One morning about two weeks ago, I woke up and decided to see how long I could go without smoking. I didn’t have any plans to quit. I hadn’t made a resolution, hadn’t set a date, no drugs, no patches, no crutches. I just thought I’d see if I could make it a couple of hours.
It’s now been a couple of weeks and I’m still trying to quit – choke-stuck, blood-boiling, skin-crawling, cells-screaming cold turkey.
I started smoking more or less out of boredom back in the summer of 1965. I went to Higgins Beach a lot that summer and one day I bought a pack of Parliaments to while away the hours watching girls. I’ve quit several times since then, once for a year, once for four, but I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I am destined to be last smoker on Earth.
I know, I know: how, in this day and age, can a seemingly intelligent person with a loving family and a lot to live for possibly keep doing something so stupid and self-destructive? Well, Doc, nicotine is an insidious addiction that provides its own rationalizations. Here are but a few:
• Fatalist bravura. Something is going to kill me, so why not something I enjoy?
• Pessimistic realism. I’ve already done the damage that’s going to knock years off my life.
• Misguided idealism. I’ll be saving society money by not living into my doddering 80s or 90s.
• Exceptionalist denial. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer and not everyone who gets lung cancer smoked. I used to collect examples of people in their 80s who smoked a pack a day.
The real reasons I’ve smoked all my life are 1) nicotine is incredibly addictive and 2) I still think of myself as someone who smokes. Writers smoke. My role models – Dylan Thomas and Albert Camus – smoked. They both died before they were 50, of course, but not from smoking.
In my experience, the only people left in America who smoke are the rich or the poor. No one except Barack Obama and me in the middle class smokes anymore – and I’m not sure he qualifies as middle class. Frankly, I’m not sure how anyone who isn’t wealthy can afford to smoke these days, with cigarettes over $7 a pack, most of that in cynical sin taxes. Need to raise a little revenue? Put another tax on butts. I roll my own for about $2.50 a pack. The late Betty Noyce used to bum cigarettes from me at art openings.
I’m sure I’m inviting lots of well-meaning advice, but, believe me, you can’t tell me anything I don’t already know about the dangers of smoking and the benefits of cessation. I don’t like coughing, bad breath, and being short of breath any more than the next guy. And I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke either. I’m amazed that people once routinely smoked in restaurants and offices.
Out of consideration for others (and on orders from my lovely wife Carolyn), I have not smoked indoors since the kids were born. For almost 30 years now, rain or shine, blizzard or thunderstorm, I banish myself to the back steps to indulge my filthy habit. At sporting events, I wander off into the woods at half time so I don’t bother anyone or embarrass my family.
I’m told that physical withdrawal from nicotine only lasts about three days and should be over by now, but I still have a powerful psychological desire to smoke. Not only does not smoking make me irritable, I even get irritated that I’m trying to stop.
I understand that it will be months, if ever, before I stop thinking about tobacco, but for now, life as a non-smoker is a life without punctuation: just one, long, run-on sentence without rest or reward. If I actually believed I was never going to smoke again, I probably wouldn’t even be trying to stop.