Volume 19 Number 4
I Give Up!
01 August 2006

Jessica Fleischer couldn’t live without a cigarette. Or could she?

UNTIL LAST NOVEMBER my life was built around cigarettes. They were my reason for getting out of bed—and for reading, walking, studying, eating, going out with friends, having friends.... I went to all the places where I was allowed to smoke and avoided all the non-smoking ones. Science says that cigarettes do not calm anxiety, they only make it worse. But I felt (and still do!) that they made me more relaxed.

I like smoking, I love the taste of cigarettes, I love everything that involves smoking. The one little but is, I also love my life.
I started smoking for all the usual reasons: I thought it made me cool, I wanted to feel older, my friends were smoking....

My grandmother was encouraged to start smoking by her mum. In those days, little was known about the unhealthy side of smoking and it was believed that cigarettes helped with digestive problems. Even today, people in my home country, Mexico, are less concerned about the health hazards than people in Europe and the US.

When I was little, I used to take my mother’s and grandmother’s cigarettes out of their handbags and pretend I was a grown-up sophisticated woman. I have a vague memory of the first time that my cousin and I, then aged six or seven, ‘smoked’. We hid under a bed with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, lit one cigarette between the two of us and inhaled. After a couple of breaths we both started coughing. This was followed by screams from our grandma and mothers: ‘What were you thinking?’ plus the ‘You could have started a fire!’ part.

When I turned 15, three schoolfriends and I made the conscious decision that we were going to become smokers. We waited until classes finished and then we went to the corner shop. We each decided which brand we were going to smoke, bought a pack, went to a park and started smoking. For the next 10 years I was Miss Marlboro Light and not just that but Miss Very Happy And Proud To Be Marlboro Light. I smoked an average of 20 cigarettes a day.

Until I was 18 I had to hide my smoking from my family. The fact that my mum smokes helped, because the smell of cigarettes was not something unfamiliar in my house. I got to know every hidden corner at school; I knew every policeman who could help me get out into the parking lot to have a cigarette; I knew the times when the bathroom was free from teachers and we could smoke there. I was never given a part in the school plays because I would rather be smoking on the roof while everyone else was rehearsing. I can’t remember my graduation because I wasn’t there—I was on the roof with a group of friends smoking cigarettes.

Everything in my life circled around cigarettes. When I looked for a flat it had to allow smoking; if I was travelling, I wouldn’t stay in non-smoking hotels; I wouldn’t go to non-smoking restaurants or coffee-shops. Studying in London, in a much less smoke-friendly environment than Mexico City, I used to beg my friends to meet up in pubs or coffee-shops with smoking areas to work on our projects. I barely went to the library and one-and-a-half hours in a classroom was almost unbearable to me. I used to hate going to friends’ houses where I couldn’t smoke and, if for some reason I had to, I always had an excuse to leave straight after lunch. If I couldn’t smoke, I would be in a terrible mood and about to kill someone.

What I loved most about smoking was the time it gave me for myself; to be just me and my thoughts, staring at the sky for five to seven minutes each time I had to go outside.

I never got tired of cigarettes and I didn’t really want to quit, but various things came together to make me stop, almost without thinking. (If I had thought I wouldn’t have done it.)

One of my grandmothers, who smoked for 30 years and quit 20 years ago, can’t walk and talk at the same time without losing her breath. It was a shock to me to see how she really wanted to go everywhere but couldn’t.

I got tired of smoking outside in the cold and rain and wind, of having to leave the windows in my flat open and spend ridiculous sums on heating, of the smell of my clothes and my flat, of my money disappearing. The fact that Britain, unlike Mexico, limits where you can smoke also helped me decide to quit.

I had my last cigarette on Wednesday 8 November at 12pm and the next day I woke up to be a non-smoker. For the first two or three weeks I wasn’t myself; I was sad, depressed and miserable. I found it hard to laugh and enjoy anything: I felt that nothing was ever going to be the same again. I thought that I would never be able to enjoy the things I used to do with a cigarette and, since that was almost everything, there wasn’t much left. I used to love reading with a cigarette, walking, going to the park, to pubs, even cooking, but the worst part was eating. Sometimes I used to eat just so as to have a cigarette afterwards; a meal without a cigarette to follow it seemed pointless.

Quitting smoking is not easy and I needed support. It might have been easier if smoking were just a physical addiction, but there’s the psychological side too. There were times when I was about to light up because I thought I really needed to, and it helped to have people to remind me about the downside of smoking. I had told everyone—my friends, my family, people at work—that I was stopping, so I felt I had to live up to my words.

After a couple of weeks my voice started to sound clearer, I wasn’t coughing every 10 minutes and I started to be able to make it up to the fifth floor at university by the stairs. I started going to the gym, enjoying the cinema and long meals with non-smoking friends. My flat, clothes, hair and hands don’t stink any more and I feel much healthier.

There hasn’t been one day in the last months when I haven’t wanted a cigarette. Most insurance companies only consider ex-smokers as non-smokers after they have not smoked for one to two years, which makes me still a smoker. But it gets easier with time and I feel better every day. If I keep going like this I will eventually become a non-smoker.

Now, when I see people smoking in the street, I want to approach them and tell them that it is possible to quit; that they are living a lie thinking that they need cigarettes; that they too can have a healthier and better life.

Jessica Fleischer

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