On Giving Up Smoking

My first cigarette was a messy self-made roll-up, which I cheekily crafted and smoked in my family tent in Herm, age 9 or 10. I didn’t inhale, and I quite enjoyed it, though the smoke made my eyes pick and tasted like sour, cigar-stained curtains. I think it was more the adultness and gestures associated with smoking that attracted me.

In Year 6, age 11 or so, my friend brought a packet of his mum’s cigarettes to my house after school, which we shared together. These things were truly atrocious, the smoke a putrid blueish colour, the taste almost radioactive. Nothing glamorous about these things.

In Year 7, none of my friends at school smoked. But some friends at rugby did, who brought around some cigarettes to my house one weekend, roundly mocking my smoking ability as I didn’t inhale.

We launched a campaign to purchase a packet each. One of my taller friends had been served before and offered to buy them. (I wonder when the days of 13 year olds buying cigarettes ended?) I got my money’s worth in a deck of menthol cigarettes, which tasted like carbon monoxide flavoured chewing gum.

My friends kindly taught me how to inhale, which I duly did, and coughed and spluttered to everyone’s amusement. It wasn’t funny for me, feeling dizzy and liable to puke at any second. This nausea lasted a good couple of hours, some of which I spent with my head in a toilet. This, apparently, is the natural reaction to cigarette smoke inhalation.

I remember throwing that packet of cigarettes over the wall of my garden, so much did this episode shake me. However, I was rather shy and muddled as a teenager – as most are – and wished intensely to fit in, and would attempt to do so at any given price. The price paid, with a fair few of my friends, was smoking cigarettes.

And so it was that I started smoking in earnest by Year 8, at around 14 years of age. Only roll-ups made with golden virginia tobacco, which I quite liked the taste of. So much so, I recommended it to three of my school friends, who all quickly acquired the taste (and all of whose smoking habits long outlasted mine).

In Year 9 we had what we thought was a protected smoking spot just up the road from school where we could choke on our cigs. Still, we found ourselves hauled before the headteacher, who reprimanded us for smoking on our break time. Turns out a homeowner on that road, sick of our cigarette butts, decided to dub us in, with CCTV to boot.

It is never nice to lie, but it is especially unpleasant when your accuser is sitting on irrefutable proof, watching you squirm. The old man was called into school. He gained respect for my headteacher that day, and lost some for me.

So, I quit smoking. How long did I last? A few months. My friends continued to smoke, developing a pact with the school groundskeeper, smoking happily in a more sheltered area each break and lunch time. This pained me. I lost the dirty habit, but also lost considerable time with my friends, which bothered me.

Predictably, I returned to smoking, with a vengeance. For my formative smoking years, I only smoked at school or around friends, with the odd rollie in the evening. Single digits on the average day, more on the weekend. From Year 10 onwards, I was smoking upwards of twenty a day, forty plus on weekends.

By Sixth Form, we could smoke more openly, just across the road from school. We genuinely thought we were cool kids. A friend joked that smoking makes you 27% cooler.

I remember one friend, once a tubby and shy kid like me, who arrived across the road and tried to convincingly smoke a cigarette, to fit in. He was mocked by a couple of smokers for not inhaling, as I once was.

Another friend actually organised a smoking troop, wherein the regular smokers were ranked and given opportunities for promotion by partaking in various smoking challenges. During one such challenge, someone chain smoked a series of cigarettes uninterrupted, and promptly puked for his troubles. One passing student, a sprinter with pristine lungs, called the troop ‘sad’ – I didn’t even disagree with him then.

Something else sad springs to mind: me and a friend smoked cigarettes at half-time whilst playing our Siam Cup game in Jersey, such were our addictions. I had become a full fledged addict by Sixth-Form, aged 16 and 17.

When I walked to the gym, I would pre-roll six cigarettes, three for the walk there and three for the walk back. I would go for 5k runs and bring a cigarette with me for a puff before the return run home.

My days were punctuated by the necessity of rolling and smoking cigarettes, fiddling, fidgeting and biting my nails to the bone when I couldn’t satisfy the urge.

By this time, with around three years of full-time smoking under my belt, I was starting to notice it in my health and fitness.

We did a VO2 max breath test in a sports science lesson, which my smoking friend and I couldn’t complete because we coughed so hard upon exhaling. I would shine bright red during basketball games, having to walk up court and take inopportune breaks. After many a bingey weekend, going through a pouch of tobacco or more, I would often lose my voice and fall ill. Not yet at my peak, I was already deteriorating.

It made sense to give up. A friend and I went to a stop-smoking group, where we were given nicotine patches, nicotine chewing gum and nicotine inhalators to satisfy cravings. They did mitigate cravings, somewhat, but still I would have a rollie or two with the smoking troop, with a patch on my arm and gum in my gob.

Eventually we both stopped, in large part to satisfy the lovely and dedicated group leader who kept tabs on us. We even got off the various stop-smoking aids – the efficacy of which I am not convinced by.

This lasted three weeks. Off-guard, I drunkenly accepted a proffered rollie. To my shame, I peer pressured my stop-smoking buddy into smoking too. To his credit, he resisted as long as he could, longer than me, before accepting the rollie as I had.

There were a couple of other stop-smoking attempts, including a miserably half-arsed new-year-new-me attempt, which last mere days. I hadn’t told many people about that attempt, because I wasn’t invested in it enough to do so.

I was hooked, and now in full-time employment, I could afford to satisfy my insatiable cigarette addiction.

Weekdays I would have a rollie out my window upon waking, one at the bus stop, one getting off the bus, then one outside of work.

Lunchtimes looked like a competition to cram in as many as possible, which my friend and I gladly smoked in each other’s faces over food, to the chagrin of any non-smoking friends at table.

Evenings were a steadier rate. I smoked much more before sports than after, when my lungs seemed less willing to accept the smog.

At night, I had to wait until my thumping heart slowed so I could sleep, which often felt like hours at a time.

Weekends, weekends were an utter write-off. I regularly clocked fifty.

November-time, 8 years ago, my old man was invited to sponsor a white-collar boxer for an upcoming show. He suggested I give it a bash, and I did. I fell in love with the sport, training four times a week and enjoying it. I almost passed out with exhaustion a few times and puked once.

The writing was on the wall. If I was to make a fight in March, I had to give it up.

I had a couple of miserable attempts, including one where I smoked one of the first e-cigarettes – now known as vapes – with the nerve to upload a selfie to Facebook of me smoking it at work, captioned, “Goodbye cigarettes.” I remember that clearly because I deleted it a couple of days after. I even remember Googling, ‘boxers who smoke’, the addict in me searching frantically for validation. (I found one, one I would definitely not want to emulate.)

I had my first amateur fight in March, a few short months since starting boxing and starting to stop smoking. First up to fight was yours truly, under the lights against a Jerseyman, with my sister and mother squawking away, audible above the drunken revelry.

I was rocked at the end of the first round and couldn’t locate my corner, which my team quickly sat me down in, cracking smelling salts in my face. Second round I fared much better. Third round started okay, but my lungs were heaving, my legs heavy. I rocked my opponent, but couldn’t follow up with any punches, because I didn’t have anything left in the tank. Smokers don’t make fleet boxers. I shared a cigarette with my opponent after our bout.

After that fight, I decided I was giving up. Finally, the will and want was actually there – I am going to kick this thing. The writing was on the wall, just much clearer this time round.

And I did give up.

For real, this time.

I stopped smoking completely.

“Except for when I’m drinking.”

Inextricably tied with booze are fags, a deadly but delicious-seeming combination.

I would smoke three or four days a week, with the odd rollie in-between, because now I had stopped smoking. Sometimes I would reach Friday without having had one cigarette all week, then treat myself to a beer on lunch and roll a fag or four.

These are the sorts of games addicts play with themselves.

Turns out, I hadn’t stopped smoking, and my health and fitness were still compromised, especially after holidays, which were fair game for smoking all day like I once did.

This went on for half a year, until Boomtown Festival 2014.

Festival going required large stockpiles of tobacco, which I would smoke incessantly and share liberally.

Smoke with me.

However, for whatever reason, all of the will and effort and failure and annoyance and self-loathing that arose from my addiction and failure to beat it had crystallised. It smashed, leaving nothing behind.

I wasn’t addicted anymore.

I didn’t smoke a cigarette the whole festival, nor have I smoked a single cigarette since, more than 6 years down the road.

It is hard to explain to people, especially because I don’t understand it exactly myself, but I knew deep-down, within myself, as true as anything existing in the outside world, that after 8 years smoking I would never smoke again.

Few realisations have been so dazzling and glorious to me, yet so face-palmingly obvious.

I can have fun and feel content without constantly rolling and smoking cigarettes.

In fact, more so. Much more so. No longer constantly beholden to a gnawing nagging sense of lack and incompleteness, I could finally feel full happiness, uninterrupted by a dirty and destructive habit. I even stopped biting my nails.

After the festival, I felt like shouting this from the rooftops, but I didn’t – and not because I feared I would have to retract the statement, as I had with the Facebook post, but because I had so many friends that still smoked. It felt criminal to make it look so easy – and nobody would believe me anyhow.

It wasn’t even a conscious choice. It wasn’t about my willpower or a decision during the festival, it just happened – and I let it happen. I like to think it was the culmination of willpower and effort, and my long series of failures, but really I can’t say.

People still don’t believe me. Some say that I am “only ever between cigarettes”.

I know I am not.

Liberating is the departure from addict mentality, structuring life around a habit with no benefit, needing others to partake to feel better about it. There is a psychology to dependency that I don’t understand, but I certainly felt it, and felt my liberation from it.

Health-wise, the improvements are nigh-on immediate and improve as time goes on.

With stopping smoking, I also stopped getting out of breath going up stairs and up the high street, I stopped stopped coughing constantly, I stopped getting heart palpitations preventing me from sleeping, I stopped getting colds (haven’t had one since), I stopped smelling, I stopped hiding my habit from my family, I stopped feeling tired, I stopped feeling forever agitated and unsatisfied, I stopped structuring my existence around rollies. I stopped smoking.

My fitness flew through the roof, which I noticed in boxing and basketball. I had excess rather than limited energy, and started exercising twice, sometimes three times a day. Truly, a new lease of life.

Why is it worth publishing this ramble?

In the hope, on the eve of a new year, that it is exciting and encouraging for you to know that cigarette addictions can be overcome, happily and permanently.

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