How to start smoking (again)

I have started smoking about seven times. The best one was the last. It always is. Practice makes perfect, so you have a more textured awareness of what is unfolding. There’s the moment of fatal nostalgia, the decision, the dizzy embrace and, between 10 and 15 minutes later, the desire to repeat.

Quitting cigarettes grabs headlines (understandably, it’s a trial), but starting them deserves scrutiny also. Just because something is easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t significant.

I’m not alone, apparently, in my vacillation. Studies say that smokers who quit may fail three to seven times before making the final abstention.

”Relapse rates” are estimated to range from 60% to 90% in the first year. Relapse, indeed. Medical language is so cold-blooded. If I’m relapsing, why does the event feel like a reunion? It’s like bumping into an ex-girlfriend, finding she is still trouble, and knowing that just this once more, you’re up for it.

My last … fling began at a party. I was with intelligent and attractive people, and on the wagon. My doctor had told me not to get off the wagon, so there I stood, clutching my sparkling mineral water. The sex columnist I was talking to was smoking. I looked about me. Everyone was smoking. Cigarettes hung in the air, being tapped insouciantly, being sucked as a prelude to delivering clever remarks. The bubbles in my water continued to rise, cheerful and empty. Something was missing from my life. Risk.

To a former smoker good health can pale because its benefits are quickly absorbed into daily existence. Clean breath and a lack of morning phlegm are instances of absence rather than presence. You quit because you are tired of the smoking rigmarole, the locating of matches and the coughing. You start because well-being is, well, tedious.

I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind at the party. The usual goulash of assertions and sentiment, I suppose. Probably I thought to recall that cigarettes kill, and that they briefly make you more intelligent. No doubt I defaulted to a decision I had arrived at as a child, that is, that cigarettes are stylish. My most glamorous aunt and uncle smoked. She expired in anguish from throat cancer, he is about to undergo heart surgery.

But memory is forgetting, as well as recollection, so I decided to try and cadge a cigarette. I wasn’t relapsing, I was playing a harmless game.

Within two weeks I was smoking as much as ever. That too always happens. At the outset, three cigarettes is a big, smoky day. Quickly that number becomes a triumph of self-control. The first girl I fell in love with smoked. I had recently quit and made her smoke outside the house. Then I made her smoke inside the house. We established a rule; only smoking when we drank. I ventured a footnote: smoking was OK if we were fighting. It was a sign of big love, and the stresses thereof. Soon I was picking fights with her just to light up.

As a practised relapsing smoker you know the material and, like an old actor, can have fun with it. People often list stress or peer pressure as justifications for starting again. They sound like the excuses you tell researchers or teachers: the dog ate my nicotine patches. Peer pressure and stress are legitimate motivations, but I’ve also started out of complacency, boredom and inattention. Once I started due to an inability to chew gum. I kept biting the inside of my mouth. Cigarettes, which I was chewing the gum to avoid, seemed a painless solution. My silliest resumption occurred after I arrived in Tokyo and found that, in contradiction to what the West insists, cigarettes could be pals. Even the names of the brands were companionable: Lark and Peace. I bought a packet within 24 hours of landing at Narita airport.

Weakness and strength, the same elements that make you start, can also make you stop. I’m stopped now, by the way, and not because of the acquaintance who recently told me, post-snout, ”You’ve been imbibing death.” I want to keep imbibing death, because to do so suggests a surfeit of vitality. It’s just the death I can’t take, or its intimations: the erratic circulation, the wheezing, the sallow, hanging skin. If we die as we have lived, then I’m likely to qualify for the less dramatic exit, lingering painful emphysema rather than Wagnerian cancer.

Perhaps I’m simply not cut out for the demands of true addiction. Yet in stopping and starting I may be preparing for an eventual break with nicotine. Statistics say that relapsed smokers stand a better chance of quitting than those who never try. It makes sense. Starting helps you understand stopping; they are the same tape, played in different directions. — Â

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