Clean break: 'How my habit went up in smoke'

For more than half her life, Charlotte Philby has been devoted to cigarettes, even after watching her father die of lung cancer. Then a friend persuaded her to see a hypnotherapist – and something extraordinary happened

Tuesday 09 March 2010 01:00

The whale music isn't playing yet, but I sense it's on its way. At this point I'm still in sitting position in a hypnotherapy treatment room above a healthy living shop in north London, and Meira Shore, my therapist for the next hour, is taking me through a series of increasingly surreal questions. The aim is for her to find out as much as she can about my relationship with cigarettes before helping me kick my 14-year addiction (that's more than half my lifetime) by waving a watch in front of my face and chanting positive affirmations. Or something to that effect.

To start us off, Shore wants me to tell her what it is I like about smoking, which is rather an extensive list. In fact, apart from having to stand outside pubs in the rain, I can't think of one thing I don't like – and in any case, I have an umbrella so I don't even mind that bit too much. I don't even resent the cost – which at £6.20 a packet, a minimum of one packet (20 fags) a day, and significantly more at weekends, amounts to a fair portion of my disposable income – because I genuinely believe that they make my life a little bit better.

At least I'm in good company. Last week, the results of Barack Obama's recent health check were published, revealing that the President has still not managed to kick the habit, despite vowing that he would stop after his inauguration more than a year ago. Obama's been admirably frank about his habit and, given just how much pressure he's under to quit, his must be quite an addiction.

"OK, now describe what it is that you like," Shore is saying: "How does it make your life better?" I close my eyes and cast my mind back: Ten minutes earlier and I'm huddled in a doorway, soaked to the bone, feeling the soft barrel of the cigarette between my fingers; wistfully, I recall the thick black smoke as it rolls down my throat; the smell lingering on my skin and clothes as I ascend the stairs to my appointment.

For me, smoking has always been a solitary pleasure, and the beauty is in the detail: the taste on your lips just before lighting up, that slight resistance you feel as you inhale; watching the stream of smoke curl up as it passes out through your mouth. From the first puff (Camel Lights, aged 13, in a graveyard in Edinburgh) I was hooked. Months later, while my friends were still desperately attempting to take up the habit, spluttering on dog ends in the park before school, I'd be on my fourth ciggie of the morning, inhaling deep into my lungs and relishing every last breath. By the time my dad first saw me light up, at the age of 16, he could say nothing but: "You look like you've been smoking all your life."

And so it seems that the odds for me leaving this room in an hour's time a cured woman are not entirely favourable. Even less so if you look at the facts, which tell us that giving up smoking is trickiest of all addictions to shift – bar none. According to the charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH): "In any given month, between 5 per cent and 15 per cent of smokers attempt to quit, and the vast majority are unsuccessful." Furthermore, they say, hypnotherapy treatment is no more useful than having no treatment at all. If anything, it might have a small placebo effect. Which isn't wholly encouraging.

But anyhow, I'm here now and soon Shore is explaining that she uses a form of psychological therapy developed in the 1970s called Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). During the course of the session it turns out that the NLP approach shares a lot in common with the Allen Carr system. Rather than using negative language such as "giving up" – which forms associations in the mind with deprivation – the addict is encouraged to concentrate on what is being gained: not smoking doesn't equal an existence devoid of meaning and hope, it means more money, nicer smells, a better quality of life.

It is, essentially, someone telling you in a calm, undulating voice stuff you already know deep down, and somehow making their message heard above the deafening la-la-la noise which generally plays in your head when someone is telling you something you don't want to hear. To this effect, the hypnotherapist appeals to the subconscious mind. "The subconscious only wants to support you, to help you do what's best," Shore explains. It is the other part, the conscious mind, which is the naughty, destructive voice, which tells us it's a good idea to do bad things to ourselves.

Like most hypnotherapists, Shore claims a 90 per cent success rate in her patients. But successfully giving up, she says, relies on a patient first genuinely wanting to change their behaviour; it can't force you to want to stop. Rather, "it's about providing you with the tools to quit, and stay smoke-free". I am dubious, but have been pushed to come here by my friend Sarah who gave up smoking with hypnotherapy 22 months ago, and is so convinced it can hep me too that she has promised to give me £50 if it doesn't. Which is a good an incentive as any.

Almost as inspiring as the fact that late last year I watched my dad – a dedicated smoker from the age of nine to 64 – die of lung cancer. Although this didn't strike me as a good enough reason to quit at the time. In fact I spent most of my father's wake in a nearby alleyway Hoovering Malboro Reds behind the bins, which might give some indication as to the level of my commitment to nicotine. But two months later, call it an epiphany or just common sense kicking in as the shock starts to wear off, I decided to quit for good. And have struggled to do so ever since.

Over the course of the past eight weeks, I've only been able to last a few days without succumbing to the cravings that have rendered me an unbearable ball of tears, tantrums and head-splitting migraines. Every few days I've snuck off for a sly, guilt-inducing fag, and each one – given the intervening period of abstinence – has tasted even better. But deep down, I am desperate to stop, and am slightly concerned that I will never be able to. So, having failed in the past two months using the Allen Carr approach, nicotine replacement gum, and being none too keen of the idea of seeping drugs through a patch on my arm into my veins at great expense in order to quit, I can't see the harm in taking Sarah up on her offer.

NLP hypnotherapy, it turns out, to my bitter disappointment, doesn't actually involve being knocked unconscious under the influence of a swinging pocket watch. Instead, once I'm lying comfortably on a small bed in the corner of the room, Shore brings me down into a deep sleep by counting, and giving strict verbal instructions – "you are feeling relaaaxed" and so on and so forth. After five minutes on the bed, listening to her words, I'm still alert enough that I could bring myself back to total consciousness in seconds if need be, but my body feels unusually relaxed, my mind presumably more malleable too. Somewhat off-putting is that inane thoughts keep creeping into my mind, but Shore insists this doesn't matter: "The subconscious is still listening."

Now I'm under her spell, with the sound of the sea calling out from the CD player behind her (I got that bit right), Shore takes me on a mental journey. Under her instruction, I find myself standing at the crossroads of my life. On one side there's the path that would have been mine: thick, poisonous clouds hang over the street here; sickly men and women gasp for air alongside dying flowers; it's all rather dramatic. Then there's my new path: the air is clear, the horizon sunny, freed-up cash blows in the wind before my eyes.

We stay here a while, Shore talking me through the reasons why this is such an appealing place to live before she counts me up again, and out of my semi-trance. If I was expecting to feel reborn I'd have felt let down. Other than having acquired a partial numbness in my left leg from having lain at a rakish angle, I don't feel any different.

Yet to feel convinced by my hour-long session, I reluctantly pay Shore the £150 fee and agree to call her to book a top-up session in the next couple of weeks – or as soon as I feel I need it: might as well get my money's worth. But as it turns out, it's been six weeks and we haven't spoken. Because in the weeks since our session, something very peculiar has happened: against my better judgment, I have ceased thinking of myself as a smoker.

It didn't happen overnight. There was one evening the Friday after our meeting when, following a copious amount of red wine, I bummed a fag off a friend at a party; the next morning I awoke feeling like I'd died and been buried with a handful of vacuum-bag dust in my mouth. Several times over the next two weeks the thought of having a ciggie crossed my mind, but as with most important thoughts, it evaporated soon after. And by the third week, would you believe, I was actively turning away from people puffing in the street, and wrinkling my nose at the smell of second-hand smoke on people's clothes.

Six weeks later and my skin looks brighter, my eyes are clearer, my wallet's fatter, I can smell stuff (although, admittedly, that is not always a bonus), I can run for a bus without passing out on board, I am less prone to snotty colds, I don't have to worry about carrying a brolly, and the thought of a cigarette leaves me totally cold. It's not that I can resist them, I'm just not that interested. But it's not all good news. For as I write I'm struck by an appalling realisation. At some point I appear to have morphed into my own worst nightmare – that most lamentable creature, the reformed smoker.

And so, while a long, emphysema-free road lies ahead, it may be a lonely one. For if they have any sense, any moment now all my friends will notice what a smug, unbearable person I've become and will vow never to speak to me again.

Meira Shore 07966 659 299

Giving up smoking: What really works

* Nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, according to a report by the Royal College of Physicians in February 2000.

* Surveys have show that around 70 per cent of smokers want to stop smoking, but only 2-3 per cent manage to do so without help.

* You're twice as likely to stop smoking with the help of a nicotine substitute, such as gum and patches, or by using prescription-only medicines such as Zyban (bupropion) and Champix (varenicline). These medicines reduce withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, depression, weight gain and cravings.

* Psychological dependency can be hardest to break in the long run. Understanding why you smoke can help sever emotional attachments to cigarettes. Help from support groups or counsellors has helped around one in 20 quitters pack it in.

* There is no conclusive evidence that hypnosis or acupuncture is more effective than going cold turkey, but they have few side-effects and may help some smokers.

* The most effective way to quit is by using a combination of drugs and group support. This has a success rate of up to 30 per cent. Miranda Vinall

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