May 31, 2013

how to quit smoking

So I quit smoking today. I'm sure some will find that an odd statement for me to say because,
  1. Most  people didn't know I smoked
  2. How can I be so sure I actually quit today?
I started smoking in college. And not for the usual reasons like it was a social crutch or all my friends were doing it. What got me started was I had an Egyptian roommate who rolled his own cigarettes. And I like doing things with my hands. So I asked him to show me how it was done. Turns out I can roll them better than most. So I rolled his. And then at some point I smoked one with him. And all it takes for some (most?) people is one cigarette. That was the case for me. Bang. Hooked. Addicted. It didn't help that all my friends also smoked but it's not how I got started. It's funny because in all other areas I'm a health freak. But smoking isn't a health issue. It's an addiction issue. You can show all the statistics in the world about cigarettes and it doesn't help people quit. They have a chemical addiction.

I have "quit" many times through my life since then. For long periods and also for periods as short as an hour. But really I never felt quit. I felt like a smoker who hadn't smoked in a while. Not a non-smoker. I strained against the constant vigilance to not smoke. It was never relaxing. It always felt like I was about to fail.

And I always did. I always came back. My joke was "Quitting is easy. I do it all the time." I think that's a paraphrase of something Twain said. It's the kind of humor used to make the frustration. But really I couldn't quit. And I knew it.

But this time is different. I won't fail this time. I won't ever light up a cigarette again. And it is because of how I went about it. Which is to say I quit in a way that I hadn't before. It's very different and yet what is funny is there is no amazing revelation here on some level. But it is a different way to quit. The difference seems almost stupid. And its not clear how it could possibly make a difference. But it makes all the difference. The brute force method - stop smoking and deal with it - doesn't quite work well with cigarettes. At least for me. I'll get to that in a second. I figured it out after just sitting around and thinking out the problem. Which went something like this...

Smoking to most people seems INSANE. But I'm going to explain to you why nicotine/tobacco is so unbelievably nefarious in its addiction. It's subtly brilliant in how it hooks you and draws you in. It satiates your need to rationalize the habit. And it does it well. You might think that heroine or something like that is worse but really nicotine is worse for one major reason.
Reality #1: There is nothing inherently pleasurable about smoking. 
That's obvious for non-smokers. But then why would that make it more addictive than heroine which has some upside (i.e., a high)? That's counterintuitive. I expect that heroine has a wonderful high the first time you do it (I never have). And you'd probably think that the drug was more problematic because of that. Chemically addictive and it makes you feel great. But I think that belief is wrong.

Smoking is very very hard for people to quit. We know that. We've all seen/known people who can't do it. In fact all smokers want to quit. Most who know me would say I'm extremely disciplined when I want to be. Hardcore in fact. Yet I couldn't stop smoking. 

Which is weird because medically/scientifically nicotine is neither that addictive nor does it have any major withdrawal symptoms. I kid you not.
Reality #2: Nicotine is addictive but it isn't really that addictive nor does it have bad withdrawal symptoms.
This is the most perplexing thing ever. Anyone who quits knows that there really are no major withdrawal symptoms. For me it was bouts of lethargy and insomnia for a week. That's it. Totally minor. Caffeine has way way worse withdrawal symptoms by far. And the body processes the nicotine out of the system entirely in 3 weeks. All gone. Why is it so addictive when chemically it isn't that addictive and it has absolutely no benefit (a high, relaxation, etc.) ?

Imagine I told you there was a vegetable that tasted just like rotten garbage. It is horrible. It smells so bad, it makes you smell. It isn't even nutritious. It ravages your body over time and it was addictive. Chances are it'll kill you. There's no redeeming quality to it. Would you try to the vegetable? No. This is the non-smoker's perspective on smoking. And why it seems insane to non-smokers that anyone actually does smoke.

Now let's look at the smoker's viewpoint,

Let's say you try the vegetable. Maybe you were curious as to how bad it actually tasted. Or maybe all your friends were eating the vegetable at a party. Or maybe, like me you enjoyed carving this vegetable for consumption and just ended up trying a piece. Either way, you ingested the vegetable. And it tasted AWFUL!. Blech. But inside the vegetable is an addictive compound that is now in your body. Unlike heroine, it doesn't give you a high. It does absolutely nothing. Other than make you crave more in about 20-30 minutes.  In fact it's worse. Eating the vegetable makes you feel bad.  It gives you an anti-high. It increases your heart rate, makes you nauseous, you are light headed, you lose concentration, and you are slightly anxious. 

You think to yourself, "I could never get addicted to that. That is awful." And many people will in fact never have a cigarette again it is so bad. It has been said that those people generally have weak lungs and the negative effects from smoking are overwhelming to them. I've always had strong lungs and smoking the first cigarette wasn't so bad. Horrible. But not horrible horrible.

And now here is the kicker that makes this addiction so devious: It is precisely the horribleness that makes many people try the vegetable again. Or the cigarette. Because you think,
  1. I now have a slight nicotine withdrawal that is urging me to have another cigarette.
  2. I'm not worried about that because there's no way I can be addicted to that horrible thing. If it was heroine and I felt better than ever before then, yes, I'd be scared. I need to be vigilant against that combination. But smoking? Ugh that is horrible.
  3. But perhaps there is a reason/some social occasion to have one again. Maybe a cute girl is smoking at a party so you light up to to chat with her or maybe you roll your friend another cigarette and he asks you to join him again.
  4. Repeat.
Hypothesis #1: Cigarettes are so addictive precisely because no one in their right mind thinks they could ever be addicted to them.
This is how the addiction gets started. You have that first one. Maybe you don't have another one for 2 days or 2 weeks. Then another one a week later. And it is still so gross that you can't possible be addicted. And then one day you realize maybe you had 5 cigarettes in one day. "Shit did I just do that? 5? No way! I feel horrible now. God I am nauseous Yuck. I better stop."

And you realize you cannot. You throw out the cigarettes and suddenly realize your body is telling you to go buy some more. And because you are sure you aren't addicted (because how could anyone be addicted to inhaling smoke) you go buy that pack easily. Because your defenses are low. And this shocks you. "Wow that didn't take long to not quit".

And then you start rationalizing things. I'll quit next week. A year's worth of smoking won't kill me. I won't smoke more than 5 cigarettes a day. I'll quit on my birthday. I don't really need cigarettes which is why I continue to smoke them. and so on. Worse you rationalize that it tastes good. And even worse you rationalize that it helps you focus, that is relaxes you, that it relieves stress, and that you are uptight and irritable without them. You become like your own worst enemy. You are the bad devil sitting on the left shoulder. Rationally you get it. Smoking is bad. But you can't stop. You are a drug addict. And now and again the good devil comes out and you try to quit and you just cannot do it.

Let me explain why. When you are addicted to cigarettes, the cigarettes don't make you feel good but it seems that way. In essence, the cigarettes remove the empty feeling you have when you aren't smoking them. Pay close attention to that thought. It's like smashing your face into a wall because it feels so good to stop.

I smoke a cigarette. It's horrible. But 1 hour later (almost exactly which is why people smoke a pack a day on average) my body rids itself of a critical amount of that nicotine and my brain wants those receptors hit with the chemical again. At this point I feel horrible. It's like a hunger. It doesn't hurt. It just makes me feel empty. My brain wants the hit. And it makes me anxious. It makes me bored. It makes me lethargic. It makes me antsy. It makes me scared. There's a certain amount of fear that is present in the withdrawal symptom. It's a bunch of conflicting feelings. But all of this makes you stressed out. And when you smoke it all goes away. You don't feel great. You just don't feel as shitty as you did just a while back.  Which is why people say that smoking makes them feel more confident, more relaxed, less bored, and more focused. Smoking doesn't do any of those things. But it seems that way to the smoker because when he smokes he doesn't feel those feelings anymore. The irony and what makes smoking so pathetic is that it is the cigarette that gives you those feelings indirectly through withdrawal symptoms. 
Reality #3: Smoking seems to reduce stress to the smoker but all it really does is remove the stress caused by not having nicotine in your blood.
But it has an insidious effect on the brain because you associate smoking with not being scared, not being brain addled, not being lethargic, and NOT BEING STRESSED. 

Look even Einstein thought this. He's a bright guy.

This is the cycle that you set up. Now let's see why quitting is hard. Let me explain.

When you quit this is what goes through your head: "Everyone knows that quitting smoking is hard." That's all you think. People can have lung cancer and still keep smoking. That's how hard it is. You know it's hard but you have to do it. You brace yourself mentally. What date am I going to do this?What is the best day? When am I least stressed out? You start doubting yourself. Can I do this? I've failed so many times before. So may people fail. So the moment comes to put out the last cigarette. You have so much anticipation and stress over this moment. How long will this make my life miserable before I am over it? Will I falter? And on and on and on.

Do you see how this is going to fail?  In your head (even though this is not true), smoking was the thing that removed stress. Most smokers chain smoke when they are stressed. WELL QUITTING IS STRESSFUL!! I need my cigarettes god damn it! The one thing that you think helps you deal with stress is the thing you can't have now and that is causing you stress. It's like double the stress! In fact everything that makes you want to quit (lung cancer statistics, nagging spouses, nagging friends, the money wasted, etc.) makes you STRESSED. You are never more stressed than when you are quitting.
Reality #4: Quitting is hard because it is stressful and your one de-stressing thing in life is gone.
Many smokers can quit for less than an hour. It's that stressful. "Okay this is my last cigarette. Oh god. Can I do this. I HAVE to do this. This is an imperative. If I fail... OMG I have to succeed. OMG this is too stressful. Don't think about cigarettes. Nope. Don't do it. Mmmmmmmmmm. I am stressed out. I can't stop think about cigarettes. Fuck it let me just go get a pack and smoke one...."

This really is how it works. Quitting is downright impossible. We know we must do it. That's stressful. I need my stress reliever. Simple as that.

This is why the standard techniques of quitting don't work. Showing people diseased lungs is stressful. Showing people with related disease is stressful. Showing people how much money they have wasted is stressful. Nor do nicotine gums and patches help because you are still just a nicotine-addicted addict.

Turns out there is a way out. Reality #4 is a self-reinforcing negative loop. You are going to think I'm insane for saying this but quitting is easy. But it requires you to think quitting is not hard (Let that meta-point sink in).
Hypothesis #2: If you believe quitting is easy, then it is not stressful and you won't need cigarettes to de-stress.
In other words: 
  • If I think quitting is easy it is easy to quit. 
  • If I think quitting is hard, it is impossible to quit.
That's it really. If I can convince myself quitting is easy then quitting isn't stressful and I don't feel the need to procure a cigarette and quitting really is easy. And it has been.

As a practical matter I don't focus on not having cigarettes. I focus on all the good things. I think about how well I'm doing. I focus on how easy it is. And when I have a momentary brain fart to go grab a cigarette I think about that evil nicotine addict inside me that I need to kill. Everything is focused on staying positive and happy and excited and proud. Because none of those are stressful. Before I would avoid thoughts of cigarettes and smoking entirely. But with this method it doesn't seem to affect me at all.

So I guess at some point I'll have to check back in but I think a relapse is quite impossible at this point. And it's nice being a non-smoker again.  I don't notice a huge change at this point. I'm not in a degraded state of health so it's not like things can improve noticeably. The money is nice but money was never an issue. It is nice not having to go around worried I smell. But really the best thing is actually being able to solve a motivational and will-power problem that was aggravating to me for years.

And the weirdest change has to be my coffee consumption. I was an avid coffee drinker. And by avid I mean I was taking in borderline lab rat quantities of coffee. Just constant coffee drinking. But I think in some ways it was tied to my smoking. Whenever I thought about quitting I felt I would most miss the cigarette and coffee combo the most. So what happened when I quit cigarettes? I just don't feel like drinking coffee any more. At all. I sort of forced it down my throat a few mornings but really my heart isn't into it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It is a matter of conditioning. However, some people are less capable of conditioning themselves than others. They'll need help. There are professionals who can get these folks to work out the roots of their addictions, and perhaps reroute them to something more productive and safe.