Puffed out

The time I gave up smoking, I lasted just short of a year, so in some ways I’m not the best qualified person to write about it. Added to that, my love affair with La Divina Nicotina is intense, protracted and tempestuous. I smoke cigarettes, I smoke cigars, a few years ago — after the sabbatical — I even took to puffing on pipes, and rapidly acquired a whole mantelpiece full of them, together with scores of obscure pipe tobaccos with names like Velvan Plug.

As I write this piece, I’m puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette of finest Kendal Dark, obtained from the redoubtable Jeremy Cole of Smith’s in the Charing Cross Road, my long-established tobacconist. This afternoon I’ll probably sip meditatively on a pipe, and the evening will be punctuated with long draughts of Havana smoke from a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No 2 — one of the finest cigars known to humankind.

Yes, I’ve smoked through colds, through bronchitis, through cancer scares, through the head-shaking, tut-tutting weariness of all branches of the medical profession. I’ve smoked in New York, I’ve smoked in LA. I’ve smoked in Queensland, Australia, where they already have the draconian anti-smoking ordinances that we’ll no doubt soon see in our once grey and acrid land, to whit: no puffing permitted within 15m of any public building; a bylaw that creates not posses of filter-tipped felons, but bizarre semicircular chain gangs of us.

But for all that, I have no objection whatsoever to the smoking ban in England — indeed, I salute it as an inevitability. I quite understand that non-smokers — by now the vast majority of the adult population — don’t wish to have rank fumes thrown in their faces as they sip their wine or bib their lobster. This is a democracy, and the people have voted with their lungs. Yes, I grasp all of this, because I too was once a non-smoker, and I know what it feels like.

I know what it feels like to get up in the morning and take great gouts of clean air into your pristine lungs, I know what it feels like not to have a tongue as hispid as an Axminster with butts ground out on it, I know what it feels like not to have to eructate a rigid cookie of sputum before you can choke down your breakfast — or the first fag of the day. So I can unequivocally state that I loved not smoking — and I loved giving it up as well.

I may be a little bit of a special case when it comes to giving up drugs (and nicotine most surely is a drug — in my view one of the strongest and best) because I’ve given up most of them: alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, speed, heroin, LSD — you name it, I’ve jacked it in. So, when it came to packing in the fags, I took the approach that served me well with all my other addictions. Coincidentally, this treatment programme is not at all dissimilar to that enshrined in Allen Carr’s famous masterwork The Easy Way to Stop Smoking.

Carr himself rather rejected the 12-step recovery programmes of Alcoholics Anonymous, and claimed that recovering drug addicts and alcoholics were unsuited to his stop-smoking method, but I suspect that this was because he was an alcoholic himself, as well as a shrewd businessman who didn’t want competition from a free service.

There is, incidentally, a self-help group called Nicotine Anonymous, and although I’ve never attended myself, my informants tell me it can be extremely helpful.

But the Easy Way is a blend of common sense and cognitive behavioural therapy that I found did the trick for me. Carr’s method eschews substitution of any kind: you go cold turkey right away, no patches, no gum, no nothing. Some people say that nicotine withdrawal is a nightmare, comparable to heroin. I say: bullshit.

In fact, nicotine withdrawal is a rather pleasant experience — giggly, slightly trippy, rendering the recovering smoker emotionally volatile, likely to laugh, cry or shout. It’s also over in 48 hours or so. Substituting gum or patches simply continues the addiction by other means, and although I appreciate that some smokers do quit using these as aids, I’d wager it isn’t them that have made the difference: something has changed for them in their attitude, which makes it possible for them to stay stopped, once the drug is finally out of their body.

I once saw a well-known hypnotist do a stop-smoking session for a client. He was very forthright in countering the notion that hypnotists can’t get you to do anything against your will. On the contrary, he told me, hypnotism is about doing precisely this, and stopping smoking is a case in point. Yet what I observed was that once he’d put the client under, he simply told her all the nasty factoids about smoking that we’ve all heard before — and that Carr retells in his books, seminars, sessions et. It was only that the tranced-out woman was in a better state to receive them.

I’ve known people for whom hypnotism has worked very well, but once again, I suspect this was because the important mental changes required to stay stopped were already under way for them. Carr runs through all the negative stuff about smoking, but his clincher — which, if you can hold it in your mind and truly believe it, works 100 per cent — is that not only is smoking not in the least enjoyable to you any more, but you never really liked it to begin with!

He takes you back to those first, nauseating, chemical inhalations, and keeps you there, your head spinning with adolescent angst. He has a brilliantly simple line on stopping smoking and weight gain: don’t substitute food for fags, because you don’t really want food at all! It worked for me when I stopped using his method. I kept my deliciously lissom figure.

Carr makes of giving up smoking the same kind of ritual that smoking is itself. He encourages you to move towards Q-Day in well-defined increments, shedding the crinkled-up leaves of tobacco from the quick, green shoots of new health. He allows you to talk about it — ad tedium if necessary — and he implants the vital notion that every day without smoking is a positive benefit, the very treat that you thought you were rewarding yourself with, when in fact you were slowly committing suicide.

As I say, I read Carr’s book, stopped, and had a thoroughly good time. I immediately took up much more physical activity: running, long-distance walking, cycling — and rapidly became fitter than I had ever been in my adult life (I started smoking at 12). I enjoyed my food, I felt clearer and more focused.

Many writers — and indeed anyone with a keyboard-based job — say they can’t concentrate or compose without a hit of nicotine. Carr’s method knocked that idea into touch for me: I wrote an entire novel during the year I was off fags, together with my usual quota of journalism, and found no difficulty with it at all. I simply substituted other work rituals — chewing gum, special stationery — for those I’d had around tobacco.

Within about three months of stopping smoking, I found that I’d ceased to think of myself as a smoker, and indeed, seldom thought about smoking at all — if, that is, I was alone.

Of course, as a non-drinker, I didn’t have that dangerous trigger of disinhibition occasioned by a few drinks. I’ve seen many people, many times, fall off the clean-air wagon because they’ve got tipsy at a party and had a smoke (Carr’s method also enshrines the AA code that “one is too many, a thousand never enough” if you want to stay stopped, never again have so much as a suck).

I’ve also seen occasional marijuana smokers come a cropper because they had a few tokes on a joint rolled with tobacco, thinking that it couldn’t do any harm, that it was a “different thing”. Wrong! With neither of these pitfalls facing me, what was my undoing? Well, as I say, I was fine with not smoking when I was alone, but I was a holy terror around other people. I just couldn’t get my attitude right towards them, whether they were smokers or not. Already a tricky presence socially, I found that shorn of the defensive blue-brown drapery, I felt terribly naked and exposed. I became more and more antisocial.

I also became vastly intolerant of those close to me smoking, exiling them from the house, even hounding them down the street. I didn’t like this in myself, and in part felt I should seek further therapy for that deeply seated, defective part of myself that couldn’t just live and let die. I also lost sight of the positive benefits of not smoking, once I’d become used to them.

In five short words: I took them for granted.

The fall from clean-air grace was both sudden and protracted: the cigarette at a party was followed by three, painful months of re-toxification, during which I felt the drug reoccupy all those brain centres it had been so blissfully blown out of. Only once I was well and truly addicted again did I cough a sigh of pained relief.

Still, there is an upside to this woeful, wheezing tale: I know that it’s possible — and even enjoyable — to stop smoking, and I know that some day I’ll do it again with equal enjoyment. The method I followed is not the only way — there are many ways to flip a butt. The only hard and fast rules seem to me to be not substituting one dependency for another, and taking physical exercise so you can enjoy your release from bondage.

I was going to give up in July — like so many others — but I confess, I am, childishly, rather enjoying the dumb rebelliousness of still puffing, and plan to continue with cigarettes until the current supply exhausts itself in August.

Then I will confine myself to cigars when I’m working at home, and smoke nothing when I’m out.

I’m bound to feel a little uneasy, scratchy and vulnerable to begin with. I won’t have anything to do with my hands, I won’t have a barrier between me and the world, I won’t be able to strike my familiar attitudes. Still, the alternative — hunching under garden heaters with other throwbacks, while the winter whistles in — is as unappealing as licking an ashtray…

26.06.07