“I knew how weakened my resolve to stay off cigarettes would be with a few beers in me, so I set myself a challenge in order to get through the night. I asked Marcus to tell everyone in the bar I’d quit smoking, and to make it a game for them to try to get me to smoke. If I was to fail, at least it would be a noble failure. As I walked into the smoky bar I felt I was literally putting my head between the jaws of a lion, daring myself to keep it there and hoping those jaws wouldn’t snap shut and gobble me up. Would all my hard work be wasted?”
I attempted to give up smoking in the summer of 2004 after 13 years of hardcore addiction. At that point I was smoking 8 a day during the week, and chain-smoking 25g packets of tobacco each day at the weekend. My approach was unorthodox, and it does not come with a medical seal of approval.
I was attracted to smoking from a young age. As a child, I used to smell the tobacco in my Dad’s pockets, which were at my head height as I tried to keep pace when walking beside him. Like most boys, I looked up to my Dad and wanted to be like him, smoking and all. When I was a little older, I loved reading the passages in Lord of the Rings when Tolkein describes smoking. A proud pipe smoker himself, Tolkein wrote about it beautifully. Lord of the Rings is full of trouble and danger, and the rare moments when the characters smoke are also moments when they can finally relax and feel good after great peril. You can see for yourself by watching this 30 second clip from The Fellowship of the Ring:
Tolkein’s literary seal of approval, and my Dad’s own habit, led to me sneaking the odd Rothman’s cigarette out of his coat pocket from my early teens onwards.
I didn’t mean to quit. In fact, it happened by accident. I got bronchitis for the third time that year- my body giving me a clue that I should stop- and I felt so rough that I literally did not feel like smoking a cigarette for almost the whole first day I was off work sick. Nevertheless, old habits die hard, so I’d rolled myself a smoke and had it beside me as I watched Big Brother 5 with my flatmate, Marcus, that night. Still, I didn’t really feel a craving, so as the end of the programme drew near, I decided to see if I could fall asleep without smoking it. This would be quite an achievement for me as I hadn’t gone 24 hours without a cigarette in years. I reassured myself that the cigarette was beside my bed and went to sleep, and was pleasantly surprised to wake up the next morning without having touched it.
At that point, I still hadn’t committed to actually giving up. I figured that as the second day went on the craving would become irresistible, so I simply intended to see how long I could comfortably hold out for. However, to my great surprise the second day of illness also passed without any cravings, so I decided that I would try to quit for good. Marcus had told me that it took 3 days for the physical addiction to smoking to pass- after that the addiction was purely psychological.
The next day was as hard as the first two days had been easy. My illness was subsiding and the psychological and physical cravings kicked in. I felt anxious and edgy, and began to worry about how I’d cope at work without cigarette breaks. As well as the nicotine hit cigarette breaks also give you a chance to socialise and unwind with the other smokers. A Shakespearean internal monologue began telling me how sad, boring and dreary my life would be as a non-smoker, and how no-one likes a quitter. Not smoking made me want to gnaw my arm off. I stuck to it because I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone so long without a cigarette. This seemed like a great opportunity to prove I could quit to myself, so I drew on my deepest reserves of willpower and ground my teeth through an anxious day and sleep-interrupted night. A fourth day dawned and I was officially, surprisingly, a non-smoker.
That weekend, Marcus invited me to our local bar, where we usually went for a few drinks on a Friday night. This was in the days when you could still smoke in bars. Still raw with smoking withdrawal symptoms, I declined, as I didn’t trust myself to go out, have a few beers and not smoke. Marcus was understanding but pointed out it was a shame to let not smoking control my social life in this way. I decided he was right and declared that I would go out, as I wanted to stay sociable. Giving up smoking didn’t have to mean giving up on fun.
I knew how weakened my resolve to stay off cigarettes would be with a few beers in me, so I set myself a challenge in order to get through the night. I asked Marcus to tell everyone in the bar I’d quit smoking, and to make it a game for them to try to get me to smoke. If I was to fail, at least it would be a noble failure. As I walked into the smoky bar I felt I was literally putting my head between the jaws of a lion, daring myself to keep it there and hoping those jaws wouldn’t snap shut and gobble me up. Would all my hard work be wasted?
We stayed out late and scores of people had good-natured attempts at trying to get me to smoke. They taunted me, teased me, blew smoke in my face and offered me a drag, because after all, what difference would one drag make? Their determination hardened my resolve to steel, and as the alcohol flowed, I stood firm. To be fair, I was probably passively inhaling enough smoke to get me through the next 24 hours of cravings, but it was a symbolic and significant victory. When I woke up the next morning, I knew I’d quit smoking for good.
It wasn’t a flawless victory. I fell off the wagon once a couple of years later, at a friend’s 30th birthday party, but felt so guilty afterwards that I knew I couldn’t go back to smoking. I still get urges even now to buy a packet of cigarettes. Once you’ve been a smoker, you’re probably one cigarette away from relapsing, so I steer clear of them. I don’t mind if people smoke around me, but when I’m offered one, I have to say no.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend my approach to quitting to anyone. If you can do it without getting an illness, that’s definitely a plus, and daring people to make you smoke definitely isn’t for the easily tempted. However, if reading this can inspire you to give up, or cut down, I’ll be very happy. You won’t become a social pariah and your wallet and body will thank you for it.
I’ve saved over £13,000 pounds in the 9 years since I’ve given up. My fitness levels have been transformed. I’m currently training to run a marathon. Was giving up this way right for me?
You bet it was.