I started smoking at school, aged 15. Both of my parents, my gran who lived with us and my older brother all smoked. Everyone puffed away then, in cars with the windows closed, in small rooms with streaming-eyed children present, on trains and buses, cinemas, cafés, everywhere. At 21 I was working in magazine offices, and everyone there smoked, too.
Smoking was part of my identity, devil-may-care, naughty, rebellious, but I also knew I was badly addicted, welded to my fag packet. Whenever I tried to stop, just to prove I could, I succeeded for a while but I always caved in. Social occasions weren't the same and I'd go a week or two before buying a packet, usually in a pub. It was part of me. I couldn't even think straight without a cigarette. I needed it just to be myself. I smoked two cigarettes one after the other very first thing in the morning. I'd have one if I woke in the night. I loved them all, the ones on the phone, after meals, with a drink, outside on a cold day, in bed, watching a film, after swimming, driving, when I arrived home, on train platforms, in coffee shops.
I didn't feel any ill effects until my mid-30s, when I developed bad coughs during winter and once contracted pleurisy. An X-ray showed I had what my GP called a "grotty chest", but it didn't stop me. I couldn't imagine a life without cigarettes. The coughs got worse, the bouts of bronchitis longer. I'd also began to notice tiny lines around my mouth. I began giving up in earnest when I was about 40, that time of life when there is no escaping one's own mortality.
Most of my friends had quit, but I didn't understand how they managed to. I tried willpower, gum, patches, going away alone on holiday to avoid inflicting my bad temper on others, giving up the coffee that went with the fags, giving up the wine that went with the fags, giving up the spicy food I liked to follow with a fag. I lasted nine months once, but I always went back.
As I progressed through my forties, every failure to quit smoking made me feel more depressed. It was beating me, and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt powerless, controlled by cigarettes, pathetic. I began jazz singing classes in 2002, the only pupil who couldn't manage those lovely long jazz phrases without snatching little breaths. People said it sounded sexy, but to me I just sounded like a smoke-damaged old gasper. I knew I was headed for emphysema or something equally horrible, but I couldn't part from my beloved Silk Cut. We were too close.
In 2003, I did the Alan Carr programme and quit, only to return to smoking three months later. Even after this powerful session, where every single "benefit" and myth about smoking was credibly debunked, I never believed deep down that I could do it, and that insecurity made me want to smoke even more. I carried on with my stop-start pattern for another five years, virtually chain smoking during a bad patch in my life in 2007. I knew it would kill me and eventually I decided to tackle it properly and booked in again with Alan Carr's Easy Way on 5 April 2008 as a belt-and-braces measure. I haven't smoked since. Me, the most hooked, hopeless, weak-willed smoker I knew. It still seems utterly unbelievable.
I feel such revulsion for smoking now that I struggle to recognise the old me, the failed non-smoker, begging complete strangers outside pubs to buy a fag from them, grovelling around in my purse in the dark for 50p, kidding myself once more that it would be "just one", but knowing in my heart it wouldn't. There is nothing attractive about smoking for me now. I loathe it, and there isn't a single day that goes past without my feeling enormous pride and relief that I was able finally to quit. Me, clean from smoking after such a long, depressing battle I never, ever believed I would win. If someone wants to give up enough, eventually they will do it.
Thanks to the clinic's approach to quitting, turning it all around from "giving up" to "starting a new life as a non-smoker", I never felt deprived when I quit the the last time, just an overwhelming sense of liberation.
So how did a hard-bitten addict stay off the fags permanently after years of failed attempts? I hit my one-year anniversary in April 2009, the longest I'd ever gone, but I still had dreams that I had smoked. Then that summer, I had a lung cancer scare that killed any residual fears of returning to cigarettes. I was hospitalised with pneumonia after what my consultant now thinks was swine flu, with a terrifying full litre of hay-coloured fluid on my lung. The worse news was that that until my MRI scan came back, 17 hours after admission to A&E, doctors couldn't rule out lung cancer – fluid on the lung is associated with the cancer all smokers fear. I begged them to tell me it couldn't be, but they wouldn't confirm it. The friend I was on the phone to for hours said my voice sounded so tiny and frightened she wanted to drive down from Suffolk to be with me. The idea that I might die and had brought it all on myself was unbearable, and I drifted off to sleep heartbroken, with the image of my beloved old mum crying at my funeral.
If you had endured a night like I did in A&E, staring into what doctors believed may be a very short future, because of smoking, you would quit, too. I'd gone against all the medical advice about smoking, and now I might be facing a painful, early death at 48. Gripped with fear and consumed with regret, I was overwhelmed by my own stupidity. All futile because it was possibly, during that longest, darkest night of my life, all too late.
My self-image as a non-smoker is very different. Smoking made me feel weak-willed, pathetic, out of control, unattractive. Not to mention the smell, the cough, the stinky flat and the heavy, tight burning in my chest at the slightest exertion. Now I swim regularly, I go on long hikes I never could have managed and I enjoy having better skin, clearer eyes, whiter teeth and, hopefully, pinker lungs. I am getting jazz gigs now that I can manage those long phrases, no longer needing to gasp for air, and my voice has more power now.
Best of all, I'm entering the second phase of my life in the knowledge that I am looking after myself, not doing this awful thing I did for 35 years that did nothing for me except cost me a fortune and make me ill. It's never been about the money for me, but there is the financial aspect, too. I could probably have bought a small house with the money I spent on fags over 35 years. I have to accept that there is a chance I will still develop lung cancer as a result of smoking heavily for so long, but at least I'm doing what my GP suggested – giving myself a chance. Freedom from the enslavement of smoking and the knowledge that I'm over it is still intoxicating to me after three years.
During my final session at the Alan Carr clinic we were asked to imagine we were on the holiday of our dreams, with all the people we loved around us, about to have dinner together by the sea with our favourite music playing, our favourite food and drinks about to be served. Suddenly we were told we couldn't smoke, not even outside. Everything would be ruined, wouldn't it, for a smoker? This imagery made smoking seem to me as tragic and desperate a habit as shooting up heroin.
Thoughts to aid quitting
* Think about what smoking actually gives you, apart from the relief of satisfying the addiction each time you light up. What is it, exactly? The smell? The taste?
* Does it really make you calmer? All the evidence goes the other way, that it increases our blood pressure and promotes anxiety.
* Do you want to be a smoker in five years' time? Smokers are always reluctant to buy lighters as this is a commitment to smoking they don't want to make. Why is this, if smoking is so great and you "enjoy" it so much? Most smokers want to quit, for good reason.
* You know what the heath risks are. Stop believing you are immune. Nobody is.
* How do you feel about having a lungX-ray? Frightened? What do you imagine your lungs look like after all this time? Imagine not having that worry.
* Your lungs start to recover immediately you stop smoking. Imagine them regaining the pink heathy texture and the elasticity they would have if you quit. No tight chest. No cough.
* Set a day in the future to quit and work up to it so you can smoke all you like in the run-up and hopefully make yourself sick of it.
* In your new life as a non-smoker, don't ever have "just one", or even a puff. It's a chain for life. "Just one" doesn't exist.
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