How I Quit Smoking
I wanted to quit, and quit only once. Little did I know, I was in for the ride of my life.
I quit smoking in the summer of 1998, after 17 years of it. Today, some 22 years later, I still consider it one of my biggest and most important accomplishments as an adult.
I grew up in a smoking household in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Both of my parents smoked, as did my older siblings. As a matter of fact, most of the adults I knew smoked. I grew up believing smoking was a normal adult activity, like driving a car or having a job. Like a lot of kids, I gave it a try when I was 11 years old, and the horrid taste of my first drag made me dizzy. It was enough to make me not try it again for many years.
I didn’t smoke in high school, and not even in the Army where, again, most people I knew smoked. I didn’t smoke during a 2 year stint working in a paper mill either, even though many of the people I worked with did. I didn’t begin smoking until I was 23 years old, which is fairly old to start smoking. Most people start when they are in their teens. I guess I was a late bloomer, so to speak. At the time, I was travelling around the U.S. hitchhiking, picking up rides, taking buses when I needed to. I had a lot of down time waiting for rides while standing on the roadside. One day I bought a pack of Drum rolling tobacco and a package of Zigzag rolling papers and decided to smoke to kill the dead time. It took some effort to make myself like the flavor, but with persistence, soon it was part of my daily life.
In the years that followed, I continued to roll Drum cigarettes because, to my way of thinking, they were “healthier” than the pre-rolled cigarettes. After all, those pre-rolled smokes contained burning agents and other chemicals, and I certainly didn’t want to smoke that. In retrospect, the absurdity of that statement is now obvious to me, but at the time, it was completely believable. Smokers lie to themselves all the time. They tell themselves they can quit anytime they want to. They tell themselves that not everyone who smokes gets cancer, and not everyone who gets cancer smoked. They tell themselves if they didn’t spend the money on cigarettes, they would just spend it on something else. They tell themselves a lot of things. Smoking is the first thing they do in the morning, and the last thing they do at night. Cigarettes are their best friend, and life is what they do in between cigarettes.
The Decision to Quit
I had planned to quit smoking when I turned 30, but when I turned 30 I had completely forgotten that promise I made to myself. As my 30’s progressed, I stopped smoking Drum tobacco and opted for the pre-rolled. Camel straights, no filter. “Coffin nails” is what we called them. I dabbled with a few other non-filter cigarettes like Pall Mall, Lucky Strikes (Luckies) and Chesterfields, but I liked Camels the best, and at 75 cents per pack, they were cheap entertainment. Plop 3 quarters in a cigarette machine and I got a pack of 20 smokes and a book of matches to boot. Those were different times indeed. Back then you could smoke on an airplane and in the hospital, so long as there wasn’t an oxygen machine nearby. Imagine that.
The summer after I turned 40, I had just completed my 11th year of teaching and had a 1 year old son. I was teaching summer school and one day when I went to the rest room, I noticed a lump on the top of my tongue. I didn’t know what would cause something like that, but it did cause me some concern. That was on a Friday, so I spent the weekend looking up what could possibly cause a lump on my tongue. It was then that I came across articles on the web about oral cancer, and I began to read. I was sure it wasn’t anything like that, but it tripped a switch in my head, and for the first time ever, I considered my mortality. What if it WAS cancer? I learned the 5 year survival rate for oral cancer is only 50%. That stunned me. If that was the cause of the lump, I might only have a few years to live, and my 1 year old son would barely know me. That evening I resolved to quit smoking. I walked down to the local drug store and bought a box of Nicoderm patches. $50. Whoa. This was a serious commitment.
The Math Behind Quitting
Before using the patches, I made sure I understood the math behind it. I learned that the human body metabolizes 1 milligram of nicotine an hour. I also learned that the average cigarette contains 1 milligram of nicotine. That explained why I could go about an hour before I wanted another cigarette, and why cravings arose. My body metabolized the milligram of nicotine from the cigarette in one hour and then it wanted more. That is the essence of addiction. If I had one cigarette when I got up, and one before bed, and one each hour in between, that would add up to 18 cigarettes. Toss in 2 more just for fun, and you have the 20 that are in a pack. It all made sense. 20 cigarettes in a pack, or about 1 for each waking hour. 20 milligrams of nicotine, or about 1 milligram for each waking hour. Voila. Yes, it made sense. And it was completely insane.
Nicoderm patches come in 3 steps — Step 1, Step 2, and Step 3. The Step 1 patches contained 21 milligrams of nicotine each, and fed the body 1 milligram of nicotine per hour, just like a cigarette. I was to use those for 4 weeks. When those 4 weeks were completed, I was to begin using the Step 2 patches for 2 weeks. The Step 2 patches only contained 14 milligrams of nicotine. After 2 weeks of using the Step 2 patches, it was time to use the Step 3 patches. Those patches only had 7 milligrams of nicotine. Then, at the end of 2 weeks of the Step 3 patches, I was going to be without a safety net — no patch and no cigarettes. I other words, at that point I would be free of cigarettes and free of nicotine.
The Honeymoon Period
That night, after buying the patches and reading all about their use, I went outside and smoked 2 cigarettes. They were to be my last. I had never tried to quit smoking before, and I was resolved to do it only once and succeed. I was nervous about it. Could I do it? What if I failed? What if the lump on my tongue was cancer? What if I died before my son got to know me? I went to bed shortly before midnight, and spent much of the night tossing and turning. I had a big day ahead of me.
That next morning, before I had a chance to light up, I took a deep breath and slapped a patch on my side, slightly below my arm pit. I pressed the patch firmly to make sure it was snug. Within a few minutes I began to feel a slight irritation and itch, but it soon went away and I began my day.
I didn’t work that day, so I knew staying busy and staying hydrated was important. I mowed the lawn. Then I went for a brisk walk in the hills near my house. Then it was on to a myriad of errands and other chores. When I finally concluded my running around, I saw that it was 4 p.m. and I had not experienced a single craving for a cigarette. What was even better was I had not even thought about a cigarette. I smiled and in my mind I shouted “THIS IS WORKING!!!”
In the next few weeks I began to destroy the old evidence of my old addiction. I gathered up all my ashtrays and threw them in the garbage. I went to all the spots outside where I smoked, picked up the butts, and put them in the garbage too. I tossed out all my Bic lighters as well. Within a few days, there was no evidence that I had ever smoked, save one. I took my final pack, which still contained 4 cigarettes, I put it on a shelf in my shop as a sort of souvenir.
When 4 weeks had passed, it was time for me to “step down” to Step 2 patches. I prepared myself for this mentally by, you guessed it, studying what I was about to do. Stepping down meant going from 21 milligrams of nicotine a day to 14, or the equivalent of only smoking 14 cigarettes in a day instead of a pack. I knew there would be some discomfort. And I was right. Still, I knew the discomfort would be temporary and since I already had 4 weeks invested in quitting, I was determined to see it through. I continued to stay busy and drink plenty of water, and within 3 days, the Step 2 patches felt like the Step 1. The feelings of withdrawal that nagged me when I first put on the Step 2 patches were gone. Not only did I feel a sense of accomplishment, I knew what to expect when I would step down to the Step 1 patches and finally, no patch at all.
In the weeks to come, things played out exactly as I expected. When the time came to put on the Step 3 patches, I was mentally prepared. The temporary feelings of withdrawal came, and I knew they would be gone within a day or so. 2 weeks later I took off my final patch and entered the realm of being an ex-smoker.
In the months to follow, I noticed that I was feeling agitated and anxious often. I still did not smoke, and I was as active as ever. In March of that year, some 8 months after I quit, I began having a series of panic attacks. These intense feelings of dread were overwhelming at times. When they hit, I had to get out of wherever I was. In the beginning, it meant that I had to get out of the house and go for a brisk walk. In the grocery store, it meant leaving my cart and walking out of the store. At work, however, it meant staying in my classroom and teaching even though I could barely stay in my skin. It was awful.
By the time summer came, I lived in fear of my next panic attack and developed a generalized sense of anxiety. It was then that I decided I had to do something. I could not go on living like that. I seriously wondered if I could continue working.
I made an appointment to see my doctor about it, and he gave me a prescription for Xanax and explained to me how benzodiazepines work. He explained that they were only to be used when I was having a panic attack, and that if I took them too often, I would develop an addiction to them. That was the last thing I needed, another addiction. I knew that a Xanax could give me relief in the short term, but that was not going to be enough. He also gave me a prescription for Zoloft. Armed with my new pharmaceuticals, I waded into unknown waters.
After 3 days of taking Zoloft, my anxiety had increased to levels beyond which I could endure. I didn’t call my doctor or talk to anyone. I simply threw those pills away. I was not going to wait 3 months until I reached what they called the “therapeutic level.” I did take the Xanax now and then to quell the panic attacks, and it worked wonderfully. In between, I knew that having a couple of beers kept me calm too. In other words, if I wanted to remain calm and keep that anxiety at bay, I had to use drugs and alcohol. I had to self-medicate. There HAD to be a better way.
As with smoking, I knew that if I was going to tackle this new foe, I would need to educate myself. I read “The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook” by Edmund Bourne, and it was as if a light was turned on inside my head. I studied anxiety and panic, and a turning point for me came when I decided to make a friend of this enemy. I invited the panic attacks, and when they came, I studied them. I ranked them. I looked at each one as an opportunity to learn more about them. It was then that I had my epiphany. By wanting them to come so I could study them, I lost my fear of them, and in losing my fear of them, they disappeared.
I came to realize what was causing my anxiety. Over the years when I smoked, my brain created pathways that revolved around smoking. When I was feeling boredom, the pathway in my brain took me to……..a cigarette. When I was experiencing feelings of frustration, the pathway in my brain took me to……another cigarette. In other words, whenever I was experiencing any kind of negative emotion, my brain’s way to solving the problem led me to a cigarette. The key, then, was to create new pathways in my brain on how to deal with those feelings. I developed a meditation practice and learned how to breathe, really for the first time. I learned how to keep myself centered in the present. This was no easy matter. Rewiring your brain is a big undertaking. It took time, and a lot of practice. But I kept at it. As the months went by, the panic attacks lessened in intensity and frequency, until one day I realized they were gone. I haven’t had one since those days, and the anxiety I used to feel on a daily basis is now long ago and far way.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
It’s been 23 years since I quit smoking, and to be honest, I really don’t think of it much anymore. I don’t even think of myself as an ex-smoker. I don’t look down on people who still smoke, and I don’t lecture. Smoking just isn’t a part of my life, and sometimes I can’t believe it ever was. Am I ever tempted to smoke a cigarette? No. I can say confidently that I will never smoke again. More math. Since I have quit, I have NOT smoked 151,740 cigarettes, or about 7587 packs. In today’s prices, I have saved myself roughly $60,696 in cigarettes alone. That is NOT including the price of lighters, ruined clothing, and other collateral damage caused by cigarettes. Given 10 minutes for each cigarette, I have also saved myself 25,290 hours smoking where I spent that time doing something else. Best of all, my lungs are clear, I have no smokers hack, no tobacco smell on my breath and clothing, and a sense of freedom I never had when I was addicted to nicotine.
I have come a long way. You can too. I wish you well.