By Ryan Knighton | January 27, 2003

Like many Canadians, I spent the remaining weeks of 2002 mulling over the horrifying prospect of a cigaretteless 2003. All that mulling culminated in the scotch-infused mistake of a New Year’s Eve promise to my partner that I would, for better or for worse, butt out the next morning.

But it wasn’t until my first hangover of the year lifted and a sense of bio-chemical normality returned to my body on January 2 that I really quit. I was tying my sneakers to run to the corner grocer’s for a fresh pack of aromatic, seratonin-friendly du Maurier Extra Lights when my partner innocently queried, "How’s the quitting going so far, sweetie?"

I’d forgotten about that.

Although I’d conveniently blacked-out my little resolution declaration, now I couldn’t avoid—and felt in every molecule of my being—the oppressive grandeur of its implications.

"So far, so good," I answered.

And with that I untied my sneakers and threw them in the closet, with some extra force. This, of course, seemed a more reasonable and covert act than my initial impulse to exact a new steely-edged desire to claw my own eyes out.

The tally so far is 16 smoke-free days. Now, don’t misunderstand my purpose here: I’m not going to get on top of my short-term achievement and pontificate about the virtues of a cigarette-free existence, nor am I going to indulge in the uglier cousin of that expression with a public denouncement of smoking’s undeniable pleasures and gifts. I quit smoking for all the pedestrian reasons, but that doesn’t mean I don’t continue to like the habit.

I have already learned much about what it means to live without smoking. For example, without nicotine in your blood, and without the need to boost and maintain those levels, what you discover after several days is that we sure do have a great deal of time at our disposal. It appears I used to smoke much of my time away, so to fill that new space, I decided I would offer my accounting of the true ins-and-outs of quitting, and the secrets to why smoking is as good for those who do it as it is bad for those who’ve never known its charms. It’s part of my plan, and nobody can resist smoking’s bedroom-voice appeal without a good plan. Writing also occupies the mind and the hands, along with the time I need to fill with something other than smoking. So a few stories will follow this first one, at least as many as I need.

Today’s topic is how to quit honourably.

I did, as you can see, not quit with very much grace or honour, and in an ideal world of quitters, the golden day should be a solemn ritual, replete with dignity and singular purpose. To my mind, quitting on New Year’s Day is more about easy accounting practices, and less about dignifying the great choice being made. With the unique confusion that follows kicking the corporate weed, it is hard to answer a simple question like, "How long has it been now, Ryan?" Quitting on the first day of the year eases the math and helps pass me off as present and alert.

Also, we seem to want to quit on New Year’s Day because of some sense we are embarking upon a new life. But this is simply not true. We are actually returning to an old life, one many of us left back in our teens. In this sense, returning to a smoke-free life is the equivalent of flunking back a few grades, only this time it is a few years, possibly decades.

A peculiar fact, when I think about it, is that I have never experienced an adult moment of my life without smoking. And so it follows that I am utterly naïve about how to behave in a smoke-free world. I don’t know how to relax, take a break, eat a meal, talk to people, ride in a car, sit, stand, think or even breathe without my right-hand man comfortably between my index and middle-finger.

I submit that the trauma of this return to childhood, and one’s subsequent alienation from an adult world is not easy, and is therefore not well-served by quitting on a national holiday marked by wide-spread alcohol induced dehydration, disorientation, pain, toxicity and general angst. Giving up the long-time companionship of your habit in that condition is simply a dishonourable discharge. If anything, your pal deserves its own day. Moreover, what makes quitting on New Year’s Day dishonourable is the catering to the corporate money-grab advertised ubiquitously for several weeks prior to the expected demographic shift in tobacco consumption.

You can’t avoid the ads and the displays in drugstores and on TV for the numerous aids designed to help you betray your oldest confidant. What these leech-like patches and ash-flavoured gums profess to do is ease a smoker from his or her addiction. This too is lacking in honour. The quit-smoking companies have convinced us the process is one of addiction, but that’s not quite accurate. The experience of quitting cold-turkey reveals that true nature of the pain is not suffering caused by craving, it is the suffering we know as grief. To quit smoking is to begin the grieving process over a significant loss. Yes, smoking was my best friend. It was always there for me, through thick and thin, and we had some good times together. I could always rely on it, and, wow, I’m finding out how much I did.

So smoking deserves what grief demands: occasion, ritual, reflection and all the things cultures do to mark passages. Problem is, I don’t know a single culture that chews gum to help it through the stages of a ritualized grieving process. Then again, I guess I do.

I’m not chewing gum. I choose to walk the long march alone, as it should be. Feeling the absence of a familiar pleasure, and mourning when its time has come. I feel I should send smoking off in style, with a good stiff drink and a heartfelt toast to our years together.

I won’t, though, because that stiff drink sure would go nice with a…


  • Ryan Knighton

    Ryan Knighton lives in Vancouver, teaches at a college in North Vancouver, and peers at the world with a strange but distinctive focus. He just signed a whopping book contract based on a series of pieces that appeared on this site, and his publisher made us erase them.

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