Photo Credit: Richard Stevens, 2021
Anyone who’s ever smoked knows that it doesn’t take long for the addiction to get the best of you. As if there’s a microscopic switch that sits inside your brain, ready to be thrown at any second.
The more you smoke, the closer you get to flipping that switch.
I was nearly 50 years old before I quit smoking, but for me, getting to my final year of smoking took years of gradual escalation.
I’m not saying that I didn’t think of quitting before then. I just didn’t have the motivation to actually go through with it.
During my smoking years, I gained a reputation as a bit of a wild man, and people would talk about my ability to “chuck down” a cigarette in a few drags.
I also remember telling people that I’d give up smoking only if they gave me a million dollars. In fact, I used to tell that to the guy I had been buying Camels from every morning.
I even told it to my physician when she informed me I might have a heart attack someday in the not-so-distant future.
That’s how complacent and invincible I felt at that time.
But all those years of smoking like there’s no tomorrow finally caught up to me.
Here I was, a couple of months from my 50th birthday, coughing up nasty stuff daily. I generally felt like I was on fire from the inside out.
Once I got to the point of smoking a couple of packs a day, I knew that if I didn’t quit, I’d probably be dead by the time I was 65.
I knew that the first time I had serious chest pains, it would probably be my last time. I knew that the first time I collapsed, it would probably be game over for me. I knew that the first day I couldn’t walk 10 feet without holding onto something, it would probably be my last day.
But what I didn’t know, is how much time I really had left before any of those things happened.
I didn’t know if it would be six days, six months, or six years before my heart gave out or my lungs went black. Or before I accidentally collapsed on my patio, falling into my neighbor’s rose bush.
My deteriorating health bothered me a lot.
But it wasn’t health concerns that made me rethink my relationship with smoking.
You see, there’s a strange part about smoking for so many years. Addiction becomes almost like a living thing inside you.
You get the sense that you can’t live with it or live without it.
You think you’re in control only to be proven wrong when you run out of cigarettes and the panic sets in.
And that’s what made me consider quitting smoking seriously for the first time after 30 years of puffing my life away.
I knew I had to do it once the sense of not being in control became greater than the desire to smoke. The cigarettes became like a horrible stepchild that I had to love no matter what it did to me or said to me.
And so, I put out my final cigarette (or so I thought at the time) on March 6th, 2019, which is 30 years after I started smoking.
Now, if you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve already made up your mind on whether or not you’re going to quit.
And that’s fine. You do you.
It’s not my goal to preach quitting smoking to you.
The reason I’m writing this is that there are a few things that I wish someone told me before I quit smoking. And I hope my experience can come in handy for you.
If not today, perhaps, someday soon.
If you’re thinking that you will be missing out on something after you quit, think about what exactly you’re “giving up.”
Socializing with other people? No one needs burning tobacco in their mouth to have a good time.
Stress relief? And yet the cigarettes make you more stressed out, not less (see #4).
If you’re thinking about how important cigarettes are to you, instead think about what’s precisely so important about them.
You might end up realizing you never needed them in the first place.
By this time you know everything about the harm smoking causes to your health. I know I did and I still continued to smoke.
Instead, think of what you can do with the extra years you will claim back after quitting smoking.
Seeing your grandchildren grow up? Experiencing a healthy and fulfilling life in the company of your loved ones? Now, that’s something worth looking forward to.
Let’s be honest – it doesn’t really bother you as you got used to the smell years ago.
Instead, think of what other people – especially your friends and family – think of you when you enter the room reeking of cigarette smoke. Not the finest example of a person to look up to, is it?
Figure out the real reasons why you want to quit, and you will find it easier to achieve your goal. I know from experience that I’m a lot smarter about finding my own motives than anyone else is.
When I told my family doctor I was ready to quit smoking, she wrote me a prescription for a nicotine patch.
I thought: “it’s just a patch.”
So in my infinite stupidity, I slapped it on my arm before going to bed.
Mistake. I had the worst dreams ever. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I was dying. I was lightheaded, my pulse was crazy fast, and I felt nauseous. After an hour or so, things got back to normal.
Two weeks in, I wasn’t smoking cigarettes anymore. And so, I stopped using the patches and felt complacent enough to believe it was a perfect solution to my problem.
The problem was, I still craved nicotine, and the fact that I was introduced to a new way to get my fix didn’t help me at all. It only prolonged the process of quitting.
Cigarettes harm your health, but at least they help you relax, right? That’s what I thought too.
Just think about it: when you haven’t had a cigarette for a while, you start experiencing nicotine withdrawal symptoms like irritability, poor concentration, and cravings.
The next thing you do? You reach for your cigarettes.
But then something unexpected happens – you notice that the pack is empty.
The panic sets in, and you suddenly feel the extreme opposite of being relaxed. That restless feeling makes you abandon whatever you’re doing at that moment – you have to go and get your kick immediately!
That’s how “relaxing” smoking actually is.
On top of that, everything in life is stressful, and sometimes we do things we don’t really want to do. You don’t need cigarettes in your life to put some additional stress on your already stressed-out mind.
If you smoke the same time every day, you’re just telling your brain that it needs nicotine during that time.
You need to change your routine if you really want to quit for good.
If you smoke three cigarettes every time you drive to the shopping mall, pick another shopping mall.
If you’re smoking while having a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, try tea instead.
Do your best to notice your smoking rituals: when, where, and how you smoke. Becoming aware of the way you smoke will help your brain break automated smoking behaviors.
It really is how your brain works. It’s your mind that’s addicted, so you have to change how it sees your addictive behaviors.
The urge to smoke will probably feel like an itch that you can’t scratch for a week or two.
Why? Because you’re fighting the same part of yourself that made you want to smoke in the first place.
You’ll feel lonely sometimes, and you’ll want to pull out a cigarette and light it.
Be strong, and remember who you are and who you can be. If you need to, say that loudly as you look in the mirror.
Better yet, start a daily journal to document the time you spend away from cigarettes.
Holding on to the thoughts about cigarettes can put you back on the path to relapse.
If your mind starts bombarding you with thoughts about smoking, try sitting quietly for a few minutes and relaxing.
Try breathing slowly and deeply.
This is also the right time to start thinking about what you’re going to do with your free time when you will be free of cigarettes. This will need to become part of your plan if you want to stay smoke-free for good.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but even if you live in a nonsmoking area, you’re going to meet smokers in these places.
And you’ll get caught up in the social thing again.
If you can’t stay away from these places for a while, then be honest with yourself about why you’re going to continue to go there right after you quit.
To stay smoke-free, you need to switch the mindset of being a smoker to that of a non-smoker.
It means you have to make improvements in your life. They will distract you and let your brain know things have changed for good.
If you smoked for many years, quitting smoking is like a divorce. Sure, it’s more like a divorce from a toxic spouse, but a divorce nevertheless.
And so, to move on with your new life, you’ve got to put in a little effort. Developing new hobbies and interests helped me a lot. Creating experiences and meeting new people (non-smokers) helped me even more.
Smoking is an addiction that’s 20% physical and 80% mental. That’s why many smokers relapse long after nicotine has left their bodies.
If you keep thinking that you are missing out because of quitting smoking, chances are you will start smoking again.
It’s not that hard to get rid of the physical addiction to nicotine. When you quit smoking, the drug leaves your body within the first week.
Your mental desire to smoke does not.
So find a quit smoking method that helps you deal with your mental dependence on cigarettes.
Better still, pick a quit smoking program that is based on cognitive behavior therapy.
These programs allow you to change the way your mind sees smoking. They help you lose your desire to smoke before you actually stop smoking.
I know the only reason I could quit smoking was that I used such a program.
I can’t say for sure that these things work for all, but the one I listened to was a game-changer for me.
It helped me understand why I smoke and realize I don’t need cigarettes in my life. The rest was easy.
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