Suck It Up

I love smoking. I love the drag, the taste, the exhalation. I love the routine of smacking the pack, lighting against the wind, and flicking the butt into the gutter when I'm done. It's fun and sexy, focused yet diversionary. As an appetite suppressant it's hard to beat; I can thank Phillip Morris for helping me fit into some old pants. In fact I enjoy it more since prohibition took effect, as like-minded bad boys and girls share our vice among the other exiled libertarian death-wishers, weather be damned. Or better yet, hunkering down in one of the few drinking establishments that permit late-night puffing -- a nicotine outlaw in the wink-wink world of the smokeasy. And the romance is amplified when the guy smoking next to you is an off-duty cop.

But I hate smoking. I hate the smell of my breath, hair, and hands. I hate to be a slave to anything, wondering if I've got enough of a product to make it through the night. I hate $5.50 a pack or more, several times a week. Even worse, I loathe bumming from friends or strangers when I'm out, and the way it changes the dynamic. I hate wheezing my way up the hills of North Beach when just a few years ago I could take them with ease. Most of all I hate mornings -- how last night's pack makes the hangover five times worse, the cough insuppressible, how 10 minutes after I'm up I'm out on the steps again.

It had been one of the great self-disappointments in my life that I started smoking again in February after quitting for all of 2001. I'd gotten engaged and figured that I deserved a smoke or two for the celebration. That left the door open for the occasional cig, and a few months later, when my fiancée went into the hospital with appendicitis, I bought a pack. You know the rest. It's not that I really wanted to quit; I just liked myself and my life better as a nonsmoker. Patches and nicotine gum weird me out, and seeing as how chemicals got me into this mess in the first place, I wasn't going to exchange one dependence for another. No point ridding myself of the tobacco demon only to offer myself up to a pharmaceutical devil. My thought was to try the shotgun approach to smoking cessation techniques, in the hope that one or many would take.

Personally, I knew the gradual slow-down wouldn't cut it for me; I don't have that kind of self-control. I'm an all-or-nothing kind of addictive personality. So I knew I had to set a quit date and stick to it. I became just one among the multitudes who vowed to kick it on New Year's Day. It seems a little preparation may have helped a lot. About three weeks before, I switched from the obligatory Marlboro Lights to American Spirits. The thought was to wean myself off the additives first, then deal with the nicotine. The first thing I noticed was that the Spirits burn quietly. Missing was the sinister chemical hiss that comes with every drag of the other brands, and I think the jones was less, once I stopped, because of it.

I also knew I had to go out with a bang, and, believe me, it helps that first day without if the last night with was extremely damaging. If you're going the cold turkey route, extreme partying is called for. This would be the grown-up version of your dad making you smoke a whole pack in one sitting after busting you. Show an epic disregard for all things biological. Leave an overflowing ashtray next to your bed and sleep in the clothes you went out in. If the hangover is brutal enough that you're bedridden until three p.m., before you know it, that first day is nearly over.

Conventional wisdom says that the physiological detox lasts five days. The key is to get through those days by any means necessary. One theory holds that you keep yourself occupied with activities where you can't or don't want to smoke -- seeing a lot of movies (nothing foreign or noir, thanks), high-altitude rock climbing, volunteering at a cancer hospice, etc.

After hearing about him through word-of-mouth, I couldn't help checking out the hypnotist offered through The Learning Annex, Richard Liebow. We've all known that person we think is a lifer with the smokes. This guy helped a friend kick an almost 20-year habit, so I knew there had to be something to it.

"Most programs use statistics and information to convince you to quit. It doesn't work," he said. Liebow teaches a self-hypnosis technique that counteracts the physiological, biological, and chemical addiction. Beyond the first five days, it continues to be there to help "break the circuits" that allow us to keep going back. He also calls his students during the first five days, and sometimes even later, warning about the two saboteurs of staying smoke-free -- stress and celebration. "You need to understand the price of just one puff," he says. Since the '80s, Liebow has had success with thousands of smokers, and although it is too early to tell yet, so far I'm with them.

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