It’s been over seven years since I gave up smoking. A choice encounter with a half-smoked stub in 1986 led me down two decades of nicotine addiction. Cigarettes took over my life and came close to taking it away.
I was born into a family of non-smokers. In a gullible moment of juvenile curiosity, I picked up a half-smoked butt from an ashtray and lit up. It tasted foul, burnt my lips and my lungs retched. Ah! But it was exciting, what with all the taboo attached. I hated it (but thought I might try it again). I felt a few inches taller.
I still remember the first full cigarette I bought while on the way to junior college. The cigarette vendor sized me up (I was quite a puny guy at sixteen and barely reached the counter) and decided to further his business rather than counsel under-age customers. When I finished that first full stick, the world seemed to whirl around me.
A short break from active smoking followed as I prepared for selection to the Naval Academy. Health and stamina became an immediate priority. The physical rigours of first term in the Academy overcame my interest in smoking for a while but no sooner we reached single-digit DLTGH count (days left to go home), our gang of early smokers gathered together in shady corners for the customary ‘panchayati sutta’ – in academy language, a single cigarette smoked by several cadets in turn.
I was arguably one of the fittest cadets in my batch. Always in the top rung of PT (physical training) and cross-country runs, my body was capable of weathering some abuse through the occasional smoke. However, as I graduated to higher terms, my intake of cigarettes was on the rise, marked by the inevitable slip in performance on sports field. It was small enough to go unnoticed by many, including myself, as I pushed myself ever so harder to keep my positions. The human body has an amazing capability to cope with abuse in the youth, particularly if you train well and lead an active life. During the days of heavy smoking (about 10 cigarettes a day at 24 yrs of age), I ran the Jamnagar Marathon (42 kms) and managed to finish under 3:30h, which was an enviable timing even for a non-smoker. No marks for guessing what I reached out for after the customary cooling down exercises and water break.
Slowly but surely, my body was taking the beating of a nicotine-addicted sportsman trying to outdo past performance. Health is not a blank check. Nothing goes unaccounted. My mind was increasingly signing checks my body couldn’t encash.
My constant craving for cigarettes brought about lifestyle changes and I slowly withdrew from physical activities. Mornings started with that blind grope for cigarettes on the bedside table. Everything, every activity, had to be punctuated with a smoke. An evening over drinks and a full packet of Wills Navy Cut would vanish into puffs of smoke. Biggest nightmare was the thought of running out of cigarettes at night. I remember walking miles to stock up for the next morning. Funny, I never walked as much for food or water. Given a choice between an extra smoke or a hot meal, food always lost. So did my weight, as I dropped kilograms in quenching hunger pangs with smoke.
Toughest challenge was the occasional visit home to my native place where I had a rather pristine image – an epitome of clean habits and military discipline. Little did they know, my involvement with cigarettes was way beyond casual. My sweet unsuspecting parents attributed the extra-long walks every morning and evening to military routine! Actually, I was walking away from familiar neighbourhood to restore my nicotine level!
I must admit, by this time I was going through the rituals of quitting efforts too. Like they say, it’s easy to quit smoking – I have quit so many times. I have gone through the entire spectrum – making lofty promises (“this is my last cigarette”), new year’s resolutions, throwing a full pack out the window, chewing gum, nicotine patches etc. It all lasted between couple of days to a fortnight at best before a glass of whisky ruined my will and I rebounded with full vengeance. Somewhere past 20 years of active smoking, I remember admitting to myself helplessly that I may perhaps never be able to quit smoking. A lifelong smoker with little hope of redemption.
This was not an easy admission. The former athlete and marathon runner could barely run a kilometre before breaking into an uncontrollable bout of smoker’s cough. The end was near but I couldn’t stop. Not even when the doctor showed me the black patches on my chest scan during a routine medical examination and issued the ‘quit or die’ ultimatum.
It was early 2008 and I was posted to one of the most stressful assignments in the Navy, away from family. I was terribly sick with what was diagnosed later to be severe pneumonia. Alone in my room with no medical attention (I refused to see a doctor), I was slowly slipping. Fortified with a week’s quota ready by my bedside, smoking was perhaps near lethal under the circumstances. Each puff brought about an interminable bout of coughing and nausea, almost to the point of choking. But I continued to feed my addiction, probably reeling inches away from certain death. I was almost a week into the infection and had not even consulted a doctor, mostly out of fear that he might proscribe smoking. On the seventh day, with hardly any energy to even get up, I ran out of cigarettes. Now things were serious.
It was a moment of truth. In seven days of acute sickness, I was not able to muster enough strength to visit the infirmary which was less than a kilometre away. Now having run out of cigarettes, I picked myself up, slowly getting ready to walk that distance (but to fetch cigarettes). How I managed to complete that trip, I don’t know. Every last ounce of military training and stamina was called to action. When I lit up, my lungs almost imploded in disgust.
I quit smoking after that puff. It’s been over seven years and I have escaped many temptations. But I am happier for it. I run, play and laugh without the wretched smoker’s cough. I don’t worry about the annual increase in taxation on cigarettes either. I know i am an ex-smoker, not a non-smoker and there is always the risk of falling to temptation. But cigarettes have all but vanished from my consciousness and it gets better each day.
To those of you struggling with nicotine addiction, my advice – go cold turkey. The only sensible substitute for nicotine is no nicotine. Turn off that switch in your mind forever. Or you can wait for worse outcomes. Choice is yours. The ash that you leave behind may be yours one day.