Picking up smoking was the worst decision I have ever made in my life.
Perhaps it was youth, or ignorance, or just plain stupidity. I still remember the first few days when I tried out smoking. I had been in the military, doing my National Service in the second year. I was by then a non-commissioned officer (NCO), and had a little authority and more freedom than those under my charge.
I was 19 or 20 then.
We NCOs had this room in the same building as our living quarters where we could hang out, watch TV, and such. I remember, one day, asking my friend for a cigarette, seeing that not a few of them were smoking. The friend obliged and passed me one. I recall I didn’t like the first few draws I made of the cigarette.
But that didn’t stop me from asking my friends for a stick or two the following days. That’s how you get hook – you begin to feel “paiseh” (embarrassed) about always asking your friends for free sticks. So I ended up buying my own packs.
And that’s how you get hooked and addicted.
As a young man, I didn’t feel any changes to my physical appearance or to my physical fitness. There was no shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, pain in the arm, or anything like that.
When you are young, you are invincible.
And so I never thought too much about smoking, and continued, even after I had completed my two and a half years of NS.
Smoking was to be a habit which I would keep for a total of 27 years, although I was nowhere near being a heavy or chain smoker. I’d smoked 5 to 8 sticks a day, but it all adds up over a long stretch of time.
It was later on, in my later 20s, 30s and 40s, that I tried to quit. I remember trying to do so because I was starting to feel weaker, my skin colour was dull, my eyes yellow, I was having smoker’s cough, and I was thin like chopstick.
But I failed each time I tried to quit smoking.
The longest I had gone without cigarettes was one month. The withdrawal symptoms were just so excruciating to handle. The worst part for me was the constant mental battle which went on in my head – a battle filled with fear on the one side, and a desire to stop on the other.
Whenever I made an attempt to quit, I would fear that I would not be able to go without cigarette. I would, for example, tell myself, “If you throw away your cigarettes, how are you going to get through the night? All the stores will be closed and you won’t be able to get any.”
These were the crazy stuff that you think to yourself.
The one thing I hated most about smoking was how it had complete and total control over my life.
Everything I did evolved around it.
When I had a meeting with friends, I’d have to make sure I had cigarettes with me (or money to buy the cigarettes). If I were in a meeting or a seminar or forum which would last several hours, I’d plan on how to get out for a quick smoke. If Chinese New Year came around, and the shops would be closed for several days, I’d remind myself to buy a few packs in advance.
It was a tiring way to live.
But it was so hard to quit.
All in all I had tried, seriously, at least 10 times to rid myself of the habit – and I failed each and every time.
I remember telling myself on one of those occasions after another failed attempt, “Ah whatever! So be it! If I die of some terminal illness from this, heck it. So let me die.”
That was how helpless I felt.
Cigarettes had me in its hold like a vice, and they refused to let me go.
If I wanted to quit, I would have to make another attempt, but I was quite tired from the battle. Screw it.
And then in 2012, 27 years after I had started the habit, I received a call from a good friend of mine.
“Hey, have you heard of what happened to Vincent?” Shaun Lee asked.
“No, what happened to him?”
Vincent, who was about 40, was in hospital, and the prognosis was not good at all.
Vince, Shaun, and I used to hang out often, along with Melvin Tan. Vince was a former police officer, and would explain legal stuff to us, for example. I had high respect for his views, which I do not always agree with. But Vince’s insights were always sharp and worth considering.
We were also members of the opposition political party, Workers’ Party, and every one of us had such deep passion about politics. So, we hung out often at the coffeeshops and chatted late into the night, puffing away.
Vince and Shaun were also drinkers.
The four of us once made a 3-day trip to Penang during the Malaysian elections, and would stay up all night just talking about politics. It was mad. But it was our passion.
“Ya, I’d like to visit Vincent,” I told Shaun over the phone in October 2012.
A few days later, we were at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).
As we stepped into the ward, the curtains around Vincent’s bed were drawn. The nurses were attending to him. So, we stood there and waited. In the meantime, we chatted with Vince’s brother, and I had my back turned away from Vince’s bed.
At one point, Shaun indicated to us that the nurses were done, and I turned around to face the bed.
For the first few seconds, I was stunned by what I saw. My heart dropped and I could not believe my eyes.
There laid Vincent, hardly recognisable, nothing but a bag of bones, and a swollen stomach.
And I realised that he, a Chinese man, had this darkened skin.
“This is not Vincent,” I remember saying to myself in my head.
I walked over to his bed, went up to my friend.
“Hey, man,” I said, as I always did whenever we met.
He smiled a nervous smile, aware of the seriousness of his situation.
I held his hand and tried my best to not discourage him, for it was obvious that there is nothing more the doctors could do for him. His brother had said as much.
Then at one point, tears rolled down his eyes.
He sighed, and said, “I’m sorry.” He then turned his face away.
I wasn’t sure what he was sorry for. I could only guess it is for the way he had lived his life.
Vincent was a heavy smoker and just as dedicated a drinker.
His body had finally decided that it would no longer fight his habits, and gave up.
As we were about to leave, I leaned over and kissed him on his forehead, and told him not to think too much and to take care and get well. What else could you tell someone in Vince’s situation without being patronising?
A few days later, Vince passed away.
I was told he left us in the early morning hours, in his sleep.
After I left the hospital after visiting Vince, I told Jann (my partner) about what I had seen. The whole experience had moved me, and frightened me because it could be me lying in that hospital bed next.
The very next day, Jann signed me up for the Alan Carr cessation clinic which I had told her about a few weeks earlier. Prior to that, a friend had also quit smoking this way – through the book by Alan Carr – and he had recommended it to me.
I had been reluctant to sign up for the clinic because, (1) I didn’t really know what it was all about; and (2) it would cost S$600; (c) why would I, after having tried so many times to quit, be able to actually do so?
But Jann insisted I gave this one a try – and I too felt it was worth a shot.
The visit with Vince was a great push factor for me to do something – anything – to try to quit smoking again.
And then the miracle happened.
The clinic was a simple half-day one where you do nothing but sit with a therapist and listen to her for 6 hours, with a break at each hour – breaks where you are encouraged to smoke.
Yup, a smoking cessation clinic where you are supposed to smoke.
The 6 of us in that group that day went along with it.
“Ok, now this is the last time you will smoke,” Pamela Oei, the certified Alan Carr therapist told us, as she invited us to have a last puff at the last hour. “And after you are done with this last cigarette, please put your packs and lighters into this box here.”
And so we did.
And she spoke for the last hour.
“Ok, that’s it. You will no longer smoke from today onwards,” she said.
I thought to myself, “This is it? Oh no. $600 down the drain. Jann is going to be so mad.”
As I left the room, I chatted with another participant and asked him if he felt confident that he would never smoke again.
“I’m not sure, but I hope so.”
“I too am not sure,” I replied, “but I am going to give it my best shot.”
When I reached home that night, I was quite nervous, thinking to myself whether I could get through the night without a puff, and what would happen first thing in the morning. Would my habit of having a smoke after breakfast be too hard to break?
But I told myself that let’s take it one step at a time.
Imagine my utter surprise that I was able to make it through the night without the slightest craving. And then to make it through that first day after the clinic without any desire to even touch a cigarette. And then the day after, and the day after that.
Next week, 13 October, will be the 4th year since I stepped out of that clinic.
I’ve been clean from cigarettes for 4 years.
I have no idea what happened that day with Ms Oei. The best I can explain is she rearranged our thoughts or thought process with that 6-hour clinic. Somehow something inside my head clicked that day, and the desire to smoke was cast aside.
I have felt so lucky ever since, and am eternally thankful to Ms Oei.
I am also so fortunate and blessed to have Jann who signed me up despite my reservations about the clinic.
In the last four years, I have felt so much better, I have restored my natural weight ( I was a mere 45kg during my smoking days), my skin colour is much better, my eyes are no longer yellow, I sleep better, I have better appetite, and I no longer feel dull or tired all the time.
And oh, yes I also no longer smell like an ashtray.
But life sometimes throws you curveballs still, such as this recent one where I had had to go through a quadruple coronary heart bypass surgery.
The way I see it, I am again blessed to have discovered this early, and therefore have a chance to correct it.
Just as I was given a chance with being able to quit smoking, the recent surgery has also given me a chance to live a better life.
In short, if you smoke, do everything in your power to quit. It is not worth the later suffering.
In the heart ward in the hospital where I stayed recently, one of my ward mates was a 62-year old man. Spoke good English and apparently quite well-off too.
He had been smoking for 40 years, 3 packs a day.
That’s some 876,000 cigarettes in total.
Now, he faces multiple health problems so serious that the doctors could not do a bypass surgery on him straightaway. He has had to be in and out of hospital for various smaller surgeries first, and has been doing so for the last 6 months – after he had a full-blown heart attack during Chinese New Year this year.
Docs told him that if he didn’t quit smoking, there was no point in seeking treatment.
So he quit.
Don’t let it come to such a point before you quit.
If you need any proof that smoking kills, just go take a walk in the heart wards at the National Heart Centre.
Give your body a chance. It is an extraordinary machine which, if you give it a chance and help it along, can do wonders in reinstating your health.
You owe it to yourself and your loved ones.