GIVING UP, NOT IN – Marilyn Armstrong

I almost quit any number of times. I didn’t smoke a lot. Less than a pack a day and eventually I got it down to five or six a day and sometimes less. The problem with cigarettes is that one day, for no special reason, you realize you smoked an entire pack. You just sort of forgot you had quit.

In my long and checkered professional career, I had many bosses. One of them had, in a former life, been addicted to heroin. It wasn’t a secret. We all knew because he told us. I had the feeling he was proud of having kicked drugs and was now the owner of a software development company. I asked him how he did it, how he got free of his addiction.

“You know,” he said, “It really wasn’t as hard as you might think. Mostly, I had to get away from the people, from other junkies, and the world of drugs. After I stopped hanging out with those people, getting off drugs was relatively easy. It’s the culture that pulls you in even more than the drugs.”

“I wish,” he continued, a touch of wistfulness in his voice, “It was as easy to kick cigarettes. When you hang out with junkies, you know it’s illegal. You sneak around. You are careful. But cigarettes? No problem. They’re legal. Grab a buddy and go for a smoke. It’s a social thing.

“You don’t hear heroin addicts saying to each other ‘Hey, anyone want to go out back and shoot up?’ but you can stop by another smoker’s desk and say … ‘Hey, want to go have a butt?’

“I’ve had a much harder time quitting smoking than I had quitting heroin. Much harder,” he said and reached for the pack of cigarettes in his pocket. He did soon thereafter, quit. He decided having kicked narcotics, he could kick cigarettes too. So he did.

I was a smoker myself, then. I had been trying to quit for years. I’d quit, then I’d be somewhere where other smokers worked. I’d get sucked into it. It wasn’t the physical addiction that lured me. I understood how bad it was for my health, disastrous to my budget and getting more costly each day. It made my clothing and hair smell like a dirty ashtray. It was the social connection that got me. Hanging out with other smokers. The rhythm of smoking. I’d write, then take a break, grab a smoke. It was part of my process.

I was never as heavy a smoker other people I knew. I lit many more cigarettes than I smoked. But I enjoyed smoking. I liked the smell of fresh tobacco. I liked standing outside on a crisp night, watching my smoke curl up and away into the sky.

I did a lot of my thinking on cigarette breaks. When I was writing, if I was stuck, I’d have a smoke. By the time I was halfway through it, I’d know what I was going to do and how I would do it.

Smoking-Burning-CigaretteIt took me years of quitting, backsliding, and quitting again before it finally “stuck.” Years before the smell of tobacco brought back memories without triggering a desire to smoke.

I am sure today, after more than ten years if I were to smoke one cigarette, I’d be a smoker. Again. It’s not unlike being an alcoholic. One drink and you’re a drunk again.

It’s not because I’m physically addicted. After all these years of not smoking, I’m obviously not addicted to nicotine, if I ever was. Yet on some level, I will always be addicted to cigarettes.

It would probably be easier to quit now since most offices are smoke-free. That being said, it’s not that I don’t want a cigarette. I just don’t smoke.

Categories: Anecdote, Marilyn Armstrong, Medical, Personal, Work, Writing

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19 replies

  1. I stopped smoking when I stopped working. I didn’t have other smokers to hang out with and that broke the chain.


  2. I remember when one had a box of cigarettes on the coffee table and ash trays were all around. Neither of us smoked although, in the day, we were the exception. Early on I noticed the addictive nature of it and decided I didn’t want a part of that. It was a conscious decision.


  3. It took my husband having to answer a question from our doctor: “Have you ever smoked?” For 45 years he was a pack a day smoker. Gave it up 6 years ago and never looked back. The smell of cigarette smoke makes him sick. For that, I could not be happier.


  4. I’m coming up on twenty years as an ex-smoker. The dumbest thing I did was for all the years I smoked, as a good Catholic kid, I gave up smoking for Lent! Every year I’d go for 46 straight days (Sundays don’t count) without a smoke then restart.


    • I quit, sometimes for a year or two, and then get lured back in. The socializing aspect of it — and this is undoubtedly ALSO true for alcoholism and drug abuse — it that it’s a culture, not just a habit. You can stop the use, but unless you break out of the culture, you’ll be back.


  5. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. Not even to experiment as a teenager. I was a boring teenager, I didn’t experiment with anything. Mum was partly responsible for that. She told us that she had been a social smoker before she was married. She had one occasionally, usually if she went to a dance. Dad smoked, I’m not sure how heavy a smoker he was but he coughed a lot and sometimes spat up phlegm. I remember seeing him spit in the street and I thought it was gross. Mum somehow made me understand that the cigarettes were responsible and that smoking was bad. This was in the early sixties when everyone smoked too.
    The final deterrent came a few years later in Australia. Car trips with an aunt and uncle who both smoked. A hot car with no airconditioning, windows usually closed because there was always at least one adult who didn’t want a draught or kids sticking their heads out the window I guess. I was crammed in with three other kids, a baby and sometimes mum as well. It was horrible. I felt physically sick and it put me off tobacco for life. I thought that if it smelled that bad when other people were smoking why would I want to do it?


    • I didn’t smoke until I moved to Israel. Everone I knew in the US smoked — except me. And my parents. They didn’t smoke. But in Israel, wherever you went, socializing was “a cup of coffee and a cigarette.” At first I was just pretending but one day, I realized I really WAS smoking. A lot easier in than out. By then I was well into my 30s, so I certainly should have known better, but if it’s cultural HERE, it’s ingrained over there.


      • Some countries do seem to have a stronger smoking culture. I thought that people in China smoked a lot more than here in Australia and even in England there seemed to be more smokers the last time I was there. Admittedly 30 years ago for both. It must be a lot harder to be a smoker today when there are so few places outside the home you are allowed to do it and cigarettes are so expensive.


        • Europe had a heavy smoking culture. I don’t know if they still do.


          • I remember that most of my European workmates smoked. I knew a lot of smokers whenI worked in the railways. None of them could give it up although most tried. I only knew one who had succeeded. I asked him how he did it and he said that one day he just decided not to smoke anymore and threw his cigarette packet away. The smokers often used to annoy me because they would take unofficial breaks to have a smoke while we non smokers had to keep going. The boss was also a smoker so complaining wouldn’t really have helped.


  6. I seem to have taken the same path with cigarettes. Was a smoker for many years, but always stopped when I had my two baby bumps and fed them afterwards. Something told me it was not the idea to let them jioin in. But I was not cured, and was soon back on the cigarettes. Somehow at the age of 50 I decided to give it a real go. I must admit the financial side of it also helped. I suddenly had loose change in my purse. I went down from about 15 a day to 5 or 6 in a week and it was Friday. I said no more cigarettes at the week-end and I pulled it through and so it continued forever, not forgetting that Mr. Swiss was still happily puffing away at my side. Today I don’t feel like a cigarette, don’t even miss the feeling. And Mr. Swiss? He is still happily puffing away at the age of 80.


    • Garry was a pipe smoker for years. He didn’t like cigarettes or cigars, but he loved his pipe. When it turned out that the pipe smoke was destroying his teeth and gums, he gave it up and we gave those beautiful pipes away.

      Some people can do terrible things to their bodies and somehow, they get away with it. Garry was a drunk until he quit, now almost 18 years ago. It might be more — I’ve lost track of the years. His liver is perfect, he has NO side effects. Most people who drank that much died of liver disease, but he was something of a cast-iron guy. I think that’s why he resents getting old so much. For years, he was indestructible. Then a couple of years ago, around when he turned 75 and arthritis set in, he got really mad at the world. Getting old wasn’t supposed to HURT, was it? Garry is 78, so he and Marcel are close in years.

      I didn’t smoke a lot or for very long — about 20 years all told — but everything else fell apart. Nothing to do with cigarettes, either. Ulcers, cancer (twice), spinal arthritis and spondylolithesis, Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (which I was apparently born with, but who knew?) and asthma which I had as a kid, but got worse with age. Mostly, it gets really bad in spring and fall and doesn’t bother me much the rest of the year. And the visual version of MS. I’m in a lull right now, so suddenly, I can see again … but it remits and returns. It hasn’t advanced to any other part of me — that I know of and I haven’t bothered to get more checkups because what’s the point? I can’t take any more medications. I’m at the top. More will probably make me sicker rather than better.

      I don’t miss smoking for the cigarettes. I miss it for the “time out” it gave me. It got me out of my chair and outside into the air. I spent a lot of happy hours leaning on a fence post while the cigarette burnt out without my remembering to actually smoke it.

      I wish we llived closer to town. Then I’d get a chair or a tricycle, but living so far from everything, the batteries would wear out before I got anywhere.,There’s nothing much in town anyway. The friends I had there died, one by one and I think I’m past the point of making new friends. Otherwise, the places I go need a car to get there. All of them are at least five or six miles away, or down the kind of dirt road that wheelchair and trikes can’t deal with.

      My cane is cute. I haven’t used it yet since I haven’t been out much. It may be useful. Eventually. It might also be good for getting things off high shelves 😀


  7. i am an addictions counselor. I have quit smoking thousands of times..once for several years. I finally gave up quitting. I stopped worrying about what anyone else thought or was doing. Now, if i want a cig I smoke it. not the whole pack, just the one. And never worry about it or feel guilty.


    • I might do that except for the mess my heart is in. And asthma, which has gotten worse SINCE I stopped smoking. It’s pollen. I guess asthmatic people should not move into the woods.

      Assuming I don’t get another kind of cancer (my mother, before she died, had three) the repairs they did to my heart might go the distance. This COVID-19 thing is a bummer for me because, under normal (what was normal? Do we remember?) circumstances, my heart repairs would last the rest of my life

      The continuing collapse of my spine isn’t something I can ignore. It makes it hard to walk (I fall over flat ground), and motion painful. It won’t get better, but I hope it won’t get worse. It did get worse, but I think the breakage at the base (S-1) was the final breaking point. I don’t think it will degenerate any further (or so I fondly believe).

      At this point, I don’t think I could afford to smoke. The price of a pack of cigarettes in Massachusetts is obscenely high. Taxes on taxes on taxes. Since the price of food has gone sky high too, I need to be very careful where the money goes. But I would love a smoke, out on the porch, watching the squirrels and the birds and the woods.


  8. It’s a good thing that you finally quit.


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