, still be coherent, still holding on to all my virtue with a steely grip. Even hardened smokers would splutter and fold halfway through the night. You know those nights when you talk about anything including the meaning of life and you think you are terribly interesting. The hours go by and the ashtray piles up. Nights like those. Except that was kind of my every day, concerning the ashtray anyway.
I had romantic notions about smoking. The suffering artist, writer, author, wasting away in a Paris apartment. Living on smoke and maybe instant noodles, only able to think, to do anything with a cigarette in her hand.
I never liked the taste of cigarettes, it was for the breathing that I was hooked. The in and out of my breath made visible. Being socially awkward, shy if you like, this smoke haze formed a wonderful cocoon around me. It put something between me and the other person, the person asking questions, the one making small talk. Back then it seemed that everyone smoked, I remember when one could still smoke in hospitals and on bus trips at the back with a curtain between you and the non-smokers. So it was just one big haze at a party and good luck to anyone finding you through all of that.
I liked the quieter moments cigarettes offered. The one with the morning coffee. The one at dawn. The one while driving. The ones while dreaming. The ones that keep you company through all kinds of ups and downs. Cigarettes were my friends, therapist, mother, father, life-coach, drug of choice. I smoked my first cigarette at the age of ten. South Africa has its rough places. It was in secret of course, with a rush of fear and excitement and I thought it the most disgusting thing I had ever tried. My head spun, my stomach turned and in all that unpleasantness my curiosity had already taken hold. I wanted to present a tough exterior to my surroundings, and as a child, smoking seemed like the image to have, if one wanted to be tough. Like a gritty movie star. Someone who you could not mess with. Don't even try, back off, you talking to me, huh, huh?
So it was on and off in my childhood and adolescence that I would give cigarettes a go. At some point in all of that on and off it became on for years and years. Decades. We had a thing going, we were inseparable and nothing could part us. All the while I knew it was bad, knew it in the burn I would feel in my throat. The rattle in my lungs when I laughed, other general non specific feelings of decline. I tried a few times to leave it behind, but I would go back. As if the memory of smoke whispered sweet nothings into my ear, you can't without me, no one loves me but you, you are nothing without me, how will you handle your life without me? So I would go run back, desperate and pale with withdrawal into the nearest corner café and buy a box, faithful to my brand. Inhaling the sweet smell of the tightly packed filter tips. The first breath in. Ah. That is the life! That satisfaction on the rise, all of my life goals achieved, everything went right. I earned the cigarette. It must be true because it feels so good. Nothing like it. Now I can get back to myself. Be myself. Old false friend. I missed you. There we went again, skipping and laughing and clearly rattling through the meadows.
After a while, after long enough damaging my health, the fear that I felt when I lit my first cigarette, the fear I had all but forgotten, returned. I asked the same forgotten questions of myself. Why am I doing this? What will this do to me? How will I die? Like this, or like that?
I don't know how I will die, I am betting on being struck by a random golf ball, however and either way I didn't want to increase the risk of going a specific way. A very unpleasant and painful way. So the fear grew, and grew some more, till I became terrified of what I had already done to myself and how I seemed stuck in it. Entirely and absolutely addicted. Unable to stop. For all kinds of reasons. Emotional, psychological. The least of them seemed physical.
It took months of trying to quit, I lasted a whole day, even a week once, then I would go back again. I tried to vape in between but that didn't work for me. It took months of talking myself out of the addiction, out of the helplessness. It took a lot of hard work mentally preparing myself to let it go. For once and for always. For this you need to be sure. You need to want to stop, like nothing you have ever wanted before, and know why you want to stop. It will not work otherwise.
I have a small Bavarian town with its fresh mountain air to thank for providing the final push. I had run out of cigarettes and all the shops were closed, even the corner vending machines did not sell my brand.
That was that. If there are none of my cigarettes to be had then no smoking will be done.
It was 3 days after my 39th birthday. I did it cold turkey. No gum, no patches, no nothing. I had visions of ballooning and bursting out of my pale, skinny, smoker clothes. I had fears that I would use something else to replace the smokes, numerous bars of chocolate maybe, bags of sweets and candies. Tubs of ice-cream at midnight. I have heard the stories.
Cakes. Sugar. I craved sweet things for a while and I devoured the afternoon slice of cake. I went up two/ three sizes, depending, to a 34/36 from a 32 that used to be loose. There wasn't an adult size small enough. So considering where I was I had quite a lot of room to grow. I can't get my smoker jeans past my knees now. That was something to adjust too. To feel a little heavier. To take up a little more room. I had felt so light before, as if I hardly took up any space at all, that I could slip through cracks like a ghost.
The world became more present too. The colours more intense, the sights and sounds all stripped from the grey dull film that was being a smoker. I felt really alive and full of energy and then very tired, and up and down as my body adjusted right down to the cellular level, to a life without cigarettes. One day at a time. One month at a time. A year at a time.
Sometimes, during the initial phase, I would have sold my kidneys for a smoke, my cat, I would have done anything, just for one drag. But take courage, that longing fades. The fear of an awful death fades too, you can start to relax as your body heals. You see that you can live without cigarettes, you can stand up and jump around without them, but the risk of picking it up again is always there and vigilance in stressful times is important.
Almost three years later I still dream that I am smoking. Sometimes. Now and then. I usually have an entire pack in my mouth, and I am lighting up the whole thing, or I am grovelling on the floor for butts and lighting those, just one more puff, come on let me at 'em! The dreams feel so real that I think I have undone all the hard work, and I try to reason with myself in the dream---but it is just one, just thirty all at once, I mean, I can stop anytime.
No you can't. No I can't. It is better, necessary, to stay away, to never touch them again. That is the real satisfaction.
Copyright: Images and text, Megan Voysey 2018.