I used to smoke. Back then, everyone did. I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for many years. I quit, I re-started, I tried to cut back, I was hooked. Cigarettes were my best friend: they were always there, any time of the day or night when I needed the comfort they could bring. Cigarettes were my worst enemy: they stole my breath, they make me stink, they damaged my health. I had to quit.
I had my last cigarette on November 5, 1982, at half past noon. It was a Friday, and I decided to see how long I could go without smoking. I spent that Friday evening at the movies, because you can’t smoke there. Eventually the cinema closed, and I had to leave. I couldn’t go home, I knew I’d smoke. So I went to the all-night supermarket and walked up and down the aisles, because I’d never smoked while walking (in the Atlanta of my youth, only women ‘of ill repute’ smoked while walking). The manager of the supermarket eventually asked if I needed help. I explained that I was trying not to smoke, and he completely understood. He gave me a cart full of groceries that had to be re-shelved to give me something to do and to keep from frightening the customers. I loved that guy.
I spent that first weekend doing things I couldn’t smoke while doing. Swimming. Showering. Walking. I saw a lot of movies. I went to the theatre. I went to the symphony. Somehow I made it through that weekend, and by Monday it had been three days since I’d smoked.
I had to change the way I drove to work, because there was this red light where I’d always light up. I couldn’t sit in my favorite chair because I always smoked there. I couldn’t stand to talk on the phone because I smoked then too.
For the longest time I wouldn’t say the word “quit”, I’d only say that I was not smoking right then. I couldn’t even say ‘today’, because I couldn’t imagine a whole day without a cigarette. An hour. A half an hour. Five minutes. Sometimes just this moment NOW. There were no patches back then, no gum. It was just me and my addiction.
I needed to have some kind of reward for myself. Slowly I began to see the good things about not smoking. I went to the dentist and had my teeth cleaned. It was amazing to wake up in the mornings and not feel as if Sherman’s army had camped in my mouth. I began to smell things again. I began to TASTE things again. I enjoyed the freedom of being able to leave the house without having to make sure that I had cigarettes and matches with me.
The best thing I did for myself during that period was to take money I wasn’t spending on cigarettes and and use it to buy flowers. I was spending abut $10 a week on cigarettes, and I knew I wouldn’t notice $ 10 extra a week in my budget. I found a wholesale florist who would sell to me and I went there every Saturday. I bought as many flowers as I could for $10, and I put them all over my house. Every day I looked at them I remembered why they were there. It helped. It helped a lot.
That first May they had roses on sale: 25 roses for $5. To celebrate six months without a cigarette I splurged and bought four bundles. I had 100 roses in my house, in every conceivable kind of container: vases, glasses, ginger jars, bowls. They spilled over my mantlepiece, they trailed across my table, they filled my nightstand. They sat on the side of my bathtub. They made it easier.
After a year I could go for a couple of hours without thinking about smoking. After three years I sometimes went for a whole day. Every day I had flowers to remind me, and to keep me on track. I think they saved my life.
Now, twenty-seven years later, I rarely think about smoking. I can use the word ‘quit’. I can talk on the phone without patting my pockets for matches. But here in Belgium I still have flowers in my house. Almost every week when I go to the market I come home with a bouquet of flowers. Over the years I’ve collected some beautiful vases, and I love to arrange flowers in them. This close to Holland with its miles and miles of fields and greenhouses, we have fresh flowers all year round. They’re cheap. They’re gorgeous. And they still remind me that I don’t smoke.
I get very angry when I hear tobacco companies say that smoking isn’t addictive because people can quit. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In my whole life. Bar none.
In my dreams I still smoke.