I always blamed my older brother for getting me started. After all, to an eight year old kid, an older brother’s derisory laughter is an unspoken challenge, right? Well, it was to me and I was never one to fail to pick up the gauntlet when it was thrown down.
Which is how – and why – I became a smoker at the tender age of just eight years of age: all to prove to my older (by a ‘massive’ two years!) brother that I, too, could puff on a cigarette and inhale the smoke without coughing and choking and earning another peal of his mocking laughter. Oh yes, I showed him alright. Within days of that incident I was puffing on one of dad’s filched filter-tipped ciggies and puffing away like an old steam train.
Boy, wasn’t I proud of myself: of my achievement! You know already, of course, that my brother, cocky s-o-b that he already was at that age, could not have cared less that I had not only risen to and surpassed his challenge, but had also joined one of the massed ranks of committed smokers, and all before my age reached double figures. Way to go, Andy…
In those days – the late nineteen-sixties – kids could still buy cigarettes. Indeed, one of my daily routines was to go to the nearby newsagent shop to get my father’s daily newspaper and his regular half-ounce pack of hand-rolling tobacco and top brand cigarette papers. So, when I began to buy cigarettes with my school bus-fare money, the shop-keeper never queried it.
By the time I was ten I had a serious smoking habit for such a young schoolboy; upwards of ten smokes a day, if I could get them. By the time I hit my teens I was on nearer twenty a day and the pattern was set… for a few years anyway. You see, I did manage to quit the habit, but a beautiful girl and a weak will set me back on the Nicotine Path again.
One of the first betrayals of my young life outside of my immediate family came when I was in the care of the local authority in my early teens. I was bet by one of the housemasters where I was a resident that I could not stop smoking between that date (around start-of-school term time in September) and the Christmas break in December. Now, as you now know, I am not one to turn down a challenge and with the added incentive of a whole single Great British Pound at stake (a lot of money to a fourteen year old boy in nineteen seventy-five when cigarettes were still pennies for a pack of twenty) as reward if I succeeded, I once again grabbed that gauntlet with both hands.
As much out of stubbornness as the wish to win that pound for myself I did manage to stop smoking, as per the wager. I kept up my end of the bargain... but the s-o-b housemaster reneged on his. I recall him laughing at me when I went to him to collect my reward.
"You didn’t think I was serious, did you?" he mocked with a laugh before turning on his heel and walking away.
I was crushed. I felt foolish and I felt that I had been cruelly and cynically duped by someone who ought to have known better. But most of all, I learned an important lesson about trust… To this day it is something I still struggle with and I can trace one of the roots of my issues with trust all the way back to the bastard who crapped on me that day.
I remained an ‘ex-smoker’ for about eighteen months. Then I met Christine.
We worked at the same national supermarket chain in the UK (the one where, apparently, "good food costs less", although I cannot afford to shop there!). We were both seventeen at the time. It sounds like a cliché to say the next bit, but Christine was model-girl beautiful: tall-ish, slim, natural long blonde hair and blue eyes. Her smooth complexion and ready smile should have made her as famous as any latter-day supermodel, but Christine never saw herself as anything other than a normal girl. And she was my friend, my buddy, my pal, but never anything more than that.
Yes, of course I wanted more. I was a horny teenage lad who counted one of the best looking girls in town as one of his closest friends and who virtually worshiped the ground she walked on so, yeah, I wanted to be intimate with her. Christine, though, was having none of it and went and got herself a boyfriend who I didn’t know or ever meet (but I saw the hickey’s the dirty/lucky bastard left on her neck!)
At the time Christine and I met I was still an ex-smoker. Unfortunately, my will when it came to this beautiful creature was almost non-existent, so when she cajoled me into accepting a cigarette one day as we travelled on the top deck of a bus to a training day at another of the company’s stores, I accepted, lit up and almost immediately fell back in love with the art and practice of smoking.
I remained a committed smoker for the next thirty-eight years, during which time my capacity for inhaling nicotine-infused products increased dramatically. I was able to smoke forty plus tailor-made cigarettes a day with ease. I got to the stage where as soon as my eyes were open in the morning I was reaching for my pack of twenty and lighting-up. Breakfast invariably consisted of a minimum of three smokes and a cup of black coffee… and the ‘morning hack.’
Ah, the morning hack: that’s one thing I don’t miss, coughing so hard and for so long that it left me dizzy and breathless, and occasionally caused me to rupture the blood vessels in the lining of my throat so that blood appeared in my spittle. I still smoked though, oh yes indeed. At that time I would have done anything for a cigarette, and frequently did, sometimes things I am less than proud of.
I married women who smoked, which didn’t help matters when the urge to quit – or lack of funds to purchase more of the evil weed – came upon me. At those times I became unbearable to be with or to be around. Not even I could bear being around me when the craving was intesne enough to make an utter monster out of me. Like any junkie denied his fix and unable to salve his cravings I became someone that, when I think about it now, makes me cringe with shame and embarrassment. I was utterly vile.
No matter how desperate one’s financial circumstances one pretty-much always found a way to afford tobacco in one form or another. I have frequently gone without something else just to ensure that I had a smoke available, however hard up I was. Quitting was never really in my thoughts. I liked smoking, even though I could not deny it was taking its toll on my health. Besides, I knew that there was no way I was ever going to be able to quit, given how I had behaved in the past when, for just a few hours, I had been without tobacco. I was terrified of having to go through that. Not for me, no way, Jose. It was laughable to me that I would ever quit the habit. I was in it for the long haul and, the way I saw it panning out, I’d still be puffing away when they screwed the lid onto my coffin.
I was struggling walking and talking with a friend in the summer of twenty o-nine. I suffered not just a shortness of breath, but an acute shortness of breath that at times had me doubled-over trying to drag air into my lungs. Eventually it got so bad that I sought medical advice. Three long and tiresome days in hospital undergoing various tests revealed that I, at just forty eight years of age, was already suffering with mild emphysema, a disorder of the lungs directly linked to long-term smoking. I was given a stark choice by the medicos: either quit smoking immediately and in time repair some of the damage to my lungs or continue smoking the way I was and become reliant upon an oxygen bottle before I reached the age of sixty.
It was the wake-up call I needed to hear. I’m not stupid, I knew all along that I wasn’t doing myself any good smoking the way I was. There were times when I would have to pause halfway up a flight of stairs to catch my breath, so bad had my breathing become by then. I was still a relatively young man, so something had to be done… and soon.
That stark message was issued to me at the end of October tht year. I made an appointment to speak to a stop-smoking advisor and discussed with her how I was going to bring to an end almost forty years of continuous smoking. Nicotine patches were mooted, tried, and then rejected out of hand. They had no effect on me whatsoever. I needed something more ‘aggressive’ to cure my addiction.
I was prescribed a medication called Zyban; a tiny tablet with huge effects. As far as I am concerned it is a wonder-drug (though some users had big problems with side effects. Thankfully, I didn’t) I found myself thinking about smoking less and less, so was actually smoking less than I had been. I still smoked a lot, but not quite as much as before the tablets. I began to feel slightly more confident that I could beat this thing: this habit I’d had for pretty-much most of my life.
I set myself the date of January 1st twenty-ten to be my official quitting date. In the lead-up to that date I began the course of tablets that would hopefully ease my passage from heavy smoker to ex-smoker without too much discomfort so that when the Big Day came, I would be better prepared for it.
That was five years ago. Just sixty months. Doesn’t sound a lot, does it? To me, though, those five years represent the biggest challenge I have ever set myself to overcome, that of quitting smoking. It was no mean feat nor a simple thing to contemplate, let alone achieve. To this day I have never touched a single cigarette since I smoked my last one in the last hour of twentyo-nine.
I am immensely proud of my achievement as it is something I never, ever believed that I would be able to do. It still amazes me that I have friends and acquaintances who have never known me as a smoker; I have lived in properties that have not been fogged with cigarette smoke; have driven cars that have been smoke-free. Most of all, though, I am amazed that I can look myself in the mirror and say to myself "Well done, mate, you did good"
Author Notes: I wrote this at the beginning of 2015. I am STILL an ex-smoker ...