How I stopped smoking

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.