I knew I’d really quit smoking when I stopped counting the days at 100, by which time everyone’s eyes were starting to glaze over as I kept blathering about my triumphal coup, the way my own eyes always start looking for a way out when people start telling me about their babies. Besides: it was so easy I started to feel ashamed about it, like I was some kind of fraud for not having to go to support groups or buy electric cigarettes or take up weed instead. Somehow I’d gone from lighting up first thing in the morning and last thing at night to not even remembering what it felt like to want a cigarette — in the space of four months.
Today, the only time I even think of cigarettes is when I’m near someone smoking one, and then I edge away from the smoke, like all those people who used to edge away from me, flashing looks-to-kill. Me, I just smile at the smokers: It’s cool. Been there, done that. Will likely do it again some day. Just not now.
I really wish I could tell you how I did it. If I knew how I did it, I could offer some sort of lesson plan to share with others, and give seminars and charge lots of money: “You, too, can take power over your life!!! Listen to my five-step plan to clean lungs and a clean heart! A four-hour seminar for the life-saving price of $150 a ticket! Plus free copies of all my remaindered books!” But that would be a snake-oil deal. Because – from where I stand, happily free of ashes on the laptop keyboard and coats that smell like furnaces — only two steps are required: 1) You circle a date on the calendar: Quitting Day. 2) Then when you reach it, you quit. Seriously.
That’s what I did. And to be honest, I haven’t the slightest clue how I could smoke like a madman for eight years (two packs at the end) and then give them up without so much as a second thought. I guess my lungs said, “Enough,” and apparently my brain obeyed.
Yes, I chewed the gum for three weeks, until the supply ran out, at which point I wondered if I really _needed_ the very expensive gum, which I didn’t. After having no smoking withdrawal, I had no gum withdrawal. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the gum was psychological, because the smoking was psychological, too – for me, anyway.
But now I think that this might be the case for…well…everyone. I truly suspect that the only thing that keeps us addicted to smoking is our belief in how hard it is to quit. We’re completely convinced that the drug has us in its vice-like grip – when, in fact, we’re applying the shackles ourselves. It’s we who are gripping the cigarette, and we who can simply drop it and walk away. You just gotta want it bad enough. On top of which, if you live where I do, two packs a day costs $18, which means I’ve saved $2700, which is more than I’ve paid for most of my cars.
Listen: if I can do it, trust me: anyone can do it. I am nothing if not a man of addictions. If I’m not within a ten-minute drive to a coffee shop – a caffeine emporium, not a Dunkin whatever — I can’t function. Can’t write a word. Can’t even converse in the morning with the chickens. Must have the coffee. (For a book I was writing, I once spent two weeks on a remote South Pacific island whose water was dangerous to drink; hence, no coffee. I mainlined Coke from dawn til dusk for the caffeine rush.)
And don’t even think of asking me to give up potato chips, the New York Giants or the Mirth chardonnay from my wife’s wine store in Millerton. Which leads to the two most often-asked questions. 1) “Isn’t it really hard when you’re drinking?” For some reason, no — not at all. In fact, wine is one of the many things that tastes better. And, 2) “Isn’t it hard when your wife still smokes?” Not at all – it gives me a valuable superiority points in a marriage where I’m way behind in the daily score.
Yes, I know: nicotine, like crystal meth and Facebook, is apparently physically addictive. The science says so. And yes, the nicotine of my Marlboros had increased by more than ten percent since I’d started up again eight years ago. But the only after-effect of quitting for me was the appearance of a few extra pounds (which sort of feel, oddly, good – symbols of a return to health). No withdrawals. No fingernail chewing. I’ve heard that quitting heroin is easier than quitting Marlboro Lights. But where did I hear that? From another smoker, a few years ago, and my guess is that this urban myth was being passed around among smokers so that we could justify our inability to quit.
So: Did I quit because of strong self-discipline? Please. I have all the drive and ambition of Julie Christie settling into her smiling opium-den stupor at the end of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As a rule, if I set a goal for myself (meet the deadline.,.pay the taxes…change the oil) it’s a guarantee that I’ll blow it – and try to weasel my way out of it, with middling success.
Did I quit because all those gruesome public-service commercials on cable between innings of the Yankee games finally wore me down? Nope; those weren’t photographs of my tar-pocked lungs. Did I heed the warning of the doctor who told me that half of all deaths are smoking-related? Nope; if I didn’t die of smoking, hell, I’d die of something else. (Cue the old Shoe comic strip where the boss says to cigar-smoking Shoe: “Those things are going to take years off your life.” Shoe’s response: “Well, they probably weren’t going to be very good years anyway.”)
Did I finally start to listen to the friends who voiced their concerns about my habit, out of genuine kindness? Nope. It all fell on deaf ears.
The truth is, when you finally don’t want to smoke, the only voice that can get through is yours. Which is why when I was standing in line at the convenience store a few minutes ago – to buy Dots – I remained silent when the guy in front of me said to the clerk, “anything menthol, 100s, and cheap.”
I could have said, “Hey, you can quit.” But I didn’t have to. I figure some day I’ll see him in the front row of the seminar – the 15-second seminar, where I come out on stage, point to my brain, say, “You don’t know your own strength,” and exit, stage right, back to the green room, where I open a fresh bag of barbecue chips and pour myself another glass of Mirth.