I was sitting at my home office desk on the eve of the Great American Smokeout: 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 had been conditioned to believe that I smoked because it was a "habit", I "enjoyed it", it "calmed my nerves", and it was "great after a meal". But the truth was that I didn't enjoy it 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. Take away the burning leaves in my hand and I was just a motionless nitwit in a parking lot, staring blankly at nothing in particular 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 even through the worst of my cravings. For me, not smoking was like holding my breath. I "enjoyed it" and it certainly "calmed my nerves" 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 I would put my "drug addict" theory to the test. If I could make it for the 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". So 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 home office, where I had left my remaining five cigarettes, before I remembered I wasn't going to smoke that day. I wanted a cigarette, but at this point I was excited and curious about what a day without cigarettes would be like. Denying myself cigarettes for as long as possible seemed kind of fun. I hopped in the shower then went to work. Around lunch time, when I would have already smoked six cigarettes on a normal day, a tinge of panic started to take root. 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 (more on that later). In 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 and proud of myself 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. After sticking 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. Those coping skills 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 and 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, 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, without a doubt, should have wanted to lose. But in 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, just like mourning a death, would be a part of quitting. I just didn't know what a big part it would be. In the end though, I value the person I became, and the person who kicked one of the most powerful addictions out there. The "smoker" part of myself was a great thing to have lost.
Over the next ten weeks I stayed on the patch and followed the instructions. Almost immediately I started having vivid dreams. The patch box even described vivid dreams as one of the side effects. This is something I had never experienced. In a nutshell my dreams were real to me while I was in them, and 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. I even thought, worst case scenario, I would be buying patches for the rest of my life. I was thinking if that happened, at least it would be a fate much better than death. 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, and 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. Remember the five cigarettes I had left in my pack? That pack remained beside me, along with my lighter and ash tray. Right there on my desk within reach, for an entire year. I thought it might be a distraction at first, and I was prepared to rid my home of everything related to smoking if it turned out to be one. But, it was oddly comforting. There was something comforting about having them there, and ready to be smoked. I can't quite put my finger on why that was. I think it removed a small fear of not having the means to fail. I never gave another thought to the logistics of failing. 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 ever be possible to never think of it? Even to go an entire day without the thought entering my brain? Well, thankfully, that day happened around three months in. I woke up the next morning and remembered that I had not thought of smoking at all the previous day. Then I went longer and longer without thinking of cigarettes. I was beyond happy to know that I would not always want a cigarette, and 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.
5 Things That Helped Me Quit Forever
Here are some of the things I used that were essential in helping me not smoke:
#1 - Patches
These saved me. You stick them on and forget about them for a whole day. I used to take it off in the morning before my shower, then put a new one on before work. It was easy and helped a lot. Habitrol Nicotine Transdermal System Patch Step 1 (21 mg)
#2 - Mints
Whenever I needed to reach for something I grabbed these. There is something special about the ginger mints. Maybe ginger takes the edge off. Or maybe they make the breathing exercises extra spicy. Trader Joe's Organic Gingermints 40g., 50 Mints (Pack of 2)
#3 - French Toast
After I quit, food tasted so good. And quitting gave me an excuse to pamper myself. I ate tons of French Toast. I told myself I could eat anything as long as I didn't smoke. I dropped the extra few pounds later. Easy to make and delicious. Vive LA French Toast (Gail Greco's Little Bed & Breakfast Cookbook Series)
#4 - Comradery
Venting to people who know exactly what you're going through is amazingly helpful. Reading other's rants while experiencing exactly the same thing is priceless. Just knowing you're all in the same boat, even if you don't participate in the discussion, will save you. Support sites, support forums, guides, and information
#5 - Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises calmed me down and relieved a lot of the stress of quitting. I think they helped partly because they naturally relieve stress, and partly because they are sort of like smoking. Especially the kind I did, Pursed Lip Breathing, which is #9 in this list: 10 Easy Breathing Exercises for Stress