Yes, I used to smoke. I quit.
A whole 365 days ago.
What they call “cold turkey”. It was a struggle.
The first three months were insane. Doubt grew each day. Every day. When I woke in the morning, there was a feeling of dread – because it was a new day, it was another 24 hours of excruciating patience and sickening hope that I wouldn’t fail.
And this was not the first time I had tried to quit. But it was the last and there was no “try”. I quit.
Some background. I grew up in a household where one parent was a smoker. There used to be regular arguments between both the parents. One wanting the other to quit and the other refusing with childish excuses. I’d always seen cigarette packets at home. There was no smoking inside the house but lots of it outside.
I recall being in 9th Standard and telling my class teacher that I smoked.
I lied because I thought the teacher would report home and everyone’s smoking would stop. Nothing of that sort happened of course. And the smoking continued. I used to hate it. The smell. The after-smell. The arguments. The fights.
My first experience with a cigarette was when I was in first year college. I was about 17 years old. No one was home except me. I picked up the cigarette packet – that wasn’t hidden very well – gingerly took out a stick, proceeded to the first-floor open-air balcony – it was night time – and lit it. The first drag was followed by a coughing fit and I immediately threw the lit stick to the ground below. I wanted to make sure smoking was indeed terrible and that I wasn’t missing out on anything. And I did.
Till I met the first husband. I was 23-24 years old. We worked together at the same office in Bombay. The smoking started as a casual “at a party” thing with a drag or two only. By the time we were married, it had progressed to about a stick or two a day. It was undeniably a habit.
Two years later, we got a divorce and left each other but the cigarette refused to leave me. My average was still about 3-4 sticks a day, not more. And I had convinced myself that I loved the smell of cigarettes.
The people I used to smoke with were acquaintances and friends and strangers. My family had no clue. I was ashamed that I had succumbed to smoking when I used to be the one who used to chastise classmates and friends and colleagues about the exact same thing.
The divorce wasn’t extraordinary. It was as traumatic as a break-up between a boy and a girl. Except in this case, there was paperwork. And everyone around me seemed to be more upset than I was. It got to me. I smoked more and usually drank with it. I also started smoking when I was alone in my apartment. I would sit on my couch, in front of the laptop, fire up a film and watch. The cigarettes and alcohol gave company.
I didn’t want to purchase ashtrays because I believed that if I ever did, smoking would never leave me. And I did want to quit. I tried. I would not smoke for days. Then weeks and once I even quit for three whole months. But it always came back and I felt worse and worse till the point that the thought of wanting to quit smoking would trigger a need to smoke right there and then.
Then I moved from Bombay to Gurgaon to live with my folks ( 2008 ). I hid in the loo and started up the exhaust fan in the middle of the night so I could smoke. I would go to Galleria ( a marketplace in Gurgaon ) to get my once-in-two-days-fix of coffee and smoke. The cigarette-stall chap knew my name and sold me cigarettes.
My average was still about 2-3 sticks in 2-3 days but I was still smoking. And when I “partied” with friends and acquaintances, there was more smoking. Sometimes countless sticks were smoked before the party ended. My mouth felt like an ash-dump but it was still not enough to make me quit.
B and I met after many years and we got along so well that we decided to get married.
He knew I smoked and one of the conditions of us getting married was that I would have to quit smoking. Right. How the fuck was I going to do that? Especially when no one I knew was in a position to help me. And I did need help.
I told B and myself that I would quit. And I stayed off it for a while – I forget how long. But I fell right back into the hole. I used to go out with friends and make some excuse or another why B couldn’t join us and then proceed to smoke. No one told him because I’d made it clear that he didn’t need to know. I just couldn’t stop. I dreaded going to Galleria because that would definitely mean that I would smoke. I even sprayed perfume straight into my mouth on my way back home right after a smoke.
I had started hiding packets of cigarettes at home. Under my clothes. In my camera bag. But I never bought a lighter. I used matchsticks – because easier to feign an excuse if caught with matches – not so much with a lighter. I love candles and I thought they would be a good excuse if I was EVER caught.
A couple of times I even blamed the neighbors. Their balcony is adjacent to ours and the old gentleman next door, sometimes, smokes when his spouse is not home. And sometimes the cigarette smoke had wafted into our living room in the past.
I used to smoke when B went to the gym. I would fix myself a cold coffee, get out onto the balcony – only far enough so that no one downstairs could see me – and smoke. I would throw the stub off the balcony. Sometimes I’d smoke two sticks. But my life was consumed with how to hide it from B. I did not want my second marriage to end before we’d both given it a good shot.
By now I was brazen enough to even let slip to my folks that I used to smoke “occasionally”. My smoker parent – yes, still smoking – was horrified. I was told how I shouldn’t be doing it and I looked at them with a raised eyebrow and said “Really now.” It had all come full circle finally.
I smoked in Canada. I smoked in Bhutan. I smoked in Europe. The people I traveled with had no clue. I was good at hiding it.
I was smoking maybe 2-3 sticks per week but I was still smoking. And it would get out of hand when there was alcohol around. I took breaks between my shoots because I had to go smoke. ( It’s only in retrospect, now, I see how much time I was spending either actually smoking or strategizing how not to get caught. The only person who knew how much trouble I was in was my sister. And she tried to help with whatever she could muster. Never anger or chastisement and I am grateful for that. I was already quite full of guilt I’d produced on my own. )
By the third year of my second marriage ( 2012 ), I had finally reconciled to that fact that I wanted to quit smoking. Not because B wanted me to, not because anyone else wanted me, not because it was a “pre-condition” to something, but because I WANTED TO. For me. ( It’s possible that one of the reasons I didn’t quit sooner was because I was told it was a pre-condition and my brain went “Yeah. Fuck that. I’ll do whatever I want.” But then I had to go through that to reach a point where it was just for me. )
I even shared a smoke with my smoker parent. Just that once. I told my parent that my spouse didn’t know I smoked and that it should stay that way. They couldn’t say anything because it was the same for them.
I confided in a close friend – who doesn’t smoke and is older than I am – that I wanted to quit. She said she’d help me. Electronic cigarettes, distractions, whatever. She said she’d be there for me when I had the urge to smoke and that she would distract me and the urge would pass and I could just add up the days slowly. In my head, I was certain it wouldn’t work but I was desperate. I’d seen what it did to my parent and I did not want to get there. In fact, both my parent and I decided to quit together. It was a scene straight out of the movies. Me hugging them on a hospital bed, both teary eyed. Promising each other, “No more smoking”.
I was shooting in Jodhpur in December 2012 and I was smoking. In the hotel room, during shoot breaks, after the shoots. Everywhere. B wasn’t with me. Family and friends weren’t with me. I was in the middle of a crowd of strangers and acquaintances and clients. I could do as I pleased. And I didn’t want to smoke. Whenever I had the urge, I would text my friend – Twitter DMs, international SMSes and even calls, whatever was convenient. I would succeed sometimes but other times the opportunities to smoke were coming faster than my urges. And I slipped. And she told me it was ok. That it was better than yesterday. That I was making progress.
That an 85 year old gentleman could quit cold turkey after being a chain smoker for 40 years, was hope enough for me. If he could do it, so could I. My friend kept me sane.
My parent on the other hand, slipped. Instead of how I’d reacted in the past, this time, I treated them like my friend was treating me. Gently, with respect, no chastisement, with encouragement. I had realized that the only way I could quit was if I truly wanted to. I told this to my parent. I told them to let go of the years of arguments and chastisement they had faced from family, to forget about illness and addiction and to do it because they wanted to – for their own self. For no one else. I also kept sharing my progress with them.
In March 2013, I had been squeaky clean for three months straight. Those had been three VERY miserable months. I stopped partying, I stopped hanging out with anyone who smoked. Friends and acquaintances would call me up on my phone and I wouldn’t take calls. I would bump into them in market places and on streets and always turn down the offer to hang out / drink / party / have a conversation / coffee / anything and everything.
In March, I told B I had been smoking behind his back. I had to. I don’t lie and this had been the only one thing he didn’t know about and it was making me sick. To say that he felt betrayed is an understatement. But when I countered with having no help from him, there wasn’t much else to discuss. It was what it was and now I was done smoking. I told him it had been three months and if I did need any help, he better stand up to it and help me. He agreed.
I don’t recall any withdrawal symptoms. I just craved for a smoke. A drag even. I would stare at discarded cigarette butts on the streets and obsess about how I could squeeze a drag out of them. All I could see were smokers. Calling out to me, like beacons. It’s not easy – quitting smoking. And it’s a daily process. And I needed help. I took whatever help I got.
Then there was a phase where I forgot to count how many days / weeks / months it had been since I’d quit. I took that as a good sign. I’d racked up 6 months of squeaky clean just like that. My parent had racked up about 4. I started going out little by little – still preferably with people who didn’t smoke and I ALWAYS took B with me. I dragged him along everywhere. I no longer needed to text my friend who started me off on the quitting process but I sometimes updated her with how I couldn’t believe I’d actually quit and how long it had been. If a particularly strong urge to smoke hit – usually when there was a glass of alcohol in my hand and smoker nearby – I would just walk away.
It then came to a point where I was no longer afraid to be in the company of smokers. I wasn’t attracted anymore. I didn’t crave it. I still preferred to stay away from passive smoke but that was my only reason for not standing with smokers while they smoked their sticks.
The electronic cigarettes are still lying sealed in my drawer. I didn’t need them. Neither did my parent.
The fear of quitting and failing is what kept me away from quitting for so long. After almost a decade of keeping the stick company, I’m now successfully and permanently divorced from it.
31st December 2013 completed a whole year for me without smoking anything – no cigarettes, no cigars, no hookah, no sheesha, nothing. Clean chit. I’m done. And I’m so full of myself with pride. And so grateful to my friend who made me believe that quitting was possible.
If you’re thinking of quitting, I hope you will atleast try. Keep trying. And ask for help. It is possible even though you might strongly believe otherwise, like I did. If I had quit because someone else had wanted me to, I would still be smoking because then everything would be about my ego – a little disagreement with that person and smoking would be a way of getting back at them without them knowing. And that’s a miserable way to live. Like most species, I like my peace of mind.
I’m happy to answer any questions anyone might have in the comments section below. You can post anonymously – your email will not be visible to anyone except me.
P.S. ( Talking about smoking or quitting, in public, is easier when I’ve now quit. I don’t smoke and I don’t support smoking but I will shoot it if it’s an assignment. My “showing” smoking doesn’t mean anyone has to smoke. Subject for a whole different blog post. )
P.P.S. ( To the “friends of B” who “reported” to him how I was smoking behind his back, if I ever see you in person again, I will pretend like you don’t exist. Because otherwise I will have to kill you. Interfering bastards. Assholes. Thankfully B did not believe them or else I would have been caught and unprepared and who knows how life would’ve turned out. )