Quitting the habit can be a drag Smokeout: A young and rebellious smoker sucks it in for a day, proving that some smokers can stick it out, no matter what everyone thinks of them.

November 20, 1997|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

"Typical me. I started something, and now I'm not too sure . . ."

The lyrics to the Smiths' "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" are blasting from my speakers, supplying an ironic rock narrative. I glance at the clock: 12: 04 a.m.

No turning back now. Twenty-three hours and 56 minutes of non-smoking loom ahead.

I am about to sacrifice myself in the name of today's "American Cancer Society's 21st Great American Smokeout," the annual day that urges smokers across the country to stop spewing for at least 24 hours.

Only I have been challenged to go it alone, to conduct my own private smokeout a week early, and to chronicle my struggle as an inspiration -- or something -- to others.

Already I'm twitching. I hadn't realized my day of denial had already dawned. I didn't even have a farewell smoke.

I've got to turn off this music. Listening to the Smiths is just too risky. Their moody, woe-is-me melodies practically demand a pretentiously dangling cigarette. No more music. No more butts.

What a drag.

Blowing smoke

Quitting smoking will be simple.

OK, I'm lying. But what do you expect from a smoker? We're

terrible people.

No one wants us in restaurants. Signs everywhere inform us that non-smokers would happily impale us all with a red slash. And everyone thinks we smell.

I've always taken offense at that. I smelled bad long before I started smoking.

You might think we're illiterate, too. No, we can read the warning labels.

Smoking is bad. It will kill you no matter what kind of cigarettes you prefer: Reds, menthols, lights, Marlboros, Camels or Winstons. Anyone who tells you different has probably been smoking something else.

But the worst thing about smokers is our thoughtless hedonism. We have no reservations about killing ourselves and putting others at risk in the process. We have no self-control.

Still, each year, the American Cancer Society tries valiantly to rearrange our self-destructive DNA. And so far, the Smokeout has reformed 10 million smokers.

So, stopping for one day can't be that huge a challenge. There are a lot of things I have gone without for 24 hours: television, sleep, a shower.

Still, I have failed at quitting before. I tried a few times in college. My longest smoke-free period on record is three days during Thanksgiving vacation 1996.

Three other scattered attempts with an equally weak-willed friend failed after about six hours each time.

You try quitting in a house with six other decidedly non-supportive chain-smokers. A house where even the cats were up to a pack a day.

When I wake up at 9: 30 a.m., I contemplate just going back to sleep. (I generally limit my smoking to when I'm awake.)

I could call in "deprived."

But that would be lazy and wrong, and though that ordinarily wouldn't stop me, I decide to make my way to work, determined to kick some serious butts.

Lighten up

Good morning!

Maybe for you. . . .

I don't mean to snap at my deskmate like that. I explain my challenge.

She seems ... frightened.

It's only 11 a.m. On a deprivation-free day, I would have been at least three cigarettes into my normal pack-or-so-a-day habit by now.

My sense of smell has already heightened dramatically. I can sense the other smokers nearby. I want to kill them. I miss them.

Society doesn't know that smoking can make you a better person.

Through smoking, I learned the art of sharing. The smoker's social contract states that you always bum a cigarette to fellow addicts in need, even if you don't like them.

And before I became adept at lighting a match, I feared fire. Smoking has done wonders for my spiritual life. No longer afraid to light the menorah at Hanukkah, I've become a better Jew. But today, not smoking has me veering toward another type of social interaction: Carcinogen Confessions of my Colleagues.

People I never would have suspected turn out to be former smokers -- even the company nurse!

We share. Why'd they quit?

For some it was a pregnancy; for others, a sudden compulsion. Others stopped because a family member was suffering from a smoking-related illness.

They're good examples. Not like my mother. She steals cigarettes from me. She's an enabler.

Still, my colleagues seem a little embarrassed about their smoking pasts. That doesn't surprise me.

As long as I've been alive, and certainly the whole time I've been smoking, nicotine nihilists have been cracking down on lighting up.

I started at 17. My first time, I lit the wrong end of a Newport.

That was 1993. The days of an ashtray at every table were long gone. For me, smoking indoors always has been a rare luxury. My time has been marked by non-smoking bars, by PC politicians threatened by characters who smoke in movies.

But the anti-smoking campaign could never extinguish smoking's air of danger, its mystique: The starving-artist-in a-coffee-shop image that makes it seem so anti-establishment and intellectual, despite the endless warnings.

But danger and rebellion are only the spark. The addiction is what reels you in.

Feel the burn

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