My Past Life as a Smoker (part 2)

Quit-Smoking

Everyone’s quitting journey is going to look different. I’m by no means an expert on breaking cigarette addiction, but having been through the battle, I will share in this post some insights I learned through my experience quitting cigarettes. (Just so you know; I never used nicotine patches or any other quitting-aid products.)

This post is Part 2 of 2… you can read Part 1 here.

What’s your vision?

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All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another. ~Anatole France

In Part 1 I mentioned that I couldn’t picture my future-self as a smoker. I had a vision – a vision of a smoke-free Me. A Me who started her days and ended her meals without the need for a cigarette.

Try starting with a vision. Something to build towards and look forward to. In all honesty (and I know this might sound unfriendly), my vision was largely inspired by middle-aged women in my life who were smokers. What I saw in them I didn’t want to see in myself when I got to their age. I didn’t want to have that cough, that voice, that skin, those teeth, that need. I envisioned myself free… singing with a voice that didn’t crack, breathing with lungs that didn’t wheeze.

It’s gonna suck, big time

When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. ~ Tuli Kupferberg

Accept the fact that it’s gonna suck. You’re going to suffer mentally and physically. You’re going to question why you’re trying to quit, which by the way isn’t necessarily a bad thing (reexamining your reason or vision). You’re going to bargain with yourself and say things like: “I’ll just start tomorrow” or “ok, just one more” or maybe, if you’re a female: “I’ll just quit when I’m pregnant” (my personal favorite – I used that one all the time). You’re going to be miserable and the days are going to be long. You’re going to crave cigarettes at every turn. Everything is going to make you want to smoke – even reading advice (ha, sorry). But when you accept that Agony is part of the process, you can move on to the next stage: believing there’s life after cigarettes.

“The Last Cigarette”

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The best way to stop smoking is just to stop… no ifs, ands, or butts. ~ Edith Zittler

It can be stressful putting so much emphasis on your “last cigarette”, so don’t pressure yourself. Don’t declare a cigarette to be your last. Just take it one day at a time and you will suddenly realize that you can’t even remember the last time you smoked.

I tried to live my quitting days as normally as I could so that in my mind, a day without a cigarette was not a big deal – not a big source of pressure or stress – it was just another day, a regular day lived the way it should be lived. Not thinking about my “last cigarette” and not thinking about whether I would actually ever smoke again relieved so much pressure… and allowed me to embrace, instead of dread, every day that I went without a cigarette.

Something new

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He that has energy enough to root out a vice should go further, and try to plant a virtue in its place. ~Charles Caleb Colton

I will be honest. I managed to quit forever while I was in the midst of a huge transition in my life. My whole world had changed – I had moved to a new country – which meant my routine and surroundings had completely and utterly changed. I walked down streets I hadn’t walked down before. I had no memory of me smoking by those stairs or with those people or in that room. I had no associations to pull at my cravings.

Quitting cigarettes is as much a mental battle as a physical one, so one of the most important things to do if you’re trying to quit is to change something very definite in your daily life.

Maybe rearrange your room so that the positioning of your bedside table doesn’t remind you that you used to keep a pack in the first drawer. Maybe take a different route to work so that passing by that stop sign doesn’t remind you that you would usually be lighting a cigarette by now. Maybe buy a new purse or everyday sweatshirt so that the pocket of your old one doesn’t remind you of the pack you used to keep there.

Get rid of all your lighters. (Yes, say goodbye to your favorite lighter.) Join a gym or pottery class. Maybe start training for a 5K or half-marathon. It could be anything, even something subtle (buying a scented candle for your home or new throw pillows for your couch), but change something in your daily life. Bring something new to ease the temporary feeling that something’s missing.

Essentially, you need to introduce something that didn’t exist in your life as a smoker. Something new that doesn’t remind you of cigarettes. Something new that will channel your energy and move you forward in your journey.

It doesn’t matter how many times you relapse

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Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it hundreds of times. ~ Mark Twain 

Relapsing is part of the process – get over it. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t let it be an excuse to put off quitting. Sadly and funnily enough, relapsing can almost feel like a rest stop. I relapsed over 100 times, maybe more. It took me years to quit. Remember that you’re on a journey. The important thing is to keep on going. Don’t revel or linger or wallow in the relapse. Relapse is a bully so skillful, you don’t even know you’re being bullied. Don’t let it play you. Don’t give up because of a relapse and don’t hide behind a relapse.

 Who’s in your circle?

In a gathering of two or more people, when a lighted cigarette is placed in an ashtray, the smoke will waft into the face of the nonsmoker.  ~Author Unknown

For some people, telling friends and family they’re trying to quit helps for accountability purposes. For me, it was nerve-wrecking. It meant people would be watching if I failed. Whichever strategy you prefer – telling people or not (I tried both) – remember that this is ultimately between you and yourself.

But also look more closely…

Who in your life do you feel might encourage or impede your efforts to quit? My significant other doesn’t smoke and that greatly influenced my success. Ironically though, most of my close friends smoke. That made things increasingly difficult for me. I didn’t eject them from my social circle (what kind of friend would I be?!), but I did make it known that my quitting meant a lot to me so that they could either not smoke around me or not offer me cigarettes anymore. (Actually, one of my close friends said I inspired her and… well, she’s also since quit! So you never know who you are inspiring!)

Also – I am a big sister. That role means the world to me. My siblings are a generation younger than me and, recognizing the significant role I play in their lives, I couldn’t envision myself being that older sister who smoked. It was important to me to be a positive role model. To not smell like smoke when I hugged or kissed or tickled them. To not have the smell of smoke remind them of me.

The truth about willpower 

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Willpower can produce short-term change, but it creates constant internal stress because you haven’t dealt with the root cause. ~ Rick Warren

Quitting cigarettes, in my experience, has less to do with willpower than it has to do with the sincere desire for change. If you don’t have that sincere desire, if you don’t have that sure vision of what you want for your life, then relapse and temptation will always crush your willpower. Willpower cannot stand on its own. Willpower means denying yourself something that you want. So you have to not want to be a smoker.

You will reach a point in your quitting journey where declining a cigarette will either make you feel anxious and antsy, or make you feel confident and glad. When you reach the latter bridge, you’ll know that the worst part of your journey is over.

You’re not actually doing anything

The believing we do something when we do nothing is the first illusion of tobacco. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Smoking has a way of making you feel like you’re doing something. You know what I’m talking about. You’re waiting for a bus or phone call or for your stew to finish simmering – and you find yourself wanting to light a cigarette.

When you do something, you’re investing time and energy into a purpose. Smoking accomplishes nothing… nothing that contributes to your well-being. Nothing that moves you forward.

It’s an empty act.

The C word and… “That would never happen to me”

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There was a young lady named Mae
Who smoked without stopping all day;
As pack followed pack,
Her lungs first turned black,
And eventually rotted away. ~ Edward Gorey

I’m not at all saying that health is not a legitimate reason to quit (and certainly it highly depends on one’s health situation) – I’m just saying not to put all your motivations in one basket. Holding yourself hostage with fear is not only hostile, it associates quitting with something negative instead of positive.

So don’t make fear for your health a driving force of motivation. Maybe that tactic works for some but it certainly didn’t work for me. You have to want to quit is my philosophy. Not because of fear of illness or death, but because you want to live a life without cigarettes. And what are your reasons for wanting to live that life? Reflect on them daily and let those reasons guide you. If your reasons are all wrapped up in fear, I personally don’t think that’s very effective. Why? Because of the “that would never happen to me” mentality that unconsciously plagues each and every one of us, smoker or not.

There are many advantages to “that would never happen to me” – for one, it helps us sleep at night. Horrors happen every day… but usually in that infamous “somewhere or to someone else” place. That thought helps us feel safe and keeps us from living life constantly paranoid and afraid.

Simply put, dwelling on the long-term consequences of a thing that provides you with instant gratification is not very effective. So forget fear tactics and get to the point. Do you want to quit or not?

Patience

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He who endures with patience is a conqueror. ~ Latin Proverb

Part of what makes quitting so difficult is that you have to remold many aspects of your life. Quitting means no more cigarette-breaks at work or gathering with smoker friends on sidewalks or porches. You will no longer pair cigarettes with your morning coffee or share a cigarette with that one friend. You are reshaping routine, familiarity, attitude, identity. You will feel weary and wonder what to do with that five minute gap you usually spent with a cigarette. You might feel left out if your friends step outside for a smoke.

So be patient with yourself. Be forgiving. Be encouraging. Recognize that there is a lot you are unhooking yourself from as you remove cigarettes from your life. You are in a process of transformation. You are recovering. You are learning a new way of life. Quitting is going to take time… lots of time… and with time comes the requirement of patience.

Truly appreciating your body

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Health is not everything, but without health, everything is nothing. ~ Anonymous

The body is an amazing beast. It’s perfect and imperfect all at once. It’s a miracle. It’s beautiful. And it’s only ours for a short time. To be quite honest, a new-found appreciation for my body was one of my biggest motivators to quit.

I suddenly became very aware of how blessed and privileged I was to be in good health… to be young and to be in good health. The way I perceived cigarettes began to slowly change…

Smoking became, for me, an act of ungratefulness. Smoking, in essence, is deliberately inhaling toxic, poisonous fumes into your body… a body not meant to process those fumes. Our lung’s tissues are pink… and smoking blackens and paralyzes them.

Smoking suddenly felt to me like pouring petroleum into a pool, like watering plants with acetone, like spitting on a wet painting. I suddenly saw smoking as tainting my body… I wanted to stop ruining a gift that was so freely given to me.

Make a decision

Your life is in your hands to make of it what you choose. ~ John Kehoe

After all that’s said and thought and done, ultimately, you have to just make a decision. Realize that it’s not about what you or they think you should do or not do; it’s about what you decide to do. You either want to quit – I mean in your heart of hearts you either truly, genuinely, truthfully, want to quit – or you don’t want to quit.

I believe there’s such a thing as being ready and not being ready to quit – and by ready I’m not referring to convenience and external circumstance, I’m referring to psychological readiness. You have to be self-aware enough to know whether you are ready to go into the battle of quitting, because it is a battle. You have to prepare your heart and mind for the undertaking. If you’re not ready, it’s okay. But don’t use “I’m not ready yet” as an excuse for years on end. Otherwise just admit to yourself that you don’t want to quit and move on.

Don’t “decide” that you want to quit when your heart is not in it. You have to own your decision, feel good about your decision – no matter your decision. Understand that you will live your decision and be your decision. We are products of decisions we make.

There may be a philosophical and medical “right” and “wrong” when it comes to smoking, but when it comes to you and your person, I don’t believe there is. I believe there is only what you choose to do and what you choose to not do… essentially, it goes back to free will.

So make a decision. Whether you want to smoke or don’t want to smoke, or just don’t know… make a decision. And no matter how long it takes… see your decision through.

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Decide on the life you want to live.

(Part 2 of 2)

My Past Life as a Smoker (part 1)

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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.

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(Part 1 of 2)

You can read Part 2 here.