Smokers, as any variety-club comedian will tell you, are a dying breed. Just under 18 percent of adults in the United States now voluntarily suck carcinogenic fumes into their breathing apparatus, compared with around 37 percent in the 70s. Cigarettes are being nubbed out under the sharply swiveling soles of a generation that prefers the taste of fresh air to an air of insouciance, that somehow acknowledges the essential meaningless of the universe and pointlessness of existence but doesn't take it as carte blanche to actively do their lungs in.
Yes, despite motivational gurus sparking widespread confusion with their "winners never quit" spiel, quitting smoking is a growth industry. E-cigarette shops are springing up like cancerous cells in our cities, there among the head shops, bookies, tattooists, and bargain boozers administering the populace's soft addictions.
I've been successful at giving up smoking myself. Three times, actually. The first time, I was still a teenager, still immortal, before I came to realize that the cure for death—a.k.a. religion—was a hoax. So I hit the burners again. I enjoyed it for several years, too. Then I stopped enjoying it but carried on anyway. Later, I read a book that told me I'd never really enjoyed it. All I'd done was assuage cravings and give myself temporary relief. That one after a slap-up meal? With the cappuccino and paper? Down the at the bar with that first cold beer? All fleeting satiation.
That book's title was The Easy Way to Stop Smoking (EWTSS), which I'd serendipitously spotted in the library the same day a forlorn government-sponsored SmokeFree Quit Kit had struggled through the letterbox, promising to tackle one of the most addictive substances on the planet with a plastic hand toy called "tangles." Apparently, more than 13 million copies of EWTSS have been shifted—a fraction over the number of cigarettes its author, 100-a-day former accountant Allen Carr, had sucked the tar from over his 33-year smoking journey—while it claims to have helped 53.3 percent of its readers quit.
How does Carr do it? Well, he actively encourages you to smoke as you read the book, while hitting you with short, sharp chapters drumming home the point that smoking's nothing to do with habit but just a straightforward chemical addiction, anthropomorphized as the Nicotine Monster. You gotta slay the Monster (more scientifically: stop nicotine hijacking the brain's dopamine circuitry). Yes, the Monster will be lurking malevolently, but after three days he gets weaker, and after five you're more or less free of his grasp. (Incidentally, this is why e-cigs, patches, gums, and suchlike are, in Carr's view, pointless: You're simply swapping one dependency for another.)
There are no scare stories—"We smoke when we are nervous," Carr writes. "Tell smokers that cigarettes are killing them and the first thing they will do is light one." Only the relentless demystification of the so-called benefits and the percussive message that, once you realize what you're actually doing, stopping doing it is, in fact, easy. There's no hair-shirt sacrifice, no heroic struggle; it's a pleasure, a great release, a joyous gambol into the fragrant meadows of a snout-free future.
EWTSS may have been the deal-sealer, but there were already several elements in place. Glib as it sounds, you first have to really, really want to do it, not simply flirt with the notion. I was primed and ready, and not by staring at images of emphysema on my cig packet. Nor by the prohibitive cost. Nor the social stigma of skulking around in the smoke-cages, for there are still options, places where the smoker is still embraced, still valued: somewhere like Greece, say, where, just as in the UK and the US, the ostracized minority are forced outside—the non-smokers, it's true—and where Stigma's just another tobacco brand.
No, the impetus for quitting was wheezing. Increasingly, as the cold, damp fingers of English winter mornings reached in to tickle my chest, it sounded like a set of samples for some Aphex Twin concept album: the sleeping bag zipper; the plaintive seagull; the howling alleyway; the Peruvian pan-pipe-band sound-check; the sliding tarpaulins; the basketball court jostling; the cellar door. Not an attractive post-coital soundtrack.
Four years I went without a cigarette—four years without the desire for a cigarette—only I didn't completely slay the Monster. Like some slasher-movie psycho-killer, he was waiting at the bottom of the garden for me to leave the door ajar. You allow yourself one here, a couple there (followed by the magic five days off to convince yourself you're on top of it), and that's it: His foot was not only back in the door; he was sleeping on my sofa. Indefinitely. Smokes: here to stay.
It was probably after about six months' smoking as a non-smoker before I became a smoker again. (it's like the Sorites paradox: If you remove one grain at a time from a heap of sand, at what stage does it cease to be a heap?) And once my smoking was smoking—fully fledged, dedicated, non-negotiable—that frisson of smug self-satisfaction you get from answering "no" when people ask, "Are you a smoker?" was nixed. Gone in a puff of smoke. And no matter how clean the next break, I didn't think I'd ever get it back. Yep: back on the hamster wheel. Ich bin ein smoker.
Another resource I could no longer fall back on was the demonization of the smoker, a central tactic of Carr's that had not only helped wean me in the first place, but also cocooned me from relapsing. In moments of weakness I'd contemplate the old men with cracked leathery faces and brown teeth hacking up greenies outside bars; I'd watch the smokers' mugs—the mug smokers—outside A&E departments, putting up with the rain, the cold, the noxious fumes of cars for their urgent hourly tug, smoking as though about to board a 12-hour flight. Smoking as if their lives depended on it.
Of course, shame makes you want to quit again almost immediately (as soon as those four cartons of duty-free run out, anyway). So you revisit your old savior, your panacea: The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. Only, this time it's not so easy. Suddenly, you're immune to its rhetorical sledgehammers. Second time round, "the five-day rule," previously a marker of the freedom on the horizon, becomes the point at which the Nicotine Monster rears its head, suggesting you have a reward for your abstinence: perhaps a few drags on a sweet, sweet cigarette?
Watch this and try to resist having a cigarette
The book became the self-help equivalent of a condom: usable only once. Paradoxically, Easy Way made you realize that quitting smoking gets more and more difficult each time. First time, you're faced with the improbability of a future free of those heavy chains. Second time, you know you've previously done it—and thought you'd beaten it—but there's also the recent knowledge that you hadn't beaten it. Because there you were doing it again, idiot. No worries, though. Since you've given up once before, you're sure you can do it again. So you carry on smoking. You get complacent. The sense of jeopardy is lost. Old Nic' sneaks in again. And the more you smoke, the less confident you'll slowly feel that you can ever pull it off, so the more you defer it… Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
A friend in the midst of an OD-flavored nervous breakdown once said to me, somewhat surprisingly: "The thing that depresses me most is the cigarettes." They were of course symbolic of his self-destructive tendencies, yet he couldn't take the risk of trying to quit because to do so and fail would be psychologically more harmful than contemplating one's chronic inability to quit. At least while you're smoking you have the hope that you'll soon knock it on the head. When you've crashed and burned—crashed a butt, burnt your esophagus—there's only abjection. As the old proverb goes: better to have never tried than to have tried and failed. The addicted smoker tormented by, yet flirting with, quitting is thus always trying to get to the penultimate cigarette, not the last one (I've smoked a few last ones, and my last last one didn't turn out to be my last after all, though maybe the next last one will).
And here's the rub. Each time you succumb, trudging with guilty avidity to the corner store for some smokes, the mountain gets higher, the slope more slippery. You'll always feel like shit for having fallen off the wagon, for having bought those last-gasp gaspers. You'll feel like the Monster will never leave you alone. So don't rush in. Be ready. Know your enemy. Read Sun Tzu. Get it right. This is a worthy fucking adversary, and unless you treat it as such, you're fucked. And remember: If you can stop, breathing will feel like a breath of fresh air.
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