As a teenager I was a full time smoker. I probably smoked on average ten cigarettes a day climbing to as high as sixty when I spent a summer working in Spain at seventeen. Luckily I got some sense after turning eighteen and I successfully quit. About a year after quitting I smoked a cigarette while out drinking and since then I have smoked frequently when on nights out. Even though I rarely drink these days, it is a habit I wish to shake off. I am writing this blog to reinforce my willpower to break the habit and I hope that talking about my previous experience quitting will help others to quit.
When I was young there were many things about smoking that aroused my curiosity. A lot of people in my age group and the age groups just above me smoked. A lot of adults I encountered through my parents’ social circles smoked. I heard a lot of conversations centred on smoking. Even though these were almost always negative I got a weird sense of community from smokers and I wondered what it would be like to be part of that community.
Before you ever smoke you are warned by all and sundry not to do it as “you will become addicted”. I think the problem with these warnings is that you end up programming kids to be addicted before they even smoke their first cigarette. People warning me I would be addicted didn’t numb my interest. I still wondered what the experience of smoking or even being addicted to smoking would be like. I think that consciously or subconsciously my friends and I set out to be addicted. In our perverse way we thought that smoking alone wasn’t cool enough, we had to be addicted as well.
Luckily when it came to quitting for the final time I had already consciously thought about this and knew it was something that contributed to my mental addiction. Even though I was only eighteen, it was probably my fourth or fifth time trying to quit. Ironically, I think my group also saw trying to quit smoking as being a part of the smoker image. The fact that my final time was my fourth or fifth time was crucial; I had failed a number of times and from experience I had learned enough to ultimately get over the line.
If I’m honest I happened upon most of the strategy that helped me quit accidentally. I didn’t realise at the time how important some of the things I was doing were. I randomly chose January as the month to quit and this turned out to be crucial in helping me do so. I didn’t read Allen Carr’s book then and I still haven’t but I have heard people talking about it and certainly some elements of my strategy are similar to his. My experience with smoking leads me to believe we are both mentally and physically addicted. It is rarely easy to polarise the two into distinct camps but I think if you can address some of the reasons for your mental addiction you can approach your physical addiction with more focus. The fire-power you previously wasted on your mental battle can be redeployed to fight the physical one.
When I stopped smoking in January 2003, I knew the date I would quit about two months in advance. I was a person that for the most part enjoyed the process of smoking but didn’t enjoy the current side-effects or want to experience the potential future ones. Because I had a strong belief that I would stop on the date set I didn’t carry any guilt about smoking. I really enjoyed smoking then and when I smoked I would think about all the reasons why. Because I had smoked guilt free for two months I had become aware of most of the reasons why I liked it. I didn’t realise it at the time but this was the most crucial thing I did that helped me stop.
Knowing the reasons why I enjoyed smoking helped to alleviate a massive mental battle. In the process of quitting when I got a craving for a cigarette, that craving seemed more logical and reasonable to me. Because of this my natural tendency was to understand and not to fight it. The craving would push on me all the reasons I enjoyed smoking, willing me hard to smoke. I would think, “Yes, they are all good reasons to want a cigarette but I have greater reasons for not wanting one”. I still went through the physical longings but they were much easier to handle than if my tendency was to fight them.
It was also crucial that I believed in the reasons I gave myself for quitting. If I was in doubt as to the validity of these reasons they would not have overpowered my urges. I think a lot of smokers put the harm of smoking out of their minds. The threat to their health does not seem real enough. When they try to quit their motivation is not strong enough and they fail. If you genuinely feel that your reasons for wanting to smoke are stronger than your reasons to quit you can address this imbalance by learning and thinking more about the ill-effects of smoking. Information is excellent fuel to set the propellers of motivation in motion. People sometimes put the dangers of smoking out of their head and think “Fuck it, I may not get cancer” or “Fuck it, we all die anyway” but living with the side effects of smoking as an older person seems to be something people rarely consider.
I know that spending time in a hospital ward with a stomach infection at sixteen provided part of the basis for my motivation. There were a lot of old people in my ward, the majority of whom had smoked all their lives. One had survived cancer and had his voice box removed. Others had never had cancer but their quality of life was abysmal anyway. There were sixty years olds in that hospital ward who looked and acted ninety years of age. This experience was important in forming my motivation because it made me realise that even if I am one of the lucky ones who avoids cancer what are the benefits I will experience? Smoking is a life or death gamble and the prize for winning that gamble is a pretty shitty one.
How you find your motivation depends on what your feelings on smoking are. Every doubt you have about quitting is not something to be blocked out or denied. It is your brain feeding you data about the reasons you won’t quit. Try and listen to each doubt individually and seek out information relating to it or allow yourself to think about the doubt and decide if it makes sense. The reasons you find in your time preparing to quit become logic injections (Jared Tendler 2011, The Mental Game of Poker), ready to be rolled out when the physical withdrawal symptoms may make you forget the reasons you wanted to quit in the first place. It should be useful to write down at least three of these logic injections for the times when the cravings become so bad you don’t see the point in not smoking. Look at them as your back-up parachute.
When I first quit smoking I did it on a Monday which I am sure is the day most people choose; picking Friday seems a little ambitious. The first week off cigarettes is fairly challenging; you can expect quite a few strong physical cravings each day. The first night out is probably the hurdle that most frequently trips people up. You will be put under more pressure and feel much differently about your cravings than you did at home or at work. I hate to say it but don’t expect any support from other smokers. When someone in a group gives up smoking it is often seen as a game with everyone waiting to see when the quitter will crack. It makes quitting more challenging when others don’t believe you can quit but because others expect you to fail doesn’t mean you have to.
Getting over the first night out is tough but extremely rewarding. You will have a clearer head not just that night but on the following day. The difference between a hangover as a smoker and a non-smoker is the difference between a holiday in the Bahamas or in a caravan with Fr Noel Furlong http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMS2NT-gEIw If you can bank that first night without a cigarette your enjoyment and the next day’s clear head will help form more motivation making your next night out easier to handle.
I find that on the first week even though the challenge is at its highest, so is your motivation and this provides an interesting energy mix. In hindsight I think the feelings of victory from getting past each individual craving actually provided me with substitute stimulation to nicotine.
A new challenge presents itself in the second and third weeks when the physical cravings become weaker and the battle lines are less clearly drawn. Your day lacks the same stimulation you had when you smoked or initially quit and you start to become bored. Through all the times I tried and failed to quit smoking the time I got tripped up most frequently was through general boredom in the second or third weeks. When the physical cravings lessen it starts to feel like you are losing something. You look at your life and suddenly realise all the situations when you smoked are no more. You start to wonder what the hell else you did besides smoking. The montage reel of your happy memories with smoking starts to play. It feels like you just dumped the family dog by the side of a road because he pissed in your slippers. It’s not too late to get him back. Let’s bring the dog home, let the good times roll and forget the whole thing ever happened. These times are extremely challenging because you are in a situation where you genuinely feel your life would be better if you smoked. Your body and your mind are fighting the adjustment.
These feelings may seem like they will last forever but they won’t; for me they dissipated after the first three weeks. From there on out life gets far more enjoyable. You start to reap the benefits of being a non-smoker fairly quickly. After the first two or three days you will notice your lungs are clearer; after two or three weeks the difference is monumental. You have a lot more energy, both mental and physical. Things taste and smell better. A lot of people are surprised by the strong sense of smell that returns after quitting (I had to have a shower right away). The fears of heart disease and cancer that played out in your mind are no more and your sense of well-being is increased immeasurably.
As I mentioned earlier in the blog I failed at quitting a number of times before succeeding .You probably will too. Quitting smoking is a huge challenge. It’s perfectly normal to fail. We don’t set out to fail, we set out to do everything in our power to succeed, but when failure happens our brain has consciously and unconsciously learned and there is a lot of data to analyse. Getting angry and judging ourselves as an individual failure instead of human beings makes it harder for us to access that data. If you do fail try to go easy on yourself. When you are ready to try quitting again you have a much better chance of getting over the hurdle that tripped you up this time.
It was with the benefit of hindsight and studying the psychology relating to learning and poker that I realised why the strategy I accidentally embarked on was so crucial to me quitting. The main source of my recognition was Jared Tendler and Barry Carter’s book “The Mental Game of Poker”. My next blog addresses quitting smoking through the lens of theories presented in that book.