I read something funny on one of those Quitline stickers they put on cigarette packs. You know, the ones with needlessly graphic pictures, warning statements about how cigarettes harm you, and the hotline to call if you need help quitting smoking. The label that made me loudly expel air from my nostril was pasted on a pack of Camel mints that I’d purchased when I first tried to ‘cut down’ on my smoking. A gruesome, bloodshot eye stared out at me, and underneath it was the warning: “SMOKING CAUSES BLINDNESS.”
At that point, I was trying to ‘cut down’ to two sticks a day. I’d bought the pack after finishing three cigarettes earlier in the afternoon, and smoked four more after convincing myself that the three I’d smoked ‘didn’t count’ because I was using them as motivators to get through a rough work day. SMOKING CAUSES BLINDNESS. Ha. The Big Guy Upstairs sure has a weird sense of humor.
Want to know another funny thing about smoking? It’s how non-smokers try to persuade you to quit by saying, “Eh. Quit lah. Very bad for your health, you know?” I’d like to say this on behalf of all the smokers out there in the world: WE KNOW. We know how bad it is for you. We know smoking causes heart disease. Strokes. Every cancer you can possibly name. The smokers who don’t drop dead outright from those lovely conditions can look forward to something called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is the medical term for your lungs degrading to the point where you have to be hooked up to a respirator for the rest of your life in order to breathe.
Yet most of us don’t quit. Because all those conditions I’ve listed above belong to people in photographs, or aunts and uncles who have long-since passed away. In short, they haven’t happened to us, yet. We still have time.
The possibility of passing away, gasping and wheezing for air because my lungs are simply unable to function, was the furthest thing from my mind on my third, smoke-free day this year. I was suffering from something affectionately nicknamed ‘quitter’s flu’. Basically, when you stop smoking for a bit, the air cleaning systems in your lungs start to work again, and like a person returning home only to find the entire house in a mess because the dog had gotten loose again, begins cleaning in overdrive. I was running a fever, coughing violently enough for complete strangers to start giving me a wide berth on the street, and my nose must have signed up for a Standard Chartered marathon, because it was running like hell. And yet all I could think about those past three days was how good a cigarette would taste right now.
Ever since I’d stubbed out my last stick on New Year’s Day, it occurred to me how, without me knowing it, cigarettes had become a part of my life over the past few years. I simply couldn’t believe there was once a time where I stepped out of a bus, a shopping mall, or my own home, and simply did nothing else except walk to my destination. Seriously. What was I supposed to do with my hands while walking if they weren’t busy trying to light a cigarette? Staying at home became less appealing, as I had no idea how I was supposed to spend hours at a stretch without going out to the staircase landing to smoke. And, really, do people actually wait for their movies to start after buying tickets? Don’t people just go outside to enjoy their coffin nails? Oh God, what was I supposed to do now before and after every meal, just… other things? Really?
And that was how, paradoxically, I wrestled against the urge to head down to 7-11 and say: “Camel Menthol. The black and green one. Number 54. Thanks.” It was like having an ex you’d been on good terms with go psycho on you only after you break up with them. This little indulgence that I had taken up years ago as a way to get along better with my friends in the army had now become a constant, yammering voice in my head saying, over and over: “Time for a smoke, time for a smoke, time for a smoke, timeforasmoketimeforasmoketimeforasmoke…”
I suppose I could end this article by talking about how my life has changed for the better after quitting. I could say that I am so much happier now, that I realized that I was miserable smoking my life away one stick at a time, or my personal favourite: I’ve quit for good and I’ll never look back! But the simple fact of the matter is, that aside from a slight increase in my bank account at the end of every month, nothing much has changed. In fact, as I write this, some part of me is considering ‘rewarding myself’ after finishing this article by smoking a cigarette. It’s ironic. Every now and then, I wonder if I could go back to ‘social smoking’, but the sad truth of the matter is that I know I can’t do that. There are people who can smoke socially, and I’m just not one of them. It’s all or nothing for me.
To paraphrase Craig Ferguson, my favourite talk-show-host: I don’t have a smoking problem. I have a thinking problem. I have very little doubt that the little nagging urge to light up will cross my mind at random points for the rest of my life. Maybe it willh be after watching a Wong Kar Wai film, with those long, sensuous close-ups of Tony Leung pensively posing with a lit cigarette in his hand making me nostalgic. Maybe something bad will happen to me and I will think: what the hell. I shouldn’t punish myself. Just one cigarette – I’ll stop after I feel better. I have, with a single, poor choice made years ago, come to associate comfort with a self-destructive habit, and I will pay the price for that poor choice for the rest of my life.
I can’t say that everyone who quits smoking will have the same experiences I did – perhaps for some of you quitting was easy. Good for you, really. But to the ones reading this, who like me, still go to sleep counting cigarette brands in their heads instead of sheep, keep the good fight going. I’ll see you on the other side. The air’s pretty nice around here.