Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Stoptober's coming. Here's How I Acquired and Kicked the Habit

How a secret code word and unbridled curiosity led me to blow thousands of pounds. 

A couple of girls at school had been talking about going to the park for a Pepsi. Through the day they’d talk about how they couldn’t wait to have this “Pepsi" and that they’d been dying for one all day. Every time they mentioned this brown liquid, they’d giggle secretively. It dawned on me that things perhaps weren’t as they seemed. There were only two explanations for their excitement. Either they were Amish and Pepsi was an unparalleled treat, the consumption of which required ritualised preparation or ‘Pepsi’ was a code word for something.

But when pressed, the girls refused to elaborate. We were at an age where girls, annoyingly, looove secrets. Eventually they agreed to let me come with them to the park to reveal all if I swore not to tell. Hearts were crossed and I hoped to die. Oh the irony. The suspense was killing me.  

Eventually, we got to the park. It was a sunny weekday afternoon. One of the girls reached into her pocket. It always feels important when you’re brought into an inner circle although in hindsight, the inner circle of two nine year old girls probably holds less sway than, say, the Freemasons even though, at the time, that’s what it felt like.

A thought flickered through my mind. Inner circle or not, I will be seriously pissed off if she pulls out an actual can of Pepsi. Someone would be going home with a particularly nasty Chinese burn. But she didn’t. Instead, she got out the familiar rectangular box of a packet of Benson and Hedges cigarettes. I was stunned. Pepsi was cigarettes! Even Alan Turing wouldn’t have cracked this logic-free code. This was officially the naughtiest thing I had ever done. Even looking at cigarettes had pushed me, the perennial Goody Two-shoes into an unchartered territory of vices. I was nine. The only vice I had up until that point was sitting too close to the television, the price of which had been glasses from the age of eight. This was probably how it all began for Stringer Bell. An innocent puff on a cigarette and the next thing you know, you’re a drugs king pin.

My friend lit the cigarette and puffed on it like a movie star or a builder, I can't remember which. I must have momentarily lost my mind or forgotten that I had a mother who would kick the days of the week out of me if she found out I’d been smoking but when it was passed to me, I too, puffed away. Unfortunately, as this was my first go (even though I vehemently claimed I’d smoked ‘thousands’ of times before), I didn’t quite manage anything as elegant as my friend, and spluttered smoky laughter out into the crisp autumn air. Hmm, disgusting, I thought. I’d like to do this again.

The Stoptober team
I went home smelling like an ashtray and having no concept of how sensitive a non-smoker’s nose is to cigarette smoke. After this nicotiney adventure, my friends and I filled our mouths with gum, yakking on it furiously all the way home, like a cheating husband trying to disguise the aroma of his mistress. I was sworn to secrecy about the ‘Pepsi’ and told that if I didn’t tell anyone I could do it again. I swore because I definitely wanted to cultivate this disgusting habit. Why? Because, despite it making me feeling slightly unwell, it also made me feel like I fitted in and was one of the cool kids. My Roland Rat glasses undermined that a little but not much.

Having said that, I never did go back to the park. I wasn’t even tempted by the strange ornamental cigarette dispenser my mum had for guests. It had a lever you pushed that made a cockerel bend down as a tray opened perfectly meeting the cockerel’s open beak. As the lever come back out, the cockerel would triumphantly rise with a cigarette in its beak. It was the very height of 70s style and a feat in ornament engineering. I played with it all the time.

Once mum disgarded this avarian monstrosity, my exposure to smoking was limited to my neighbour, Sarah occasionally fling down some money and telling me to go and buy fags for her. Aged 11, I’d practice what I was going to say to the newsagent all the way there. Not that he wouldn’t sell them to me, I just wanted him to think I knew what I was doing. “Please can I have a packet of ten Silk Cut cigarettes, please. Thank you!” I squawked in my prepubescent voice.

Of course, he sold them to me because this was the 80s. A time of latchkey kids, where BBC children’s presenters were cherished, where people thought nothing of smoking in front of their kids, of giving them a sip of beer, where misbehaviour at school was met with a swift boot up the jacksie by the teacher, or worse, the cane, a time when kids and dogs roamed the streets unencumbered by anything so useless as a responsible adult and where fish and chips was considered a square meal. Ah innocent times. Sarah sending her 11 year old neighbour to purchase cigarettes really was no big deal.

I started my first job, working for the (wretched) Golden Arches. I was 16 but being surrounded by adults with mortgages and cars and responsibilities made me feel about 12. I knew what would make me feel adult, smoking and so my five year hiatus ended when I bought my first pack of Marlboro Reds.

I still wasn’t addicted and would go months without smoking, forgetting that it was my new thing but then, college came around and my need to fit in came flooding back. It was becoming a theme. Again, I was one of the youngest and so to gain acceptance I decided to do what everyone else was doing, no, not change my name to Rainbow and wear sunglasses indoors, no, I decided to start smoking again and this time I wasn’t going to let the offensive smell and expense get in the way of becoming addicted. I succeeded.

After leaving college, I got a job in a post production company where I shared an office with five smokers. These were the days when smoking was still allowed in the workplace, and so we did, with a vengeance.

The only place we weren’t allowed to smoke was in the machine room where all the machinery was. The engineers were concerned that the smoke would damaged the equipment. Ironically, there were no such worry for our lungs and the 6000 chemicals we were passing through our system with each puff.

By now, I was well and truly a smoker which, annoyingly, came hand-in-hand with an unhealthy dose of guilt about giving up. Almost since I smoked regularly, I also had a nagging thought that I should quit. I made several failed attempts, some literally lasting the length of time I’d been asleep (yes, I counted those). There were always good reasons (or excuses) for the failure. Upcoming parties that I’d want to drink at (and therefore smoke). I had exams, stresses, I’d just changed jobs, it was a full moon. Everything and anything, big or small was enough to make me put off, putting it out, plus almost my entire social group were smokers.

I was never a heavy smoker, usually getting through about a pack a day (or two when there was beer booze involved) but the cost was starting to mount up. Again, there was that nagging thought that this wasn’t doing me any favours but I felt strangely powerless to make a change. In fact at one point, to alleviate the guilt, I decided that the best course of action was, instead of quitting smoking, to quit guilting. That would solve all my problems!

When I left post production and started out as a performer, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I was broke and part of re-evaluating my financial situation was switching to roll ups. Instead of the monstrous fiver a pack, per day, I could now make a packet of tobacco last a week. They tasted nice and apparently contained fewer chemicals. I’d practically gone organic.

This lasted for about two years and the quitting attempts subsided to nothing as I dug in and accepted, I was a smoker for life.

Then one day as I lit a cigarette, a thought struck me, hard. In rolling your own cigarettes there’s a kind of excitable anxiety you get as you work through the ritual so you can finally enjoy your fix. Well, as I put the roll up in my mouth, I observed myself. Before I’d even lit this one, I was already thinking about the next cigarette and in that moment, I realised, this game is unwinnable. There is no end. You will smoke and smoke and smoke and that’s it. Suddenly the purpose and the pleasure of smoking was gone, in a puff of smoking. I knew, I would never get satisfaction from cigarettes like I used to ever again and I stopped.

I’d like to say it was as simple as that but that realisation was actually the culmination of several attempts and a deep down longing to be free of the desire to smoke. It’s one thing to use willpower to deny yourself but then you just acquired a new burden, denial, which feels horrible, like resisting drunk-texting an ex. What I wanted to be free of was the need for cigarettes, the association with pleasure. The only reason this moment, this revelation was possible was because of the many unsuccessful attempts to give up I’d made previously. I’d read Allen Carr’s Easyway to Stop Smoking books, I’d tried cold turkey, I’d tried quitting with other people. I’d tried inventing rules for myself, all kinds of methods that at the time, when they’d gone wrong,  had seemed like failures but in hindsight, were the prep work. I’m not just putting spin on this. I reckon sometimes, it needs a few goes for the commitment to take. Like loosening a tight lid on a jar, it pops once but only after several goes.  

That’s why I’m backing Stoptober. Because I was a smoker and I know how hard it is, but also because I see it as one step someone can take on the road to popping that lid. Stoptober could be the thing that helps someone push through to long term commitment to a smoke-free life. It could also be one of several run ups someone else makes at loosening the lid. Either way, you have my full support. I know it ain’t easy but I also know, it’s so worth it.

Stoptober isn’t about demonising smokers (as some random trolled on Twitter recently) it’s just about backing anyone who’s up for chipping away at the desirous relationship they have with smoking.

Since quitting in 2006, I’ve smoke about ten cigarettes. Do I chalk that up as a failure? Hell, no! That’s probably 10,000 cigarettes fewer than I would have smoked in that time, if I hadn’t given up.

Statistics show that you’re five times more likely to quit if you go smoke-free for 28 days, which, conveniently, is how long Stobtober is. If you’re up for giving it a try visit the website to sign up. It starts tomorrow. Good luck and be happy either way.

This post is dedicated to anyone up for giving Stobtober a try and those who've already kicked the habit.

Other posts you might like: Change the narrative: About changing the stories you tell about your life, Just Do It: About me and exercise and The Power of Intention.

Remember to subscribe to receive notification as soon as posts go online. You: How do I subscribe ?Andi. Me: top right hand corner. Piece of piss, innit. 


  1. Hi Andi - John G at LUA here. Not sure you received the emails I sent you. Thought I'd double check and leave you note on your blog just in case - check your spam folder :)

  2. Silk Cut ciggies. I remember them suckers. Good on you for having puffed on only 10 cigs in 8 years. Will Powers -- the right way to go. Cheers from @frankyoxall in that England, up North, on the west coast there, with sunshine still glowing too.


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