Around this time last year, I posted about my 1 year anniversary of giving up those wicked little sticks I’d depended upon for more than half of my life. The focus of those posts was what had and hadn’t worked, since 2 years ago wasn’t the first, second, or even 8th time I’d given up smoking. This morning, though, out for a run with Chris (during which, incidentally, my lungs didn’t hurt one bit), I got to thinking about a seminal point in my last so-far-successful attempt. That moment so deeply affected my success to this point – and quite a lot of other things in my life, to be honest – I thought it warranted a post all its own.
As a manager at the Y, I had what I thought of as the A-Team for a little while. There were hiccups, of course – sick leave, temporary transfers, etc. But when we were a team – and, really, it was more about when they were a team – it was magical. Three very different women with such remarkably disparate gifts to offer, I couldn’t have hand-picked a better trio. The eldest of them, C, was – is – an extraordinary person. Her life could fill not less than three novels, and her experience was infused with a depth of understanding the rest of us were and are still working on.
At any rate, all three were massively supportive of my attempts to quit – they’d seen me through one failure, but didn’t even blink when I said I’d give it another go. The younger two smoked, but it seemed to me that they endeavored to conceal it a bit from me – sneaking out rather than announcing it because they knew it would trigger my interest in spite of my wildest efforts to appear nonplussed. C, however, had given up as I recall more than 20 years before. In the beginning of both attempts, she would ask nonchalantly each morning how it was going, to which I would sometimes reply shortly. Others, though, I would dump my frustrations out, and she would sit back in her chair with her hands folded in her lap and a smile on her face the way she often did when she was listening to a funny story from a young person.
The moment in question came one day when I was not doing so hot. I’d been looking for successful quitters – so many of the people I knew (and know) had given up, even for years sometimes, only to go back again. Surely I wasn’t putting myself through this hell just to end up right back where I started…again? That day C nailed it.
“Ann, not a day goes by that I don’t want a cigarette.” Really? No! “I dream about it! I dream about it a lot, actually. I actually smoke in my dreams!”
OK – I realize that all sounds pretty counterintuitive. How on earth could knowing that this craving will never go away possibly be a good thing? How on earth could it help me?
Because it was the truth.
Let me be clear: I liked smoking. I liked the ritual – both straights and roll-ups, but I think I always preferred straights. I liked having a fresh pack (hard – never soft by choice) in my hands – the sleek feel of the plastic film as I packed it against the palm of my left hand. I liked the gentle tug on the plastic lip to remove the top bit, the crisp sound and feel of opening a pack for the first time, removing the foil in the front, getting that first whiff of fresh(ish) tobacco as the little bits left over from the packing fell about. I liked licking my thumb so it would stick a little bit as I removed my first stick. I loved lighting a smoke, that little extra bit of flame created by the paper at the end of the stick. And the first hit – man! Particularly in the morning, when a nic fit had kicked in fully, that sweet, earthy taste, the sensation of the smoke filling my lungs, the satisfied exhalation, not unlike exhaling after a good yawn.
What I didn’t like was the feeling that came after. Was I late for something because I couldn’t have possibly done that thing without having a cigarette first? Quite a lot of the time, I was. Could I afford that pack I’d just bought? I’d overdraw my account before I’d go without a cigarette – I’d go hungry before I’d skip smoking. Then there was the perceived – and real – judgment. Years of bronchial asthma meant that if it was anywhere near wintertime I’d often be hacking up a lung as I inhaled. Children didn’t always notice or stare, but when they did, it killed me.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like this for everybody. I can honestly say that I’ve known plenty of people who have somehow managed to smoke one or two cigarettes a day, or only at parties, or just at the weekend, for years on end. It’s not that I applaud them – it’s more that I’m insanely jealous! Because C was right: not a day goes by. The cooks in the restaurant downstairs sometimes steal a quick moment to smoke at the bottom of our shared stairwell. The smell makes its way clear up to our flat…I have this image of the smoke seeking me out maliciously to tantalize me like Lucy’s fingertips on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s head as she vamped him. But I don’t ask them to stop. Because it would be awkward, yes. But also because I like the smell.
I like the smell when I pass by other smokers, or when I’m sitting safely inside a bar while all the smokers outside have what seem to be far more interesting conversations, owing to the stick between their two fingers, obviously. I sometimes like how it looks, but usually I don’t…I still have fleeting moments of youthful immortality when a cigarette in somebody’s hand looks tough and sophisticated. More often, though, I just feel for them, because I know quite a lot of them are suffering for it. Because I know quite a lot of them would quit tomorrow if it were that easy.
And that’s what keeps me off of them, really – those two things: knowing that giving up again would be so incredibly difficult that the word impossible doesn’t seem too far away from what it might feel like; knowing also that in spite of my efforts to become a nonsmoker, I will more likely always be a smoker who decided that there were far better things in life than smoking, and few things more debilitating – financially, physically, and emotionally all at the same time. So far, it’s still good enough.