Two years ago, I became a fallen woman. I started smoking again after 10 years of not smoking. If the world is divided into smokers and nonsmokers, I had been a solid member of the ranks of nonsmokers. I did not think about cigarettes or want them. My younger children were raised in a smoke-free environment. I was a smoke-free person. I would see people I liked who were smoking and would worry that they were killing themselves.

We had ashtrays, of course, which were kept in a closet and taken out for any visiting lost souls who still smoked, but smoking was heartily frowned upon as very unhealthy by all who lived in my house.

Several months after my husband and I separated, I was having dinner in a restaurant with a friend. He smoked. For the first time in a decade I took a puff of a cigarette. No harm in one puff.

A few days later I was having dinner at the home of friends. I smoked most of a mentholated cigarette. I do not even like mentholated cigarettes.

A week later, I purchased a pack of cigarettes. Within a few days I was doing truly revolting things like having a cigarette in the morning with my coffee. Or smoking in the car on the way to work. I smoked in the office.

After dinner, I snuck cigarettes in my bathroom so my children wouldn't know I was smoking. These are children who have been raised to understand that smoking is a very bad habit. One evening I lit a cigarette in the kitchen while I was fixing dinner.

They were appalled.

So was I. I was in the grips of complete failure of will, of a total moral collapse. Before very long I was buying cigarettes regularly. When my older son went for errands I would ask him to buy a pack of cigarettes. This inevitably provoked a lecture, the main theme of which was that I ought to admit it, that I was smoking again, and why not buy a carton. My daughter became genuinely alarmed that I was going to die of lung cancer. She also ratted on me to the pediatrician.

The one place I did not smoke openly was my parents' home. There, I smoked privately, sneaking cigarettes in my old bathroom just as I had when I was 16, opening the window and waving the smoke out so my parents wouldn't discover that I was smoking again. That worked until I leaned over to kiss my mother hello one afternoon. "You've started smoking again," she said.

I hit bottom when I started buying cartons. I started lying to myself, not to mention everyone else, about how much I was smoking. I became obsessed with the word "soon". Soon I was going to quit. I figured that I could smoke a year without permanent harm. I figured that out at about 10 months into the year. I figured I would quit on my vacation, then while I was on vacation I decided not to ruin it by trying to quit. I figured I would quit when I got back to work, then when I got back to work I figured I would quit at the end of the month when the pressure was off, and it wasn't very long before the year ended up being two years. During that time, two people whom I knew died of lung cancer, one person got emphysema, and lung cancer replaced breast cancer as the leading killer of women.

My children were unrelenting. Not a week went by without one of them asking me when I was going to quit. I got a subliminal tape from Erol's to help me and sat for hours watching ocean scenes and listening to piano music, trying to spot the subliminal messages. A close friend made the point several times that I had too many responsibilities toward my family to take the risk I was taking. Looking back on it, that was one of the most persuasive arguments.

Last Saturday morning -- we're talking more than a week ago, here -- I handed a carton of cigarettes and my lighter over to my son the 10-year-old. I told him to hide them in his room and to liberate a cigarette only if I got homicidal. Fortunately, I had an unopened pack in the car that I discovered several hours later. I smoked that during the weekend (had to do my taxes, you understand), but since then, my resolve has held firm -- not because I think I should quit, but because I want to quit. Nicotine chewing gum (a piece or two a day) has helped, so has regular gum and drinking a great deal of ice water, and so has encouragement from children and friends.

Staying away from people who smoke helps too, although being around them can be a terrific boost. I can once again feel like a person of character, someone who is not in the grips of failed will and moral collapse. Whatever else could account for a perfectly sensible person puffing away on a smelly cigarette that will inevitably burn a hole in her lungs?