An Experiment in Non-Smoking (I)

I. On July 2nd, at 9pm, I went to pick a cigarette from my pack, but I discovered that my pack was empty. And I decided that I was quitting cigarettes.

Smoking isn’t a whim, but an addiction. And I’ve always thought that, if you want to quit, you’ve got to prepare yourself conscientiously. Twice before I did prepare myself. And yet I wasn’t at all ready for the physical and psychological effects I experienced.

This time, I did not prepare myself. This time, I took an impulsive decision, perhaps doomed to fail. But, this time, I feel less suffocated by the pressure of succeeding or failing, and more focused on the experience itself. Perhaps I’m shifting the aim …

I take it day by day, hour by hour. I prepare myself only as I go. Which means that I have to invent little things to do all the time since the day is so much longer without cigarettes …

II. What has all this to do with cinema, with writing, with film criticism? Well, in my case, it has everything to do with it. Because writing and smoking are two activities that, in my life, have been intertwined for twenty-one years. Figuring out how to separate them is not an easy task.

People always link the pleasure of smoking with certain moments and situations. There are people who crave, above all, the morning-coffee cigarette, or the evening-drink cigarette, or the after-meal cigarette, or the post-coital cigarette. In fact, I like all of those; but I can live without them. However, the idea of writing without smoking is almost unimaginable to me.

The very thought of non-smoking always triggers the same scary questions: What is going to happen, then, with writing? How am I going to write now? What if I can’t write anymore?

Fortunately, I don’t have a lot of looming deadlines at the moment. So, I can experiment without the pressure of the ticking clock. And, here, again, I prepare myself as I go – by doing that very thing which is just too painful to think about: writing without smoking.

III. We tend to determine the success or failure of quitting smoking in function of its definitiveness. However, one can think about it in other ways. Quitting smoking can be a worthy experience in itself no matter how long you endure it. There are, of course, certain limits to that affirmation: in an online forum, someone asked what happens twenty minutes after you’ve quit smoking (one should, perhaps, aim a little bit longer than that!).

I like to think of quitting as non-definitive. I find that this – rooting the experience of quitting to the present moment and not to fucking eternity – is very helpful even if your aim is to not smoke anymore. When I feel very agitated, instead of saying to myself that I’m never going to smoke again, I say that I’m just experimenting. I’m trying how it feels. I’m not smoking today, now, at this hour. But I can smoke again if that’s what I really want.

This is not just self-help talk to make my non-smoking life more palatable, nor is it a mere excuse to smoke again without feeling guilty. Above all, it is an ethical stance without which, I’ve realised, I can’t quit smoking. To think of quitting as non-definitive means that quitting is a choice, and acknowledges that this choice may, at some point, stop being desirable or worth it.

Addiction is bad, but so are all those duties that we impose on ourselves and endure beyond the point that they have become devoid of any sense.

IV. Many smokers who try to quit often experience very negative emotions. They talk about unreasonable feelings of anger, sadness and despair that come from nowhere. And there’s always some clever person who hastens to diagnose: “Withdrawal symptoms. That’s just your brain craving for nicotine”.

The first day of quitting smoking I experienced something that made me see into withdrawal differently. I witnessed a very sweet situation that awakened in me intense feelings of rage and anguish. My response was so inappropriate and disconnected that, at the start, I didn’t even realise that I was reacting to what was happening in front of my eyes. But, then, I understood that there was a connection to be made between what I had watched and what I had felt – a connection that was too primal, too twisted and too embarrassing to be easily admitted. That’s why I’ll spare you the details: they are only my concern. You don’t need to know what the link was, you just need to know that there was a link.

If I were doing therapy, I think this would be called a breakthrough. Because that’s how I learned about one of the things that smoking does for me: it creates a smokescreen that allows me to bear so much … Smoking doesn’t make stress and anxiety go away, but it masks them. Entangled in the smoke of a cigarette I can stand unpleasant situations and unwanted meetings. To inhale and exhale smoke is to cope with a world whose air you cannot breathe. Smoke makes some images go dim, it loosens up links, it makes life liveable by turning it into ash.

So, withdrawal symptoms are not just the result of my brain craving for nicotine, they are about what opens up when the nicotine patch (so to speak) has been removed. All the sadness, the anger, the crying do have reasons and do come from a place.


© Cristina Álvarez López, July 2019

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