Thirty Three And Finally Free

I have just returned from the local shop where, today, I bought such a huge collection of snacks and drinks, the shop assistant asked me if I needed a receipt – a sure indication that he thought I was buying for a group of colleagues working overtime or a local youth group or AA meeting or somewhere else that would require proof of payment for petty cash.

But oh no, it’s all for little ole me. And why? Because I am trying to quit smoking cold turkey on the eve of my 33rd birthday. Of course, according to the ‘smoking cessation’ gurus the correct phrase is ‘I am becoming free from nicotine’ but they said it would be easy so I’ll treat their advice with a pinch of salt. I have now been smoking a full 15 years. If only someone had told me that once you start you can’t stop. Oh wait, damn, they did. But really, before you become addicted to something you can’t truly understand the idea of starting and not actually being able to stop. You are aware of addiction in theory but to know it is one of life’s firsts. First love, for example, is mind-blowing because you’ve never known the feeling of love ending. First addictions are inversely proportionate –as subtle as love is explosive, because you are yet to experience, first hand, the inability to stop doing something. After all it’s pretty ridiculous…with other things when you don’t want to do them anymore, you stop. Quite often, you stop doing things you do want to do…because stopping is the inactive thing, the passive thing. It shouldn’t take effort to not do something. And it doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, inherently we don’t believe that you can’t stop doing something that requires that much effort to maintain– the type of effort that, as a student, has you scrambling in the strangest places for enough money to buy your fix, that has you walk two miles on Christmas day to the only open garage, that makes you forego all previous standards of taste and hygiene and tear open the ends of roll-ups to forge into an almost good as new incarnation. Ah the lengths and the breadths I have gone to for nicotine.

So here I sit with a snack for every taste bud in a sort of self-induced rehab. I came back to my temporary residence after work – a short term let, house sharing with a wide array of strangers – and for the first time since I moved in a month ago – everything pissed me off. Nobody had brought the bin in (even though it was me who had brought it out this morning , this morning when I was happy, smoking, pre-cold-turkey me). Then when I came inside I saw that the man who spends all day in the kitchen was – surprise, surprise – in the kitchen. I just wanted to make something quick before retiring quietly to my room. I was not in the mood for exchanging pleasantries or, as is normally the case, cooking alongside each other in deafening, awkward silence (and yes I have tried to make conversation). I had to stop myself and ask why I was being so curmudgeonly before realising that I was on hour 3 (ONLY HOUR 3) of cold turkey.

I came into the room, trying to breathe through it. But breathe through what? That’s the strange thing. All of the Stop Smoking paraphernalia makes a valid point, which I think is actually helping – giving up smoking does not actually cause you any pain. No physical pain whatsoever. I was about to ring anyone I could think of who might listen and then I asked myself what I would say.

“This is so awful. You can’t imagine. It must be as bad coming off meth. I mean, I just feel like there’s too much air in my lungs. I keep having to take big deep breaths. And my mouth is watering all the time. And I feel full of crazy energy, as if all of my muscles are taut.”

I don’t think I’d have gotten too much sympathy for these desperate withdrawal symptoms.

So instead of reaching out to those who I probably would have just screamed at anyway, I decided to listen to music at full volume on my headphones and get moving. It’s as if you want to bombard all your senses to numb the longing. I know that sounds melodramatic but it’s actually true. And all of that nonsense that the physical craving is only 3 to 5 minutes? I can honestly say that I have actually been yearning for a cigarette for the past three and a half hours. Like a lost love. It is truly astonishing the determination and cunning that will be employed by…by your own mind? By the little addiction monster you see in the commercials? You begin to think of how much happier you are with a cigarette. ‘It simply is a part of who I am.’ I am a true born and bred, dyed in the wool smoker. (Neither of my parents smoke so I don’t know where this proud heritage springs from.) You even think ‘But what is it all for if I can’t have a smoke? What’s the point of doing anything?’ And this from someone who gave up alcohol in a country where the most popular outdoor pursuit is drinking in the beer garden. (Where, you can, need I remind you, smoke.)

So hear I am with my vast array of snacks. I am going to clean my room frantically…I imagine I’ll be doing everything frantically for a while…and I will listen to great divas bellow at full volume…in my earphones so as not to disturb the man in the kitchen and the other odd types who end up in a short term let on the northside of Dublin on an odd-numbered summer.

And when the room is clean, I shall treat myself to some chicken flavoured corn snacks. When I started smoking – 15, yes I’ll say it again, 15 full years ago, I’m sure I thought that at 33 I would be treating myself to luxurious holidays after performing triathalons. Because at that age when you heard of someone who had smoked for 15 years you thought ‘Oh God, that’s nearly as long as I’ve been alive. I would hate that.’ And then 82, 125 terrible, stress relieving, mostly unnoticed, much craved, courage giving, nonchalant seeming, bond-making, life-shortening, blood thickening cigarettes later here you are.

But as bad as I might have made it sound, as challenging as this final hurdle is, it is, for me, the last. Ten years ago, I was experiencing the other first that I mentioned – the end of first love. Now that withdrawal does cause physical pain. I can honestly say that for most of 22 I did not think I would make it to 23. If I had known that ten years later, I would have someone who loves me from top to toe, that I would be working in an area I think is of great value and that my biggest problem was to give up smoking, I would have laughed…if I could have lifted my heartbroken head of the pillow for long enough.

Sometimes when dealing with something particularly challenging, it’s easy to focus on it, and not on the other obstacles that have been overcome… whether your triumphs resemble pole-vaulting over hurdles or clambering blindly through a ditch, how far you’ve come is something you should pay attention to. Remember the specifics. Pick a time and a situation and look at what’s different because it all happens so gradually, with so many attempts and U-turns and false starts along the way, that it can be difficult to remember that those successes are still something worthy of praise. And every time you try whatever you might be hoping for, you are genuinely closer to getting where you want to go.

Now, I’m off to scrub the walls and scream along to Shirley Bassey…screw that guy in the kitchen. After all I’m becoming free from nicotine, Goddammit.

You can read more from Sue Meehan on her blog.