It’s been over ten years since I quit smoking. A choice encounter with a half-smoked stub in 1986 led me down two decades of nicotine addiction. Cigarettes took over my life and came close to taking it away.I was born into a family of non-smokers. In a gullible moment of juvenile curiosity, I picked up a half-smoked butt from an ashtray and lit up. It tasted foul, burnt my lips and my lungs retched. Ah! But it was exciting, what with all the taboos attached. I hated it (but thought I might try it again). I felt a few inches taller.Students Across India Appeal to PM to Enforce Ban on E-CigarettesA Rite Of PassageI still remember the first full cigarette I bought while on the way to junior college. The cigarette vendor sized me up (I was quite a puny guy at sixteen, and barely reached the counter) and decided to promote his business rather than counsel underage customers. When I finished that first full stick, the world seemed to whirl around me.A short break from active smoking followed as I prepared for selection to the Naval Academy. Health and stamina became an immediate priority. The physical rigours of the first term in the Academy overcame my interest in smoking for a while, but no sooner had we reached single-digit DLTGH count (days left to go home) than our gang of early smokers gathered together in shady corners for the customary ‘panchayati sutta’ – in academy language, a single cigarette smoked by several cadets in turn.I was arguably one of the fittest cadets in my batch. Always in the top rung of PT (physical training) and cross-country runs, my body was capable of weathering some abuse through the occasional smoke.However, as I graduated to higher terms, my intake of cigarettes increased, marked by the inevitable slip in performance on the sports field. It was small enough to go unnoticed by many, including myself, as I pushed myself ever so hard to keep my position.World No Tobacco Day: Twitterati Share Stories of Kicking The ButtGoing The Extra Mile, Just For One PuffThe human body has an amazing capability to cope with abuse, especially in one’s youth, and more so if you train well and lead an active life. During the days of heavy smoking (about 10 cigarettes a day at 24 years of age), I ran the Jamnagar Marathon (42 kms) and managed to finish under 3:30 hours, which was an enviable timing even for a non-smoker. No points for guessing what I reached out for after the customary cooling down exercises and water break.Slowly but surely, my body was taking the beating of a nicotine-addicted sportsman trying to outdo past performances. Health is not a blank check. Nothing goes unaccounted. My mind was increasingly signing checks my body couldn’t encash.My constant craving for cigarettes brought about lifestyle changes and I slowly withdrew from physical activities. Mornings started with that blind grope for cigarettes on the bedside table. Everything, every activity, had to be punctuated with a smoke. An evening over drinks and a full packet of Wills Navy Cut would vanish into puffs of smoke.The biggest nightmare was the thought of running out of cigarettes at night. I remember walking miles to stock up for the next morning. Funny, I never walked as much for food or water. Given a choice between an extra smoke or a hot meal, food always lost. So did my weight, as I dropped kilograms in quenching hunger pangs with smoke.World No Tobacco Day 2019: Focus on ‘Tobacco and Lung Health’Lofty Promises That I Easily BrokeBut the toughest challenge was the occasional visit home to my native place where I had a rather pristine image – the epitome of clean habits and military discipline. Little did my folks know that my involvement with cigarettes was way beyond the casual smoke. My sweet unsuspecting parents attributed the extra-long walks every morning and evening to military routine! Actually, I was walking away from the familiar neighbourhood to restore my nicotine levels!I must admit, by this time I was going through the rituals of ‘quitting’ too. Like they say, it’s easy to quit smoking – I have quit so many times. I have gone through the entire spectrum – making lofty promises (“this is my last cigarette”), new year’s resolutions, throwing a full pack out the window, chewing gum, nicotine patches etc. It all lasted between a couple of days to a fortnight at best, before a glass of whisky ruined my will and I rebounded with full vengeance. Somewhere after 20 years of active smoking I remember admitting to myself helplessly, that I may perhaps never be able to kick the butt. A lifelong smoker with little hope of redemption.This was not an easy admission. The former athlete and marathon runner could barely run a kilometre before breaking into an uncontrollable bout of smoker’s cough. The end was near but I couldn’t stop. Not even when the doctor showed me the black patches on my chest scan during a routine medical examination and issued the ‘quit or die’ ultimatum.Pneumonia, Cigarettes, Near-Death... And My Last SmokeIt was early 2008 and I was posted to one of the most stressful assignments in the Navy, away from family. I was terribly sick with what was diagnosed later as severe pneumonia. Alone in my room with no medical attention (I refused to see a doctor), I was slowly slipping. Fortified with a week’s quota ready by my bedside, smoking was perhaps near lethal under the circumstances. Each puff brought about an interminable bout of coughing and nausea, almost to the point of choking. But I continued to feed my addiction, probably reeling inches away from certain death. I was almost a week into the infection and had not even consulted a doctor, mostly out of fear that he might proscribe smoking. On the seventh day, with hardly any energy to even get up, I ran out of cigarettes. Now things were serious.It was a moment of truth. In seven days of acute sickness, I was not able to muster enough strength to visit the infirmary which was less than a kilometre away. Now having run out of cigarettes, I picked myself up, slowly getting ready to walk that distance (but to fetch cigarettes). How I managed to complete that trip, I don’t know. Every last ounce of military training and stamina was called to action.When I lit up, my lungs almost imploded in disgust.Only Substitute For Nicotine Is... NO NicotineI quit smoking after that puff. It’s been over a decade, and I have escaped many temptations. But I am the happier for it. I run, play and laugh without the wretched smoker’s cough. I don’t worry about the annual increase in taxation on cigarettes either. I know I am an ex-smoker, not a non-smoker, and there is always the risk of falling to temptation. But cigarettes have all but vanished from my consciousness and it gets better each day.To those of you struggling with nicotine addiction, my advice – go cold turkey. The only sensible substitute for nicotine is NO nicotine. Turn off that switch in your mind forever. Or you can wait for worse outcomes. The choice is yours. The ash that you leave behind may be yours one day.(This piece was originally published on the author’s personal blog, and has been republished on ‘World No Tobacco Day’ with permission.)(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. This is a personal blog. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.) We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.