Tuesday 16 January 2018

Will I be able to quit this time or, as a reader says, should I just 'keep her lit'

Minister for Health, James Reilly, T.D. Ireland is set to become the second country in the world to introduce plain pack cigarettes. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / Irish Independent
Minister for Health, James Reilly, T.D. Ireland is set to become the second country in the world to introduce plain pack cigarettes. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / Irish Independent
Dave Robbins

Dave Robbins

My late mother and Dr James Reilly, the current Minister for Health, have a lot in common – apart, of course, from the facial hair and the dead-beaver hairstyle.

I suspect they would have got on well, given my mother's lifelong support for Fine Gael, and her reflexive deference to members of the medical profession.

Also, they were both Trojan smokers, both remained addicted to the weed for over 50 years, and both managed to quit late in life.

Last week, Dr Reilly spoke about his battle with tobacco, how it took him almost half a century to give up cigarettes, and how he is determined to help others cease their dependence.

"They gave me up," my mother always said, "I didn't give them up." She used the birth of her first grandchild as an incentive, and never looked back.

My brother and I, who grew up in a tobacco fog, were amazed. We thought she would smoke to the end and go out in a haze of exhaled smoke.

She started smoking in the 1960s, a time when doctors used to actually recommend cigarettes on health grounds as a harmless, calming habit.

My father, who was a zealous ex-smoker, always complained that she didn't really smoke at all, but rather lit cigarettes and left them burning in ashtrays all over the house.

He had a point. She would often light up, forgetting that she already had a fag on the go somewhere else, its smoke curling slowly upwards towards the kitchen ceiling.

Back then, my little brother smoked, but I did not. Now, it's the other way round. In fact, only this week he told me that he'd lit a candle in a church to help me quit.

Sometimes, things happen that seem to prove that God, fate or whatever is in charge of things up there has a sense of humour. My brother became the global head of smoking cessation at a multinational drug company.

Now, he knows everything there is to know about nicotine addiction, and often takes time out from his busy life to fill me in.

At one point, he suggested taking me around as a kind of exhibit to medical conferences. Apparently, as an incurable addict, I could make a fortune explaining my habit to researchers.

Some form of nicotine replacement helps, he says. Photos of cancerous growths don't, because they send a subliminal message to the smoker that you've got to be really tough to smoke these things and so they see the photos as a call to action.

For my own part, I lit up rather late in life. I started smoking in my early 30s. Then I quit for about six years and stayed "clean" through all sorts of dramas, including a marriage break-up.

But one day, a little voice said: "Go on. You've earned it. You deserve a treat. Haven't you been through enough?"

And so I took the cigarette that was offered to me. And I haven't been able to quit since. Back then, I used to have to remind myself to smoke; now, my addicted body reminds me.

Of course, I've tried all sorts of methods to quit. Alan Carr's famous book helped me that first time, when I managed to stay off them for six years. But each time I go back on them, or fail in another half-hearted attempt, the addiction seems stronger.

Acupuncture, laser acupuncture, hypnosis, nicotine patches, electronic cigarettes, herbal cigarettes – I've tried them all without success.

Now another attempt looms. By the time you read this, I will have been smoke-free for four days (or not; I'll let you know next week).

Reminders of mortality have helped – turning 50 tends to concentrate the mind. And emails from readers helped too. One sent me Alan Carr's book in pdf form and encouraged me to take the leap.

Another, herself a smoker, said I should accept my fate. She signed off with a call to arms: "Keep her lit!"

And, to be fair to him, Reilly's dark threats have helped too. What if he follows through on his plan to raise the cost of fags to €20 for 20?

Part of me, however, can't really believe he was ever a smoker at all. I mean, who'd put a match near all that hair?


Irish Independent

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