Last November I quit smoking. I always said that once I want to quit I will, and as it turns out I was right. None of the failed attempts, fallbacks, cravings and so on, I just did it. It’s probably worth writing down, in case someone reads this they might find it helpful.
The most striking thing about this business is that I found it very easy to do. It’s perhaps the wrong way to put it, it’s not as if it took me no effort at all, but it was significantly easier than what I came to expect based on the stories of other addicts. It was much easier than acting upon other decisions to change my life, like acquiring skills, changing your occupation and so on. For instance I’m also trying to reduce my weight and get in a better shape, compared to that – eating less and training hard several times a week – quitting smoking was a breeze.
Scared by the horror stories, I did not even start out to quit, instead I just decided to reduce my smoking to as few as possible. It is probably understandable that I was anxious, as I have been a smoker almost all my life. I had started at about 15, and kept doing it until I was just about to become 40. Smoking to me was as natural as any bodily function, so quitting that was as hard to imagine as quitting eating would be to a non-smoker. The goal I was working toward seemed frightening and unpleasant, and the task itself was – so I was told – daunting. Thus, as a sort of compromise and protection from having failed in yet another instance, I was not quitting, I was reducing to as few as possible – and it turned out to be zero.
I went at it gradually, without rushing myself. I did not set goals in advance, I had no plan for how many I will smoke on a certain day in a certain week, just the commitment to keep reducing my smoking. Even that was not rigid, If I smoked more today than I did yesterday, it was no problem. It was not OK, but also no tragedy. As an adult, I don’t really need any controlling instance and no rigid rules to force myself into submission. Doing this is a kind of contract with oneself, and by being honest with yourself there can be no doubt whether you’re still in agreement with the contract or already failing to live up to it. If you can honestly say that you’re still focussed on reducing your smoking while smoking the same amount or even more every day, it would be fine. Provided you could, which is very questionable.
One important aspect of my quitting was that I did not start with reducing the ones I did not particularly want or like – as is often advised, the reasoning being apparently that this is easier – I did the exact opposite and cut the ones that mattered first. Daily life is a collection of little rituals which help us bring structure into our lives. If you always have coffee after your meals it is not because you need a stimulant but because that’s what you always do, this is a ritual you follow. The ritual is based on a need, but we don’t usually assess our needs every time we fulfill them. You don’t eat lunch because you are hungry every time, you do because it’s your routine. If you are also hungry that makes it more enjoyable, but few people would omit lunch if they’re not hungry.
In smoking there is a very strong ritualistic component. I – like most smokers – used to say things like “If I don’t have my cigarette first thing in the morning, I can’t really wake up”, or I’d say that if I can’t smoke while having coffee it’s like I had none at all. The problem with this is that after a while you start believing yourself. This kind of thing makes the task of quitting appear even more daunting, as now you’re not only quitting one enjoyable habit, you’re depriving yourself of several, probably much less damaging habits, or even quite important capabilities all in one package. This is quite obviously humbug when you reason about it, regrettably fears and doubts have little to do with reason; the term “irrational fear” is actually a redundancy as all fears are irrational, only some have a basis in fact. So it is perfectly possible to go on being frightened by the future in which you are a half-awake zombie incapable of enjoying coffee or a meal or have any sense of achievement or gratification or enjoyment of leisure, even though you clearly see that this is a load of bollocks.
Analysing my morning routine was one of the things that convinced me that I need to do something about this. First thing after stumbling out of bed and going for a wee was to collapse into a chair and light a cigarette – this was a starting signal for the day, this meant that I indeed was up and ready to start the day. Notice that the physiological need for nicotine which a smoker has is already fulfilled with this one, for an hour at least. However I would then immediately make coffee and sit down to smoke another one, as – you remember – I can’t enjoy my coffee without a cigarette. If I got distracted and finished my cigarette before I finished the coffee, I’d smoke another one. Having the coffee usually triggers my bowels, so then I’d go to the toilet and have another one there, as – you guessed it – I couldn’t do that either without a cigarette. Then I’d dress for work, and if I went by public transport I’d smoke one while waiting for it and then one on my way from the station to the office; if I went by car I’d smoke one in the car while driving and one walking from the car park to the office; and if I went by foot I’d smoke only one shortly before arriving. So that’s four to five within an hour already, without the day even having started properly. The reason for this bout of smoking was probably that it was my free time, and I was trying to make the best of it before it turned into worktime. I kept doing this for a long time, even though it often hurt me – I was at least a bit nauseous, and sometimes I’d have powerful and persistant fits of coughing. There were similar routines for lunch – I’d smoke one on the way to lunch in anticipation of the cigarette after it, and one on the way from lunch (you guess it, if I didn’t have a cigarette immediately afterwards, I couldn’t enjoy a meal).
This is where I set on. As a nicotine addict I may have a physiological need for a cigarette in the morning, but not a need for five. So I omitted the wake-up cigarette first, sort of merging it with the coffee-drinking one, and then afterwards merged the crap-taking one with it as well. It didn’t seem to have made much of a difference. I merged the travelling cigarettes with the first cigarette break, the lunch-going one with the lunch-return one and then both into the post-lunch-coffee-break-one, and so on. That alone brought me from 30+ to about 14-15 a day, and it didn’t even feel as if I were smoking less. Then I stepped it up a notch and started omitting even more, distributing them more or less evenly over the day, but taking care to omit those I liked most first – why, I don’t know, it was a kind of instinct, as if knowing I’d miss those most made me more eager to get rid of them and be done with it. I’d like if this was a very wise plan I’d made but it just happened – result being that while still a smoker I almost entirely stopped enjoying it, and was consequently hardly bothered about quitting any more. Precisely at the moments I’d find ideal to smoke a cigarette I would not and postpone it to some random moment afterwards, when it was just no occasion. Just a junkie satisfying his craving. That’s a damn sight easier to say goodbye to than to that glorious feeling of exhaling thick clouds of smoke while you feel the warming blood in your arteries distributing the sting of coffeine throughout your body and making every bit of it tingle, while the big shot of nicotine makes you slightly woozy and intoxicated and shocks you into a curious state of alertness and sensitivity.
Anyway the scores were toppling. 12, 6, 6, 3, 4, 3… I hope I didn’t leave the impression that there was no symptoms of withdrawal? – because that wouldn’t be true, going from 30+ to 3 or 4 cigarettes a day is guaranteed to make you nervous, twitchy and angry. I spent whole days feeling the anger smouldering within and trying to keep it down, biting my teeth together or catching myself tensing up to a mess of cramps, or suddenly finding that the hands on the keyboard have turned into rigid claws you had to kneed back into hands. Overcomming any addiction is a thing profoundly unpleasant, and I didn’t like it one bit. Sitting there growling at nothing in particular, waiting for some random moment of culmination when you will allow yourself to succumb to the addiction – and then when it happens, drawing neither pleasure nor satisfaction from it. I sort of stabilised at 2-4 a day and started getting to terms with it, then went back up to 7 or more when an uncle of mine died and I had better things to think of, dropped back to 2-4 without significant trouble, then dipped my toes at not smoking at all for a day… That was rather hard, but the next day I found smoking – usually one at a totally insignificant time between morning and lunch, one at an equally stupid time at the afternoon and then one, perhaps, at an even stupider point in the evening – particularly pointless and nonsensical. The next day that I did not smoke it was not because I forced myself not to smoke, but because i could not bring myself to do it. It was not until after a couple of days of this that the realisation struck me:
I had quit smoking.
Some time past I had, without noticing, passed the watershed, from now on there would be no notion of letting myself fall back into smoking, from now on it would require an effort, and a definite act of will, if I wanted to start again. Not likely.
I suppose I should now proselytise and preach to you to stop too – at least that’s the stereotype of someone who quit smoking – however it’s probably just bias, as people don’t notice the quiet ones. Anyway the loudmouths are rather likely to get their – exaggerated – views out in the public, so beware in case you’re thinking of quitting, your expectations might be too high. Let me clear just a couple of misconceptions:
- You won’t be running a marathon within weeks of quitting or have superior energy and drive – you’ll breathe more easily and will be able to clear your lungs and perform better, but the difference is smaller than you might expect. It will take quite a while too. You have a potential to develop better performance over time, that’s all. Just quitting without exercising will change little.
- You won’t get a fantastically improved sense of smell and taste. There will be a short while where you notice a difference, a sort of deeper experience of smell and taste, but it soon returns to normal. Humans adapt, just as your senses adapted themselves to your smoking, they’ll adapt to the absence of smoke. People telling you that after quitting they can finally taste their food as if they couldn’t taste anything before are either lying, exaggerating or deluded. I was always suspicious of this one anyway, as I noticed that as a smoker very often I could perceive faint smells which eluded non-smokers with their supposedly acute and undisturbed sense of smell.
- You generally won’t smell any better or be more comely than you are now. You’ll just stink of human instead of tobacco and won’t have yellow fingers (I hardly had any as I was smoking anyway).
On the other hand, your fears and doubts will also turn out to be baseless. It makes surprisingly little difference if you enjoy your coffee with or without an accompanying cigarette, at least after you learn not to miss it. You can’t imagine doing stuff without cigarette simply because you never tried it, it works surprisingly well too. Smoking is non-essential in almost all activities (after all non-smokers do it all the time), it is just your habit that makes it appear indispensable.
There is however one real problem which is likely to stay with you for quite a while – this is also a reason why people tend to get weight after quitting. Smoking is a mechanism for instant self-rewarding which is simply not present otherwise. You get over cravings quite quickly, you stop missing the taste after a while, you switch your habits to exclude smoking in a reasonable time-frame, but the habit to give yourself little rewards all of the time is the one that lives the longest. It is a deeply ingrained behavioural pattern which you can’t replace with something else, you have to get rid of it, and it takes a while. This makes people fat because they substitute smoking with snacks, and doing this 20 or 30 times a day will certainly result in a lot of calories.
This is the one thing that is still with me almost a year after quitting. For more than twenty years I have been giving myself little treats throughout the day. Finish a day’s work? Have a cigarette. Climb a hill? Have another. Solve a problem? You earned your cigarette. Fail? A cigarette will compensate you a little. Also, smoking is a kind of punctuation making the enjoyable moments even more so. More than the act itself, it is a symbol and expression of having the leisure and the freedom to do so, so it is a positively charged act which you can do almost anywhere. A coffee break in a nice café is even nicer with a cigarette. An enjoyable drive is even better while smoking. And so on – it’s a bit of spice to make nice things even nicer. It is the one thing that you will miss the most and the longest. I fear there’s no helping it, you have just to set your teeth and wait until it goes away. If you compensate by snacking, pick something with little calories, or work out to burn it off.
I’m not sure if I’m being negative enough about smoking, or if people will be wondering why on earth have I stopped if I think smoking is so nice. Well, for one thing, it is nice, but not smoking is even better. Also, when reminiscing on your motives for smoking you don’t really get to mention what goes along with it. In between the ones you enjoy, you have myriads of the ones you’re smoking mechanically and without thinking, out of habit or worse still out of fear you will be deprived of it for a while. The half a cigarette you are still pulling on eagerly while being late for whatever it is, burning your mouth with the acrid hot smoke of tobacco burning too hot, singeing the fibres in the mouthpiece. The one cigarette you light in the last 3 minutes before you have to do something else, with the mouth burned by the previous one, which you also did not enjoy. The one you light simply to postpone going to bed for a couple of minutes more. All those you smoke because you won’t be able for a while. All those you suddenly find yourself smoking without remembering you wanted to smoke or even lighting – that all happens as a kind of automatism of your hands, trained by countless repetitions. It can be nice and enjoyable, yes, but mostly it is not. Most of the time it is just a costly, unhealthy, time-consuming and increasingly discriminated against addiction. I just had enought of it, so I quit. This I suppose is the secret: that I really wanted it. If you want it, you’ll succeed, if not, well, I wish you luck anyway.