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19 Years After Quitting Cigarettes, They Still Tempt Me

One woman's struggle to stop smoking, and keep it that way


On Jan. 23, 2020, the Surgeon General released a new report on smoking and health, the first one in three decades, focusing solely on smoking cessation. The report reviews and updates evidence on the importance of quitting smoking, making it abundantly clear that quitting benefits people of any age, reduces the risk of premature death and can add as much as 10 years to life expectancy.

And yet…

There is a cigarette on the ground, and it is talking to me.

“Pick me up and put me in your mouth,” it says, in a voice that leaves no room for disagreement.

“No, no, I can’t,” I whisper, hoping that no one will hear me conversing with a cylindrical stick not even the size of my middle finger. “I got you out of my life a long time ago, and I am better off without you. I want you to leave me alone.”

Cigarettes allowed me to exist without an emotional vocabulary. Instead of recognizing when I felt angry or sad, all I felt was the craving for a cigarette.

“You know how much you loved me,” the cigarette reminds me, a spurned lover trying to woo me back. “We can be happy again, if only you’ll let us be together.”

I summon up every bit of energy I have, managing not to bend down and pick it up even though I really want to. “Our relationship was killing me,” I remind the ex-lover who had assaulted me with a deadly smorgasbord of noxious chemicals since I was 16.

Cigarettes Were My Everything

I wait for the cigarette to stand up and walk away, before I remember it is just an inanimate object, a pacifier that seems to possess magical powers. My Virginia Slim Menthol Lights had been my everything — my lover, best friend, cheerleader, my mother, my father, my bereavement counselor.

Cigarettes allowed me to exist without an emotional vocabulary. Instead of recognizing when I felt angry or sad, all I felt was the craving for cigarettes. They energized me when I was feeling sluggish, relaxed me when I was jittery, coated my insides with a patina of nicotine-induced serenity when I was anxious or melancholy.

I loved smoking. I loved the sensual experience of it — reaching into my purse, pulling out the pack crinkling with plastic, extracting a cigarette, striking a match and lighting up.

A Big Dose of Reality

It is December 2001. The annual Great American Smokeout has come and gone. I am still smoking. It is Tuesday. I am sitting on an examining table in my doctor’s office, wheezing and rattling.

“You have an orchestra in your chest”, she tells me, the stethoscope cold against my skin. A lung capacity test reveals I have the lungs of a 70-year-old. I am nearing 50. “Does this mean I have emphysema?” I ask. “Not yet,” she says gravely. “But keep it up and you will.”

A Brooklyn-born New Yorker, I have spent the months since Sept. 11 terrified of dying. On that December day in my doctor’s office, a realization hits me with the slamming velocity of an out of control airplane.

The terrorist most likely to kill me is the almost four-inch stick I put into my mouth with the regularity of a cuckoo clock striking one, two and three. Although none of us have control of everything, I do have control over this. I can stop smoking.

And I do.

Nicotine gum, counseling, sugar-free hard candies, celery sticks, diet soda, gallons of water, a medication that reduces (but hardly stops) the ferocious cravings. With steely determination, I stop smoking.

It is the hardest thing I have ever done.

For months after, I hallucinate the smell of smoke. Sometimes I cry for hours, shedding tears that had been frozen inside during the years when smoking numbed and deadened me. I rage and rant and mutter unspeakable things, floundering in a turbulent sea like a madwoman insane with grief and despair.

A Brief Relapse

It gets easier.

Still, one morning, six months after I have stopped smoking, I have an argument with my husband. Two hours later, I see a woman, a clean, expensively dressed woman, light a cigarette, take a puff, and throw the cigarette — still burning — on the ground. I pick up the cigarette, put it to my lips and inhale.

It is like coming home.

Even though that brief relapse leaves me dizzy and nauseous, the following week is impossibly difficult as I struggle not to return to the relationship with my sadistic and seductive ex-lover. I wail, I pray and I try to rationalize all the reasons that I should start smoking again. But, by the grace of God, I don’t.

That cigarette, almost 19 years ago, was the last cigarette I ever smoked.

Although cigarette smoking among American adults is at an all-time low (14%), approximately 34 million adults in the U.S. still smoke. I am very pleased not to be one of them.

I wonder if I will be a nonsmoker forever. I don’t know, because forever is a long time. But for now, I breathe deeply and freely. And I know that by quitting smoking, I have done my best to keep my body healthy and strong. And that is a feeling I’m happy to experience.

By Barbra Williams Cosentino
Barbra Williams Cosentino RN, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Queens, N.Y., and a freelance writer whose essays and articles on health, parenting and mental health have appeared in the New York Times, Medscape, BabyCenter and many other national and online publications.

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