The diary of a quitter

Mon, Jan 31, 2011, 00:00

Phantom hunger, stickers on hips, a spluttering cough and fabulous spending sprees have all been part of a month of non-smoking – but the pats on the back make it worthwhile, writes ROSEMARY MacCABE

THE LAST time I wrote a confessional article, it was a detailed account of how I met my boyfriend. On the day the article was published (February 14th, of course), we broke up. So any surprise should be minimal if I am spotted today, puffing gamely at a cigarette.

I decide to give up, at first, because it’s the done thing. It is awkward to be at a dinner party, taking a fag break; it is awkward trying to light a cigarette while wearing mittens; it is awkward examining photographs for tell-tale wrinkles; and it is awkward to have your dentist ask, ‘do you smoke?’ when the question is, obviously, rhetorical. Above all else, it is awkward to know you are poisoning your body for no good reason – that you are addicted to a substance that will, slowly and inexorably, kill you.

There are so many reasons why I should give up. I am asthmatic. Anyone in my family who didn’t die naturally died of lung cancer. I have a racking cough that gains momentum at 10pm and reawakens at 8am or so.

I recently took up running (short distances, slowly – I believe in some Scandinavian countries they refer to this as “jogging”) and after the 10th minute I begin to notice a dull ache in my chest until, at minute 25, I stop. I no longer sing, as I did throughout my college years, as my vocal range is shot and my voice cracks under strain. I am prone to chest infections, colds and coughs, and my skin is consistently dry. I am 25.

DAY ONE

I pretty much smoke myself sober on New Year’s Eve, on the balcony of an apartment with four “non-smokers”, puffing away in social solidarity. I purchase some Nicorette patches in my local pharmacy (€23 for a week’s supply) and feel resolved. This time will be different.

I am told quitting smoking is “all about threes”. I am also told that, after seven days, I will no longer be addicted; that patches “are rubbish”; that it will take just 24 hours for the nicotine to leave my system; that, statistically, January 1st is the worst day to give up; that I should chew gum, suck lollipops and drink water instead; and so on, ad infinitum. The fact is, quitting smoking is exactly like I thought it would be, with only a few surprises.

DAY TWO

The patches help – I am convinced that, as I am wearing a patch, I need not smoke. Furthermore, the instructions clearly state that one must not smoke while patched up. I stick mine to my hip so I won’t be able, in a fit of passion, to tear it off and light up, and henceforth live in fear that passive smoking plus patch equals sure and sudden death.

The first few days are the worst. I think about smoking almost constantly. I feel, to put it mildly – and not at all dramatically – bereft. One unwelcome development is that I am permanently ravenous. Even after eating, I feel my stomach rumble. I determine not to give in to this evil phantom hunger.

I am, however, astounded by all of my free time. It’s no wonder I haven’t written that novel. I notice particular periods – directly after meals, for example – that I am obliged to fill. Family members are emailed; newspapers are read and washing up is done right away. I am, I think smugly, ever-so-slightly more productive than usual.

DAYS THREE, FOUR and FIVE

This is my first day at work, and I find, once more, that filling time is the main issue. What should I do with my hands while I walk to the bus? How will I ever phone anyone, as I usually phone while smoking? After work, I walk 15 minutes to meet a friend and consider texting her to tell her I’m on my way, just to have something to do with my hands.

After day three, things ease up. I’m still wearing a patch (although on day five, I have a terrifying moment when I realise I’ve forgotten it and am obliged to go to another pharmacy and spend another €23). I remain as close to starving as ever. I eat my usual breakfast and lunch but, come dinner, lose all self-control. I tell myself I need insulation against the cold.

At around 5pm, it dawns on me that I haven’t thought about smoking all day. I am instantly aware that I have ruined any chance of making it through the whole day without said thoughts but am, nonetheless, pleased. I have a bar of chocolate and worry about my impending oral fixation.

I realise, throughout this enterprise, that smoking – and this may not be a huge shock – numbs you to the act itself. As a born-again non-smoker, I sniff the air in the lift in disgust, wondering whose habit I’m inhaling. I pass smokers on the street and worry about the scent sticking to my hair.

DAY SEVEN

Today I am patting myself on the back when disaster strikes: I go out. Not just out of the house, but to a pub. I patch up before leaving, ensure all pockets and handbags are lighter-free, and go into the fray.

I find it surprisingly easy to avoid the temptation to smoke while in the pub, outside the pub and in the wine bar (for shame), until I find myself slightly inebriated, arguing with a friend and climbing into the back of a taxi in high dudgeon. I would, at that very emotional moment, give anything for a cigarette. I consider asking to be taken to a 24-hour garage but it’s 4.30am, I’m tired and he’s singing along to Phil Collins. I haven’t the heart to interrupt so I remain cigarette-free.

DAY 10

Friends and family will, I’m sure, appreciate the admission, at this stage, that I go through three particularly demonic days, which coincide handily with the days on which I quit the patches. The pharmacist recommended going four weeks with them, but somewhere between days 10 and 14, I forget to put one on and survive, so I decide to carry on the same way. But I am plunged into a sulk that is frighteningly reminiscent of my teenage days. I frown, I scowl, I snap at people. I don’t put two and two together until said mood passes, at which point I feel slightly sheepish. So: sorry about that, lads.

DAY 14

I count the days carefully through week two. I call friends: “I’m on day 14!” Although I have “given up” before, I have never gone 14 days without taking a drag of a cigarette – usually someone else’s. Previous efforts often involve asking random strangers for cigarettes, a habit excused by saying, “oh, I lived in Milan, where everyone does it”.

I reward myself, regularly, for my efforts. A pair of boots here, an online splurge there. Financially, despite being four weeks sober, I’m no better off. As surely as water will find level ground, my money will find a till.

On day 15 I go for my first run. I am convinced that, “as a non-smoker” – a phrase I have quickly adopted and use as often as possible – I will be running marathons in no time. As it turns out, I’m just not very fit. I run for two minutes. I walk for two. I run for two. I stare at the deer and wonder about what it would be like to be president. What I do notice is – though I am out of breath and nauseous and wish I could just do Dancing on Ice like Kelly Osbourne – my chest doesn’t hurt. It’s barely more than two weeks.

THREE WEEKS

Towards the end of week three, as I am planning my long, healthy life and thinking about how much younger I look – not my imagination, I swear – I notice a slight chestiness to a cough I’m developing. I have a chat with the local pharmacist (who was quite helpful when I was convinced I had MS). “I have a chesty cough,” I say, coughing for emphasis. There is a pause. “I gave up smoking, so it’s not . . .” I am cut off.

“Oh that’s it then,” he says. “Your lungs are clearing out. Take this and you’ll be fine.” He sells me foul-tasting liquid that promises to “liquefy viscous mucous” and I begin a week of coughing and spluttering and wishing I still smoked. But the excuse of not smoking is an excellent balm to my frayed vocal chords.

I tell all and sundry why I have a cough and receive nothing but sympathy. Not for me, the “ah would you get over it” of yore. Now it’s all pats on the back and glasses of water. Not smoking, it would seem, is the new sustainability – so very right-on.

I was told, a few years ago, during a specific “theories on smoking” conversation, that you can only give up when you really want to. That’s how I feel. I loved smoking for the nine (sorry, mother) years I did it; now, although I feel a craving almost every day, I can’t imagine smoking another cigarette. I don’t think the process is by any means near over but, after all, tús maith leath na hoibre.