This January, I almost quit smoking. Again. I can hardly keep track of the myriad times I’ve almost quit. I started smoking at about twelve, and have continued off and on for most of my adult life. Luckily, I’ve lived an otherwise healthy life, eating well, and exercising regularly, but almost always smoking.
My mother routinely sent me to fetch her cigarettes from the time I could walk to the store unattended. I liked to get them in the machine at Mike’s corner store. I dropped my mother’s quarter into the machine, and out popped the pack, with the two shiny pennies worth of change tucked into the plastic.
I filched my first cigarette from a pack of my mother’s and smoked with my best friend, Susie Sykes. It was a Lucky Strike. LSMFT. Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. I didn’t vomit, but every fiber of my being revolted. Nonetheless, I liked it. I also liked spinning in circles till I dropped.
In high school, I started buying cigarettes, but I wasn’t allowed to smoke, and wouldn’t have dreamed of smoking in front of my mother. “Smoking is a dirty, disgusting habit,” she’d say, carefully stubbing out a cigarette in the ashtray. The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on me.
Just before my sixteenth birthday, my mother found my stash of butts, in a sock, in my chest of drawers, and put the kybosh on my plans to have a driver’s license in hand on my birthday. She stopped speaking to me for several days, which killed me, but I kept smoking, though I stopped stashing the butts where my mother could find them. Both my mom and my stepfather smoked, and didn’t notice the noxious fumes emanating from my room, hair and clothing.
During my college years, I smoked in earnest. My stepfather supplied me with Luckies. I smoked my way through nights of ignoring my studies, and nights of studying till I staggered into the classroom to take the test. I smoked in my room, and the rooms of my friends, the student union building- anywhere on or off campus.
After school, I married, and smoked happily with my husband until I got pregnant, at 22. All of a sudden, smoking made me want to puke, and I knew it was bad for the baby, so I quit. It was easy. I didn’t smoke for two years after my daughter was born, while I was nursing.
On the day we moved from Peabody to Salem, Massachusetts, the piano mover didn’t show. I asked my friend Patrick for a cigarette, and before the day was over, I’d rejoined the ranks of smokers.
I smoked my way through the 70s and the 80s. I smoked in the office where I worked till I quit that job for the Restaurant School. I smoked in the restaurants – in the kitchens, behind the bars- and I smoked after work.
Sometime during the 90s, I became aware of the growing anti-smoking movement, and I began to feel like a pariah. I decided I wanted to quit and did, briefly. In fact, I became a serial quitter. I devised numerous schemes for quitting. When I woke up each morning, I refrained from lighting up as long as I could. Some days, I lasted until five, when I had my first drink. I took up crochet and embroidery. I exercised, spent time outside. From my mother, I had picked up a disdain for women who smoked outside. Call me crazy.
Late in 1994, when I moved to Japan, I hadn’t smoked in a year. It seemed that everyone in Japan smoked, but I tried to hold out. Once, on entering a Tokyo restaurant, I asked, “Do you have a non-smoking section?” “Yes, of course,” the hostess answered, “right this way, please.” She led me to a table in the middle of the crowded restaurant. “Here is the non-smoking section,” she said. Amazed at my good luck, I sat down, and noticed that everyone at the tables surrounding me was smoking. But, of course, I was free not to smoke.
Within a few months, I’d begun smoking again. Even if I’d been able to resist the smoke-in-your-face attitude in Japan, I wasn’t able to hold out when my daughter smoked in front of me, at home. So I returned to the cycle of smoking and quitting, smoking and quitting. I was able to persevere for days, weeks and even months at a time.
I grew increasingly disgusted with my habit. I hated the way my clothes and hair smelled, and the way I coughed up gross green matter in the morning. I hated that my teeth were always slightly yellow, and that I’d never be free of my periodontist.
Finally, finances forced me to quit. I was living in the most expensive city in the world, so I calculated the cost of smoking, and found the resolve I needed. I enlisted my daughter- the one I gave up smoking for originally- in the fight.
We decided on the place: we’d have our last cigarette in Seoul, Korea. When we traveled in Southeast Asia, we usually had a layover in Korea. The only smoking area in the airport was a giant glass dome, with rows of seats for the smokers. It was disgusting, even for us smokers, but would serve for us as aversion therapy. The ‘let’s have our last cigarette in Seoul’ strategy eventually worked, and we both quit. I quit for about 10 years, but not completely.
My second husband, also a former smoker, and I began to smoke on vacation. We amazed our friends with our resolve. “How can you come home and quit?” they asked. “No problem,” we replied, smugly.
I knew that most people find it impossible to have the occasional cigarette, but we were able to do exactly that- until our trip to Costa Rica, two years ago. Cigarettes cost just over two dollars a pack in Costa Rica. “We have to smoke, at these prices,” we agreed. When we got home, having made the decision to move to Costa Rica, we couldn’t quit again, despite daily discussions and resolutions. Before we knew it, we’d been smoking for two years. “It’s the stress,” I said. But I knew what a lame excuse that was.
Finally, in January, we quit, cold turkey. The first week without a cigarette was excruciating, but after that, the pain eased. Our friends here don’t smoke, with the exception of a French Canadian couple we’d met on our first trip here, and in fact, befriended because they were the only smokers. They claimed to want to quit too, but it took a heart attack for him, and now she’s alone in her smoking.
By the time we left for Japan, in April, I thought we’d put smoking behind us, but we fell in with a bunch of unrepentant smokers, and caved on our first night out. We smoked non-stop for the week in Japan, right up until we got on the plane to come home.
I’ve decided I never want to smoke again, except, perhaps, for an occasional Cuban cigar like the one I bought in Havana last week.