As of today—November 4, 2014—I haven’t smoked a cigarette in 307 days. My last one was inhaled lovingly, achingly, in the early morning hours of January 1st.
Since then, nothing. Not even a grubby drag off my downstairs neighbor’s nightly smoke. Not even a private puff. Nada. Scout’s honor.
Because I quit smoking (based on my previous daily average of 1.5 packes/day) I have:
- Not smoked 9,210 cigarettes (about 461 packs)
- Saved approximately $2,760 in cigarette purchases unmade
Then there are those unmeasurable benefits: the brighter teeth, the freedom from shame, a neutral aroma, the return of my sense of taste and smell. This intensity of this last benefit surprised me. I can smell cigarettes being smoked by the guy int he car two spaces ahead of me in stand-still traffic on Mopac Expressway.
Did I mention I was asthmatic? My childhood was largely defined by my asthma: sports unplayed, recesses spent on the sidelines, inhaler always within hand’s reach. As an adult smoker, my asthma, which should’ve dissipated to the point of irrelevance, as it does for most asthmatics, festered. I wheezed for all of my 20s. I burned through one inhaler per month—which, I assure you, is alarmingly fast.
But soaring high above all these expected and unexpected advantaged of being a non-smoker is the sense of accomplishment. Without a doubt, quitting smoking is the hardest, and thus the most satisfying, thing I’ve ever done.
Because I was a heavy smoker. I smoked the moment I woke up, just before falling asleep, in the middle of meals, after meals, after sex, in traffic, throughout the workday. I took smoke breaks from movies, improv shows, dates, rehearsals, parties, happy hours, funerals, weddings, etc. Cigarettes controlled how I moved through the world, every single day, for almost 15 years.
So why did I quit? And how did I quit?
Same two answers to both questions: anger and the nicotine patch. Allow me to address this in reverse order…
1. The Patch
The nicotine patch was essential to my successful emancipation from my smokey treats.
A rough estimate shows me having smoked about 160,000 cigarettes in my life. And so, my body expected nicotine in the same way it expected oxygen, food, and sleep. Of course I was addicted, but “addiction” is too pedestrian a word to describe my relationship with Camel Lights. I’d woven them—and the ritual surrounding their consumption—into every facet of my life. There were long stretches of time when I would openly declare my adoration of cigarettes. There were years when I not only didn’t quit smoking, but didn’t want to quit.
And so I knew I needed help to quit. I knew I needed a bridge from smoker to non-smoker. Not a bridge; rather, a tunnel, a way to sneak beneath nicotine’s daily patrol until I could emerge on the other side, clean and sober.
I considered all of the tools—gums and Chantix and vaporizers, mostly—but decided the gum wasn’t heavy duty enough, Chantix didn’t really work and it gave my dad nightmares when he tried it, and vaporizers were trading hollow-point bullets for regular bullets. And somehow, the patch seemed chic.
Here’s something: The nicotine patch burns. It stings your skin for the first week or so. I assume this is because the patch is leaking copious amounts of nicotine into your bloodstream. But the sting became a famliliar, even welcome, sensation. It meant my body was being fed its fix. And besides, I thought, I need to suffer a bit. I’d been sinning against my body since my freshman year of college, and I deserved some physical pain. The suffering, mild though it was, was a penance for my shameful behavior.
But here’s what happened. One day, somewhere between the second and third weeks, I forgot to replace my old patch with a new one. It took me at least 48 hours to realize I’d been wearing an old patch, and at that point I figured I’d see how long I could go without it. If I began to sense myself backsliding, I’d slap another one on. (They go to work quickly.)
And that’s how my planned 12-week program of patches ended just shy of three weeks, never to be resumed. By that point, my physical dependency was more or less extinct.
Now it was all about my brain—which, scientists claim, is a part of my body and not, in fact, apart from it.
Almost four years ago, my mom got lung cancer. She’d smoked, on and off, most of her adult life. But the off periods were so long—four years, eight years—that lung cancer seemed especially unfair. For instance, she hadn’t smoked for two years when she got her diagnosis. Her ensuing surgery and the tense months of waiting to see if the cancer had spread didn’t abate my habit; I smoked right on through. In fact, my smoking increased in tandem with my stress and worry.
But when she recovered—and continued not to smoke—I used my relief as an excuse not to quit. I’d been through a harrowing time and was entitled to some celebratory cigarettes, right?
And therein lies cigarettes’ unique villainy: their adaptability, the way they can serve as support system, good friend, boredom reliever, timer, therapist, and fraternity brother. You’re happy? Cigarettes want to help you put an exclamation point on your day. You’re sad? Cigarettes are familiar prop, a moor to the past, a portal to a time when you weren’t sad. You’re jealous, tired, anxious, eager, etc.? Cigarettes got your back.
I didn’t consciously think of cigarettes this way. Excepting a couple of misguided years in my mid-20s, for most of my 14-year tenure as a smoker, I loathed the hold they had on me. Even as I was taking a long, delicious drag, I’d complain to a fellow smoker about their cost, the way they burned a hole in my couch, how certain women would 100% not date me because I smoked, etc. and so on.
Yet I continued. I smoked.
Until. Until. Until, I suppose, the anger—the anger at myself for giving over so much power to white sticks full of poison—outgrew my willingness to ignore it. The anger won out. In the weeks before I quit, I began to purposefully indulge my hatred. I’d light a cigarette, hold it out in front of me, and say (aloud, if I was alone) why I hated it. I’d take note of how it made me wheeze. I’d acknowledge how painful it was to spend $10 per day to keep alive my habit.
I stopped being a passive smoker. I became an active smoker. And as my awareness grew sharper, and as I began to articulate why I detested these damn things so much, my anger ballooned, accompanied to a new sensation: embarrassment. How could I, a smart guy who read copious books and held two college degrees, give himself over so freely to such a dumb habit. Cigarettes were so … 1980s, ya know? Why was I being so lame, so old-school lame?
The patch got me through the first three weeks; anger and humiliation have carried me through ’til today.
P.s. Weight Loss
It’s an accepted truth: When you quit smoking, you gain weight. Cigaettes are an appetite suppressant, and besides, you need to put something in your mouth to compensate for cigarettes’ absence.
On my Quit Day, I was already about 60 lbs. overweight. Since my Quit Day, I’ve lost about 40 lbs. I attribute this counterintuitive weight loss to a few things:
1. Being unemployed. It’s remarkably easy to lose weight—to cook healthy meals and exercise—when you have the entire day to devote to it.
2. A plan. I approached my Quit Day with two plans: how to quit smoking and how to quit being a fat ass. The second plan included a strict adherance to the Four-Hour Body diet and a new regimen of bike riding and hiking. (Might I recommend you get laid off from your job in the spring? It makes for some beautiful outdoor adventures!)
3. Women. Cigarettes and my ponderous belly could be blamed for my piss poor luck with women in the year before my Quit Day. I knew that abandoning the cancer sticks would improve my chances, but not if I stacked another extra 60 lbs. on top of it.
I don’t propose to have any insight into the process of quitting cigarettes. After all, I’d read dozens of “Quit Smoking Now!” articles and anecdotes over the years—none of which propelled me to quit. In the end, I let go of cigarettes because I’d grown angry at my own weakness. I was tired of feeling like crap, stopping by 7-Eleven every afternoon to blow well-earned money on my own demise, and smelling like a cheap bar. I was anrgy, tired, and ashamed. And so I let them go. I just let them fall away. One day cigarettes were a major part of my life; the next day, I let them disappear.