Stoptober is a stupid word

Quitting smoking is a battle fought out in the desert spaces of our imagination

By , Friday 28 September 2012 14.30 EDT


We are no longer on speaking terms, however much I wish it were otherwise. But I must never see her again. She was ruining my life, clouding my judgment, dominating too much of my mental space. Without her, every long hour seems to drift without purpose. I navigate the passage of time through distraction, trying to avoid our favourite haunts. Time will heal, or so they say. But time is the enemy right now. And it’s only been a few weeks.

She felt so much like the girl for me. And, what’s more, she was so damn sexy. But my love for her was unrequited. I guess I knew that all along. It was inevitable that this was going to end in tears. And the tears were always going to be mine.

Why do I think of cigarettes as female? Perhaps because they so accurately limn the contours of my own (male and heterosexual) desire.

We do not rationally choose to smoke. We are seduced by an idea. And then we are hooked. One long kiss – my first was on the fire escape of the Shaftesbury Theatre, aged 13 – and then nothing will ever be the same. With her, I will always be breathless. And, if we kept it up, there would come a day when my broken heart would give up under the strain.

But for all the deathly reasons to avoid her, I know she will always be there in the back of my mind and waiting for me in the shop around the corner. I won’t care what she is wearing: plain packet or fancy. A moment of weakness and the whole sorry dance would begin again.

Stoptober starts on Monday. It’s a government campaign to persuade Britain’s 10 million smokers to kick the habit. Some may find it easy.

For others, it will be the hardest thing they have ever done. Not just because it’s a chemical addiction – patches really help with that – but also because smoking is a compelling idea, impregnated with complex half-understood fantasies about sex and excitement and death.

Which is why quitting is inevitably a battle fought out in the desert spaces of our imagination. As religious ascetics the world over can testify, renunciation is as much a war within the mind as it is an effort of the will.

There is nothing immoral about smoking. And we all have to die of something. My purpose in giving up is to claim back some personal sovereignty, not to let something that has proved so callously indifferent to my welfare rule me and control me. It is a pride thing, I guess. I have sat with lung cancer patients, hooked up to their morphine drips, and still sucking on a fag. That is the desperation of unrequited love. And when presented thus, it looks so much more like self-hatred than a glamorous romantic passion.

My own salvation has been through running. Not just because it doubles up the health benefit, but because it stops me thinking. Running closes down the continual chatter of the mind that is taking you back to places that you would rather not revisit. When you run, the demons are starved of their oxygen. That has been my liturgy of renewal. And after two weeks of no fags and lots of running I have lost a stone.

Will I ever see her again? Will I suck once more from her dangerous perfume? I cannot say. I gave up smoking the night of the millennium and continued free for many years. I thought I was totally over her, that she had become a distant memory, under control. Then one day, I allowed her to walk back into my life. I mustn’t let it happen again.

Stoptober is a stupid word. But it is a wonderful idea. Choose life. Be free. Give up. or

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