I quit smoking one thousand days ago. 8 June 2011.
I was a pack-a-day smoker.
Twenty cigarettes in a pack.
One thousand days, one thousand packs…
20,000 cigarettes that I did not smoke.
Twenty. Thousand. Cigarettes.
I’d tried quitting several times before. Usually after a nasty bout with the flu had kept me smoke-free for a week or so. It seemed like a good head start. But I would always crash – and burn. That sweet, sweeeeet burn of dried tobacco leaves rolled in a tight, white paper cylinder. If you’ve never smoked you probably cannot imagine what is enjoyable about that. If you have, you know. It’s the act of scratching one of the most powerful itches known to man.
What was different this time? Thom was turning 50, and he wanted to quit. I wasn’t far behind him in the race to the senior discount, and I didn’t think he’d have much luck if I didn’t quit along with him. That seemed as good a reason as any; certainly more compelling than a fluish head start. After all, we can recover from la grippe, but we don’t grow younger. Looking back, it wasn’t just a milestone that did the trick. Here’s what I now understand about why I was able to quit:
I no longer wanted to be a smoker.
Every other time I’d tried to quit, I approached it as the solution to I don’t want to smoke anymore. Which is just the perfect recipe for failure, because it’s such a lie. When you are addicted to nicotine, you cannot simply opt out of the desire to smoke your next cigarette. That’s not how addiction works. (That’s how tobacco company profit margins work.)
While I couldn’t disavow my need for another cigarette, I had one thing going for me this time: I really did not want to be a smoker anymore. What does that mean? It may be something that only another smoker, or ex-smoker, can truly understand: the distinction between smoking a cigarette and being a smoker. Anyone can smoke a cigarette. But it takes a real commitment to be a smoker! When you smoke, your need to feed the addiction requires you to cope with situations and do things that non-smokers never have to deal with.
First of all, in order to smoke a cigarette you must have a cigarette. OK, well, they’re sold everywhere: gas stations, liquor and convenience stores, supermarkets, bars, etc. They’re in ready supply. Until they’re not. And you have to acquire more. Depending on where you are, what you’re doing, what time of day it is and any number of other variables… getting that next cigarette can be a minor inconvenience, or a crisis of nightmarish proportions. Even if you buy by the carton, at some point, you’ll run out.
Eventually, you’ll find your next cigarette. Of course, then you have to have something to light it with… and if you’ve ever singed your eyebrow while lighting up on a gas stove burner, you know there’s not always a Bic to be flicked.
Even if you never lacked a cigarette or a light, there are so many other practical drawbacks to smoking: it’s expensive… there are fewer and fewer places (public and private) where smoking is permitted or tolerated… there is an ever-increasing social stigma… it makes your clothes and your car and your house and your breath smell bad… it causes your insurance premiums to go up… it is filthy and disgusting (especially when they pile up in an ashtray). Oh, and it is almost guaranteed to ruin your health and shorten your lifespan in one or more gruesome ways.
That’s all just part and parcel of being a smoker. You are held hostage by your need for the next cigarette. Taken separately, those burdens and hazards – including the health impact – rarely seem to be enough to break the evil spell. But, when I faced the totality of it and considered how much of my life was in the service of this addiction… it unleashed a wave of revulsion that extinguished my desire for another cigarette.
And while I’m all for transcendental breakthroughs, I chose to augment that with the transdermal assist: a 3-month supply of nicotine patches.
Funny thing is, I stopped using the patch after about 10 days, when I realized that I just didn’t need it. I do credit that initial daily supply of nicotine for breaking the grip of addiction long enough for my conscious mind to adjust to my new identity: non-smoker. And so what if I had needed to continue with it for 20, or 50 or 90 days. But once that mental switch was flipped, it was done. Just as on a long flight… you may have 4 or 12 or 20 hours between smokes. Unthinkable on terra firma. But inside airport security or aloft, your brain is somehow able to suspend the craving. And this “I am no longer a smoker” metamorphosis works on the same principle, however little I understand it. Mind over matter. Biofeedback. Magic. Whatever you call it. It works. It worked for me, I should say. But please don’t give god any credit for this victory. To paraphrase Kathy Griffin: No one had less to do with my quitting smoking than Jesus!
I have not had as much as a puff of a cigarette in these thousand days. It isn’t will power – I am a stranger to that. I just haven’t even been tempted. Sure, I remember that I loved smoking, I remember what I loved about it. But mostly, I remember what I came to loathe about being a smoker. And now, all of those thoughts are blissfully disconnected from need or desire. I am no longer a smoker, therefore I no longer smoke. (Not the other way around.) Perhaps it’s similar to why/how vegetarians no longer eat meat. At first, it’s a willful conversion; next, you just lose your taste for it. And then it becomes rather unappetizing, or downright nauseating. I’m not spiking the ball in the end zone or patting myself on the back. And I sure as hell am not tempting fate! I’m still somewhat astonished that my transition from smoker to non-smoker was so easy and so lasting. But it was easy, and it has lasted. I feel better in a dozen different ways. (I’m lucky to have so many other vices to keep me company.) So I share this story. Maybe it reaches someone who has had enough of being a smoker – and is wondering if life sans cigs is possible. Maybe that person is you? Then let me tell you:
Smoking those 20,000 cigarettes is the best thing I never did.
Day 057 #100happydays