Originally written for The Happy Quitter, March 7, 2015.
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 whole world of drugs. After I stopped hanging out with those people, getting off drugs was pretty easy. It’s the culture that pulls you in, not so much 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 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.
I was a smoker myself, then. I had been trying to quit off and on for years. I’d quit, then I’d be somewhere – usually an office – where other smokers worked. I’d get sucked into it. It wasn’t the physical addiction which lured me back to a habit I understood was harmful to my health, disastrous to my budget (and getting more costly each day). And made my clothing and hair stink of stale smoke. 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.
It took me years of quitting, backsliding, and quitting again before it finally “stuck.” Years before the smell of tobacco brought back memories without triggering an unbearable desire to smoke.
I am sure today, after eight? nine? years? If I were to smoke one cigarette, I’d be a smoker again. Instantly. 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’s not that I don’t want a cigarette. I just don’t smoke.