How I stopped smoking

I realized the other day it’s been ten years since I stopped smoking. Notice I didn’t say quit. I never quit; I just stopped. I can have another cigarette anytime I want! I just don’t want to at the moment.

Quitting smoking: even now the thought fills me dread. Never again to open a can of loose tobacco, take a deep breath of the fragrant leaf, and lay a pencil-thick plug of it in the rolling paper! Never to roll it back and forth to pack it, then twist it up tight and seal it with a fast lick, like the peck on the cheek that devoted husbands used to give their wives on the way out the door! Never to strike a match in the dark and touch it to the paper and listen to the crackle as it catches! Never to take that first delicious lungful of smoke and blow it out through the nostrils like a dragon! Never to watch the ash grow like gray finger, pull the glowing ember close to my lips and stub it out just before contact! How utterly desolate I’d feel to think I could never again indulge in these beloved rituals. That’s the kind of desolation, my friends, that only a cigarette can heal. So it’s best never to quit, simply to stop. Besides, what kind of lily-livered coward quits something just because it might kill you?

So why did I stop? Mostly, just to see if I could. Oh sure, there were lots of other reasons, my personal finances chief among them. I liked to walk, and it bothered me how out-of-breath I’d become. I hated to make my parents worry. I didn’t like thinking of myself as a kind of slave. All of these made dandy rationalizations after the fact, and provided all the ingredients I’d have needed to shape the narrative of my smoking cessation into a morality tale to prove my superiority over those who still smoked, if I’d chosen to follow the typical quitter’s path.

But the fact is, I’d been smoking for 14 years, to the point where it had become deeply integrated with my lifestyle and self-image, and I was curious to see what life without it might be like. Always an idealist, I loved how smoking could create a semi-sacred space within the most quotidian stretches of time, how it both symbolized and enacted not merely relaxation but escape. No matter how bleak your circumstances — say, sleepless, cold and miserable on the third day of a backpacking trip gone wrong — hey, you could always have a smoke.

I loved that, and I’m glad it’s still an option. Once in a rare while, maybe once or twice a year, I do have a smoke, but in recent years the experience hasn’t borne much resemblance to the way I remember it. It doesn’t taste very good, for one thing, and I’m ready for it to be over before the cigarette is even half gone. Also, factory cigarettes were never very good in the first place, but that’s almost always what’s on offer. Sometimes I position myself downwind of smokers, and it smells good to me in the same way that wood smoke smells good, but other times I catch a whiff of second-hand smoke and am repelled. It depends on my mood, I guess.

I remember the dysphoria that accompanied my physical weaning from nicotine, and how — being a bit of a masochist — I managed to fool myself into thinking that it was almost like a kind of trip. I was house-sitting for my parents for two weeks while they vacationed in New Mexico, nobody was around, so I have no idea whether I would’ve been short-tempered or not. I just remember shuffling around the fields and woods looking at things through a haze and going “wow.” And since it was the latter half of October and my refrigerator was full of apples, I didn’t have to look far to find something else to put in my mouth.

I remember being curious about what I would do to punctuate those long, empty stretches — or rather, the one long empty stretch I imagined my life would become if I stopped smoking. It took two or three years for the feeling that something was missing to go away. Now I have the opposite problem: chronic contentment. This is a dangerous condition for a poet or artist, or really anyone who would like to, you know, accomplish things. But at least it’s not life-threatening.

33 Replies to “How I stopped smoking”

  1. Congratulations on your chronic contentment. And beautiful pink lungs.

    (From an ex-smoker who can never pick up another, quit since ’99.)

      1. Maybe. Markers like that can’t be ignored.

        I had wanted to stop before I was 40. I missed it by a few. ;-)

        I still miss it on occasion, but am so easily addicted can’t just have one or two. If I could have kept to social smoking, I doubt I would have stopped. I don’t even trust myself to have a cigar.

        1. I hear you. Actually, they say some 20% of people don’t get addicted to nicotine at all. That would be those annoying people who smoke only when they’re at parties, I guess.

    1. I’ve completely stopped smoking 3 months ago. I smoked for almost 30 years. One day……i said that’s enough because i realized my health was going down hill. So i just quit…cold turkey.

  2. Hey congrats. I was just trying to remember today if it had been nine or ten years that I quit now. It took me about 25 attempts before I finally stopped for good, but I have not regretted it a moment since.

    My grandparents and uncles were in the tobacco business and most of my family worked picking or processing it at some point. My mother finds it sad to see the old neglected kills. She is certain that the tobacco in those days wasn’t as bad for you as it is now, due to chemicals.

    My main aim in quitting was to prevent my kids from doing the same, and they don’t. It worked!

    1. Good going, then! Yeah, about the time I stopped smoking, one of the big tobacco brands — Winston, as I recall — finally got the brilliant idea of trying to sell itself as an additive-free cigarette. I’d been smoking American Spirit for quite a while by then, mostly because I found a head shop that sold it at a ridiculously low price (it was basically a prop that allowed them to claim that the water pipes they sold were for tobacco). Found out several years later that American Spirit, pure as it might have been, also had an insanely high concentration of nicotine. No wonder I felt so light-headed after I stopped!

  3. I found Allen Carr’s book, The EasyWay to Quit Smoking, quite helpful. Like you I enjoy the smell of fresh tobacco burning, but like Carr says, I also like the smell of roses and I don’t smoke them.

  4. I’ve smoked a few cigarettes in my day, but it was never a habit. I always admired the people who went through the trouble to roll their own. Those cigarettes always smell the best. I just read a poem by Frank Stanford where a wife rolls a cigarette with one hand.

    1. The guy who taught me how to roll a cigarette was an old forester, the PA Bureau of Forestry’s chief expert on tree diseases, late at night in a diner at Penn State. And he had been taught, he claimed, by an old cowboy who used to roll with one hand while riding a horse. I never mastered the one-handed roll.

  5. I love your distinction between quitting and stopping. “I can have another cigarette anytime I want! I just don’t want to at the moment.” That’s pure religion in my book.

  6. you’re making me think of Don Juan telling Castaneda how one day he just stopped drinking. How we can stop these things any time we want. Yup. I stopped smoking when I had a fluey cold and breathing in smoke became a hideous prospect. I always felt my body had decided not my mind. My mind then decided to start again for a few months somewhere down the road, but then I did the ceremonious giving up one New Year’s Eve, smoking the very last cigarette, and that was that. And I had a very powerful experience of altered consciousness too – as if several veils were lifted from in front of my eyes. Best thing I ever did.

    1. I think there had been several incidents like that for me, too — times when I’d had to stop because of a bad cold, and then when I resumed smoking, it had already begun to taste weird. The compulsion to smoke was clearly more than physical. Stopping smoking taught me a lot about the nature of craving.

  7. An interesting read, Dave. I hope that you manage to find less corrosive strategies to deal with the gathering contentment!

    I did a post on smoking a week or so back

  8. Kia ora Dave,
    I used to love a little pinch between my cheek and gum, but when I moved to New Zealand and could not get it anymore I just stopped. The few times I have been back to the states and bought a tin it just was not the same.
    I shall have my wife read this as she is currently about 9 months free of smoking, but it still looms there. Thanks.

    1. No chewing tobacco in NZ? I am shocked!

      Good luck to your wife. I suppose the AA’s “one day at a time” philosophy is still the best general advice on hope to cope.

  9. Enjoyed the post, Dave. I used to joke that I tried to start smoking. Never quite got hooked though. I couldn’t agree more about the smell of tobacco smoke and moods; I always hate(d) the smell of 2nd hand smoke from my parents (to the point I would get a massive headache), but I loved sitting around a diner smoking cigarettes with my friend.

    And I’m having the same trouble with chronic contentment. I haven’t written anything really powerful in years — damn happiness.

  10. I’m enjoying Wm. Irvine’s essays on classical Stoicism and modern life. (and reading Seneca on the side) I think you’d like them too…

  11. Hmm! I just started the patch, myself for basically the reasons you give, but notably the money. Not too bad so far, but I’m feeling stressed all the time. :-( I smoked American Spirits too — yeah, “all natural”, but tighter-packed than most cigarettes. That (plus no saltpeter) is why they go out so easily….

    In other news, down here in VA the maple trees are trailing off from foliage to leaflessness, while the pear trees just turned to fire. The weather’s been pretty good (just the occasional overnight frost), but darkness at 5:30 PM is starting to get to me.

    1. Good to hear from you, David, and good luck with the patches! I didn’t know you could get American Spirits pre-rolled. The loose stuff was always a bit on the dampish side.

      Just about all leaves were gone this morning, a casualty of the high winds. I do not like the early darkness. I would prefer to stay on daylight time all year, make that the new standard.

  12. I used to roll my own too. Loved the tactile nature of it (as well has how it drew people to me in bars). Smoking regular cigarettes was never quite as nice. I stopped about fifteen years ago when my car got totaled and I had to rely on my bike to get around the city. That much cycling was not compatible with smoking. Nowadays, I can’t even stand the smell of second-hand smoke. It completely repulses me, but I do miss all the little rituals.

    1. I guess it did draw attention, I don’t really remember. I tended to avoid bars in favor of bottle shops — $3 a beer gets old fast. (Plus, in a college town bar, you can’t hear yourself think, let alone shoot the shit with your buds without hollering.) Anyway, trading smoking for biking sounds like a sensible, if wheeze-inducing, swap!

  13. I’m not sure how I wound up surfing over to this post just now, but it makes me smile.

    I was never a serious smoker — I’ve never “needed” a cigarette — but I used to enjoy them, idly, between the ages of, oh, about 17 and 35. I used to smoke while driving sometimes. Or after a drink or two. But usually it would be a single isolated cigarette. I enjoyed them most when the weather was cold.

    The day before I realized I was pregnant with Drew, I lit up in the car and it tasted awful. After a drag or two I stubbed it out and threw it away. The next morning I realized I was knocked-up. I still wonder sometimes whether that was my body telling me not to smoke for the time being, I had someone else’s lungs to form.

    I’ve had one cigarette since then, I think. With my mother, which was bizarre because she hasn’t smoked since I was a little kid. But when I was visiting her last fall, she whipped out a pack of menthols (startled the heck out of me) and I startled her back by asking if I could have one. It tasted ridiculous (menthol! I mean really!) but I enjoyed it. Haven’t had one since, though — probably because I tend to want them while in the car, and most often I’ve got a toddler in the backseat who doesn’t need the secondhand smoke.

    Still. I wouldn’t say I’ve “quit.” The option is always there.

    1. Ah, one of those people who can smoke without getting hooked. Booo! :) Still, it’s the kind of harmless indulgence one wants to see in rabbis and ministers.

      Menthols are gross. I never understood the appeal there. A toothpaste-flavored cigarette?!

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