Originally published in Men’s Health (July 2007)
A few weeks ago I had a very bad dream. I was walking back home from Holland Village, just a stone’s throw from where I live. It was getting dark, and it was a bit drizzly, and between the knuckles of my index and middle fingers of my left hand was a half consumed cigarette. As I quickened my pace to get home before the deluge, I took deep puffs from the cigarette, exhaling from the side of my mouth. One of the drags was perhaps too deep. I coughed, and then I woke up.
Ordinarily, I’d forget this sort of dream. But because I am a newly-minted, fresh-breathed ex-smoker, I woke up in a cold sweat, horrified at the vividness of the dream, even remembering the taste and the spluttering cough.
In that sleepful way one stumbles around the room, I looked around for clues to what could possibly have triggered the dream/nightmare. Did I really light one up in my sleep? At what point during my walk did I start smoking? Where did I buy the pack from? What brand was it?
So many questions! No answers! And all my wife said when I woke her up to ask if I had been smoking was how the heck I know whether you secretly smoke or not? Please for the love of god stop talking nonsense and go back to sleep!
Of course, demonstrating my knack of pushing my dear wife over the brink, I had to continue pursuing my investigation â€“ by clarifying my question to her, saying
â€œNo, dear, I want to know if I really lit up. You know? Like sleepwalking and smoking? Sleepsmoking?â€
My wife then demonstrated how heavy a sleeper she was by showing me how she couldnâ€™t hear my question at all.
Although I am quite certain that I didnâ€™t turn from mild-mannered freelance writer that night into The Smoking Somnambulist, I do have a fair bit to say about smoking, quitting smoking, and the anti-smoking measures in this country.
I quit smoking on a whim at the beginning of this year. It was one of those decisions which, for some reason, turn out to be easier than expected. So easy that it still scares me a little.
OK, so it was at the whispering of a couple of well-meaning friends over the New Year’s festivities that started the ball rolling. But the truth was, I hadn’t even thought of making cutting down on the smokes a resolution, much less give it up totally.
It’s been half a year since I last lit up, and you could call this a remarkable enough milestone, made even more remarkable for the fact that before this year, I had been a smoker for over twenty years, and never once looked like quitting. In fact, being the obnoxious smoker that I was, I was more concerned with coming up with a quick quip about my disgusting habit rather than for my health:
To any person who’d ask in a well-meaning way while fanning away second hand smoke as to when I’d consider quitting the smokes, I’d simply say ‘over my dead body’; To another who’d ask if I was a chain smoker after observing me light another up end on end, I’d say, ‘No, I smoke tobacco. Chains are tough to light up’.
The thing was, I knew the harm I was doing to myself. And these days, you simply cannot ignore the horrible depictions on the packs of cigarettes of various diseases that smoking can cause. Let me tell you how effective the graphic campaign is – sure, looking at the pictures makes you feel sick. But here’s the rub:
It’s a known fact (among smokers) that smokers who are affected by the pictures not only do not quit smoking, they actually ask vendors for the least offensive looking packet of smokes: “Uncle, Marlboro Lights hard pack one, don’t want the mouth cancer one, give me the unconscious man one”.
For me personally, the pictures affected me so much I simply had to light up. All other measures designed to deter smokers also simply made me want to smoke even more from the stress of it all:
Yellow boxes at al-fresco eateries: So oppressive, must smoke!
Another 20 cent hike in the price of cigarettes: Financial stress, smoke some more!
Eventual banning of smoking from all public places: Oh no, there is no future for smokers, better smoke as much as possible now!
Last year, when restrictions were put on smoking in outdoor eateries and yellow tape started demarcating where normal people could sit and watch smokers try to cram into what is typically 20% of available outdoor seating, I saw one young smoker get up from a non-smoking seat, saunter towards the yellow zone, put one foot inside the promised land, and light up, taking care to try to contain his exhalations within his fellow smokersâ€™ (of which I was one) airspace.
For the never-smoked-before (as opposed to the ex-smoker-non-smoker), it might be difficult to imagine the extent to which smokers twist logic to suit their ends, which invariably, is to smoke another cigarette.
I once had a flatmate who’d defy an emergency storm warning to walk half an hour to the convenience store to get an extra pack of cigarettes. His rationale:
“Better buy more cigarettes now because I will need cigarettes to wait the storm warning out at home”.
That, and again for the benefit of the never-smoked-before, thereâ€™s that very typical instance of sheer desperation and complete loss of dignity that smokers know very well: when there arenâ€™t any cigarettes left and for some reason you canâ€™t go out and buy some in the next few hours â€“ you pick all the stubs from the ashtray, mutter to yourself how fortunate you are to be a messy slob, because there always are stubs in the ashtray for a situation like this, and then light one of them up, being careful not to burn your fingers, take the one and only smokeable puff from it, throw it away and pick up the next stub to smoke. Until all the stubs are gone. Then you hunt around the house for other ashtrays.
Then, there are the â€œsecret smokersâ€. This class of people are quite an interesting proposition. A typical secret smoker tells his non-smoker loved ones that heâ€™s quit. And then when the craving for a stick turns to sheer desperation (as described above), he sneaks out, steals a few really long drags from either an old cigarette found in a drawer, or stubs found in an ashtray that hasnâ€™t been cleared since he quit smoking.
And then he returns home, performs a Jedi mind trick on his loved ones by waving his fingers in front of their faces and saying:
â€œYou do not detect the very strong odor of cigarette smoke in my breath, my hair and my clothesâ€.
It doesnâ€™t matter how ridiculous, but once questioned, the secret smoker will still quite adamantly maintain that he hasnâ€™t smoked, and that, â€œdamn, I went outside for a walk, everyone around me smoked, and I couldnâ€™t get away from them and thatâ€™s why my mouth stinks of cigarette smoke.
I really wouldnâ€™t be surprised if someone actually came up with an excuse that went like:
â€œI swear! I didnâ€™t smoke! Someone was clearing their ashtray over the balcony, and I happened to look up, and my mouth happened to be open!â€
Quite plainly, smoking is an addiction that is more serious than many people think it is, and I donâ€™t think there is any other substance that can cause behaviour like that and is not prohibited.
Obviously, being a smoker, I was often in the company of smokers, and Iâ€™d hear tales of them â€˜trying to quitâ€™, but that itâ€™s difficult for the many plainly stupid reasons such as:
Coffee doesnâ€™t taste good without a cigarette;
I canâ€™t enjoy my beer/wine/cognac without a smoke;
I have to smoke after a meal / sex;
I have to smoke when Iâ€™m making a phone call / going to the toilet;
All my friends are smokers;
And the all-time classic: I will put on weight if I stop smoking.
Well, I just need to say that not having smoked for half a year, my coffee smells and tastes better than before, as do quite a lot of foods. Flowers and perfume smell better too. And while I canâ€™t be sure about the alcohol-cigarette connection because I donâ€™t drink very often, think about it. If you really canâ€™t enjoy your alcohol without a cigarette, think of the money saved on these two vices!
I havenâ€™t put on weight. In fact, one month into quitting smoking, I managed to pass my reservist Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) after only three training runs, where previously, Iâ€™d train often, take the test and still fail.
I donâ€™t think I have lost any of my smoker friends as a result of quitting the smokes either. All thatâ€™s changed is that I donâ€™t join them for â€˜a chat outdoorsâ€™ when they feel the urge to light up. And of course, the fact that they keep marveling aloud at how amazing it is to see that Iâ€™ve â€œquit, just like thatâ€.
As for not being able to go to the toilet, I have news for you: tobacco is the wrong kind of fiber intake.
Personally, I feel that whatever the â€˜methodâ€™ you use to quit smoking, it all boils down to whether you want to quit or not. Once youâ€™ve really made up your mind, it becomes easier than you think.
But if you donâ€™t want to quit, you wonâ€™t see things as clearly. Like how I could never convince myself that I really didnâ€™t need cigarettes as much as I thought, even though I could actually tolerate being in an aircraft for 12 hours without smoking or sleep 8 or more hours without waking to light one up.
I remember a friend whoâ€™d say something to the effect of â€œwah, sleep so long never smoke, of course wake up straight away must smoke lah!â€
Smokers often attribute their need to smoke to all manner of stressful trigger points. If youâ€™ve been a nicotine addict for years, like myself, some of this is true. Two months into quitting, I found myself in reservist training in the jungle, soaked to the bone from standing in the rain all day and night, and craving for a cigarette very badly.
Thankfully, it was, and still is the only time since quitting that Iâ€™ve ever yearned for a smoke. Today, the sight (and smell) of smokers lighting up doesnâ€™t make me wish for one at all.
Having knowledge of all the health benefits of quitting and the dangers of smoking isnâ€™t ever going to be enough to make one quit. It has to start from within, and you simply have to convince yourself that you want to quit, and recognize that no other external motivation is required.
Then again, thereâ€™s no harm in also debunking the myth of the necessary post-coital cigarette: You donâ€™t need it. And you can, well, use those five minutes that you would have spent smoking to, um, go at it again!