This piece will be featured in my upcoming collection, entitled Funny, I’m Falling Apart: Finding the Mirth in Mortality
On March 31st, 2017, I quit smoking tobacco. And then, again, on April 2nd. Then, briefly, on April 27th, and most recently, yesterday, May 4th. Who says quitting is hard? I’ve done it three times in the last month. To be honest, just thinking about quitting is so stressful, it makes me want to smoke.
Maybe I shouldn’t think of it as ‘quitting.’ Too many negative connotations. Instead, let’s say that, around the beginning of May, I consciously decided to have one last smoke. Although that sounds awfully . . . final. I’m not sure I’m ready for all that. I’ve got it–at some point, a while back, I thought I would see how long I could wait between cigarettes. I can work with that.
All the experts recommend setting a quit date, both to give yourself a goal, and to give yourself time to put yourself in the right mindset for quitting. In reality, we set quit dates because it allows us to add one more ritualistic element to the smoking experience. Smoking is all about rituals, and marking a date on a calendar is simply one more (last) ritual.
Part of me wished I had a reason to quit beyond the obvious health reasons, because clearly, those hadn’t been compelling enough. I started smoking in my twenties, which would have been the 1980s, by which point everyone knew that cigarettes were bad.
That’s why no public service announcement will convince a real smoker of their folly. The PSA with the woman smoking through her neck? Most smokers are thinking, “Good for you, lady! No one’s gonna tell you when to quit!” If you’re an addict, you’re not interested in pesky evidence. I’m surprised the American Cancer Society doesn’t hold a press conference and simply announce, “We give up. Just smoke already.”
I envied friends who said they quit when their kids were born, because they owed it to their family. Now that’s powerful motivation that goes beyond self-preservation. But, alas, I don’t have kids (as far as I’m aware), I’m an only child, and my parents are dead. Of course, my mom died of congestive heart failure brought on by smoking, but I wasn’t ready to connect those dots yet.
I always had an excuse at the ready to delay my quit date. “It’s the holidays” worked great, since I’m Jewish, and it was always coming up on some holiday. “I’m going through a lot of stress” was good, if a little vague, so sometimes I’d blame specific life changes, like “I just moved” or, more often than I’d like, “I’m just about to move.”
I could blame my job, which was harder to pull off, since I work from home as my own boss. Still, I’ve caught myself saying, “I’ll quit as soon as I finish this piece I’m writing.”
A bit of backwards logic helped me with my decision. You see, I’m not what you would describe as proactive about my health care. I don’t hate doctors, but I hate going to doctors. I think of them the way I think of astronauts. I marvel at the things that I’ve heard they can do. It’s just not for me.
I’m not seeing doctors, I don’t exercise, I have no intention of dieting, and I’m not planning on giving up booze or pot anytime soon, That leaves me with tobacco as the one unhealthy thing in my life that I can control. Begrudgingly, I was about to take some responsibility for my health.
Ultimately, I knew it was time to quit when one of my tried-and-true excuses bit me directly in my self-justifying, excuse-loving ass. For years, I’ve enjoyed the mind-altering calm I get from pot (get off my back, people–one vice at a time). Since the days when I had to get my pot by knocking on the garage door of my buddy’s mom’s house, I’ve said to myself, and to anyone asking about my cigarette habit, “If they ever legalize weed, I’ll quit smoking cigarettes.”
Well, I live in Oregon, and damned if the voters of this state didn’t kick my excuse right out from under me by legalizing marijuana for recreational use a couple years ago. So now that I can satisfy my oral fixation by walking to my neighborhood pot shop, AND I’m not moving (at least in the next few days), AND the only writing project I’m currently working on is . . . well, this one. I found myself plum out of excuses.
It was the day after my birthday, and since I would be celebrating said birthday at a casino, it seemed like a good idea to postpone my quit date until I were in a less smoke-friendly environment. Seriously, if you are ever out of cigarettes and live near a casino, you can save a ton of money by just walking over to the penny slots and inhaling next to people.
I was actually smoking a cigarette and had to walk out of the casino because the secondhand smoke was so bad. It looked like it was starting to coalesce and take the form of sentient beings, hovering around the host smokers.
I had the bright idea to post my quit date on Facebook, because I thought accountability might make it more real for me. Here’s the thing about accountability, though. The inspiration was great–my feed was overwhelmed with support, encouragement, and virtual pats on the back.
Unfortunately, my openness meant that dozens of my closest friends (and dozens more of my Facebook ‘friends’) knew I was quitting, and I’m pretty sure they’re expecting me to stay quit.
Which means that now, I feel guilty whenever I post on Facebook. Since my big public announcement, I feel like after every snarky post, comedy link, or food picture, I should add a disclaimer that says, “Oh, btw, I had a cigarette. I’m weak, so feel free to judge me in the comments below.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the only friends who didn’t turn virtual cartwheels over my big news were a few of my friends who still smoke. I’m sure they want me to succeed, but their tone always felt a bit . . . conflicted, as if they were sad I was leaving the club. I suppose it’s like when you grow up in a small town, and one of your buddies goes off to college in the big city, but you didn’t quite have the grades, leaving you to turn in resumes at the mall that summer.
One friend suggested that I write at more length about my battle with nicotine, and I can see some value in that. It could ease some of the pressure if I could find the humor in the quitting process. The problem there is with my creative process.
When I’m writing, I start by thinking through one or two riffs, rolling ideas around in my noggin, before I sit at the keyboard. Typically, I do this while enjoying a cigarette. Naturally, writing about smoking presents even more obstacles, since it’s hard to take my mind off of wanting a cigarette when I’m writing about wanting a cigarette.
In the thirty years I’ve smoked, I have never really consciously tried to quit. I was vaguely aware of reasons to quit, but on the other hand, I enjoyed smoking. I’ve always felt that smokers and non-smokers might actually be able to have some constructive dialogue if non-smokers would acknowledge that there are things that smokers enjoy about the habit.
Smoking is hard to quit, not because smokers don’t care about the bad that comes with it, but because of the things we dig about it, very palpable benefits that allow us, for a few minutes, to selectively forget that we are literally inhaling burning poison.
There was nothing for me, synaptically, quite like that first smoke in the morning, when I could almost hear my own neurons jumping to attention. Or when I would feel all jangly about some vexing thing, there was the calm that would descend out of each measured drag, as I smoked myself down from whatever angry ledge I had scaled.
I often wished I were one of those so-called ‘party smokers,’ or ‘social smokers.’ You know, that strange person who only smokes when they’re drinking.
It might be informative for my friends who’ve never smoked to see a list of times when I feel the need to smoke:
- when I wake up in the morning
- when I wake up from a nap
- before I go to bed
- before before I cook
- after I eat
- before I start a project
- after I finish a project
- during stressful times
- during relaxing times
- during an argument
- after an argument
- during a phone call
- before a phone call, if I think there might be an argument
- after sex (from what I recall)
There are of course, logical fallacies behind every item on the list, and intelligent people will spot them right away. Sure, there are healthier choices for every one of those situations. Who doesn’t know that? You’d have to be an idiot to think that breathing in smoke is a good idea in any circumstance.
Which is why I need you to lean in, get really close to your screen, and pay close attention to what I am about to write. I’ll even bump up the font size for you:
Intelligence has nothing to do with quitting smoking.
It’s not about whether smoking is stupid, because, without question, it is. Ask anyone who knows me–I’m all kinds of smart. Forget, for the moment, the physical piece. Let’s discuss the smoker’s mind, which is essentially constructed of equal parts denial, justification, and stubbornness.
Don’t believe smokers are screwed up in the head? Watch a smoker have a coughing fit some time. At some point, while coughing, he will invariably look down at the cigarette he’s holding . . . and when the coughing stops, put the same cigarette back in his mouth.
On a more personal note, a few years into my smoking ‘career,’ I developed bronchitis. It hurt to breathe, and I thought it would be good if I didn’t send super-heated smoke down my throat. I went several days without a cigarette, and it wasn’t as hard as you might think. Then one morning, I noticed it didn’t hurt to breathe in through my mouth anymore. I distinctly remember thinking, “Cool. I can finally have a cigarette.”
The financial argument doesn’t work, either. Most smokers I know, at some point, had in mind the most they could conceive of paying for a pack of poison. “When they get over three bucks a pack, I’m done.” “I refuse to pay more than five dollars for a pack of cigarettes.” It’s all bullshit–if you’re addicted to cigarettes, you’ll pay twenty dollars to buy a pack out of the back of an unmarked van.
And smokers with limited funds? I’ve been in that fraternity, and I’ve looked under a lot of couch cushions hoping to find a few quarters to feed my monkey. If I also had to find yet another way to prepare a ten cent package of ramen noodles for dinner, at least I had cigarettes for after dinner.
Here’s a pro tip: if you don’t have couch money, double down on your pathos by hanging out in front of luxury hotels, because you can grab some partially-smoked cigs out of the fancy sand-filled ashtrays. That’ll make you question your life choices.
Most smokers, if they’re honest, hate themselves just a little. Smokers reveal their self-hatred in a common word that every smoker has used. ‘Bum.’ As in, “Mind if I ‘bum’ a smoke?” We use that particular word because in our minds, smoking isn’t associated with glamorous forties movie stars, but with bums. Vagrants. Hobos. Otherwise, we would say, “Can I Gable a smoke?” or, “Hey, pal, Brando me a cig, would ya?”
I had already reduced my intake to less than half a pack a day (oh, I know–that’s still probably more cancer than you really need), but permanently quitting? Labeling myself a former smoker? That seemed daunting, and I’ve never felt a need to prove how undaunted I am.
The logistics of quitting also worried me. For instance, how would I communicate, as a non-smoker? I won’t be able to answer my phone, I know that, because currently, when my phone rings, I grab a lighter. I don’t even know if my phone works if I don’t light a cigarette within three rings.
Then there’s eating. How would I know when I was finished eating if I didn’t have that post-prandial smoke? I’d just continue to eat, engorging myself until I exploded, because a meal isn’t over until I step away from the table and light up!
I’ll miss the social conventions around smoking at least as much as the actual smoking. Having been a social outcast for most of my adult life because of my (perfectly legal, federally subsidized) tobacco habit, I’ll miss the community of pariahs who bonded with me on sidewalks, in stairwells, and in airport lounges around the country.
We didn’t just poison ourselves together, in some sort of very incremental suicide pact. We talked. We shared, at least as much as we could share in the ten minutes it took to burn one. Some of it was superficial, sure, but it was still human interaction, something real, until we had to catch a bus, or get back to work, or continue whatever we were escaping.
In my younger days, I had a significant relationship with a woman I met in the smoking car of an Amtrak train. Raven hair, whip-smart wit . . . and she smoked like a movie star, not like a bum. Our connection was electric, and it was borne entirely of the fact that we both smoked. We’re not together anymore (there aren’t smoking cars anymore, for that matter), but we had a good run, and it wouldn’t have happened at all if it hadn’t been for nicotine.
To circle back to the notion of ‘bumming’ cigarettes, it’s indicative of the profound bond between fellow idiots that a smoker will feel no compunction about asking another smoker to give them a cigarette. If someone were holding several of anything else, you’d never think to ask. “Hey, I see you have a bunch of books there. Why don’t you give me one?” And the crazy thing is, when asked, most smokers will feel almost obligated to give a cigarette to anyone who asks, because we know what it feels like to need a cigarette.
I confess that the ‘How’ in the title of this piece is a bait and switch. IF in fact I have quit smoking when you read this, I have no advice for you on how you should quit. All I know is that, as much as I found community with other smokers, there is a larger, and more nurturing, community of people out there wanting to support your quitting.
I received more congratulations for setting my quit date than I did for publishing my first book, and it was a pretty damned good book. But friends I hadn’t heard from in years got on board with the idea of me quitting smoking, which could only mean that these same people actually valued me. That’s simple math that even a smoker can grasp.
Tell people you want to quit. You’ll probably fail a few times, and if you’ve told somebody you love that you’re quitting and then you fail, you’ll feel exceedingly guilty. I can’t overstate how powerful guilt has been for me as a motivational tool. After you flog yourself for failing, though, the next time you try, you may go a few more hours, or even days before you think about cheating.
There are, by my estimate, a metric bazillion resources out there to help you along the path. Not all of them will work. So throw them all at the wall. You’ll eventually find one that sticks. Maybe it’s meditation, maybe it’s therapy, maybe it’s hiding your cigarettes. That last one never worked for me, because I always knew where I hid them.
I tried calling one of those 800-QUIT lines, but that didn’t help, because I got so frustrated by the process of signing up for a ‘quit coach’ that I wanted to smoke as soon as I got off the phone. Just as well, since I always avoided organized sports as a kid, and answering to a ‘coach’ would have given me bad high school flashbacks.
As a result of my intake, though, I was sent a handbook that was actually useful. Called “You Can Quit Smoking,” it covered a lot of well-trod ground, dealing with triggers, and quit dates, and of course, a graphic recounting of all the very bad things that happen to your body when you smoke.
Pish-posh. I knew all of that stuff. Because I’m smart, remember? Also, for my own special snowflake reasons, I ignored the chapter on nicotine replacement drugs. I have trouble wrapping my brain around the idea of replacing my addiction to nicotine with an infusion of nicotine. If it works for you, great.
The handbook also mentions quitting ‘at your own pace,’ but I think I’ve been doing that for a few years now. Turns out ‘my own pace’ is glacially slow, and I’d like to quit smoking before I’m too dead to enjoy that I’ve quit.
Similarly, ‘control your environment’ is a good theory, but my environment could be entirely devoid of cigarette paraphernalia and I would still want a cigarette. I wanted a smoke the last time I had an MRI. While I was in the machine. Turns out, they don’t let you. Damned doctors.
Then, flipping through the pages, I found it–a section that didn’t make my eyes glaze over with tedious facts about why I should quit, and one that made sense to my nicotine-addled brain. Titled ‘Substitutes and Distractions,’ it led me to think about things I could do instead of smoking!
This made sense–I had the option of doing something else! Whether it’s because I’m foggy in the morning, or going bonkers with anxiety, I could do actual, tangible activities until the three minutes of craving went away! That’s how long, typically, the physiological craving lasts. Three freaking minutes.
Once I gleaned this tiny factoid, fished out of a sea of information, I had my personal key. When my body insisted I needed a cigarette, I could just distract myself until the craving passed. Granted some of their suggestions didn’t fit me perfectly, but I was on the right track.
For example, this wasn’t the first place I had seen the suggestion, “Distract yourself by working on a jigsaw puzzle.” Aside from the fact that I’m not sure they’re even a thing anymore, I never had fun with them. If I’m trying to turn five thousand random pieces into a picture of the Swiss Alps, and I see a hundred pieces that are solid blue with no flat sides and no corners, I’m gonna need a cigarette. For me, anyway, the substitute activity shouldn’t make me more on edge than I already am. Still, the concept is sound.
Thinking of puzzle pieces gave me an idea I could use: I could break down my smoking into its component parts, and substitute activities for each of the various things I ‘get’ from cigarettes. These are the things that, in the Bizarro World of my smoking mind, I saw as benefits of smoking cigarettes.
Without a doubt, the easiest replacement for me so far has been food, since I love to cook, and I love to eat. I figure, initially, I’ll probably put on a few pounds. But I don’t tend to cook, or eat, much junk food, and if I need to go up a couple sizes for my next pair of pants in order to contain my new non-smoking body, I’ll call it a win.
If I needed a quick jolt, some chocolate could work. I had also forgotten how much I enjoy letting coffee work its reviving magic. If I needed to compulsively keep something in my mouth, toothpicks gave me that film-noir detective look, at least from a distance.
Conversely, when I wanted a cigarette to unwind, I found herbal tea was far more effective. As it happens, nicotine only relaxes the small part of your brain that’s yelling it needs a cigarette. Other than that, it’s a straight-up stimulant, making that smoke before bed particularly stupid.
In addition, if I want to chill, a nice glass of merlot, or a little of that weed I mentioned earlier, are better options than cigarettes. And in case you’re wondering, I’m aware that replacing every cigarette with a glass of wine or a bong hit of sticky bud would lead to other problems. We’re talking about a multi-pronged approach here, and stop harshing my buzz.
Substitution is only half of my strategy. The other half is distraction, and getting distracted has long been a strong suit of mine. I have the attention span of a five-year old child. Why not harness my scattered brain in the service of getting healthy?
If, on average, I only need to distract myself for a few minutes at a time, that’s a piece of cake. I love cake, and I think my favorite kind of cake is–sorry, we were talking about smoking. Point being, as I sit at my desk there are literally scores of possible distractions I could easily do instead of smoking. Here’s a just a sample
- teach myself Spanish
- teach myself Hebrew
- look at the stats for my fantasy baseball team
- rearrange the icons on my phone
- catch up on the news
- watch an episode of Doctor Who
- clean my laptop screen
- order something on Amazon
- bid on something on eBay
- sort through my email
- read a biography of Lincoln
- read a biography of Catherine the Great
- watch videos online of an elk snuggling with otters, or
- finally plug in that electric piano I’ve moved five or six times across the country and learn how to play it
In theory, I had enough distractions within reach to keep me occupied from the end of March, when I first quit smoking, till now. But occasionally in the last month, I have forgotten how much I want to learn Spanish, and how much I love otters, and I broke down and had a cigarette.
One of these slips happened a couple days ago. A combination of new and scary symptoms related to a spinal injury made me pretty wiggy, so I went outside, and when someone walked by who was smoking, I bummed one (in my defense, I wouldn’t have had one if he hadn’t been smoking first, and right in front of me, so that’s really more on him).
Still, at this point, I’ve put together stretches of sixty-eight and forty-five hours without a cigarette. There have been shorter runs of twelve hours. At this exact moment, it has been ten hours and thirty-seven minutes since I had any nicotine. I suppose I won’t truly be done with them until I stop counting how long it’s been.
To my dear friends who believed I could do this, don’t give up on me. I’ve ‘cheated’ a few times, but today, I can see my future self as an ex-smoker. And now that I’m done writing about cigarettes, I can start to visualize a day when I don’t think about them. I’m not quite there. The important thing to me is that I can finally see ‘there’ from here.