Friday, September 04, 2009

Trying Not to Quit

I'm coming up on my 15 year anniversary of quitting smoking. Over the years I've seen a lot of people try to quit smoking and fail, I've seen people quit smoking then start back after months or even years. And I've even seen a few people quit and stay quit, like my lovely wife.

I've been asked before how I quit, and I tell people quitting is easy. It's staying quit that's hard. I'm finally at a point in my life where I no longer crave cigarettes. The fact that this was about a 10 year battle to reach this point - where I wouldn't smoke a cigarette even if I could get away with it - tells you what you're facing if you're thinking about quitting. If you think you'll be in control in a week or a month or even a year, you're wrong.

So here's a little test to see if you're ready to quit.

1. Do you plan to gradually reduce how much you smoke before finally quitting? Do you plan to use a patch or other supplement to help you reduce your need for nicotine so you don't smoke as much?

2. Do you believe that once you have quit, you should be able to have a cigarette now and then, such as a reward for a job well done, or when you have a really bad day?

3. Do you want to quit for someone, like your spouse, lover, or children, or because your doctor says you need to, or because it's bad for you, or because it's too expensive?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, I can guaran-damn-tee you will be smoking a pack a day again before the year is out. You might as well not even try to quit, because you're just going to disappoint yourself.

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you aren't really trying to quit smoking. What you're doing is trying not to quit smoking. You really honestly don't want to quit, so you're blaming other people and telling yourself they're forcing you to quit, or you're hanging on to your cigarettes as long as you can while you pretend you are in the process of quitting and pat yourself on the back for it. As Yoda said, there is no try. You either quit, or you're still smoking.

I've talked to people who have quit smoking and stayed quit for more than 10 years. I believe there is a pattern, both to how they quit and the philosophical and motivational factors that have kept them quitters ever since.

1. They didn't plan to quit. I quit smoking because I accidentally left my smokes at home one day and since I had no money with me to buy more, I decided to see if I could make it the whole day without smoking. My father got extremely sick on a business trip and cigarettes made him feel worse, but he didn't start back after he recovered. My wife stopped the day she found out she was pregnant. We all had been thinking about quitting, obviously, but not specifically planning for it. Instead, events transpired that provided us with the opportunity to make that decision. It's a matter of seizing the opportunity.

2. They wanted to quit more than they wanted to smoke. It really is a matter of wanting to quit. Until you want to quit, you won't quit.

3. They quit cold turkey. They didn't wean themselves off. They just stopped. Boom. The end. My wife used the patch to help wean herself off nicotine, but she did not smoke a cigarette (see below). Her father quit cold turkey. I quit cold turkey. But it's not how you quit that's important, it your decision to not start back that makes the difference.

4. They understood that under no circumstances can you ever have another cigarette. Ever. There is no backsliding. There is no forgiveness. You cannot have a bad day. You cannot reward yourself. You cannot 'just have one' at a party or a bar or after a particularly wonderful sexual experience or after you wreck your car or break up with your girlfriend or sign the divorce papers. You have to be able to look that situation in the face and say no, not this time. You can't have one. You just can't. Ever. Sorry. It's not fair, but if you want to quit, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you will never under any circumstances put a cigarette in your mouth. If you can't accept this, if you allow yourself even one special dispensation, if you sell yourself one indulgence, you will become a smoker again. Maybe not that day. Maybe not that week or even that year, but it will happen eventually.

I don't really understand the mechanics of addiction. I don't know how it works on the biological level. I quit drinking Cokes about six years ago and I still crave them. The chemical receptors that crave this substance can't still be active in my body after all this time, so something else is happening. Addiction is more than simple chemical dependency, and quitting is more than starving those receptors to death.

Therefore, breaking an addiction is more than breaking the chemical dependency. No drug can make you stop smoking. Nothing in the world can break you of an addiction except your desire to be free of it. Once you make that decision, there are drugs and techniques to help you wean yourself from the chemical dependency, but only your conscious desire to stop will stop the addictive activity.

When my wife quit, she used the patch. Nicotine isn't what you're addicted to. Nicotine facilitates the addiction, it provides the cookie that rewards the behavior, but the behavior is the key. The behavior is what is so hard to quit. For months after I quit, I'd catch myself at quiet moments feeling in my pocket for my cigarettes. For years after, I would dream of smoking. The social activity of smoking is what I missed most. It filled the moments of my life. And it has taken years to find new ways to fill those moments without addictive chemical rewards. But it is a struggle to find that personal peace that allows you to sit quietly outside and not light up even when everyone around you is smoking.

So if you're thinking of quitting, good. You can do it, provided you really want to. Don't plan to quit, just prepare for it and be ready to seize your opportunity . Once you have quit, know that you can never go back. Burn your ships behind you, and be prepared for a decade of struggle to stay quit. Once you have accepted these precepts, it really isn't that hard to stop smoking forever. Honestly. It's not as hard as you think it is.


Anonymous said...

Three months quit here. One Sunday I was sitting at my computer, not feeling particularly good, and got to coughing real bad. So I just said frk it and dug around for some patches and nicorette laying around the house.

I've done this before, quit for 13 years, but then I sold myself some indulgences, as you so aptly put it. Five years ago I started smoking again, but I'm a lot older now and I think that makes it worse on your body. So, now it's
been since that June 14 Sunday morning. My only dispensation now is, if I live to be 80, I'll let myself smoke if I want to.

Excellent piece.

Joseph said...

I only just started smoking 5 years ago. I decided to quit by September 25th, today. I haven't had a cigarette for 2 days now. It's hard and I'd love to have one, but I know better.

I don't know why I really decided to quit. It's costly. I am tired of people treating me like I have leprosy or something. I'm tired of being dependent on something that has killed quite a few people in my family.

I hope I can stay a quitter. I really hate the fact that I am always going to crave them now.

Jeff said...

Joseph, the cravings will never go away, but they'll become so mild they're easy to resist. But you must always remember that you're not in control. That's an error long-time quitters make - they think they've been quit so long just one cigarette can't hurt. But it does, because one becomes two and two become four and four become a pack.

RB HAM said...

I am currently attempting to quit smoking for the umpteenth time. Sometimes I last a day, a week, a month or a year. the best I've ever done is a year and a half. But NEVER QUIT QUITTING! That's my motto. Right now I'm on Day 3 - pray for me.

Jeff said...

RB, the tobacco industry has a deep interest in continuing the myth that quitting smoking is extremely difficult. So does the pharmaceutical industry, which makes millions a year selling snake-oil cures to quit smoking.

The relatively simple truth is, you will never quit smoking until you are ready to quit. But when you are ready to quit, it's easier than you would think. I say relatively simple, because there is nothing simple about it in practice. It's rather like a koan - a simple statement with deep implications.

But you can do it. Anyone can do it.