Sunday, February 17, 2008


I was at a meeting the other day. The adjudicator asked us if we’d like to take a break. Only he didn’t use the word “break”, he used the word “breather” instead.

We said no, we’d rather just get on and finish the meeting.

It suddenly occurred to me what he meant. He was talking about a fag-break. The word “breather” was a euphemism.

This seemed quite funny to me, substituting the idea of breathing with that of smoking: as if taking a breath of nice clean fresh air was in anyway similar to sucking on a cancer stick and dragging those deadly fumes into your lungs.

It also struck me as a measure of the changes taking place in this country that no one wanted to take him up on his offer. In that room of maybe ten people, the only smoker was the adjudicator himself.

This time last year he wouldn’t have used a euphemism. He would have imposed the cigarette break and several people would have joined him.

Ten years ago it could easily have been the other way around: ten smokers to the one non-smoker. Almost everyone would have wanted that “breather”.

Twenty years ago and we’d all have been smoking in the room itself, and the non-smokers would just have had to put up with it. The air would have been thick with cigarette smoke and the floor dusty with ash.

Some changes are definitely for the better.

I watched an old TV drama the other night. What was shocking was the sight of people lighting up on the screen. You don’t see that any more. It seemed dirty somehow, rude, like seeing someone picking their nose in public.

Personally I like the new smoke-free pubs. I always laugh when the smokers go out. They look so guilty and furtive, shrugging their shoulders apologetically as they shuffle out for their fix.

There’s two smokers I see almost every day. I see them leaning either side of the door of their house, each with a fag in their hand, blowing the smoke out onto the street. Then they stub out their cigarettes and go back into the house. These days even the smokers don’t want to have to put up with the smell of their own smoke.

It’s been three years since I gave up. I never did a better thing. A few weeks ago I met my old friends John and Carol down the Labour Club. John gave up some years ago, but, he admitted, sometimes he still longs for a cigarette.

That never happens to me. It’s a matter of interpretation. I still get the odd twinge, but rather than interpret it to mean “I want a cigarette”, I think, “thank God I don’t have to do that anymore.”

The key lies in the term “giving up”.

When you give something up, it implies that it was enjoyable at one time. But smoking was never enjoyable, it was always only an addiction. The only pleasure you ever got was in the temporary relief from the cravings.

I spent about two months fighting my addiction. My moment of freedom came with one particular cigarette. I realised even as I was smoking it that I was already craving the next one. Each cigarette creates the addiction that requires the next cigarette to relieve it. In that moment I knew that all the cigarettes in all the world would never satisfy me, that all I had ahead of me if I didn't quit was a lifetime of craving. I knew that with every fibre of my being. The spell was finally broken.

I used the Allen Carr method.

You take one final cigarette, you smoke it, and you say goodbye to it. You smoke it knowing that it will be your last.

After that it becomes funny.

I was in a shopping queue about fifteen hours later in the midst of the withdrawal laughing at the absurdity of it. I wanted to say to the check-out girl, "hey, I'm withdrawing from nicotine and it doesn't hurt a bit."

Nicotine addiction is almost entirely psychological.

There's like a little tickle in your belly, but once you remove the psychological craving - the illusion that cigarettes are a pleasure - it's a cinch. You're high on an excess of oxygen. You haven't had this much oxygen in years. The whole world is suffused with colour. The air wafts with scents. Your senses are coming alive, and everything is hilarious.

I was in another shop buying lottery tickets and the Daily Mail for my Dad. I hate the Daily Mail, and I've never done the lottery.

A youngster came in, a girl, maybe 15 or 16, and bought a packet of ten cigarettes. I said, "you'll be addicted for the rest of your life you know."

I thought it was so funny. I could see the look on her face, a combination of surprise and disdain - surprise I'd said anything, disdainful of my aged opinion - and it was like reading my own mind at that age.

That was when my own addiction had been born. It had nestled in my cells and in my belly, a little tiny furtive thing niggling in my guts, hidden from view. It had pretended to be my friend, when it was really my greatest enemy. It had lingered inside me like a virus, sucking out my will. It had been a pose at the time, a way of appearing grown up, but it soon became a need.

After that the addiciton is associative. If you have a cigarette with a coffee, every time you have a coffee you are reminded of cigarettes. If you have a cigarette with a beer, the beer becomes a trigger. Everything becomes a trigger. Use the phone. Smoke. Have a meal. Smoke. Sit down. Smoke. Stand up. Smoke. Breathe. Smoke. A lifetime of breathlessness and obligation.

So no, I haven’t “given up” smoking.

I have been released from a terrible curse.

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