Given that admitting to smoking is tantamount to admitting to liking a quick hit of crack in some circles, such is the habits social unacceptability, I had to think long and hard before writing this blog. But with as many as 1 in 5 of us still in the habit of lighting up, despite the warnings and exorbitant cost, there is still a way to go to understanding why so many still choose to smoke - the same understanding that is key to seeing smoking wiped out once and for all.
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Non-smokers don't always quite get the whole smoking thing, often judging us as disgusting humans along with our 'disgusting' habit. The idea of choosing to knowingly trash your health, your looks and your bank balance for the sake of a stinky little cancer stick does not make sense to those who do smoke a lot of the time, never mind those who don't. 'Just stop' is a familiar refrain. Not quite that easy though is it, my fellow puffers?
I have smoked on and off since I was 16. I wasn't pressured into smoking; I did it because I wanted to. It wasn't to feel cool, or fit in - it just felt like part of who I was. I pretended to smoke long before I took the habit up and my whole identity rapidly became that of 'smoker'.
yip - totally cool!
I won't lie to you; once begun, my love affair with the habit lasted years. I could - and did - quit a few times in my early twenties, but ultimately it wasn't the grumpy moods, or the cravings or even the climbing scales that triggered my puffing return, but a deep and abiding love for the stuff, coupled with a soul-deep resentment of the denial of what felt like a part of me.
The routine, the feeling that I smoked for me was what I couldn't resist and why would I have? At twenty you feel invincible - I could (and in fact still can) run miles without feeling my lungs tighten, I never developed smokers cough and my face was youthful and unlined. All the warnings about the fags just seemed like something that would happen to someone else and when thirty feels forever away, who really cares?
By the time my first son was born though, the love affair had become toxic. Like a boyfriend you just can't quit, whilst not being able to hide from yourself how painful the relationship has become, I was developing an abiding sense of shame about what I could no longer deny was not love, merely co-dependency in a twenty-pack.
As I hit my late twenties, I was spending as much time as a non-smoker as I was a smoker. I would wean myself off, stay off for a while (once even an entire year) then suddenly that feeling of missing a vital part of my identity would over-ride logic (usually following a glass of wine or four) and before you know it - bam. I was hiding behind bushes to ensure bosses didn't catch me and spraying myself with deodorant before the school run to save myself 'knowing-look' shame at the hands of non-smoking parents and teachers.
Friends and family got used to my roller-coaster of being 'on and off' the wagon, barely raising an eyebrow when six months since quitting I lit up at family parties or excused myself from a gathering for a fag. And yet, I didn't get used to it. I didn't want to just accept it would always be that way, I wanted to stop.
It didn't help that instead of helping me quit, I simply became addicted to the smoking substitutes supposed to help, so much of my 'not-smoking' time was actually just displacement activity time.
People on e-cigs, patches and lozenges might tell themselves, each other and you that they have stopped. They haven't, they have simply decided to take a break before returning to full blown, obvious addiction. Substitutes merely offer socially acceptable ways to get a fix - not a cure for the habit.
The last year has marked a turning point for me. The love affair is long dead, to be replaced by a deepening sense of shame and fear. Lines that shouldn't be on my face, for five to ten years yet are showing already, colds that should clear easily take weeks as I hack my blackened lungs to bits and I can very definitely feel the effects of being a smoker. Socially, my habit is an embarrassment, a weakness. Something I should have been sensible enough to stop long ago. There is certainly nothing cool about it and if it is a part of me, it is one I wish to bury alongside the bad DIY highlights and dodgy taste in exes of my youth.
So, two weeks ago, after a couple of failed attempts, I stopped. No nicotine replacement, no e-cigs, just plain, hard, cold turkey.
Seventeen days later, here I am. I don't feel amazing, but I do feel proud. I can't promise I will never smoke again, I am working on a craving by craving, day by day kind of basis at the moment; forever feels too big but I can handle getting through the next few hours.
The worst of the side effects are the moods and anxiety. I could gnaw my own hands off at times with how panicked and restless I feel - but knowing that so far I have saved £137.55 (which I promptly spent on a day out for the kids and the signup fee for my gym membership, to combat 'eating your cravings' syndrome) is helping keeping me motivated. I have an App, smoke free, which is tracking my cravings and informs me I have not smoked 300 fags. That is pretty amazing - I chose the right thing, 300 times.
I won't say it is easy, but I really don't want to fall this time. Feel free to share your tips and stories on quitting below - I would love to hear them!