This is embarrassing for me to admit, but I used to be a smoker. A ”light” smoker, mind you, but someone who smoked outside of social situations so I had to be classified as a smoker. It was something that was so embarrassing to me at the time, as I was doing it, that I rarely if ever did it in sight of others. I was always hidden around the back of my house, or in my old VW Golf, where, if I was stopped at a light, I’d lower the cigarette below window level to make sure anyone looking over at me couldn’t see my flaming lung-dart, never mind the fact they could see the smoke rising up through the cracked window.
I’m making the admission because it’s an anniversary! I realized that today marks eight years since I’ve had a cigarette.
I moved to New York City in 1997, and at some point while I was there I remember buying a pack of smokes and…Boom, just like that, I was essentially a smoker to the tune of 5-6 cigarettes a day. I know what you’re thinking: any time someone tells you how much they smoke you need multiply by 2 or 3 to get to the real number. But I honestly couldn’t smoke more than that in a day - my body wouldn’t let me. Besides, who has that much time?
I moved back to Michigan a couple years later and thought I’d quit at that point, but I carried on smoking just the same. It’s every bit as easy to give in and buy some cigarettes at a Michigan gas station as it is at a cramped convenience store in Manhattan.
Smoking was something I could compartmentalize so well. How else could I go to the gym to run on the track, lift weights, play a few rigorous games of squash - and then have a cigarette in the car on the way home? I was living a duality that didn’t make any sense. The only time I ever had to really admit to myself I smoked was when I went to the doctor’s office and they asked me if I smoked. “Uh…yeah.”
I always thought I was getting away with it, because no one ever saw me, and I ate breath mints like they were food. But looking back now, I can see I must have stunk like a smoldering dumpster fire and people were too polite to say anything.
After a few years of DINK living (that’s "double-income no kids"), we started thinking about having a family so I knew I had to quit before that could happen. I couldn’t envision myself being a “dad who smoked” so I had to knock it off.
I set a date to quit: Oct 14, 2006. October 14 has a lot of significance for me (it’s the day I moved to NYC, my paternal grandmother’s birthday, etc.) so it would be an easy day to remember. That was a Saturday, so the last day I would let myself have a cigarette would be Friday the 13th. How ominous.
I was going to be a hero and quit a day early, even. I was so pumped about quitting, I made it more than halfway through Friday without smoking before I said “screw it, I might as well enjoy some smokes because I’m not smoking tomorrow.” I went to the gas station and bought a pack of my usuals (Camel something-or-others) and brought them back to the house. I sat out back burning heaters until I felt sick and had more or less chain-smoked the whole pack. I didn’t get through them all. I had a slight panic attack as I destroyed and disposed of the ones I didn’t smoke, wondering how I could waste those perfectly good smokes.
I woke on Saturday prepared to start a new life chewing nicotine gum. I’d purchased a box of it during that week, so I had it ready to go.
That box sat unwrapped on the desk for days. Days turned to weeks. Then it made its way into a drawer, where it was forgotten. Eventually it was thrown out. I guess the way I quit could be considered cold turkey, as the only crutch I relied on was a lot of Extra Watermelon gum.
I chewed a lot of Extra Watermelon gum. Had to be Extra. Had to be Watermelon. We bought it in bulk at Costco. I’d shove one piece after another into my mouth until nearly a whole pack was jammed in there, hardly able to chew it all. Eventually the gum chewing got back down to manageable levels, 1-2 pieces at a time.
A few days after quitting, I had a ridiculous amount of energy. I started running. I hadn’t gone running for sport, ever, but I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I threw on some tennis shoes and ran out the door, with no idea where I was going. I think I ran a mile, which would have been the first time ever. I got in the habit of running nearly every day. By the next year, I’d finish a half-marathon.
In time, I found I could smell things I couldn’t smell before. I could literally smell the neighbor’s dog’s crap in the yard across the street. I’m still not sure if that was a blessing or a curse.
I used to keep track of the anniversaries, but this year I didn’t remember it was the day until my wife said something about it. I think my forgetting even about the anniversaries is a good thing. To me, that means smoking has finally become “ego alien.” Smoking just does not jive with my perception of myself, or who I was or wanted to be.
I used to think about smoking all the time, even 5-6 years after quitting. I had the nightmares where I’d dream I’m having a cigarette and then suddenly realize what I’m doing and think “Dammit! I ruined it! I ruined my streak!” only to wake up thoroughly relieved that I didn’t crack, and my non-smoking streak was still intact. I don’t have those dreams anymore.
I don’t think about it much at all. Any old “triggers” I had have long since faded away. If I smell cigarette smoke at all (and it's very easy to smell from quite a distance) I think "that's gross" and put it out of my mind immediately. In a way, it seems like my whole smoking phase never happened.
So…I still chew watermelon gum. I still run. I don't smoke. Eight years and counting.