December 24, 2005

On Smoking

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way:

Smoking cigarettes is a filthy, disgusting, unhealthy habit, and you should never take it up, because you're playing Russian roulette when you do: You don't know, until you start--or rather, until the first time you try to quit--whether you'll be one of those people who drops it relatively easily, or one of those people who quits when they die, after their family has decided to discontinue the ventilator.

And, as I've said before--even if it doesn't kill you, it robs you of the full enjoyment of life long before then. It's the part where you're still smoking and still alive, but just barely, that people don't consider often enough.

Including me.

I bought a book on quitting recently. I can't tell you how many times I've done this--wait, yes I can. I have done it exactly once before. I bought a book titled If Only I Could Quit. It was a selection of quitting stories by ex-smokers.

Oughtta be hella motivational, right? Just imagine: All those ex-smokers.

Wrong. Turned out everyone who shared his or her quitting story began the story with a lengthy reminisce of how fun it had been back when he or she had started.

I do not know if all smokers are sentimentalists, but I know I am. Every time I'd turn the page to the next story, I'd get through maybe two paragraphs before thinking, "Man! I really want a cigarette! The way she talks about that first sweet drag--GodDAMN! I totally remember that! Let's see if I can find it again!"

These people . . . I don't think they had set out deliberately to romanticize smoking. But that was nonetheless just what they had done. Free advice: Don't describe in detail the almost sexual thrill you used to get from sneaking a pack of Kools out of Dad's carton, while you're trying to coax me to quit. Imagine a book on dieting written that way:

"I knew I couldn't afford the 786 calories in that slice of chocolate cheesecake, knew it in my bones. And yet--the rich marbleized swirls, the waiter's assurance that it had all been made in-house, with European dark chocolate, the invitingly crunchy, yet moist, graham-cracker crust . . . oh, I thought, it can't hurt to try it just this once.

"That was my downfall."

There is a damn reason diet books don't focus on helping you relive your most gluttonous moments: It is because this is not helpful to dieting in the least. So why anyone thought a book about quitting smoking should contain page after page of rapturous, glowing descriptions of the almost unbearable pleasures of lighting up, I have no idea. Maybe R.J. Reynolds actually published it, and I just never noticed. Those dirty, sneaking bastards.

I'm skeptical of this book I bought recently because I already gather from the reviews that its premise is that smoking is a habit, not an addiction, and that once you free your mind from the brainwashing of "it's an addiction," and accept that it is merely a habit, your ass will follow.

I'm not saying the author's categorically wrong about that; I'm just saying, if that's so, it is in my case one HELL of a habit. I mean, I first tried to quit when I was 19. I'd been smoking regularly for about 2-1/2 years at that point. And you know how long I made it without a cigarette, that first time out?

Nineteen hours. As many hours as I was old in years.

And the thing is, I didn't go into that quitting attempt thinking, "Oh no, oh no, I'm addicted." If anything, I went into it with the opposite attitude. I went into it with the brass balls (and naivete) of youth. I went into it thinking, "Well, I've done this for a couple years now, but shit!--I don't want to be like those old people smokers. I better quit now, while it's easy."

Ho, ho! Anyway, I got my ass handed to me. I literally shook for the better part of that day. I thought only drunks trying to lay off the sauce got the shakes. I thought a lot of things that turned out not to be true for me--among them, that cigarette smoking was just a habit that I could retrain myself out of fairly easily.

You might remember the National Quit Smoking Day slogan, something about how if you could quit for one day, you could quit forever. I'd like to stand up right now, brothers and sisters, and testify to you that the folks behind National Quit Smoking Day need to drop dead--because, honestly, did no one in the American Lung Association stop to think about the effect that slogan might have on people who couldn't go one day?

I'll tell you how I interpreted it at 19: I interpreted it as, "Wow, you're so fucked. You couldn't even quit for a day. Might as well smoke while you can."

So like I say: If it's just a habit, it is one motherfucker of a habit. We'll see if this book is helpful or not.

UPDATE: More here, including a correction to an obvious error in this post.

Posted by Ilyka at December 24, 2005 03:06 AM in navel gazing

For me, I think it was a habit. I went to bed one night after I had smoked the last cigarette in the last pack I had. I had been smoking about 15 years at the time. When I woke up, I decided to see how long I could go without. There was no planning and no preparation and I didn't tell anyone. That was 20 years ago this past September. Did the same exact thing with drinking almost 8 years ago.

I won't pretend that cold turkey will work for all people or even that its right for everyone. I hope you find a method that works for you, Ilyka, for my own selfish reasons. I love coming here. If you do it, though, do it for your own selfish reasons.

Posted by: Rob at December 24, 2005 07:21 AM

Definitely put up a book review when you're done with this one. I'm keen to hear if it's useful.

I've quit a dozen times. Two of those were serious, planned episodes. One lasted over a year, the other almost a year. The rest failed dismally, mostly because the pleasure of smoking greatly outweighs the DTs, mood swings and general miserableness of quitting.

But quitting is getting more important every year. Getting winded while playing with my boys sucks. They sense every weakness and attack like apex predators.

Posted by: Jim at December 24, 2005 07:48 AM
Definitely put up a book review when you're done with this one.

Will do. Hey, you know who we can blame for my buying it?--Don, formerly of Anger Management.

This had better be good, DON. If that is your real name.

Posted by: ilyka at December 24, 2005 11:31 AM

You know what I say? Quitters never win, and winners never quit. Nobody said that rule didn't apply to smoking!

I quit a few times, but only out of necessity--pregnancy (quit cold turkey immediately), surgery (EXTREMELY difficult before the operations, not so bad afterwards with all the good drugs they gave me), and when I was told I had pulmonary fibrosis (!). Turns out the docs were wrong on the first shot with the PF, THANK GOD, but that's not why I started up again. I LOVE smoking and I don't care if other people think it's unattractive or gross or whatever. Easy for them to say when they don't have a pack-a-day habit. I know, I know, I know it's HORRIBLE for our health, and I kick myself constantly for it, but then I just light up another one. Mmmmmm. Lighting up now. See? You see it, you HAVE to have one.

I hope you can quit. I think the only thing that works for me is extreme measures. Maybe I'll try some kind of aversion technique or something, like hypnosis to make me feel sick when I smoke (although I just CAN'T believe that works).

Posted by: Beth at December 24, 2005 01:11 PM

It's horrible for you, very happy for everyone who never has smoked, proud of those who have quit, etc., but my dirty secret is that I've never tried to quit. Aside from the whole nicotine fix, I love it so much that I can't imagine voluntarily abandoning the activity, much less working at it. Qutting would be like sending a best friend away on a rocket to a faraway galaxy. Don't leave me, smokey friends [cough].

But, as you know, I've got issues.

Posted by: Hubris at December 24, 2005 01:52 PM

At eight months pregnant, I still fight the urge, every day.


The REAL test will be when I give birth to my little barnacle and can STILL say no.

I don't care what anyone says: nicotine is more addictive than crack. Ask the lab rats.

Posted by: Margi at December 25, 2005 09:13 AM

Everyone needs to find her own way to quit. I tried forty or fifty times before I finally found the right way: I made a deal with my cousin. I'd quit smoking, he'd go on a diet. We shook on it.

I can't break my word if I give it to someone else. I can--and have--broken a million promises to myself. But it's been seven years, seven months, three weeks, and two days. I think. I think I just forgot the anniversary. May something.

I still want to smoke. Crises still make me want to reach for one. But I want COPD far less.

Wish I could help you figure out your method. The patch really did help me. And nicotine gum is a development of Satan.

Good luck, kiddo.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish at December 26, 2005 11:58 AM

I have virtually no tolerance for anything having to do with smoking or smokers, yet I cannot stop laughing about this. F**king hilarious!

Posted by: Kenneth at December 30, 2005 05:04 PM