Have a smoke?
If you are a smoker and are thinking about giving up smoking please read on, I would like to share my experience with you.
I started smoking when I was 20 years old. I remember that very first day very well : I was in my second year studying law at King's College London. I am sure it was sometime in April or May after I returned to London after spending an Easter Holiday in Hong Kong. I cannot now tell you why and how I started smoking, but it started off with me smoking just one cigarette a day. I was then living in the hall of residence of King's College, a place called "Plats" somewhere near Camberwell close to The King's College Hospital. After so many years (nearly 27 years now) I can still remember exactly what smoking my first cigarette was like, I can never forget it. I lit up and inhaled, I immediately felt a light-headedness. Within seconds, my entire body was washed over by a feeling of relaxation. I felt my body relaxed in a way I never knew it could. For a full minute, I seemed to float on thin air and experienced a sense of euphoria; I experienced a sense of well-being hitherto unknown : I felt I was in another dimension, nothing in this world was more gratifying, satisfying or peaceful, it was sheer happiness. All my earthly troubles were forgotten, you just never had it so good. Can you imagine for a full minute of two, you just leave all your worries and trouble behind and elevate yourself to a higher plane where everything was so peaceful and blissful? It was nothing short of being in heaven and I marveled and rejoiced at this new found happiness that welled up deep within me. If it would just last, it would make life worth living again and again.
In those early days, I was smoking only one cigarette a day, that was all I needed and I would have it after dinner. Before I lit up, I would find an easy chair in the common room and sit in a sort of feet-up position. In some ways, it was ritualistic, it was something almost sacred, you have to be prepared for the happiness and the heavenly joy to come. There was nothing I looked forward to more than that one cigarette after dinner. It was supreme happiness. There was nothing like it.
Some 27 years later, I decided to give up smoking. Having smoked for nearly 27 years, you need a damn good reason to give it up. A lot of people give up smoking for their health. For me, I would never have done it for my health. I never believe it in that. We are all going to kick the bucket one day, so what is the point of living like a saint and deny all earthly pleasures when heavenly rewards are highly dubious to say the least. Doctors often say "Don't smoke, don't drink, plenty of exercise, go to bed early and get up early and you will live long." That sounded more like a prison sentence to me than anything else and a life sentence at that. What eventually drove me to over the edge to quit smoking was this : I suddenly realized I had become a nicotine addict. From the one cigarette day, I graduated to smoking three cigarettes in one hour, two packs a day. I felt uncomfortable if I had less than three cigarettes in one hour. I was smoking even more when I drank with my friends : I could finish a whole pack in one evening. Whether I liked it or not, I had to smoke. I had entirely lost control over my life, I just could not stop smoking. I was not unlike a heroin addict feeding his habit everyday. I did not even enjoy smoking anymore. The euphoria and sense of well-being were long gone. If I do not smoke, I felt irritable, I felt angry, I felt depressed and useless, I could not concentrate, I could do nothing without my fix of nicotine. I just had to smoke to avoid withdrawal symptoms. The amount of cigarettes I smoked and the stench produced I find difficult to stomach even for myself. So I decided it was time to give up. I was living just to feed my habit, living everyday to feed my body with nicotine. Who is the master and who is the servant I didn't know anymore. I had had enough, I wanted control back in my life, I want to be in control of my life once more. On Sunday 2nd December, 2006, I gave up smoking. I was doing it the 'cold-turkey' way, just cut off completely. That is the easiest way really. I threw some 400 cigarettes into the rubbish bin downstairs my flat. Here comes zero hour.
For the last 27 years, the first thing I did in the morning was to light a cigarette. I could no longer do that on 3rd December, 2006. Very soon into the day, I was feeling the effects of nicotine withdrawal. I could not concentrate at all on the guitar, I felt something was missing, something was just not quite right. As a matter of fact, I could not concentrate on anything at all. There seemed to be an itch somewhere in my body but I did not know where it was. There was nothing more annoying than when you have an itch but you cannot scratch it. By early afternoon, I was in serious trouble, I felt my lungs were itchy and my whole body seemed to have lost control of itself. By then I had given up all pretence of doing my daily music, I was walking around aimlessly in my flat, I would sit in front of the television but not seeing anything, I would put on music and not hear a thing. Then before I knew, I was searching everywhere high and low in my flat for cigarettes. I searched literally everywhere, opened every drawer, looked behind every stick of furniture, looked behind the mixing desk, the studio equipment and every crack in the wall and floor, just everywhere. I needed one cigarette, I needed a fix more than I needed anything in life. I was desperate but at the same time I knew if I went out and bought a packet I would never be able give up. So I tried to sit it out in the flat. It was difficult, very difficult and I was not feeling myself. Two or three hours later, I searched the flat all over again well knowing I would not be able to find a single cigarette and I began cursing myself throwing way those 400 cigarettes. The craving for cigarette was just incredible, I just felt so bad I could not even begin to explain, I felt I could not breath unless I have a cigarette. Suddenly I remember something. There is a camera case which I always carry with me when I tour in Japan. Maybe there were some left-overs there.
I found the camera case and opened it. Guess what? There was one whole new pack of cigarettes there. I was euphoric. I tore off the wrapping immediately and lit one up. As soon as the smoke entered my body, everything was well again, I felt peace and happiness like never before, I was in heaven. I chain-smoked about 10 cigarettes before stopping. Before the night was over, I had finished the rest. I must have smoked 20 cigarettes in three hours. I knew it would be hell to give up again but at the same time, I knew how addictive the thing is and I just would not let it run my life. The next day would be hell as I already had first hand experience what the first day was like without nicotine. But hardly did I know what was coming. It there was a hell on earth, I was coming to it or it was coming to me.
What are nicotine withdrawal symptoms like? I can tell you what it felt like to me. Imagine you get stung by a mosquito and you have an itchy spot. The natural reaction is to scratch it to reduce the itch. But what if you cannot touch the spot? What can you do if you feel an itch in you lungs? What if you feel an itch inside all over you body going on all day but you cannot reach and touch? Would it be enough to drive a person crazy? Yes it would, nearly drove me crazy. At times I felt my lungs were so itchy I wanted to tear them out and at times I felt as if I could not breathe at all. It was such agony that defies belief. The agony was mental and physically and everything else. When I was fighting the battle with nicotine, I asked myself "Are you going to win or lose?". I decided I would not lose, I would beat nicotine and I would come out the winner whatever the cost and whatever the price I would pay. But what a price, what a price to pay.
Tuesday, 5th December, 2006, the first day without cigarettes. The moment I got up, all the symptoms had come back, I was feeling so bad I could do nothing but sit in studio. I did not even pick up the guitar to pretend playing. Every minute was agonizing, every minute was like an hour. My whole body, every cell and muscle was telling me to get a cigarette. My body ached for nicotine and I almost felt delirious. My brain kept telling me that I needed a cigarette, I felt as if my lungs could not breathe without nicotine and I felt itchy all inside of my body. The suddenly I would feel an itch in my lungs. It was sheer hell. All my life, I had never had a worse experience. I wanted to jump off the roof. And that was only the first day. I did not now how long it would take before the symptoms would die and go away. But what I did know was that nicotine is very very addictive. Everyday I would write in my diary what day it was since I gave up smoking. Everyday was a struggle. There were some days I would cough violently (never used to really cough when I was smoking), some days I would have diarrhea. I could not eat, and had lost all appetite for food, all I wanted and all I thought about every minute of the day was cigarette. It was a torture and every waking minute was tormenting and that went on three whole weeks before my brain and body adjusted to life without nicotine. Every waking minute of those three weeks was tormenting, it was just the worst I had ever experienced physically and mentally. I was very very close to my breaking point, very close indeed. Even if you succeed in quitting smoking, there is still a lot to deal with. I just could not believe it.
After the withdrawal symptoms had subsided, the first thing I noticed was that I had an insatiable appetite for food. I was eating three or four times of what I used to eat daily. The most frightening thing was I could not even tell if my stomach was full or if I was hungry. Some days I ate so much I had stomach complain but I still wanted more to eat. I was doing a lot of exercises, everyday I do 40 minutes on my indoor bike and go out and run for 5 or 6 kilometers. I do hundreds of sit-ups everyday. But with the amount of food I was eating, no amount of exercise would help. I cut down on what I eat everyday to one full meal and one light meal. Despite everything, I was still putting on weight. Then I cut out all rice and noodles and survived only on salad and increase the amount od daily exercise. But the weight I had put on would not go. I was pretty fit before I quit smoking, I had a six pack in my stomach. One week after I regained my appetite, I had put on so much weight I had lost my six pack, and my stomach is one big slab of fat. Whatever amount of exercise and diet I do cannot reduce or burn away the fat I accumulated.
I also found that I had lost all concentration and had lost all my short-term memory. When I picked up the guitar and play again, I felt like an imbecile. I could not muster enough mental energy to learn anything new, my brain was just a void, I could not remember what I was playing on the guitar two minutes ago. It was frightening. It took some 8 weeks before I got better. It is now over three months after I quit smoking, but my mental capacity for learning is still only around 60% of what it used to be before I quit smoking. There might be permenant damage to the brain, I guess I will soon find out. And, I still have problems with eating, even now I still cannot tell whether I had eaten enough. I am still putting on weight despite I am on diet and do a phenomenal amount of exercise daily. But for all the exercise I am doing, I am sure I would have put on 20 or 30 pounds at least.
Do I feel a lot healthier after quitting smoking? Not particularly. As a matter of fact, I found that I had a much easier time running the 5 or 6 kilometers a day when I was smoking. I felt physically much stronger when I was smoking. Now running those 5 or 6 kilometers is really hard work whereas it was more like a piece of cake before. I now have eating disorder and still have regain my aptitude for learning music. But I am not going back, I will see this thing through. I don't know what, if any benefits I will reap giving up smoking, but at least I have done one thing : I regain control of my life.
At the end of the day, whether you smoke or not is a personal choice, it is your health and I believe you have a choice as to what to do with it. There is absolutely no moral connotation attached to smoking. If I want to smoke myself to death, it has nothing to do with anyone. That is how I see it anyway. But if you have not started smoking yet, you should think carefully. It will be hell to pay if one day you want to give up. When I was suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms, I surfed the internet to find out as much as I could about nicotine addiction. What I found out was frightening, nicotine reorganizes how your brain works and affects nearly every organ in your body. According to recent surveys, less than 6% of people who have been smoking for over 10 years succeed in quitting. Certainly feels good to be one of the 6%. I am sure smoking is health-dibilitating, so if you want to live longer, that is one good reason to give up. I don't care how long I live, I just want my life back, I want control over my life once more. With determination, not a lot of things cannot be done.
PS Nearly all my friends in Hong Kong without exception are smokers. A few of them now and again toyed around with the idea of quitting smoking. Half drunk, a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other would put quite a few of them in a good mood to talk about quitting smoking, about setting a date and really going for it. You might have thought what I did set an example for them. Well, in a way I did. What I did was I helped them make up their minds. They were horrified with my experience and now they don't even talk about quitting smoking anymore. They now smoke with a sense of relief knowing they need not go through what I went through, they don't even have to worry about thinking about giving up. I really put them off. They are all smoking happily ever after.