Dry January, Movember, there are always a few of these month-long challenges kicking around. Given that there's only one of these two that I can actually take part in, I'd only ever bothered a handful of times. And to be fair, the moustache did nothing for me...
Stoptober, on the other hand, has always passed me by. I'd always thought it was another non-drinking month and, coming from someone who has a birthday in October, that was not going to be an option for me. No Sancerre on my big day? Forget it! But then I read that actually, Stoptober is kicking a different habit entirely.
Since 2012, Stoptober has taken place each October with the aim for participants to quit smoking for the month, after which, evidence has shown that after twenty-eight days without a cigarette, smokers are as much as five times more likely to give up smoking for good.
In those 28 days, lung function and circulation improves. Cardio activity and athletic endurance improve too and, just a few months later at nine months, the lungs have significantly healed from any damage sustained. The bonuses continue at five years, ten, twenty. It's not rocket science as we all know how bad it is, but quit for a month and you're well on the way to better health.
I'm pretty sure it doesn't take a genius to wonder why I'm posting this but to cut a long story short, at the time of writing, I'm on Day 35 of being smoke-free. Something I wasn't expecting and wasn't even planning if I'm honest.
Now I know I'm supposed to "humblebrag" about this and tell you all that I've wanted to quit smoking forever, my body is a temple, etc etc etc. The sad thing is this isn't entirely true.
I smoked most of the way through my twenties, mainly since the relationship I was in at the time was with a fellow smoker, I worked in the travel industry so hello Duty-Free! and I lived alone for a few years so I and no one else cared. Plus, my little smoking corner in one flat I rented was one of my favourite spots. It overlooked the River Severn if you craned your neck and opened the window wide enough. It had a large corner kitchen counter, which I'm sure normal people would use for things like housing cooking equipment or preparing actual food, both of which I successfully managed not to do in the whole time I lived there. (I'm not even joking about this, oh the shame.) Instead, I installed a cushion, an ashtray on the windowsill, a scented candle next to it to convince myself that it didn't stink and used to clamber up there at varying hours of the day or night. And I loved it. Those few minutes to yourself, I'd class it as self-care to use today's buzz word. (Yes, yes, I know it's not...)
At 28 I gave up, as I started a new relationship so wanted to impress, but then it soon became clear that the new friendship group were very much social smokers, so I obviously rebranded myself as such too. Marvellous.
Then at 30, I gave up completely when I started trying for a baby. This succeeded beautifully for around four years, during the process of IVF, pregnancy, birth and the first year or so and gave me the perfect opportunity to give up for good. But no, after a couple of years, I became a "secret smoker", or "the secret Mum smoker" who crept out for a sneaky one when her toddler had pushed her over the edge for the 8274th time that day. (Said toddler was safe, well and nowhere near me at any point when I used to do this and I wasn't standing at an open front door in my dressing gown with the nicotine blowing back into the house. Just thought I'd clear that up.)
And so it continued. And then I hit 40 and thought, "Yeah I probably should just stop now." The social smoker had morphed into the "I only smoke when the kids are in bed" to "I only smoke when I'm out" to the "I only smoke when I've had a drink". At one particularly bad point, I even started drinking more just so I could justify having a fag. That didn't last long, I couldn't deal with the hangovers.
And then I just stopped caring. I'd give up for a week or two and think I'd cracked it, then I'd see friends or family that smoked and I'd be straight back to square one. Just a girl who can't say no and all that. And I just carried on. And on. And resigned myself to the fact that I was a smoker and that was that.
I'm guessing you're either reading this thinking one of two things - "You bloody idiot" being one and possibly for the smokers or reformed smokers out there "God, I bloody love a fag too" being the other.
I'm just going to put it out there, I bloody LOVED smoking. The first one in the morning after the school run with a hot coffee and stress levels going down with every puff (or so I thought.) The clandestine one with friends "Shall we??" (Spoiler, we always would.) The one on your sunbed laying by a pool or a beach, ideally with a cocktail in hand. The one after a few drinks with friends and good gossip that gets you just that little bit giddier. Oh, wait! The best one of all, my personal all-time favourite. The one where you need an excuse to leave a boring conversation, a party you don't want to be at, a boring moment at work. Need to escape? Have a fag. Boss pissing you off? Have a fag. Party is rubbish and the smokers' corner is way more fun? Have a fag. In fact, have a few. Ah, happy times.
I've lost count of the times I'd go to smokers corner and I'd become best mates with a stranger. Yes, admittedly drink was almost always involved too, but having a fag together, having a chat and a giggle and then saying "sod it, shall we have another?" knowing full well that this gave you another few minutes of being with your new best mate for the night. Fun fact, I once did this at a wedding I went to and hardly knew anyone there. I went outside and there was a fabulously camp hairdresser outside, also on his own and within probably five minutes we swapped numbers, hugged (God, remember when you could hug strangers??) and chained it, gossiping for a good hour until my understandably annoyed husband came out, saw me chatting and nearly got into a fight before realising he was probably more the guy's type than I was.
But you see, if you're reading this thinking (quite rightly) I'm an idiot, I think that's exactly what cigarettes want you to think. It's like a bad relationship that you wish you could leave but it keeps on hooking you in for more. Cigarettes don't want you to remember the times where you keep getting chest infections. Or the times when you smoked so much on a weekend away you couldn't manage one of your lovely morning ones and it just made you feel like you had a four-day hangover. Or the ones which are exactly like a bad relationship - they beg you "just another, it'll feel amazing" and it was absolute rubbish.
On Sunday 27th September 2020, I realised I'd smoked the last of my last packet and instead of rushing to the shop, I didn't. I'd considered in the past quitting on a certain date but always found by that date I'd always have at least one left and it would be rude not to finish them. And I couldn't quit in the middle of the day, I had to start afresh. And my last one had to be hideous. (I am fully aware of how ridiculous I sound, making conditions out of this.)
That Sunday I just didn't bother. I continued with my day and thought, let's see how long this can last, shall we? Monday the same, Tuesday, the same, the rest of the week the same. This was frankly witchcraft, how was this sorcery happening?
By 12th October I wobbled. It was my birthday and I woke up immediately thinking, "hmm, little birthday gift, from me to me?" But again, I didn't bother. I kept it in, I kept remembering how it stinks, how it makes me feel.
Last week, I took a handbag I'd not used in ages out of the wardrobe and found in a purse at the bottom a full packet of rolling tobacco, papers and menthol filters, back from around July when I briefly went through another one of my "roll your own" stage and had forgotten all about. And I admit, I genuinely thought for a few moments, "Shall I?"
I didn't and I carried on my week the way I had before, ignoring it and feeling better that I wasn't coughing, didn't stink and wasn't spending a fortune each week. I stashed them back into the handbag and walked away instead of throwing them in a bin.
A few days later I retrieved the "stash" and took it downstairs to my husband, instructing him to get rid of it. I toyed with the idea of "one last one" but soon realised that I am not and never have been the kind of smoker who can just have the odd one and not crave a hundred more.
Yes, I feel better, I can take a deep breath without coughing. I don't have the smokers guilt anymore, I don't have to stand out in the rain puffing away looking like a fool. And, because I can't see my friends at the moment who do smoke, I know that I won't be tempted to "have a sneaky one". And hopefully, when I do see them, I'll be more excited about seeing my friends rather than wanting to smoke. All the negatives outweigh any positives I could ever think of.
I also thought that if I put this on the internet then if anyone who reads this sees me with a fag in hand anytime in the future has the total right to have a go at me, call me all the names under the sun and think I'm a loser. And, frankly, I cannot cope with that kind of confrontation.
So, with the mental image of those once loved and craved for Menthol fags being just another dreadful relationship, goodbye you hideous things. I've loved you, I've hated you, I once thought I looked quite cool with you but you just turned out to be ugly and were poisoning me all along. You did everything you could to make me stay and ended up making me feel fabulous and invincible for a while, then sick and worthless. I'm better off without you.