The new ban on smoking in public places came into force in Scotland on Sunday. In my view this is a damn good idea: I don’t see why I, my wife, my children or anyone else should be exposed to other people’s cancer inducing, stinking smoke, just so that they can express their freedom to be addicts. With this in mind it seemed like an ideal time to reminisce about my nightmare experience of giving up smoking.
It’s a long post so I’ll split it into two starting with the background story, and the next post will go into how I actually went about it
Unlike most smokers, I actually went right through school avoiding the habit; in fact I was a well-known non-smoker. But when I left school I was recruited onto a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) where I sat around, eight hours a day in an Estate Agent’s, waiting for something to do. The highlight of the day was making the coffee, just because it occupied my time for a few sweet moments. 12 years of primary and secondary education just hadn’t prepared me for the sheer levels of utter boredom that “employment” had in store for me.
The government paid me £25 per week to not be included in their unemployment statistics while my “employer” wasn’t going to waste any of his precious time in actually involving me in anything.
One lunchtime, two months in, I met up with an old friend from school and we went for a cuppa. Just before she lit up, she offered me a cigarette. I naturally declined, but in the way a teenager will she nagged me, insisting that I should join her for a fag*.
Right at that point I felt low, I couldn’t be bothered to put up with the hassle, so I took the cigarette from the packet just to shut her up.
Oh boy was it good! Oh yes! This was just what I needed: a nicotine rush and a lung full of smoke and I was hooked. It felt like I’d been waiting 17 years just for that cigarette.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t start full time smoking straight away. To begin with I just enjoyed the shock value when people who knew I didn’t smoke would jokingly offer me a cigarette; I loved the look on their faces when I took it and lit up. Then I would only have the occasional one when I was at the pub, to be sociable, you know how it is. Of course, it was a bit rude to just take other people’s and never offer any of my own, so the occasional packet I bought was about playing fair and not being a scrounger. It wasn’t like I was addicted or anything. I knew full well that I could quit at any time.
7 years later I was on about 30 to 40 a day, rolling my own. I had tried giving up a few times, but never got beyond 2 hours. Within that time the craving would become unbearable, my emotions would be haywire, sometimes my eyesight would go funny and my skin would become hyper sensitive. I felt like absolute shit and knew that one little cancer stick would make me feel fine again. So I would give in, with the thought that I could always tackle it at a later date when I felt stronger.
Giving up smoking, or any addiction, isn’t about will power: it’s about motivation. If I offer you £5 to give up chocolate (or your drug of choice), then you’ll tell me where to go. If I were to offer you a million, you would find a way to do it. Likewise, knowing that if you failed to give up chocolate would result in a punch in the arm, you’d put up with the discomfort of the bruise, but if failing to leave it alone would result in the death of a loved one, then you would find a way to quit. With the right level of motivation you will put up with any level of pain, discomfort or even the loss of your own life.
Motivation is an individual thing; you have to find the right kind for you. The health argument didn’t really work for me in my early twenties; in fact, if you were to show me a picture of a dissected, tar-covered lung, then I’d be quickly reaching for the tobacco to calm my nerves. Mind you, I think if I’d been more aware of the dangers of passive smoking back then, that might have worked as a motivator. I certainly would have baulked at the idea that my habit could be harming other people. However, this was 4 years before the high profile case of TV presenter and entertainer, Roy Castle, who died of a smoking related lung cancer, even though he’d never touched one himself. The issues for me giving up were all around the notion of control: the idea that this inanimate chemical had such a hold over me was intensely infuriating.
There were a few things going on my life at the time, which contributed to this feeling of lack of control in my life. My plans on creating a career in music were going nowhere; the group of friends I had built up were all disappearing to different corners of the country; and most of all, my sister had been beaten black and blue by her partner several months earlier. For long and complicated reasons that I might write more about one day, the fact that I was prevented from wreaking bloody and vicious revenge on the guy left me feeling frustrated and powerless. The fear of losing a grip on the rage within caused me to stop drinking alcohol, stop partaking of an assortment of recreational drugs, and even coffee had started to taste like black sludge. Tobacco and nicotine, though, were proving harder to gain control over.
Tune in for Part 2 later this week.
*Yes I do know what a fag is in Americanese, but I’m not American