As COVID-19 confronts us with social discomfort, distancing and isolation, appreciating any positive impact of the virus seems almost impossible. Smokers continuing to puff are at great risk of contagion, oblivious to the danger they face as they have been to the many years of health warnings.
Until now, I was one of these people, inexplicably, if not insensibly, ignoring the perils of smoking, preferring my own convenient truth of deluded invincibility. Over the past four weeks, that’s all changed as I’m inspired by a new, realistic resolution to jettison the cigarettes. Plain packaging might never have worked; but the plain message of COVID-19 as potentially fatal imbued me with a sense of mortality, understanding that life involved calling my habit quits.
As an extremely heavy smoker for over 50 years, I once chain-smoked, starting with just a few to conform to social mores but increasing dramatically during my youth without any conscious reasoning. Those long, thin sticks were always gutted in elegant ashtrays that suggested smoking was for sophisticates surrounded by expensive objets’d art.
In this scenario, my health was irrelevant, sacrificed for greater passion with the voice over of a 1960’s Peter Stuyvesant ad “The international passport to smoking pleasure“, echoing in my pretentious psyche. Sitting on the terrace of some salubrious hotel on the French Riviera, the bold and beautiful jet set were smilingly engaged with the delights of tobacco, naively insulated from any harm in their luxurious backdrop. As a nineteen-year-old then, I wanted that lifestyle, fantasising about one day revelling in the reality of the rich and famous. Smoking Stuyvesant was my first foray into that world.
Cigarettes were quickly entrenched in my existence, soon attracted to the golden appeal of Benson & Hedges because “Only the Best Will Do,” disregarding the fake lure as a mere irrelevancy too. Developing an incorrigible pattern of addiction, cigarettes accompanied most of my waking hours, only refraining while I snuggled up in bed at night. Even then, if I woke to go to the bathroom and couldn’t fall back asleep, I would often clamber out of bed to light a fag to breathe me into slumber.
Working most of my life, I spent thousands of dollars on cigarettes, the cost another irrelevancy I insisted to those who’d given up. My pleasure, as I consistently called it, far outweighed any pecuniary savings or benefit to my well-being. I accepted quite happily, if not stubbornly, being a smoker for life.
By my late twenties when I was smoking 70 a day and overweight and feeling unhealthy, I exchanged a myriad of bad habits for much healthier ones, including a whole new dietary regime of fresh fish, chicken and some red meat, with vegetables and fruit for dinner without any cake or chocolate biscuits, a vigorous dance workout twice a week and the rediscovery of my two feet as I walked everywhere. Shedding kilos, I felt inspired and energised with a very different agenda for my physical and mental health, dedicated to maintaining my new routines on a daily basis.
I have adhered to these for the last 40 years, but ironically, cigarettes didn’t register in my frame of reference, still addicted with carefree abandon. My health and smoking didn’t seem incompatible; other aspects of my lifestyle far more insidious, I told myself ignorantly. Yet, I was also an asthmatic, first diagnosed as a baby, now puffing on ventolin every day and often short of breath during sex or intensive exercise. My asthma certainly worsened over the years, but I just blissfully, if not foolishly, refused to face the harm to my health. Denial reigned supreme. To combat my increasing problem of being short of breath, in my early 50s I was prescribed Seretide, a strong steroid, and while some doctors advised to stop smoking, their attitude, almost nonchalant, never made me feel my indulgence would be or could be fatal.
In the eighties as the mainstream media started publicising the deleterious effects of smoking on health, I first attempted to give up, paying out heaps for a hypnotherapy course which didn’t work. The doctor who trialled it with me asked a question I’ve never forgotten: “Do you really want to stop smoking?” My answer said it all: “I know I should, but no, I enjoy it too much to want to stop.” He replied that until I really wanted to stop, nothing would work and to stop wasting money on any more aborted attempts. At that time, I was still smoking about 50 a day, and never thought I’d be able to stop; not least because I simply didn’t want to.
After several bouts of pneumonia and short periods in hospital as I aged, I reduced my consumption to about 40 a day, but was nevertheless diagnosed with emphysema as a 60-year-old; mild, I was told, believing it would stay that way forever. My continued smoking once more seemed contextually irrelevant, or so I convinced myself. Moreover, I consistently discussed media stories about famous people who’d lived long and successful lives while being inveterate chain-smokers. My favourite narrative was about former West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who was I perused a smoker, dying at 96 years. I believed I could live that long too.
But in January this year, I found a small lump under my tongue, removed by a surgeon at St Vincent’s hospital, the biopsy revealing a tiny, 1mm spot of cancer. An ENT specialist told me I had to stop smoking, without elaborating on what would happen if I continued. He didn’t need to. More cancer was inevitable. Consequently, I tried to cut down even further en route to going smoke-free. I was then smoking between 20-30 a day, reducing to between 15-20, but some days returning to the high 20s again. It was up and downsville, as dying of mouth or tongue cancer just didn’t seem realistically probable or possible.
Despite the cancer, a fantasy of a long life persisted, evaporating four weeks ago when I realised for the first time in my life my smoking could lead to death; aged just 70. After half a century as a delusional addict, what transpired to change my mind? Simply, COVID-19. When news of the respiratory virus spread across the world, I clearly noted I was in a very high risk category, not just as an older person, but having a pre-existing condition of emphysema as well as being a chronic asthmatic and smoker. My destiny couldn’t be much worse, apart from the favourable fact that I had already reduced my cigarette consumption by several score over the years.
As surreal, strange and incomprehensible reality seemed, I only had to turn on the TV news and read the papers to know I was extremely vulnerable. It was time to act decisively and differently to save my own life. I had to quit.
The weather was becoming cooler and I was feeling slightly wheezy and experiencing more shortness of breath, wondering whether my emphysema had worsened and/or if I had bronchitis. With only eight cigarettes left for the next day, they were going to be my last, retiring to bed determined I would do it. The next morning, I smoked my usual four fags with coffee, walked to my local café for a strong latte and one smoke, returned home at about 2pm when I made a cup of tea and smoked my last cigarettes, stubbing them out in the ashtray commenting to myself “farewell, I’ll never be using you again.” So far, I’ve adhered to it, stashing the stylish ashtray away in a cupboard.
It has been a lot easier than when I’ve tried to quit before, especially when I was smoking around 70 a day. What has changed for me since those days is that I have greatly reduced my number of cigs over many years; from the 70 in my twenties through to my forties, cutting down to about 40-odd in my fifties and staying at that limit for nearly 20 years until I met my partner five years ago, and then inhaling only 20-30 a day.
As an ex-smoker, he offered helpful advice, telling me how he gave up by slowly reducing them on a weekly basis. Applying his words of wisdom to my addiction, delaying having one soon became habitual practice, so that having none to pick up has become less stressful than previous attempts. I am just taking a break now from writing this to have dinner with him and thinking about how I’d love to have a cup of tea and a cigarette. However, after forty minutes I’m writing again about giving up, reminding myself how I do NOT really want one.
It is now nearly a month of being smoke-free and I’m at my best as an ex-smoker in terms of my bank account and unpolluted air in my apartment, with no ugly, brown stains on my nails or fingers. As I’ve saved a lot of money, spending some of it on other food treats and not feeling anxious about paying the bills, I should be celebrating my achievement, but I am not feeling great. Indeed, I feel unwell, my chest rattling and wheezing, as I cough up phlegm and struggle to breathe easily. In my local supermarket to buy essential food, I was at the counter to pay when the thought crossed my mind to buy a packet of cigarettes. Instead I told the staffer I am still off them as I informed him when I first stopped.
What is maintaining my will power? Why am I doing it if I don’t feel well? Suffice to say I believe this present ill-health won’t last; just indicative of how my lungs have been so poisoned with tobacco that they’re now reeling from the shock of being smoke-free, attempting to clear themselves of decades of toxins to return to a healthy state. Of course, that won’t happen completely because emphysema is irreversible, but I am hoping this ill-health, which I hope is a bacterial infection, will soon disappear.
To cope with how I’m feeling I use my ventolin and seretide more often, helping me feel better and breathe easier, looking forward to being much healthier in a few weeks when my lungs have settled down and accepted their new smoke-free status. One change already is that I don’t get out of bed in the morning reaching for my ventolin to breathe more freely before I make a coffee. I don’t use it now till after I’ve had breakfast, showered and dressed. More significantly perhaps, I’m using it as a preventative rather than to ease tightness in my chest.
Being a smoke-free person is a new me that I just never thought would happen. While COVID-19 wreaks havoc worldwide, it has certainly been an elixir of life for me and an unexpected surprise which may just help me live to 96 years as Helmut Schmidt did, without a fag always hanging out of my mouth.
This new, positive perspective means I should be able to manage far better when the crisis is over, all being well. It is ironic that such a potentially deadly virus has had such a practical and beneficial impact on my health.
Of course, it might still get me, but my chances of survival are now much greater smoke-free. Moreover, I am breathing better each day, without excess medication.