I have given up smoking.
I feel rather stupidly embarrassed that I should have to write that sentence, because what the buggery bollocks was I doing, smoking in the first place?
I grew up in the Lambourn valley in the seventies and everybody smoked except for my dad, who never fancied it. The trainers used to smoke at first lot, sitting on their hacks, and the owners smoked and the vets smoked and the farriers smoked and the jockeys smoked and the lads smoked. Away from real life, away from the downs with the larks on the wing, in all the old black and white films I loved, every luminous star smoked. Humphry Bogart smoked and Lauren Bacall smoked and in order to show they were really sexy leading men used to light two cigarettes and hand one to Bette Davies. (In her pre-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? days.)
But then there were the eighties and nineties and people learnt about health and death and mortality figures. So then I had no excuse. I couldn’t simply dream of Lauren Bacall any more. It was all fag ash Lil and get your leg amputated.
I gave up a couple of times and then started again. It really was my drug. How I loved my addiction, my jailer, the brute on my back. I loved the white and gold Marlboro packets and the rustle of the silver paper in the top and the first puff on a new stick. I loved buying fags by the yard, as if stocking up on some unimaginable luxury; staring happily at the rows of shiny packs, pushing into the box marked Denial the fact that I might as well take out a stack of fivers and burn them on a bonfire.
I ruthlessly ignored the slight rasp in my throat and the faint sense of burning in the mouth. (There is a point where your mouth feels permanently singed, but you, being an idiot, decide that’s actually quite pleasurable. That is how far in the black hole you are.) I can’t give up these beautiful things because they are my friends and they’ve been with me since I was a teenager when my family was in turmoil and I didn’t have anywhere to live and I changed houses like they were buses and my mum was in tears all the time. But I had my crafty, secret fags and my secret smoking buddies and that sort of made everything all right.
Actually, I suddenly realise this is not what I mean to write at all. The ancient history is ancient, and quite dull. I meant to say that I have been coiled in cognitive dissonance for the last couple of years: thinking I loved something that I knew was going to kill me. That’s a sodding big stone in the mental shoe. I’m sometimes a bit sniffy about people in cognitive dissonance, but now I see perhaps that was Freudian projection, because I was dissonancing all over the damn shop. There is no justification for something that will do the human body so much ill, but the magical mind, the addicted mind, the scared mind will make up such stories.
I even believed that I would be the freak who would get away with it. Everyone had a Great-Aunt Nellie who lived till ninety and was on sixty Woodbines a day and still cracking on. I would be Great-Aunt Nellie.
In the end, it had to stop. I was so embarrassed that I was fifty and still smoking that I did not want to tell anyone. I’ll just quietly stop and then everyone will forget I was so silly, I thought.
In my evil, arcane mind a voice was saying: don’t tell anyone because you’ll give in after a week and if you haven’t told a soul, nobody will know you have failed.
Now I stare that voice in its maniacal, lizard brain face and say: fuck off. I want to ride until I am eighty and I don’t want my leg cut off and I don’t want to stop and catch my breath halfway up the stairs. I don’t want to make my nieces cry because I died ten years before I needed to. I want to have those ten years so I can read all the books and write all the books. And if I tell people then I have witnesses. Not witnesses to scold or suggest or offer advice, I don’t want them, but witnesses to witness. Everybody needs a witness. If I fail, I fail, and I’ll tell you about that too.
So, I slink out of the shadows, looking about like a wary night creature, wondering if people will laugh and point. It’s been three days now and I can’t tell you what it’s like. It’s nothing like before. Those two efforts were a piece of piss. This is like being kicked all over by a furious Shetland pony or being trapped under a heavy piece of furniture. Everything hurts. I don’t really even want a cigarette because my whole body has gone into spasm and all I can think of is the physical pain. I drink pints and pints of water and make acres of green soup. I clamber out of bed, walk the dogs, see to the horses, and then collapse back under the blankets. I put the Rachel Maddow Show on like a bedtime story, so I drift in and out of feverish sleep with the latest Trump iniquity threading through my dreams.
It is exactly like having a very heavy flu. Is this, I wonder, astonished, what I have done to my body?
The first two days are all sleeping and hydrating. I so, so wish I could tell you I simply made the decision, had a nice cup of ginger tea, and got on with it. I can’t stand those people who make a five act opera of everything. But I’m afraid this was quite dramatic. I could not function on any meaningful level, and I was embarrassed about that, too.
Then I ran into a dear friend in the chemist. I had gone for Panadol, for the pain. She looked absurdly beautiful and healthy. It was a dour, dull day and she shone into it like a radiant sunbeam. ‘I’ve given up smoking,’ I blurted out. She was my first witness. She looked perfectly delighted and not judgy at all. I went home and put some more Trumpian lunacy on the computer and went back to my strange, fractured sleep.
Today, I feel more like a human. I went up to HorseBack to do some work and meet some new people and some old people. I wondered if I looked or sounded slightly peculiar, but I busked it. Luckily I had one of those mad trapper’s hats to hide under, the kind I always think that countrywomen in Canada must wear, with the fur and the flaps.
I go home and have a sudden yearning for my old friends. Just one, I think, couldn’t do any harm. Surely? I eat more green soup instead.
This is a bit of a bastard for me because all my life I’ve believed in willpower. A barrister once said to me: ‘You can’t make things happen simply through an act of will.’ I thought: that’s all you know, arguing things you don’t believe for money. (This was pure defiance, since really I have a vast respect for barristers.) The awful thing is that I always did think that will would be enough. I was not naturally terribly clever, but I swotted away with so much furious determination that I passed all the exams. I’m not naturally a brilliant rider, but I went to Mrs Payne and Anthea the Dressage Coach and gritted my teeth and kicked on and won more prizes than I probably should have. It was will that drove me on, in school and on ponies; will, and a sort of cussed refusal to be beaten. If I did not have will, then I had nothing.
But that smug old advocate was right: will alone is not enough. Nicotine is a sneaky bastard and smoking is so psychologically convoluted that just saying no doesn’t quite cut it. How I wish it did. It makes me cross that it doesn’t.
I have given up smoking. I’ve told you now. You are my witnesses. I feel like crap and I feel relieved and I feel livid and I feel liberated and I feel melancholy and I feel bright as new paint and I feel despairing and I feel fired with hope. All at the same time. It’s bloody tiring but I think it is worth it.