Smoking for me was a ritual of sorts. It was a personal time-out. A five-minute reflection period. A time to press pause… to linger. Sometimes it was an excuse to step away (particularly useful in awkward situations!); sometimes it was a bridge on which to bond with friends or strangers. Smoking was comfortable and consistent – I could rely on it to give me the same feeling each time. And where I grew up, cigarettes were cheap and easily accessible.
I grew up in a society where smoking was the norm, where finding someone smoking under a “No Smoking” sign was not surprising or unordinary. Where I grew up, the nonsmokers were the minority. But I was also raised in a smoke-free household. I’m not sure if my story would have played out any differently if I hadn’t been. I have friends who detest smoking because they grew up with it and I have friends who smoke for (partly) that same reason.
I smoked because I was spirited, impulsive, rebellious, anxious, and because most if not all of my friends did. And at the time I enjoyed it. Yet somehow, even in the peak of my addiction, I knew in my heart of hearts that it was only a phase. Somehow I knew that smoking wasn’t me. Somehow, I could never envision my “future self” smoking. The thought of a middle-aged Me pulling out a pack from her purse didn’t quite sit well. I just couldn’t foresee myself being a smoker for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be a smoker for the rest of my life.
I smoked for nearly six years: a majority of those years a pack a day on average, and the latter years – my quitting years – mostly socially, less consistently.
Then I completely stopped.
I realized one day, as a cigarette was innocently offered to me, that I’d reached an unprecedented stage in my relationship with cigarettes. I realized I had reached a monumental fork. I realized that I had a choice, and in that choice I recognized my power – power I had had all along. I had managed to crawl into the arena of “social smoker” status – I had managed, over the course of my quitting years, to control my addiction to a degree. And as I stood at that fork I realized I could either continue smoking on occasion as a social smoker (risking a very possible regression to everyday smoking), or I could stop all together and transform fully into a nonsmoker.
Reaching that fork was not easy. That I was standing at the fork at all was a victory. But I still smoked… however less frequently… I still smoked. My addiction had been chained, contained, but it was still present, sitting just beneath the surface of my skin. On pause. And regardless of my victory at having reached the fork, I was still gripped by nostalgia for cigarettes… still craving them psychologically, though not as much physically. Still missing them as one would a person. I realized that day that it was time to make a decision.
I remember looking at the cigarette, at the out-stretched hand that lingered with its offering. I remember pulling the simple but heavy words from my lungs, dragging them to my mouth: “no, thanks.” I remember a triumphant orchestra bursting like crashing waves in my mind as I watched the hand retract.
“No, thanks,” I heard my mind say again.
The truth is, that day when I saw that cigarette… I suddenly saw a struggle instead of a temptation. I suddenly saw the years of agony I’d endured battling willpower and impulse, battling doubt and indecision. I saw the frustrations, the helpless feelings of failure after a relapse, I saw the yellow globs of morning mucus in my bathroom sink, I saw my face with tired skin, and the cigarette-butt graveyard in my parents’ garden just outside my bedroom window. I saw ashes.
Association. That’s what had finally changed. That’s what had tipped the scale. I no longer associated cigarettes with relief, comfort, familiarity, fun, enjoyment, relaxation… cigarettes finally represented the mental, physical, and emotional struggle I endured while trying to tear away from nicotine’s spell. Tearing away from cigarettes is like tearing off your skin, like running from a vortex that pulls and pulls and pulls at you with unbelievable might.
But suddenly, instead of the usual sinking feeling that comes when you deny yourself something that you want, I felt sure, alert, and assertive.
I had changed. The transition was slow (so slow I almost hadn’t noticed it — and perhaps a part of me was in denial, still afraid to completely let go); it was stressful and painful, but my body had changed. In that brief pause I felt that if I’d accepted that cigarette and put it to my lips (“it’s only one cigarette!”), I would have been stabbing my efforts in a very real way, betraying the path I had paved in my years of trying to quit. It would have been like stomping on a flower bed. Suddenly one cigarette wasn’t worth it to me anymore. Suddenly I could see other things that were.
My taste buds had sharpened. My air passages had cleared. Strawberries were sweeter, lemonade, tangier. My steps felt lighter, my head, less burdened. I could breathe. No more coughing. No more spitting. No more foul-smelling finger tips. No more need for something.
I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger. I felt free. I felt like… me again.
Quitting smoking (any addiction) is the essence of difficult. It’s an internal tug of war. It’s an explosion of emotional warfare. It’s a feat in which you must conquer yourself, not the addiction, but yourself. And even though it’s been a couple of years now since I’ve quit, sometimes I feel they still haunt me. Not because I secretly long for them, but because they were once a part of me and my life, and as such, they’ll always live in my memory.
If you want to quit as badly as I did, then you can and you will. The power to quit is in you. It’s the same power source you tap into when you pull yourself out of bed on those mornings when you just want to sleep in. It’s the same power you use to pedal faster on a bicycle because you want to feel the wind against your face, or make it past the light that’s turning red. It’s the same power you use when you bring yourself to the surface of the water after jumping into a pool or playing with an ocean wave. The power is there. It’s ever-present. You just have to recognize it, harness it, and believe in it.
(Part 1 of 2)
You can read Part 2 here.