Updated Feb 26, 2021
Some experiences and learning while trying to kick the habit.
Context: I’ve smoked since i was 16 or so. Successfully quit once, cold turkey, for about 4 years. Then picked it back up and have been smoking since, but also trying to stop since.
My friend’s J’s father smoked 2 packs a day for as long as I’ve known him. One night he saw me smoking, pulled me aside, and told me he had quit. I could quit too. Easy. I just had to read a book.
I read the book, Allen Carr’s Easy Way To Stop Smoking. I did quit smoking. I did it alone, and it was indeed easy.
I highly recommend the book, of course. From it, i learned a great deal about how nicotine affects the body and the mind.
One realization that changes the game is: Smoking is not a pleasure. The pleasure comes from the temporary relief from withdrawal symptoms of nicotine.
The feeling is fleeing. Sometimes I don’t even enjoy the cigarette I’m currently smoking, but I’m already thinking about the next one.
It’s mentally exhausting to be constantly thinking of when and where the next smoke is going to be. And releasing that tension, when I get to light up, is another pleasing and addictive sensation. Like taking off shoes after a day of work.
The book made me think of Nicotine as a little monster that took residence in my mind. It controls me, and makes me do bad and irrational decisions. It makes me go outside in the rain, it makes me feel shamed to smell like smoke, it takes money from my wallet.
The stronger I am defending from the monster’s attacks, the stronger the attacks become. And sooner or later it always wins.
Thinking of nicotine as an evil puppet master really helped. Being angry at it was key to success in my first and only cold turkey stop.
Another important learning from the book was the realization that a lot of the common knowledge about quitting was in fact total bullshit. Things like:
- Nicotine is physically very addictive and I need help to quit (e.g., nicotine patches, hypnosis, … )
- I’m going to be angry and grumpy while I quit
- I’m going to gain weight while I quit
- I enjoy smoking and I’m going to miss it
- Smoking is a great social lubricant and a good way to make new friends
It was particularly entertaining to see the nicotine monster panic in the first 48 hours of my cold-turkey stop.
It got desperate real quick and started throwing the most absurd thoughts at me. Both during awake hours and in my sleep.
Off the wagon
3 years not smoking were easy. I didn’t have many smokers around me and so I kinda forgot about it.
But I was naive to think i had killed the monster.
One night I had a couple of drinks, saw someone smoking and thought: “Just one. Not gonna fall for that crap again!”.
That one cigarette just opened the door for the monster to come back alive. It started to give me thoughts such as: “See? You did have just one that night, you’re in control. We can have a smoke every once in a while.”
I kept it at bay for a while, but the desire to smoke was back.
Finally one evening I was drunk and sad. And the monster pounced back and got me stronger than even before.
Initially I tried to resist. Limiting smoking to weekends, or special occasions. But, like before, the monster would always prevail.
Re-reading the book a second time didn’t work.
I’ve tried all sorts of things to quit in the last 4 or so year since resuming to smoke.
From accountabilibuddies to publicly announcing my intentions (I hate to break promises to others so I thought these could work). Nothing really worked.
And enjoy smoking even less than I did before because I’m more aware of the nicotine monster. And feel more shame for not being able to kill it off, despite knowing I did it once.
There is however one other book that made a big difference in my relationship with smoking in recent years: The 4 Hour Body by Timothy Ferris.
This book does not have a chapter on smoking. Tim probably never smoked a cigarette in his life.
However the book gave me a lot of insight and wisdom on (among other things) how to build muscle.
I took inspiration from the careful planning that weightlifters do to hit a certain strength goal, and applied the same principle to train my “nicotine resistance” muscle.
My “exercise plan” started very slow (10 cigarettes a day). Then, over the course of weeks, I was “adding weight” by removing cigarettes.
Going down to 9 per day a couple of weeks later, was easy! And then, as soon as 9 was normal and easy. Lower to 8. Then 7, 6, 5, 4 per day (except for cheat day once a week), over the course of about 6 months.
I hit a wall at 4. I never really managed to go to 3.
But this was still extremely useful. I did still develop some “muscle”: I can now go for hours without thinking of a cigarette, even if I have them in the house. I can go for dinner or to see my friends, and leave them home.
For me, this is something to celebrate.
The downside of this more “healthy” relationship with smoking is however that the nicotine monster can now use this against me. “See? You’re being so good. There’s no need to quit. 3 a day is pretty healthy and cheap!”
But of course, giving back in in full force is just around the corner. One day I’m particularly stressed or something bad happens, and I’ll give myself an excuse to just smoke a pack. And the day after I’m gonna keep smoking. And all the progress made so far is wiped out.
The mindful approach
Armed with everything I’ve learned in the last 20 years, I’m doing one more attempt.
The things I’ve learned about the monster, plus the muscle I’ve built will be useful.
This attempt is pretty simple and should be familiar to whoever practices mindful meditation: “just let it go”.
The desire to smoke will keep coming. Instead of dwelling on it, I just need to get back to whatever I was doing and let it pass.
For days when the monster’s assaults will be fiercer (e.g., after a couple of drinks), I wrote down a few motes for myself:
You don’t want to smoke. You want the pleasure of the release. The moment you light up, the pleasure is it’s gone. It was an illusion. You’re not going to enjoy smoking 1 second into it.
You cannot smoke just one. You’ll buy a pack and smoke it, then buy another pack. You tried everything. You know it’s going to creep back in.
It’s going to cost you thousands of dollars. And possibly your life.
Like clouds on a mountaintop, let it pass. Be the fucking mountain.
Once I’ve made the decision to quit, the monster starts its campaign to get me back to smoking.
Some of the recurring attacks include:
You’ve been so good! Already 3 days without smoking! You should celebrate, reward yourself with a cigarette!
You clearly demonstrated you can quit. Go buy a pack to keep in the house just for special occasions.
How about cheat day this weekend? Just one day a week, smoke as much as you want. Then back to no smoking for the rest of the week.
You should invite smoker_friend over for drinks! That way, you can have a couple of smokes without buying a pack!
All of these sound reasonably convincing to me (no surprise.. these are the arguments I’m coming up with to convince myself to go back to smoking).
They are all traps.
All of them, even the most innocent, will inevitably end up with:
- Feeding the monster, rather than starving it, which is going to reinforce it
- Breaking the seal, making it easier to break it again and again in the future, until I give up again and resume smoking full-time
Starving the monster will take time. Eventually it will stop bothering me daily.
But I should not let the guard down.
When I think I have defeated it (say, in 3 months or in 3 years), it’s when I’ll also be the most vulnerable to one of these negotiations working on me, and dragging me back into the hole.