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Stopping Smoking - A Kind of Madness

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Around three days and eight hours ago I gave up smoking. A lifetime of faithful allegiance between me and lady nicotine met its violent end on Saturday morning as I dropped the final cigarette from my mouth and stamped its dying embers into the earth. From that moment, according to Allen Carr, I was free.

Of course it doesn't really work like that. This is a revenge tragedy, not The Shawshank Redemption. After years of dependency I finally came to terms with the fact that my life partner was trying to kill me, so, like any man with a shred of dignity, I got in there first, sending it under before it could do the same to me. Now, it's gone, and all I can think of are those smoky halcyon days of yonder, the early days of a love doomed to self destruct. This is, of course rubbish, but it seems increasingly hard to remember that.

My first thought after deciding to quit was that I'd take a visit to my GP and get a prescription for every giving up smoking aid there is. Then, armed with my Nicorette patches, gum and inhaler and stoked up on insanity inducing Champex pills, I would settle down to the long, dark night of withdrawal. This, of course, was a ridiculous plan, akin to a man stocking up on hard liquor and porn in preparation for his upcoming divorce. If you premeditate pain, then it will be exactly as bad, or worse, than you expect it to be.

In the end I decided the best course of action was to read Allen Carr's The Only Way to Stop Smoking Permanently. I had been told enough times by glowing ex-smokers how it had singly saved them from the sad fate of nicotine addiction, but I had always remained skeptical. I mean, I had read Jonathon Safron's terrifying Eating Animals and continued to eat battery chickens, so how was this book going to persuade me to give up the one thing I knew it would be impossible to live without?

The answer is, easily. Or relatively easily anyway. Carr's trick is to break down our illusions of smoking, and once the myths that surround cigarettes fall apart, so does our addiction. The result is not a battle of the wills, as both the smoking and non-smoking world would have us believe, but a struggle of faith. What do we believe, the advertised image of cigarettes as a pleasurable vice, or Carr's verdict that nicotine's only pleasure is an illusion, just the relief of the symptoms that it itself creates?

The answer is simple, of course, but coming to actually believe it isn't, at all. As any discerning shrink will tell you, our beliefs are shaped first and foremost by fear, hence the intricate realities carved out by paranoid schizophrenics, or the irrational racism adopted by countries falling into recession. Positive belief, formed by understanding and knowledge, is much harder to come by.

With smoking, the fear of giving up inevitably seems much more real than that of it killing you. I know what giving up will feel like; I go through it every time I'm stuck on a train for more than two hours, and it is rubbish. Dying on the other hand, I'm still getting my head around. When it comes down to it, us smokers are more likely to believe in the entirely irrational benefit of a carcinogenic drug, than the irrefutable certainty of death. That's got to be something to worry about.

Rationalizing with such a warped perspective seems at first like Alice trying to argue her way out of Wonderland; at every corner you meet a ridiculous yet defiant rebuttal. But, just as Alice can finally call out the queen of hearts as nothing but a playing card, and ignore her calls of 'off with her head!', so Carr reasons that, with sufficient understanding we can laugh at our addiction and smile out our cravings. When we stop believing in it, the addiction ceases to exist.

Since starting this article I have walked probably close to a mile in circles around my kitchen, eaten a bag of nuts and decimated the end of a biro. This addiction, when deprived of its need, truly reveals itself as a form of hyperactive madness. They say this is the hard bit, but resisting madness is easy when you can see it for what it is. When the cravings fade and the struggle of faith loses its obvious pointers, that's when things get tricky. Not that I will realise it at the time.

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