I was sitting in my home office the night before the Great American Smokeout. It was November 17, 2004. I was smoking my second pack of the day. Cigarettes were getting very expensive, and I started wondering if I could quit. I thought that I smoked because it was a “habit” and that I “enjoyed it”. But the truth was that I didn't enjoy it. Not anymore. In fact, none of the reasons I thought I smoked were true. When I pictured what I was actually doing - lighting leaves on fire and breathing the smoke all day every day - I felt kind of stupid. Without the cigarette in my hand and I was just a motionless nitwit in a parking lot, staring blankly at nothing for ten minutes at a time. I had to face the cold reality: I had a drug addiction. Plain and simple. My next thought was, “I will not be a drug addict.” Those words remained in my head throughout my journey and kept me from smoking through the worst of my cravings. For me, not smoking was like holding my breath. I certainly “enjoyed it” when I finally took a breath. The truth was I needed to smoke, and if I didn't, I would panic.
I heard that the Great American Smokeout was the next day. If you don't know what that is, it's a day that The American Cancer Society asks smokers to quit for 24 hours. I decided to put my “drug addict” theory to the test. If I could make it for an entire 24 hours without smoking, and it wasn't difficult, maybe I wasn't a drug addict after all. Maybe it truly was just a “habit”. At 1:00 AM, Thursday, November 18, 2004, I put out my last cigarette of the day and went to bed.
I always started my days by rolling out of bed, turning on the news, and lighting up. Even when I was running late, I would have at least one to “wake up”, preferably two. I was already walking to my office before I remembered I wasn't going to smoke that day. I wanted a cigarette, but I was excited and curious about a day without one. Denying myself cigarettes for as long as possible seemed kind of fun. I hopped in the shower then went to work. Around noon, when I would have already smoked six cigarettes on a normal day, a tinge of panic started to take hold. By 5:00 PM it was no longer a tinge. By 7:00 PM my mind was consumed entirely by one thought: “Smoke now!”. I was also 100% convinced that I was, without a doubt, an addict.
My mind and body were focused entirely on trying to get me to smoke. Every second I was making excuses to smoke: “I'll quit later”, “Just have one”, “I'll just cut back”, “I can't cope with this”. Cope. That's a great word. That's something I had to figure out how to do, and fast. I probably should have been more prepared. But now I had to improvise. I started by repeating two thoughts: “I will not be a drug addict”, and “I can do anything but smoke.” The first thought reaffirmed the main reason I could no longer tolerate smoking. The second thought gave me license to pamper myself. I started a frantic internet search to find ways of coping with withdrawal symptoms. I found some breathing exercises that actually seemed to help. I would breathe as deeply as I could, then blow the air out like I was slowly blowing out candles. Sounds silly right? But that helped a lot. I also found an active quit smoking support group online. I read, and breathed, my way through the rest of the evening. When it was time for bed I was exhausted. My mind fought me until the end. “Are you really going to go to bed without having even one cigarette? Come on. That's not you. You're a smoker!” And that's exactly what I did; went to bed without one cigarette. I was excited at the thought of waking up the next day and remembering that I went an entire 24 hours without a cigarette.
“I went an entire 24 hours without a cigarette!”, I thought to myself when I woke up. Then I thought “Smoke NOW!!!” every second after that. Clearly, although they worked, I would need more than breathing exercises in my coping arsenal. On my way to work, I stopped and bought a box of nicotine patches. I read all of the instructions. I was going to follow them to the letter. I needed something passive. Something I didn't have to remember to take, or chew, or whatever. Something that just worked. Nicotine patches seemed to fit the bill. I stuck one on my arm. Gradually over the course of the day, I started having the distinct feeling I had just smoked a cigarette. The patch gave me physical withdrawal symptom relief in a big way. That freed me to work on coping with the mental withdrawal symptoms. That consisted of repeating “I will not be a drug addict” to myself, a support group of people going through the same thing, and French toast. “I can do anything but smoke” included eating anything I wanted. “Anything” turned out to be stacks of French toast whenever I wanted it. My goal was simple: quit smoking. I knew if I added unrealistic caveats - I can't gain weight, I can't lose my temper, I can't feel bad - I would never quit. My goal was not to die of lung cancer. Considering that, tight jeans were just fine. I could diet later.
That was the start of my journey, and I knew it would be a difficult one. I had smoked all of my adult life. It was definitely a part of my personality. It was part of my routine and something that I was always doing or about to do. So, I was scared of losing my identity. Looking back, “drug addict that smells bad” is an identity that I should have wanted to lose. But at the moment I had to face the fear of the unknown. Who would I be when that large part of me was gone? I had heard that mourning that loss would be a part of quitting. I just didn't know what a big part it would be. I value the person I became in the end; the person who kicked an extremely powerful addiction. The “smoker” part of myself was a great thing to have lost.
I continued using the patch over the next ten weeks. I followed the instructions. Almost immediately I started having vivid dreams. The box even described vivid dreams as one of the side effects. This is something I had never experienced. My dreams were real to me while I was in them. They seemed to last hours. I would remember every detail. This wasn't at all a bad experience. I even missed them when I was off of the patch. Speaking of getting off the patch, I was scared I couldn't live without them. Worst case scenario, I would be buying patches for the rest of my life. At least it would be a fate much better than lung cancer. But I followed the directions to the letter, and I truly felt almost nothing when I stopped.
Over the next year, I posted to my forum when I needed to rant. I supported others when they needed to rant. We helped each other through it, and we all knew exactly how the others felt and what they needed to hear. I had five cigarettes left in a pack when I quit. That pack remained beside me, along with my lighter and ashtray. Right there on my desk within reach, for an entire year. I thought it might be a distraction at first. I was prepared to get rid of everything related to smoking. But, it was oddly comforting. There was something comforting about having them there ready to be smoked. If I failed they would be there. Eventually, the pack was put in a drawer, forgotten, and thrown away at some point.
My biggest fear was that I would always want a cigarette. That it would always be an ache in the back of my mind. When I first quit, it was easy to mistakenly see this as an inevitable reality. I thought of smoking every five seconds all day every day. How would it be possible to never think of it? Even to go an entire day without cigarettes entering my brain? Well, thankfully, that day happened around three months in. I woke up and remembered that I had not thought of smoking at all the previous day. Then I went longer and longer periods without thinking about smoking. I was beyond happy to realize that I would not always want a cigarette. I would eventually stop thinking about it entirely. When was that? Probably close to a year, but at that point, I was going weeks without thinking about smoking. And the point is, cravings permanently went away. It, mercifully, does happen.
I hope you find some inspiration in my story. And maybe a glimpse of what the journey is like to quit forever.