It’s coming up to 10.30pm on a Thursday night-
The date is 8th August 1991; a date that will be remembered in British history as that on which John McCarthy, a British Journalist, who for the past five years has been held captive in the Lebanon, has at last arrived home having been released by his captors.
Here I am sitting in my sitting room, listening to Trevor MacDonald reading the latest news on the situation at RAF Lynham which is where Mr McCarthy has been taken to for a check up. Here is an important historical event taking place and here I am, too worried to go to the toilet because of some small insect buzzing about on the ceiling, just inside the bathroom door. I feel so pathetic and paranoid, when I think what that man and all those other hostages have had to endure, and still I cannot bring myself to go to the toilet. Well, I’ll have to take some action soon, that or I shall simply wet myself where I am, as I said totally, one hundred per cent pathetic.
It’s funny the things we think about at the strangest of times.
One of the most difficult goals I ever set myself was giving up smoking. I had embarked on the tobacco road at the tender age of sixteen, by no means the youngest nor indeed the oldest. It was still respectably young enough to be considered rebellious, although that’s not the reason I took up the nasty smelly habit. I was not immediately hooked. Getting hooked on cigarettes took a lot of practice, a lot of cigarettes and a lot of money. Almost all my school friends smoked at the time, it was the ‘in thing’ at the time. We all wanted to appear very laid back and grown up. The first cigarettes I smoked were Consulate menthol Cigarettes which really were quite disgusting, a bit like smoking a tune as in the cough sweet rather than the melody. You kid yourself that because they are menthol and pretty mild that you’re in control and are unaware of the nicotine addiction taking hold.
I would smoke at every opportunity. It made me feel very glamorous, grown up and superior to my non smoking peers, who I thought were just too afraid to be caught instead of thinking that they actually had a deal more common sense than I did in not taking up a habit that would prove hard to kick, and would be indicative of my addictive personality. I would even smoke in front of the mirror when my parents were out in order to practice the perfect pout on exhaling, which at the time I thought made me look incredibly sexy. How wrong was I? Only totally and undeniably so. And, how sad! That perfect pout I was after, could have so easily turned into a cat’s bum mouth or worse still a pig’s arse if I had n’t stopped when I did.
Both my parents smoked, so I could n’t see why I should n’t. I remember wanting to tell my mum that I smoked but was not brave enough to come straight out and say it. I devised a plan that would let her in on my secret. What I did was to leave my packet of cigarettes on my bed when I went to school. The plan was that when mum came into our bedroom to brush her hair (she always used the mirror in our room), then she would see the cigarettes on my bed and arrive at the obvious conclusion, then she would raise the issue with me and I could confess. Unfortunately, I had not envisaged my younger sister being present, and when my mum commented on the packet which had been planted so carefully so as to be seen, my sister, always loyal, informed her not to worry as they belonged to one of my friends, and that if they had been mine does she really think that I would have left them there to be seen? I did eventually, and not long after that tell my mum that I had started smoking, and she was alright about it saying that she would rather I didn’t smoke but that she would n’t preach as she smoked herself.
Cigarettes became a very important part of my life, a very sad but very true fact! I took them everywhere with me. They became my crutch. When I went for interviews, I would ensure I had enough time beforehand to smoke at least one. Smoking made me feel confident. When I was on the telephone I would need to smoke; when I had a cup of coffee out came the fags or when I went out or saw friends. The cigarette almost became a physical extension to my hand; never was I out without them. As time passed I became more and more dependent upon cigarettes. I was a tobacco baron’s dream catch lured as surely as a trout to a fly. I had a cigarette for every mood. When I left school at the age of eighteen I had been smoking for two years and had now progressed from the low tar variety to the middle tar and stronger brands.
Some months later the strangest thing happened; my cigarettes made me feel sick, not just the taste of them but the smell of them. I was soon to discover that I was pregnant. The chemical changes that were taking place within my body had resulted in a strong aversion to cigarettes. Throughout my pregnancy I did n’t smoke, not because I was being good but because they made me feel so sick. This state of affairs was not to last as after I had my baby, and finding I could n’t breast feed I took up smoking again. Now I was smoking as if it was soon to go out of fashion.
During this time I never once gave any thought to what smoking was doing to my health, and it certainly never occurred to me to try and stop. I was aware of the public health warnings that appeared on packets of cigarettes advising of the risks of lung cancer and heart disease; I could read but it really did n’t bother me. I told myself that I enjoyed smoking, and was convinced that I could give up whenever I wanted to but I did n’t want to at that time.
At aged twenty three I had my second baby. As before being pregnant had turned me off smoking. Yet again I was unable to breast feed for very long due to a severe case of mastitis. My husband had refrained from smoking while I was pregnant for which I was grateful, and we decided that we should both now continue to abstain. This was easier said than done. My husband had by way of tradition smoked cigars after the birth of our second son. He concluded that this was not the same as smoking cigarettes because he maintained that one didn’t inhale the smoke. Not having ever smoked cigars I had no notion of whether one could smoke anything, and call it smoking unless one inhaled the smoke. Anyway he made it all sound so plausible. The problem was that he was soon smoking a packet of cigars each day so his theory was wrong, that was the first thing. The second thing was that I was desperate for a cigarette, and one day while my husband was at work I went to the shops and bought a packet of ten cigarettes. I did n’t buy my usual brand as if by doing that I was somehow not really cheating and smoking again.
On reaching home I took that first longed for cigarette and hurriedly smoked it as quickly as I could for fear I might somehow be deprived if I did n’t smoke it immediately. When I’d finished, I had another and then another. I giggled to myself finding it hilariously funny that me, a grown woman should be sitting and smoking in secret. When I was ready, I opened all the windows and sprayed the room with air freshener in an attempt to conceal the smell of tobacco which has a tendency to hang in the air. When my husband arrived home I behaved naturally or so I believed but the guilt was already eating away at me. I did n’t say anything because I did n’t want him to think that I had weakened.
We sat chatting at the table as was our evening ritual; my husband filling me in on the events of his day. I noticed he was looking at the table, a little too closely for my liking.
“What’s that?” he said.
“What?” I replied trying to look bewildered and hoping I looked innocent.
“That there”. He pointed. “It looks like cigarette ash”
Still acting innocent, I replied rather foolishly now I think back on it, “It can’t be” knowing full well that it could be, and that of course it was. I could contain myself no longer and started to laugh. The truth came out. I justified myself by informing him that it was no worse than him smoking cigars. He reluctantly agreed. He too returned to cigarettes not long after that, in fact immediately as they were cheaper than cigars.
We smoked more and more. By now I had developed a cough in the mornings. As time went by the cough became more severe and I started to wheeze and found difficulty in breathing. It was at its worse last thing at night and first thing in the morning. One morning it was so bad and worried my husband so much that he called the Doctor out. The doctor arrived and listened to my chest and lungs. His diagnosis was not long in coming. I had developed asthma, and was informed that it was directly related to my smoking. He advised that I should stop and said that eventually the asthma would subside. I stopped smoking immediately, and managed to go without for three weeks, mainly because I was unable to breathe properly when I tried. After three weeks the cough disappeared and I felt much better, and started smoking again. As always that one cigarette led to another and another and before long I was back on a packet a day.
Sometimes we take a long time to learn the lesson.
Sometime later but not that much later, I changed my job. In my new job I was on the phone pretty much all day, and developed a chain smoking habit; me and everyone else on my desk. At that time employees could still smoke in the work place while they were working. Over a period of three months my daily intake had increased to almost fourty a day. Steve too had increased his consumption. Again I developed a cough and it was during this time that I seriously began to consider the implications that smoking really was damaging my health. Initially, I stopped for a day here and a day there but I was unable to keep the momentum going for much longer than this. I tried alternatives such as sweets and chewing gum. Temporarily, they had the desired effect. I managed to stop for a month but then found myself arguing with myself about why I should or should n’t smoke. This pattern continued for three years. I even put myself through the torture of getting people to sponsor me for stopping for a month in order that it may help me quit. That month was possibly one of the worst of my life. I was desperate for a smoke but was under a promise not to. I succeeded in not smoking for the entire month and raised £100 for St Christopher’s Hospice. I received a lovely letter from the Hospice thanking me and congratulating me on my success. Again I did n’t stay virtuous for long. As soon as the sponsored ‘no smoking’ came to an end I went and bought some cigarettes. That same year, our youngest son was diagnosed as asthmatic. I was now desperate to give up but every attempt to stop ended in failure.
We never smoked when the children were about but knew that it was in the atmosphere. The guilt was unbearable. New Year was coming and as in previous years we resolved to quit smoking once again and hopefully for good this time. From the moment the New Year came in, I stopped smoking altogether and although Steve no longer smoked cigarettes, he smoked cigars for a further two weeks. After that, he too gave up. At first it was terrible. We were short tempered and the temptation to smoke just for the sake of peace was ever present, but somehow we got through. It was n’t easy but somehow we managed to persevere and to this day we are still not smoking That was almost eighteen years ago now. Over the years there has been the odd occasion when I have fancied that I fancy a cigarette but the moment passes and I don’t smoke knowing that I will always be one cigarette away from being a smoker. I still get asthma if I am near smoke but as of 1st July 2007 that will be less of a thing to worry about since Parliament passed that there is to be no smoking in public places, “HOORAY!!!”
© Liola Lee 1991
It has been 29 years since I gave up smoking. Or it will be on New Years Eve. It is many years since I fancied a cigarette. Addiction is addiction! Whether it is sugar, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, spending, cocaine or even the gym. That said, recognising that we are addicted to something, whatever that may be is the first step in stopping!