Magazine article The Spectator

A Matter of Willpower

Magazine article The Spectator

A Matter of Willpower

Article excerpt

Low life

A matter of willpower

My plea for the anti-smoking drug Zyban was flatly refused. Because Zyban has been known to trigger epilepsy, said the doctor, he'd only prescribe it as a last resort. But it was a last resort, I said. I was desperate. Given a choice between epilepsy and smoking, I said, give me epilepsy. At least with epilepsy you don't go around hating yourself for being weakwilled.

He peered at me over his half-moon specs, momentarily interested. My problem, I explained, was that I could go for two or three weeks without a cigarette, but if I went to the pub that would be it: I'd get drunk, smoke, then have to give up smoking all over again. His interest died. 'Easy. Don't go to the pub,' he said.

He closed the interview by referring me to an NHS lady who specialises in advising the weak and the degenerate of the parish on how to stop smoking. When I went to see her, this polite, cultured old lady was far more sympathetic. She didn't tell me simply to avoid the pub. She knew how tough it was to fight an addiction. She was battling one herself, she told me. Her downfall was biscuits. Chocolate biscuits. Eat one and she'd go on and scoff the entire packet. What we had to do, she and I, she said, was to sit down and devise a strategy that would enable me to go to the pub whenever I liked without feeling the need to light up.

I liked this anti-smoking therapist. She took the job seriously and her professionalism inspired confidence. I liked her unobtrusively expensive clothes. I liked the precision of her vocabulary. I liked the way she substituted plain good manners for the self-conscious falsity of the trained therapist. She didn't pry. She didn't patronise. She didn't judge. She didn't even pretend that whether 1 smoked cigarettes or not was really that important.

The office in which our interview took place was spartan to an eccentric degree. One (bare) table, two identical plastic chairs, one wastepaper bin. Not even a window blind. It was as if her good manners extended to wanting her customers to feel it was their office as much as hers. She probably wasn't anything of the sort, but I imagined that she was a high-minded, recently widowed aristocrat who'd decided to serve the community by taking a part-time job in the NHS.

The reason I smoked when I went to the pub, we decided, was that I associated drinking with smoking. My smoking habit was therefore a mental mechanism as much as a physical addiction. …

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