When I was 11, my sister happened to look out the back window of our father’s house at the right time and caught him smoking. She told me right away and I insisted that she must have been mistaken because our father was very intelligent and would never be addicted to something bad for him. When he came inside she confronted him and he admitted that, though he had managed to keep it a secret for our entire lives, he was a smoker. He had tried to quit many times, but addiction is a powerful thing.
People say that in Australia, cigarette packs are printed with gruesome images of the habit’s nastier consequences. They say that if packs were printed like that here, less people would smoke because they would be grossed out and scared off. I think the people who say that don’t understand smokers at all.
I smoked for two and a half years — not a long time, but long enough. I quit two months ago. I was perfectly aware of the risks; I just didn’t care. Constant phlegm, the rubbery ashen stench, no sense of smell and constantly wheezing lungs didn’t gross me out or scare me off and gory packaging wouldn’t have either. I didn’t quit because the habit would kill me, I quit because my friends were worried and I got tired of not being able to run anywhere because my lungs didn’t work.
I was addicted for a lot of reasons. Nicotine is a stimulant and without it I felt almost too exhausted to move. It broke time into manageable chunks — I could worry about just the stretch between cigarettes instead of the whole day or week or month or year or lifetime. The consistency of an addictive habit provided a constant in an otherwise unstable world. The physical act of smoking forced me to regulate my breathing. I spend a lot of time alone and the tobacco kept me company in a way. Exhaling visible smoke gave me a sense that I was changing something in my environment instead of just ghosting through, even if that change was for the worse. Inhaling that same smoke gave me a measure of control over the composition of the air in my lungs, even if that composition would hurt me. Smoking was a socially acceptable way to intentionally hurt myself when I needed it, both physically and financially. Even the aesthetic was attractive to me. It still is.
The smoking aesthetic. There aren’t a lot of characters in fiction who smoke cigarettes and aren’t insanely cool. There’s a preconception in our culture that smoking makes you cool, or at least that cool people smoke. Anti-smoking activists will say that it doesn’t, but they’re wrong. Smoking totally looks cool. You are literally breathing smoke and ash. How could that not be cool? It’s a shame it’s not actually worth it.
Withdrawal is the pits. It’s awful. People say that it only lasts three days, but that’s a half-truth. Two months later I still have dreams about smoking, justifying that it’s just one cigarette for a special occasion but knowing that I’m about to slide back into the addiction before waking up sweaty and anxious. The physical withdrawal of nicotine from your system lasts about three days, which you spend exhausted, nauseous and angry. Then you have to deal with withdrawal from the habit itself. You probably smoked a cigarette right before you went to bed, possibly one right after getting up in the morning, almost definitely one right after eating. You can’t do that anymore. Every time you would previously have smoked, you get tense and feel a nagging sensation that there’s something you should be doing. People around you are still smoking because they didn’t quit, it was just you. It would be really easy to bum a smoke off them, but you can’t do that. About a week in you start thinking to yourself that you’ve been really good about this so far and maybe it would be fair to reward yourself with just one smoke, despite the obvious irony of the thought. You can’t do that either and you probably hate yourself for even thinking it.
So you put it off. You tell yourself it’s just one more day, you might give in tomorrow. Tomorrow, you tell yourself the same thing. Another week passes. You haven’t smoked in two weeks, congratulations. Then it’s a month. One morning you wake up and realize you don’t even want a cigarette anymore. You want the idea of a cigarette. You want a sense of fulfillment and peace that you know a cigarette won’t give you, but that your body still associates with smoking for some reason. But if you focus and remember what it actually feels like to smoke a cigarette, you don’t actually want that back.
You notice more little things. You can run again — not far, only a couple blocks, but more than you could before. Sometimes you get a strange feeling in your core that you think is craving a cigarette until you realize that you’re actually just hungry because you don’t feel slightly queasy all the time. You can take deep breaths because your lungs aren’t swollen. Little aches throughout your torso that you hadn’t even really noticed start fading and you start to actually feel good for the first time you can remember.
Smoking withdrawal is terrible. It’ll ruin your week. It’s worth it.