Quitting the yosi kadiri
By Shakira Sison
I had my face in the sink, coughing so hard that I felt like pieces of my lungs were coming out. It was the first week after I finished my last pack, and the pain was enough to convince me that I only wanted to go through it once.
Of course it’s impossible to quit. Ask a room full of non-smokers how many of them used to smoke and chances are that none of them were once heavy smokers who quit. It’s a habit that’s so hard to ditch that people do it until they physically can’t. It seems the best way to stop smoking is to never start it.
Even with the daily bombardment of information about its harmful effects, it’s much easier to tune them out than to try quitting a habit that’s said to be more addictive than heroin. That’s the whole point. It’s a product that is carefully designed to maintain the addiction that fuels the $60B cigarette industry. Modern cigarette production even involves the use of chemical additives whose sole purpose is to maintain the craving. The Philippines also hosts the strongest tobacco lobby in Asia to make sure that product presence and government support will remain.
I’m not here to lecture you, but to tell you stories. In my freshman speech class in college, I went up to the podium and lit a cigarette. I took a long drag and blew smoke into a tissue to demonstrate what goes into a smoker’s lungs with each puff. The tissue was smeared with a yellow-brown tint I showed the class as I went on, even including a love poem to my trusted yosi in my presentation. I gave an anti-smoking speech as a smoker who was in the first year of a habit that would last me another ten, smug enough to tell the class that I knew it was bad but I would just hack it.
There’s always a beginning
I took my first drag at age eleven during a family party after being handed a cigarette by a relative who was having a social smoke after dinner by the beach. I took no interest in it. My father was a smoker for many years and quit in his 40s, and other than being the courier for his “Dalawang pisong pilip (two pesos’ worth of Philip Morris)” from the sari-sari store, I never paid the habit any mind nor even saw him smoking.
In high school my best friend asked me to buy a pack of cigarettes for her on the way to her house and I did, buying two and saving one for myself that I kept in the closet, taking a stick or two out in the middle of the night and lighting it, making art on paper using the ember on its tip, and using these as stationery to write letters to friends.
A friend from my tumultuous early twenties recently told me that because I was annoyed at how she puffed her cigarettes as a teenager, I gave her a lesson on how to properly inhale cigarette smoke “up to your lungs” and how to properly exhale in a perfect stream of smoke without puffing all over place. I have no recollection of this smoking lesson, though I do recall being taught the same lesson in my teens by “well-meaning” fellow smokers who schooled me on the ethics, techniques, and tricks of cigarette smoking – smoke rings, making rings from the plastic lining of your pack, stupid drunk jokes from the pack of Marlboros, as well as the art of twirling a lit cigarette between one’s fingers without getting burned. It was a rite of passage for the men, and an act of defiance for the women. During those days in my university, smoking was still taboo for girls and I pretended to fight it by obnoxiously smoking in the stairwells of my dorm to the annoyance of upperclassmen who were too intimidated to say anything.
I wish I knew how to quit you
I smoked close to a pack a day for a decade, and having quit the habit for about ten years now, I’ve come to analyze the addiction as a lot more than a chemical dependence on nicotine and the numerous additives in commercial tobacco products. It’s like an old friend who’s with you at regular times during the day, a companion during frustration and sadness. I’d always “drawn strength” from my cigarettes when I had them. Reeling from a lovers’ quarrel or an argument with my parents, I would light up as my eyes welled up and tell myself to stop crying, cursing the cause of whatever bothered my very hormonal adolescent self. In my family home this would be in front of the window in the bathroom in the middle of the night, attempting to fan the smoke out with a magazine. It became the perfect way of dealing with things, a five-minute break for me to gather my composure and get past whatever it was with my chin up and with my smoker’s breath. Maybe it subconsciously provided some space and time away from my problem to regroup my emotions. I’m not sure if the chemicals in those potent little things actually solved anything, but man it felt so good.
It felt as horrible to quit. I quit not for health reasons at first but because my city raised the price of a pack to $5.90 (now it’s $12), and I thought that it was too steep a price to continue that slow suicide. So I braved it with some nicotine gum and self-control, lying down through days of withdrawal and a solid month of severe back pain I presumed was from my lungs revolting. I coughed up hard pieces of what looked like years-caked phlegm in the shape of my tracheal rings.
I would be lying if I said, like many others who have kicked the habit, that I don’t understand people who won’t quit. Like most ex-smokers, I can’t stand the smell on my clothes from secondhand smoke but I totally get it. I’ve often told people that I miss cigarettes everyday. It’s the truth, and not lighting up is probably one of my hardest exercises in self-control. Sometimes I wish I could run back to the habit and relive how good it used to make me feel, but fortunately it really is only good when you’re hooked on it.
I have found as I’ve grown older that my body can no longer tolerate it, and that I am really a happier person when I’m not jonesing for a chemical fix. So lately I’ve just been focusing on spending time at the gym, having found that regular physical exertion gives me better sleep, an extra hour or two of post-workout euphoria, and a better way to make my heart beat faster and my lungs work harder. If it gives me a couple more years of living my life exactly the way it is right now, that would be an enormous reward for passing on a fix.
But the things you get back are priceless. 5-15 minutes per cigarette multiplied by your number of daily sticks means an hour or two of extra time at your non-smoking fingertips every day. In a few months you regain the sharp sense of taste and smell dulled by years of exposing your tongue and nose to toxins. Your breaths won’t be as labored and shallow, and you’ll find it isn’t as hard to climb a staircase or even run a mile. You’ll smell better and have great skin, and if you quit early enough you won’t have the wrinkles lifelong smokers have.
But we all know that, and telling a smoker about smoking’s harmful effects only urges them to light another stick. What would one do anyway with the extra hours gained during the day and the extra life years without the habit, except to spend that time craving it? When you don’t have to spend each morning coughing your clogged sleeping lungs awake, you are able to taste more, smell more and appreciate the day’s air and food you weren’t able to before you quit. It allows you to enjoy something you could never do properly as a smoker, something so basic it’s the first and last thing we do in our lives, and something you want to continue doing daily, deeply, and relishing every bit of it. Quitting allows you to breathe.
Originally published on Rappler.com, February 2014