I started smoking at 14 – and reached 40 a day. A single therapy session changed my life

<span>Six months and counting … Chris Godfrey.</span><span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Six months and counting … Chris Godfrey.Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Smoking has warped my brain. One evening last winter, as I stood outside a pub, cigarette in hand, a friend who works in life insurance decided to calculate the chance of me dying before I hit 60 if I carried on smoking. He quizzed me about my lifestyle, plugging the answers into his death matrix. “If you give up smoking now, there’s a 6% chance you die before hitting 60. If you don’t, it’s 13%,” he concluded. Normal people will see that the chance of early death has doubled. But smokers don’t think normally. Just 13%? I thought. I could work with those odds …

I love smoking. Cigarettes are the cherry on top of life’s best moments and a crutch for the worst. Is there anything better than chain-smoking in a sunlit beer garden? Or more satisfying than the victory cigarette that punctuates a completed project? Is there anything more necessary when you’re given terrible news? My form tutor at school, Mr Styles, once told us that smokers were foolish for saying it relaxed them, as really it was no different from wearing a pair of shoes a few sizes too small and celebrating the relief of taking them off, only to then put them back on again moments later. That analogy stuck with me and I thought about it often. But then I’d watch my team surrender a four-goal lead away at Newcastle and, honestly, there was simply no other response but to light up, inhale, exhale. Sweet relief.

I had my first cigarette when I was 11. A friend had stolen a pack from somewhere and a group of us took it in turns toking, retching, giggling. When I got home that evening, I convinced myself I was going to die. I sat on a chair in the hallway and took deep breaths to check my lungs still worked. I vowed not to touch cigarettes again.

But at 14 I fell in with an older group of friends who smoked a lot of weed and cigarettes. So I did what all insecure teenagers do and copied them. Smoking made me feel cool, rebellious; I had social capital, a reputation as a smoker, a bit of edge (all nonsense; all in my head). I looked old enough to buy from the less scrupulous newsagents, and sold sandwiches at school to fund my habit – at my peak, I cleared £50 a week. Soon I was hitting five to 10 a day, often going for long “walks around the block” with my friend Mark, who lived down the road. I wasn’t worried about the health implications – when you’re young, you think you’ll live for ever. And, besides, I’d heard someone say that as long as you quit by the time you’re 30 your body will eventually reverse the damage, so I clung to that.

(Having finally looked into this claim, I now realise I had a grossly oversimplified understanding of a complicated situation. According to the NHS, for example, the risk of lung cancer is halved 10 years after giving up, while the American Cancer Society says it takes 15 years for the risk of heart attack to fall back to that of a non-smoker. And the jury is out on whether the effects are fully reversed.)

Almost two decades later, I’m still a smoker. At my peak, I was probably putting away 40 a day at university – easily done when your lifestyle consists of playing poker all afternoon (that’s one pack), then going out and drinking till 3am (and there’s two). I made efforts to cut down after uni, and, as my 30th birthday approached, I accepted that the time to quit altogether had arrived.

As the saying goes, quitting was easy: I did it thousands of times. I tried the usual tactics such as cold turkey, moderation, steadily reducing the number of cigarettes a day to zero, or smoking cigarettes with so little nicotine and tar in them you pulled a cheek muscle trying to get a hit (you can if you cut off the ends of the filter!). I’ve tried most of the usual nicotine replacements (gum, patches, vaping), habit replacements (regular gum, cocktail sticks, lollipops) and replacements for smoking’s unrivalled feeling of relief (chocolate, stress balls, screaming into a pillow). There was a brief period when I would take my monthly cigarette budget and spend it on something nice and tangible that I couldn’t smoke, such as a coat, in theory forcing myself into a position where I couldn’t afford to smoke, but in reality just forcing myself further into my overdraft. Then there were my “batshit logic” attempts: such as smoking so heavily one night that the thought of a cigarette made me feel sick for the next few days and gave me a platform with which to build momentum; or telling my friends they could throw a glass of water over me if they saw me with a cigarette (one of my swifter backtracks); or, not smoking cigarettes but allowing myself the odd cigar as a treat (obviously this ended in regular cigar smoking, and even learning to inhale them like cigarettes).

The cycle was always the same: get through the first few days or weeks, then either get drunk, lose all willpower and start charming cigarettes off strangers (the sport I’m best at). Sometimes I didn’t even need the alcohol. I’d just find enough of an excuse to start again – a slightly stressful day at work, a tense game of football, a low-stakes argument.

But now I’m 33 and that’s three years past my deadline. The time has come to break the cycle. And, with this fresh attempt comes the chance to try something I haven’t yet: hypnotherapy.

* * *

I know very little about hypnotherapy and how it’s used to treat smokers. But I’ve heard plenty about friends of friends for whom it’s worked. I’m sceptical, but I’m also curious and desperate, so I’ll give it a try. After an afternoon of internet searching and preliminary conversations (including with one hypnotherapist who told me they really didn’t think I was ready to quit), I opt for Paul Levrant, and his north London practice, Hypnowellness.

We have an initial phone call where Paul tells me what I can expect. I need to complete some homework before we meet, extensive forms where I lay out my relationship with smoking: how I started, emotional triggers, event triggers … everything I covered earlier and more. We’ll then meet for a two-hour session, which will be broken up into 90 minutes of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and 30 minutes of hypnosis – the purpose of both (very broadly speaking) being to change the way I think about smoking and how I see myself, with one being done at a conscious level and the other subconscious. I’ll sign a Promise of Action, committing to be a non-smoker, and then leave with a recording of the hypnosis, which I’ll listen to once a day for a month. It costs £320 (or, at the time of writing, two and a half months’ worth of cigarettes).

I have my last cigarette the night before meeting Paul. It’s gone midnight and I’m outside my flat in the freezing cold. I make it last as long as I can, then put it out in a flower bed. It’s anticlimactic.

The next evening I’m in Paul’s office. Everything about it is warm: the lighting, the soft furnishings, the big smile that hides his eyes. It’s also literally warm, because one of the preliminary questions was: what temperature do I feel most relaxed in? He explains how he uses his methods to treat addictions, phobias, insomnia, depression, general anxieties (panic, fear) and specific ones (public speaking), but swiftly explains that he is not Derren Brown and this is not a case of him swinging a pendant in front of me while chanting. I have to want to quit. He asks me to rate out of 10 how ready I am to quit smoking. I tell him 8, though inside I know it’s a 7. Good, he says, because this is the percentage chance I have of succeeding. 70%? That’s great odds!

We start with the CBT. It’s a genuinely revelatory experience. Paul takes the paperwork I’ve filled out and systematically breaks down the thought patterns that lead to me caving into cravings, all the while shifting my perspective of myself and how I feel toward smoking. Over 90 minutes he tells me that smoking is the most effective marketing campaign in the world – that it’s a masterclass in creating a sensory experience. He helps me to recognise when my five-year-old mind is trying to take over, or when I’m engaging in bargaining language (“if I only smoke when I drink, then surely that’s fine!”), or how to spin the negative (“I’m never going to smoke again”) to the positive (“I’m going to live past 60!”). He helps me see that what my body really wants when I come to the end of a big project is not a cigarette but a change of state – and there are dozens of ways to give it that without smoking. I learn that willpower is not how you quit smoking, because willpower is finite, a last resort, a reserve for when you really need it most. I learn that my thoughts are just thoughts, and I can completely ignore them if I want to.

Paul conducts lots of thought experiments: if there was a gun to my head the whole time, would I have any difficulty quitting? I started smoking when I was 14 because I thought I was cool – do I think back to my 14-year-old self as cool now? Some people see smoking as a friend; but how many friends do you know who shank you in the lungs and steal a quid from you every time they leave your house?

If I find the urge to smoke rising up, all I really need to do is take a deep breath. It’s a gamechanger

A lot of Paul’s observations are disarmingly simple. When I tell him that I love chatting to people in the smoking area on nights out and that I’d miss that greatly, he makes a very simple suggestion: why not just … go to the smoking section and not smoke? When I tell him I find it frustrating that my partner and friends are able to make social smoking work for them, he tells me it’s because they smoke out of habit, whereas I smoke out of addiction. I am an addict. It’s a strange thing to hear, despite how blindingly obvious it is, because cigarettes are so normalised in my life that I don’t think of myself as an addict in the same way I would if I suddenly became addicted to, say, gambling or painkillers.

Then Paul has one tip that blows my mind. Smokers, he says, think that cigarettes relax them, when, actually, the nicotine is doing the exact opposite to your body. It’s a stimulant. What actually relaxes smokers is that they do the one thing that everyone is told to do when they’re stressed: take a deep breath. And so if I find the urge to smoke rising up inside me, all I really need to do is take a deep breath. It’s a gamechanger.

After 90 minutes, it’s time for hypnotherapy. This, says Paul, is a way for him to address the subconscious mind, where our habits and addictions live, out of range from willpower. The subconscious mind acts in a childlike way, ignoring logic and punishment. But, if you can show the unconscious mind the benefits of change, a vision of the future that makes it feel good, we can wear away the attraction of our old habits.

Paul places a black-and-white mandala-style drawing on the coffee table in front of me. He gives me a pendant and asks me to hold this above the centre of the diagram with my head above it. I’m told not to move it. Paul gives instructions such as: “Imagine you’re at the top of the pendulum and it’s hundreds of feet long and as rigid as a pipe.” Eventually, the pendulum starts rotating (I promise, I’m not doing anything!). After a few minutes, Paul says we can stop, I should lie down, and that the hypnotherapy should work as I have a suggestible mind.

That feels vaguely insulting but he’s not wrong. The hypnotherapy is shockingly effective. One moment I’m lying down in Paul’s office under a blanket, listening to his voice (“You can feel your head sinking back into the pillow …”); the next my eyes burst open as Paul lightly taps my forehead and says: “OK, Chris, and you’re awake.” 25 minutes has passed. Paul checks I’m fully conscious, by asking me to answer questions such as what is my phone number and what colour is my front door. Then he sends me on my way.

He emails me the recording of the hypnotherapy, which I listen to every day for a month. It’s a sort of guided meditation that asks me to imagine a future with smoking and without: the grim consequences of the former, the life-affirming joy of the latter. He tells me it’s an easy choice, that all I need to do if I need a change of state is to simply: breathe in, breathe out. He tells me I’m in control, I’m certain, I’m free.

* * *

It’s now exactly six months and seven days since my last cigarette. I am a non-smoker now.

Paul’s words have been incredibly effective. It’s transformed how I think about smoking, and how I think about myself. His tip for simply taking a deep breath has seen me through many testing moments, where before I’d have otherwise collapsed. There isn’t space to list all of Paul’s nuggets of wisdom and how they’ve helped me. I’ve actually forgotten a lot of it, which I think is by design: when I asked if I could record the session for the purposes of this feature, he said there was no need, as I’d remember what I needed to. And he was right. I’ve internalised much of what he said. Frankly, it’s changed my life.

I’ve beaten many of the usual emotional and contextual triggers, arguments, beer gardens, tense Arsenal matches, actors smoking on screen (watching Maestro the week after quitting was a tough hang), even a funeral. I made it through a trip to Paris without smoking – a city where to not smoke is almost culturally insensitive. If I can do that, then I’m surely going to be OK. At times I’ve allowed myself to drift into the slipstream of a smoker walking ahead of me, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve asked my boyfriend to blow his cigarette in my face on occasion (passive smoking isn’t cheating). But for six months I haven’t smoked and that was unthinkable before.

I can’t say it’s been easy. For a few months I dreamed regularly of smoking, and temptation is the devil, especially when drinking. I still desperately miss smoking. I get pangs of sadness when I suddenly realise how nice a moment it would be to have a cigarette. But those pangs are becoming less and less frequent. Sometimes I’ll go a whole week without thinking about it.

I wish I could say I feel fitter, healthier, happier or richer for it, but the difference is negligible. The sad truth is I would definitely start smoking again if I could guarantee it wouldn’t kill me. Recently, I’ve been telling myself I can take it up again if I do hit 60. These thoughts are important, though: a reminder that I am addicted to smoking and I always will be. And all I need to do when I feel this way is simply breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Relief.