I smoked for 23 years. Three times I tried to give it up, and three times I failed. Each time, I tried to prepare myself by reading up on what to expect at different points in the quitting process, looking to people who had quit successfully to learn effective strategies to handle the anxiety, and relying on the people closest to me to keep me in a positive frame of mind. And each time, the withdrawal slammed me to the ground and stomped me into the dirt.
Finally, a couple of years ago I figured out why I was having such a hard time quitting: encouragement.
I hate it.
All of that happy, positive, “When you quit you’ll know what bluebirds really taste like and rainbows will smell so much better!” shit does not work on me. I figured that out in March of 2011 — and I haven’t had a cigarette since.
In January of last year I posted this in the Giving Up Smoking group at Daily Kos, in case it might help anyone else who was looking to quit:
Have you made a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking? Welcome!
Many of you have a plan. You’ve set today as your quit date, you’ve read books and websites telling you what to expect, and you’ve psyched yourself up for this. You’ve got a great support network around you. Maybe you’ve even got a workout plan, including distracting little exercises you can do at work when you feel a craving coming on. You’re happy, positive and looking forward to the new, healthier, non-smoking you. Well, you know what? You’ll be fine. You’re well prepared to handle the ups and downs that will come your way. You’re going to beat that nico-demon!
So I’m not talking to you.
Okay, now, the rest of you. The ones thinking: “‘Nico-demon’? Oh, Christ, this is another one of those ‘you can do it, li’l camper!’ pep talks. I hate those fucking things.”
So do I. When I quit smoking, my method was heavy on bitterness and sarcasm. I embraced the hell and owned the hostility, and so can you!
I smoked between a pack and a half and two packs a day for over 20 years. I had that perpetual cough, it hurt to take a deep breath first thing in the morning, and I was getting winded easily – you know what I’m talking about. Then this past March I came down with bronchitis. I knew I would recover, but I also knew that my gasping for air and diminished lung capacity would one day become permanent if I didn’t just stop with the damned smoking already.
Some background: my first quit attempt, a few years ago, lasted two and a half days (this was before I knew that the third day is often the hardest, and it usually gets easier from there). My second attempt, after reading a perky, happy, chipper “you can do it!” self-help book – picture a morning show host, but in paper form – lasted 24 hours. By then, I wanted to set the book on fire and light my cigarettes with the flames from the burning pages. My third attempt lasted 12 hours, if you count the 8 hours I was asleep.
This time, I didn’t set a quit date. I didn’t tell everyone I would quit and ask them to encourage me, like I had in the past. And I definitely didn’t go in with a positive attitude. Instead, when I was down to my last half pack, I told people “The plan is not to buy any more after this.” That was the plan – it didn’t mean I was going to follow through. I hedged my bets on whether I’d stick to it, because this time I wasn’t going to deny to myself the fact that this was going to suck.
I smoked the last cigarette from that pack at 2:30 a.m. on the morning of March 28, 2010 – and I haven’t had another one since. The first few weeks weren’t easy, but I had a mantra that I repeated to myself whenever I needed to focus:
Suck it up.
Like every smoker, I knew the day would come when I would have to stop. What I hadn’t thought of was that there would never be a day when I would want to stop. Perhaps I thought one day a switch would flip in my brain and I would think, “Okay, I’m finished with smoking now!” And when that day didn’t come, I forgave myself, thinking, “That’s okay, I’m just not ready yet.”
This quit stuck, I think, because I finally acknowledged that I would never be “ready.” I was addicted. The funny thing about addiction — I really, really like the thing I’m addicted to. And the funny thing about really, really liking the thing I’m addicted to? Giving it up is a bitch!
Yeah, yeah, I know, it was unhealthy. It was unattractive. As a selfish, horrible, evil little troll of a smoker, I was costing all of those perfect little vice-less people in our society* money in jacked-up health care costs.** But you know what? It was the occasional five minutes of happy in my boring, miserable cubicle-dwelling day. It was a reward when I was doing something I hate – “just let me get this part done, and I’ll go have a smoke.” It was an excuse to get up from the table early and go outside during dinner at my in-laws’ house (go outside to light up? I’d go outside to shoot up if it would get me five minutes away from them).
I couldn’t have that anymore. I hated that, and I wasn’t going to try to convince myself otherwise. In fact, not only did I stop trying to convince myself, but I wouldn’t let anyone else try to convince me either. I even laid down specific rules for everyone around me.
- tell me how much healthier I’ll be. If I gave a damn about my health, I never would have started smoking to begin with. STFU.
- say you’re happy for me. Bullshit. You’re happy for yourself because after years of you nagging me, I’m proving you right by giving in and quitting. STFU.
- say you feel proud of me. Proud of me? What am I, a four-year-old who can spell her name? STFU. Besides, I’m going through nicotine withdrawal – I don’t give a damn how you feel about anything. So again, STFU.
- tell me how wonderful life will be when I become a non-smoker. I’m not becoming a non-smoker. I’m also not becoming an ex-smoker. By the same token, I was never a smoker. I am now, and have always been, me. Smoking was something I used to do, and that I don’t do anymore. It has nothing to do with who I am, so don’t make it sound like I’m embarking on a voyage to become someone else entirely. You know what? I have no idea who that someone else is that you think I’m going to become, but if she’s anything like you, I’d probably hate her anyway. STFU.
- say “You can do it!” That’s what you said the last three times I tried to quit, you lying bucket of pus. STFU.
Instead, I told myself: “What are you going to do, wait until quitting smoking is fun? Really? And when will that be? Never, that’s when. But not quitting will make you sick and probably kill you. You’ve always known this, and you’ve always known that the day would eventually come when you’d quit. Well, that day is here. So suck it up.”
It’s been nine months. I don’t have to fall back on my mantra nearly as often anymore – maybe for a couple of seconds every few days. This desperate white-knuckle grip you’ve got on your sanity right now, or that you’ll have in a day or two? Yeah, it’s no fun, but it won’t last forever. Every minute without cigarettes is another minute of practice at functioning without them, and soon enough you’ll settle into a new normal that doesn’t include smoking. I know you don’t feel like that now. Did you think you would? What are you, special? You’re quitting smoking, and it sucks for everyone, even you. But because you’re not special, you’re going to do what everyone else who sticks with it does – succeed. The only way you won’t is if you light up again. (“But… but… I really want to light up again! This is really hard!” Yeah, been there, done that. You know what I’m going to say. Say it with me: suck it up.)
See, you don’t have to be positive. The things you tell yourself to get through a crave don’t have to be happy little affirmations. Face it, “Unicorns don’t smoke, and look how sparkly they are! I’m gonna be sparkly too!” rings a little hollow when the only thing you can think of, besides “smoke-smoke-smoke-smoke-smoke,” is smashing butterflies with a Precious Moments figurine.
Look, you know you really should quit. You don’t have to really want it – it can happen anyway. So suck it up.
*The best thing about quitting is that you have an excuse to go off on people. My preferred targets are those perfect little vice-less people. “Oh, would you SHUT the FUCK UP already, you sorry-ass societal-hall-monitor Mary Poppins motherfucker!” Followed immediately by “Sorry – I’m a mess. I just quit smoking.” Was I sorry? Of course not! But when those perfect little vice-less people hear that you’re giving up one of those terrible behaviors they’ve heard so much about but are too pure to have experienced personally, they’ll forgive anything! Gullible assholes.
**Because everybody knows health care would be dirt cheap otherwise.