“Yeah, it took me two tries to quit smoking.”
That’s my usual reply to: “You used to smoke? You?”
And what leads up to this is other people talking about smoking. The best cigarette is always the first one of the day, they’d say. The next best times are after a meal, or while taking a dump.
That’s when I’d nod and add in thoughts of my own: “I totally get that. Me, I couldn’t drink without smoking. And I could only smoke heavier brands because one of my pleasures was the punch of the inhale.”
Apparently I don’t have the smoker’s look, because this is when they start sizing me up, looking at my teeth, nails, and skin. Then comes the deluge of questions.
When was this? How much did you smoke? For how long? I still can’t believe you used to smoke!
I did though. In fact, I’d smoked for almost a decade before quitting for another decade after that. Some smokers continue to prod at this point, because these people have half a mind to quit themselves. That’s when I tell them that I don’t have the solutions they seek. But I do have a story.
The first light
I smoked my first cigarette when I was fourteen. Chalk that up to hating school and taking out my frustrations through rebelliousness. It could’ve also been peer pressure, as most of my other friends started smoking at that age too.
We didn’t know better. It was a time when Hong Kong cinema was in, with the majority of our influences coming from the Young and Dangerous series. So it was only natural that we’d pick up what we thought looked cool.
It didn’t help that cigarette ads were still rampant on national television either. These were fifteen-second montages of a snowboarder gliding down a white mountain or a cowboy staring off in the distance. The ads themselves didn’t make any sense, but we all knew exactly what they were selling.
Soon, what had started out as a few puffs in the back-alleys after school quickly turned into a pack-a-day habit, one that I’d reached before even turning eighteen. It was easy to fund the habit too; a pack of twenty would only set you back around MYR 5 (USD 1.2) then.
Worse, I’d taken to smoking in my room, which was probably the shittiest thing I’d ever done, seeing how my entire family didn’t smoke. Today, every time I find myself being annoyed at people smoking indoors, I unwillingly remember the times I used to do the same at home, as well as the pain I must’ve caused my parents. But I digress.
My first opportunity to quit came in the form of a lung problem. I apparently had a hole in one, and was quickly advised to quit smoking. You know what I did a week after I got discharged? Yep, I bought a pack of cigarettes.
Until today, I still think that nicotine’s one of the most addictive substances I’ve ever tried, and I don’t even have an addictive personality.
“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
You’d think that having a damaged organ that’s directly affected by smoking might’ve encouraged me to drop the habit, but I continued to smoke at least a year after my hospitalisation.
Like a child picking up a sport at a young age, I had taken to smoking like second nature. It was so ingrained in me that I thought I’d be a smoker forever. Every time I pictured quitting, images of doctors, hypnosis tapes, and nicotine patches would play in the projector of my mind. Quitting could only be done with professional help, I thought, and I had none.
Then the day came when I’d finally quit for good, and it wouldn’t be in the form of nicotine gum or substituting this bad habit for something else. I’d find an even more effective way—getting shit-faced drunk.
Up in smoke
It all happened in an instant. This was during my prime partying days, when the clubs still opened till six in the morning.
I remember stumbling home, the alcohol and sunlight in a tug-of-war, jerking me around between drunkenness and sobriety. I turned on my computer, fired up Winamp (this was kinda far back) for some after-party tunes, then just looked at my ashtray, filled with burnt cigarette butts that I’d relight when in a pinch.
Then a little voice—I wasn’t even sure it was mine, to be honest—in my head, timid yet certain, said: “I think I should quit smoking.”
That was it. No one forced me to quit, I wasn’t suffering from any disease at the time, and I sure as hell had no reason to. But I did.
What followed was even more anti-climactic. I did a quick Altavista search (yes, it was really that far back), came across a couple of anti-smoking sites, and picked up the motto “not one more puff”.
That was all I needed, and it’s been more than a decade since I’d been smoke-free.
Against all odds
If you’re a smoker and you’ve looked up advice on quitting, you’ll probably have read most of this advice: throw away all your paraphernalia, don’t hang out with other smokers, avoid all your triggers, and so on (here’s a comprehensive guide by the CDC if you were thinking of quitting and want further reading material).
Yeah I did the total opposite of that, not because I wanted to be an edgy rebel, but because that was just my life at that moment.
Most of my friends—heck, even my girlfriend at the time—were smokers, we partied a lot so alcohol was always present, I didn’t get any nicotine replacements, and I sure as hell didn’t have a plan.
All I had was the mantra “not one more puff”, four words that would guide me through the entire thing and help me make better decisions when the terrible cravings arose.
Throughout this entire time, my ashtray was still filled to the brim, my girlfriend still smoked at home, and I had constant access to lighters and cigarettes, but I never touched another stick again.
That was it. That was my entire process. If you clicked on this article hoping to get some tips on dropping the habit, I’m afraid I have none. But hey, at least I warned you in the title.
There’s still a lesson to learn
I still think about that moment a lot, the time I went off on a whole other life trajectory just because of a little whisper in my head.
I often wonder how I’d obtained such a strong resolve (I still think this is one of the biggest actions I’ve ever followed through with, ever) from such an unlikely situation. Granted, it didn’t have anything to do with ending poverty or world hunger, but it could’ve been. And it still could be.
Every time I think of it, I ask myself: If I was able to pull that off, what else am I currently missing out on?
Even better, if an average Joe like me could overcome such odds, what does that mean to you, dear reader, who’s unique and also has access to this higher self?
It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or seventy-five years old, if you’re in a developing country or in a prosperous nation, or if you’re black, white, brown, or yellow. I believe we all have this secret superpower that’s lying dormant deep within our minds, just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself.
“Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
We often hear great stories of people finding themselves in the worst moments—such as Victor Frankl, who’d found meaning in life even after surviving the Holocaust, or Nick Vujicic who, despite being born without limbs, still overcame the odds and now continues to inspire millions through his life—and we automatically assume that we don’t have it within us to live like them.
But we do, and we can.
Maybe that little preview of my real abilities was a calling from some higher power to help me learn the true meaning of ‘potential’. And maybe it didn’t want me to just quit smoking, but to share with the world how we all have this little reservoir of greatness within us.
Or maybe I’m just over-romanticising a tiny little experience in my life that was built on coincidences and flukes.
But I choose to believe that we’re made of more than we think, though I don’t have any research papers or scientific claims to back this up. All I have is a belief that there’s tremendous potential in all of us.
And this belief is as strong as a whisper.
Do you have a voice in your head telling you to leave a comment below? No? Oh, okay, just checking. Still, it’d be great to hear your thoughts.