Ooh! I completely forgot to do my annual affirmation: my name is keithlard, I am a nicotine addict, and it’s been 2 years since my last cigarette come June 6th :D

I was quite a hardcore smoker for about 20 years before I quit, and I never thought I would manage it. So there is hope for all of us! Despite my fears before quitting, I don’t hanker after smoking, other people’s smoke doesn’t make me want to light up, and I don’t feel there’s anything missing from my life (apart from smelly clothes and overflowing ashtrays).

In fact since about six days after I gave up, I’ve felt healthier, happier, been fitter, smelt nicer, been richer, and generally felt like it’s the best thing I ever did. I think of myself as a reasonably strong-willed person, and I didn’t really like being the slave of a drug, so one day I just resolved to be free of it. I set a quit date about a month ahead, told people about it, and on the appointed day threw away all my ashtrays and lighters and such.

I won’t lie to you, I felt pretty ghastly the first day, and I probably wasn’t much fun to be around. The second day wasn’t any worse, though, and after a couple of days I started to feel more normal, but still as though I was wandering around encased in plastic bubble-wrap. My sleep cycle was all out of whack, as I was lying awake all night and then falling asleep suddenly at 4 in the afternoon. I noticed that I was emotionally all over the place, like a bad case of male PMT. Every little annoyance seemed like a big disaster.

The nicotine cravings declined over the course of a week, and once you have ridden out a few of them, you begin to realise that they only last two or three minutes, and if you can distract yourself for that time, you’re OK. But I came up with all sorts of weird, nicotine-induced rationalisations about why I should start smoking again, weird enough to make me realise how powerful a grip addiction can have on your mind. No wonder it is so hard to decide to stop, when nicotine is constantly whispering at your ear.

And on the seventh day, lo, there was light, and I saw that it was good. All of a sudden (it seemed) I just felt fine, with no headache, no cravings, even slightly euphoric. My body had started to adjust its chemical balance to life without 20 daily microdoses of stimulants. I began to notice smells, taste food, run for a bus without seeing little lights in my head, wake up after a night out without feeling that my lungs had been barbecued. I became much less susceptible to colds and respiratory ailments, my circulation improved, my sex drive (hem hem) burgeoned, and most of all I felt like I was the master of my own destiny, instead of a slave to little tubes of paper.

Staying quit hasn’t been hard at all. I never felt the impulse to smoke again, although sometimes a whiff of secondary smoke made my head expand and I felt a little nostalgic for that blood-thumping rush of the day’s first cigarette. But when nicotine has left your body, it takes the desire for more nicotine with it, and the smoker’s chemical high does not tempt you any more. I quickly realised that all the pleasurable things that had become associated with smoking, were still just as pleasurable without it: morning coffee, a good meal, a pint of beer, a bout of toe-curling sex. Also there was no danger of knocking a full ashtray off the bedside table.

So if you are a smoker and you want to quit, this should give you hope: it’s easier than you ever imagined. If you’re thinking of packing it in on July 1st when the UK smoking ban comes into effect, that gives you about three weeks to get used to the idea. So good luck!

The Year of Living Safely

I forgot to say that yesterday marked a year since I quit smoking :D

First off, quitting smoking is real easy. You just do not smoke any cigarettes. Staying quit is easy too - just apply the same technique. That’s not the difficult bit.

The really difficult bit is deciding to quit in the first place. Sometimes the ‘chief executive’ part of our brain has a discipline problem with his staff. It is easy to convince yourself to do something you already want to do; for example, take the day off work and go to the beach. Much harder to work against your existing inclinations; for example, not to have that seventh bowl of ice-cream.

The strange thing is that all smokers want to give up, without exception. Non-smokers will find this hard to believe. No matter how much you claim to love smoking, if you could wake up tomorrow morning and be magically free forever of the desire to smoke, everyone would take that deal. So why don’t we quit?

The answer lies in the curious nature of addiction. If you have never been addicted to anything, it is hard to imagine what it is like. Most people probably imagine that it is like being thirsty - you experience an intense desire for the drug, accompanied by symptoms of physical distress which are only relieved by the drug. That is true as far as it goes, but addiction also digs its pernicious tendrils right into the volitional centres of the brain. It makes you do things you do not want to do.

It is actually rather spooky once you realise what is going on. Nicotine (for example) is controlling your decisions. It is no different than if some evil alien implanted a chip in your brain and started influencing your behaviour by radio control. If you find this hard to believe, ask yourself this question: Have you ever decided not to have a cigarette, and then found yourself smoking one anyway? Have you ever done something embarrassing or inconvenient to get a nicotine fix? (for example, begging strangers in the street for cigarettes, or walking miles to find an open newsagents).

Why do we do that? It is because of fear. We are afraid to be without the drug. Rationally, we know that we’ll be just fine. No one died of not having cigarettes, no matter how much she wanted one. If you are in a situation where you know absolutely that there is no chance of getting cigarettes, anxiety disappears, and in fact you suffer no ill effects. It is as though the nicotine ‘gives up’ and saves its effort for another day. But up to that point we will do almost anything in our power to get the drug.

If the prospect of going without nicotine for an evening fills us with anxiety, how much more frightening is the prospect of a whole life without it? Exactly. When I was still smoking, even thinking about giving up made me nervous and edgy, and start reaching for cigarettes.

The fear of withdrawal is at least partly grounded in reality: if you go without nicotine for a couple of hours, you start to feel quite odd. You feel a little light-headed, as though something is expanding inside your brain, and even slightly intoxicated, but not in a good way. These feelings get progressively worse the longer you go on, so it seems logical to assume that they would simply go on getting worse until they become unbearably unpleasant.

In fact that does not happen. Withdrawal reaches a plateau quite quickly and does not get any worse; for four or five days you feel a bit weird and out of sorts, slightly divorced from reality as though experiencing the world through clear plastic. Your sleep patterns go haywire, and all sorts of strange and powerful emotions come to the surface, and generally you feel as if you’ve been experimented on by aliens. But by the morning of the fifth or sixth day, you wake up feeling just fine, and even a little euphoric. Curiously, there is no desire to smoke at all. The world seems fresh and clean, colours brighter, tastes richer, like your first day out of hospital after a long illness.

In the closing scenes of Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer taunts Harrison Ford: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”

I just got tired of living in fear. I didn’t want some drug controlling my life any more. I am not a smoker. I am a free man!