After taking her first puff at the age of 13, and having smoked some 98,000 cigarettes, Anne Sheridan has finally quit.
AGAINST a backdrop of bare concrete walls, smokers hung to the four corners of the enclosure like caged animals afraid to take their first steps towards freedom.
Heads were bowed in solemnity, desperate draws were taken on the cancer sticks, and prematurely lined faces looked relieved, depressed, afraid.
We were saying goodbye and stubbing out the last cigarette of our lives.
The GAA complex in Mallow, may seem like an unlikely place to stop smoking.
But smokers, like all addicts, would travel any distance to get their fix, and when they’re ready, would travel the same distance to try to stop.
It looked as if we were at a funeral, our own wake. The irony being that if we weren’t here today we could have been signing our own death warrant.
Moments earlier the final call of ‘last cigarette’ had rung out.
The chattiness of earlier smoking breaks throughout the day was gone.
“Isn’t she very good?”
“It makes complete sense.”
“The five and a half hours is going very fast.”
“I’ll tell you a short story now about how I tried to give up,” said the Corkman with the pipe.
We looked at each other with a wry smile, and lit another cigarette.
Now there was just silence. It was just past 6 o’clock, and less than half an hour remained of a day that would change our lives forever more - we if chose to let it.
As our instructor at the Allen Carr easy-way stop-smoking clinic explained, the T-junction was right in front of us.
One path was familiar, ‘safe’ and yet self-destructive, that of the smoker; the other was unknown, daunting, and full of potential and endless possibilities.
‘What would happen tomorrow if we didn’t smoke?’ Nothing. ‘And the next day?’ Nothing. We would simply get on with our lives.
I had an image built up in my mind throughout the day that I would glide out of that seminar as if floating through fields of barley.
It didn’t happen. I stood in the wine section in Tesco overcome with indecision about whether to drink or not on that first night as a born-again non-smoker. I drank one glass, and fell asleep.
The next day my boyfriend had that worried look on his face, the kind that said ‘Maybe she should be sectioned?’, as I went from a state of hyper-ness to tears. It was ‘Sunday evening syndrome’ on a whole new level.
There have been a few more tears, but thankfully, calmness was restored quite quickly, as more and more nicotine left my system.
Today there is none left, and I am a happier, more relaxed person than I have ever been since I stopped smoking (though on occasions, my colleagues might disagree!)
Whatever about the body adjusting to a whole new level of energy, the mind has a lot more to grapple with - and that is where the root of the battle in quitting nicotine lies.
I initially had trouble letting go, even though I was desperately anxious for ‘it’ to work.
As we paid our final ‘respects’, we thought about all the times we smoked, how they had punctuated our daily lives, controlled us, held us back, all the times they called on us to keep smoking, and keep that little niggling nicotine monster alive.
The times we perceived them to have given us pleasure - only to overlook the tightening of the chest, the cough, the anxiousness, the guilt, the shame, the self-disgust of being an addict, and worse, the most socially acceptable and life-threatening addiction of all.
Our addiction to nicotine, wrapped up in 4,000 chemicals, that we injected at least on the hour, every hour, didn’t make sense on any level.
We were here to learn how to break free, and get back to our true selves.
Our addiction counsellor Patricia Collins explained that she hasn’t had a cigarette in 12 years and said why she will never put one in her mouth again.
“I don’t want to be like you,” she said.
“I don’t want your life”.
She wasn’t being callous. She was absolutely correct - we were all here because we didn’t want our lives anymore; not that we didn’t like them in their entirety, we just wanted to remove one crucial part.
I had had enough of being ‘Anne, the smoker’. It wasn’t who I was meant to be, nor is it meant to be the fate of any other person on this planet.
Patricia stuck a cigarette in her ear, and out of her nostril, and asked us how we thought this looked.
Ridiculous, of course.
Smoking, although increasingly vilified, has become normalised. However, when you stop, looking at smokers stick cigarettes into their mouths becomes an increasingly bizarre sight and a strange phenomenon. You would wonder why anyone would do it. It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.
I had first emailed those behind the Allen Carr clinic in June 2013. It had taken me a full year to get on that bus to Cork. And I was as nervous as hell. Was it the right time? What if it didn’t work?
Should I wait until after the next holiday / wedding / hen party?
It would have been a waste of five and a half hours, I thought.
It was only when I smoked my final cigarette that I realised I was sacrificing a mere few hours to save the rest of my life; to live a happier, longer and healthier life.
What was six hours in comparison to the hours I had already wasted puffing my life away?
I wasn’t going to die, I was dying already through the course of my own actions.
Over the course of my smoking life, and having smoked a (modest) estimate of between 10-15 cigarettes a day, I have smoked more than 98,000 cigarettes.
Now, I can’t stop looking at the app on my phone - Quit Now - that tells me how many cigarettes I haven’t smoked since the clinic.
The number is a tiny fraction of the figure above, but each day I take great joy in seeing it increase.
As Patricia explained, when we smoked that first cigarette we didn’t sign up to become smokers for the rest of our lives.
We didn’t sign a contract, or make any commitment to ourselves, or the tobacco companies that we would sacrifice our own health and that of our loved ones to keep them in billions of dollars of profit.
Who was the winner here? Not the smoker.
Stopping smoking is not just about willpower - and I believe it does take some self control even with Allen Carr’s easy-way method. It’s about opening your eyes to common sense.
It’s also about debunking the myth the smoking does something beneficial for you - it doesn’t.
I have tried to quit many times before. I am still afraid of failure. I am still aware that it takes just one cigarette to become a smoker again.
I don’t know what the Allen Carr clinic did exactly, but although I still occasionally think about cigarettes, I don’t want to pick one up. It has made the hardest battle of my life immeasurably easier.
Even in just a few short days, there is no comparison between the life of a smoker and a non smoker, and it keeps on getting better. Patricia asked each of us in the session why we wanted to stop smoking. One mum explained how her partner would shrug away from her on the couch as she lent in for a kiss after a cigarette. Another said her kids would request their bedtime kiss before she went out for a cigarette.
A third mum kept smoking clothes to wear while she lit up. She shook her head at the incredulity of
this. Instead of grey smoking areas, smelly fingers, bad breath and dirty teeth, we imagined a different world. We were only a few short steps away from the freedom we always craved.
I said I wanted to do better things with my life than sitting there smoking cigarettes. I had wasted more hours than I could count doing that. Heads turned. We are all worth a lot more than our old-smoking selves wanted us to be. Now, when the urge takes me, all I have to do is - keep walking towards those imaginary fields of barley, and think: “I am finally free”.
- Allen Carr’s Easy-way to stop smoking sessions run in the GAA complex in Mallow, Co Cork, and in the Red Cow Inn in Dublin. See www.easyway.ie, phone 1890 379929/ 01 4999010. Allen Carr’s Easyway clinic offers a 3-month money back guarantee, including two top-up sessions for those in need.