Nuala O'Faolain on Conquering Cigarettes


After quitting, Nuala O'Faolain said she felt a void that "ached to be filled with smoke."(PERRY OGDEN)I know that if youre not fortunate enough to be physically and mentally well, theres not much you can do about anything else. I was healthier, in fact, than Id been since I was a girl, since I had managed that year, with incredible difficulty, to give up smoking cigarettes. This may seem a small thing, but anyone who has ever been a chain-smoker like me will know that quitting is so hard that you can hardly believe it—you move around delicately because your head feels as if it might fall off, and also because youre stunned at what youre trying to do. Conquering the addiction had been an action on the philosophic level, as well as every other. It involved taking hold of the way I imagined time. Instead of picturing the days stretching endlessly ahead, intolerably cigaretteless, I managed to train part of my mind into being in the here and now, where I could make the repeated decision not to smoke.

But I was barely succeeding. I followed people who were smoking in the street to gulp their slipstreams. In cafes and trains I was a keen passive smoker. I was obsessed with having cigarettes in my pocket to finger, so for months I carried a full pack in my pocket, replacing it with another when it became battered and began to leak tobacco. Once, a perfect stranger ran into a store after me and grabbed me to stop me buying the replacement pack, because he, like half of Ireland, had read my articles about trying to quit.

"I carry the pack so I wont feel deprived," I explained desperately. "The important thing is to avoid awakening every bit of deprivation you ever had in your life, beginning with the loss of the maternal breast. You have to emphasize to yourself that quitting is not a thing thats been done to you but a choice youve made."He looked dubious. I didnt blame him. I was trying to brainwash myself into believing what the woman who ran the stop-smoking clinic had said. But I didnt believe anything she said. I didnt believe anything I said myself. I didnt believe anything except that I had a gaping void within me that ached to be filled full of smoke.And yet—I did not fail. I became an ex-smoker.

From Almost There by Nuala OFaolain; Riverhead, 2003.