Today marks my four year anniversary of being able to quit smoking. I’ve been hesitant to really talk about it for a few reasons. Mainly:
- I’ve cleaned up my act substantially, and I work with a lot of health and wellness brands. So, openly discussing my former smoking habit made me nervous about the judgment that can come along with it. ” YOU used to SMOKE?!!” I used to try to hide it when I did smoke, so it’s not something I really want to flaunt now that I don’t.
- I smoked from the age of 16 to 29. That’s 13 years of my life. Like any person recovering from a former unstoppable habit, I never wanted to preach about how WONDERFUL my life is without cigs—and then fall back into smoking. But I feel like the 4-year mark is the right time to do it—it’s like I’m graduating from the college of former smokers.
- As someone who smoked quite a bit on a daily basis, I get it. I know the in’s and out’s of why someone smokes, what it feels like to go take a cig break, how relaxing it can be to sit around and have a conversation while smoking cigs. So although cigs were so bad for my health, I also remember all the things I really liked about it too. And I never want to shame anyone who is still smoking, with the whole “I quit so now I’m better…” That’s not the truth at all.
But I do want to share a little bit about my relationship with smoking and how and why I did end up quitting—because I know it’s not an easy thing to kick (when you truly want to do it) and my intention is to just be totally honest and hopefully, help someone who’s in the same smoky boat I used to be in.
For years, I searched for the easiest way to quit smoking. I thought Google would have the answer or a hypnotist or a pack of gum. I desperately searched for HOW to quit – when what I really needed to explore was WHY.
Most people who smoke take on one of three attitudes:
- Defensive af – Smoking isn’t bad for you and even if it is, so is everything else, so YOLO.
- The Hybrid Attitude – I know it’s bad, but it feels so good.
- Regrets – Why am I even doing this? I wish I knew how to stop, but I’m stuck.
When I was a smoker, I would fluctuate through all these attitudes pretty much on a daily basis. The thing about smoking is: we all KNOW, deep down inside, it’s not the healthiest thing for us. We all see the horrible pictures and hear about lung cancer. But somehow, the need for the nicotine quiets these warnings out. We justify and make excuses. I know because I made ALL the excuses and justifications for almost 15 years.
My first wake-up call was when I went to the doctor at 26 years old, after years of having chronic bronchitis—and my doctor looked me in the eye and said: “You have a perfectly clean bill of health, something many people would pray for. And you’re ruining it with cigarettes.” I had to get chest x-rays (which turned out fine) and do breathing tests (which showed I was developing asthma. I was literally giving myself a breathing problem.) This was a sobering experience, but did it make me stop? Nope!
I started trying to learn more. One thing I learned about smoking that really changed my perspective on it was HOW it affected my brain. There are all these chemicals in our brains which regulate our moods. Hence…drugs. People take drugs to affect these chemicals and make them feel better. Nicotine is a drug, and with time, our body becomes used to it. We don’t need it to feel better; we literally need it to feel happy.
When you smoke for years and years, your brain releases happy chemicals every time you have a cigarette. So your body, over time, becomes wired to the point where your brain only knows how to release happy chemicals when a certain amount of nicotine is present in your system. When it drops, so does your mood and bodily functioning – and that’s why we reach for another one. And another one, and another one.
On a physical level, it’s easy to see why it’s so g-dang hard to kick the nasty habit. But after three days (sometimes less if you’re a pro-detox-er), the nicotine is out of your system. So you would think – okay three days of hell, and then you’re over this? WRONG.
Because smoking cigs isn’t just about the physical dependancy. It’s about your mind and emotions and your feelings too. I personally realized, after a few years of failed attempts at quitting, that it was equally important to look at how I even began smoking and why I’d been reliant on smoking than just trying to figure out a way to quit. I’d tried all the different how’s—so it was time to look at why.
I picked up smoking at the age of 16. I was young, had no clue what the long-term effects would be/thought I was invincible and that nothing bad would ever happen to me, and honestly wanted to fit in, as cliche as that sounds. I would get rides home from school and smoke with friends. When I first started, I had to have a Jolly Rancher in my mouth because I hated the taste of it so much. I also threw up after Homecoming one year, not from drinking, but from smoking too many cigarettes in a row.
Slowly but surely, it became a daily habit. And it became my emotional crutch. When things got stressful, I would go have a cig. When I was tired, cig. Bored, cig. Mad, cig. Sad, cig. It was my cure-all for everything.
And at the time I started smoking, I needed a bit of a cure-all. My home life was not exactly peaceful. Smoking was an act of a rebellion and it was an outlet for me to release all the emotional, heavy shit that was going on at home. And it was a way for me to feel “cool”, as lame as that sounds.
What I didn’t realize was that it actually became a huge middle finger to myself. After high school, I went away to college and my smoking habit only got worse because now I could smoke wherever and whenever I wanted. Naturally, I made friends who were all smokers too. My sophomore year I lived in a 5 bedroom apartment and we all smoked inside. I remember taking a shower and smelling the smoke coming in through the fan in the bathroom ceiling. Or laying in bed, falling asleep to my roommate’s secondhand smoke. I had the nastiest cough and people would openly comment on how loud and gross my cough sounded.
Still, didn’t stop me. After college, I lived with friends who all smoked. I started making attempts to quit. I tried hypnosis three times. Cold turkey a few. The patch. The gum. I would be able to last one to three months. But I always crumbled and came crawling back. And it’s because it wasn’t just about the craving for nicotine for me. It was much more than that.
Smoking was my way of handling the world. I thought that without smoking, I would never be able to handle stress. I wouldn’t be able to drink and have fun. Taking away the thing that comforted me for half my life was terrifying. Cigarettes had become like my adult-version of a pacifier, as pathetic as that sounds.
Until I was about to turn 30. And this is when shit got real. I knew if I kept smoking past 30, that would be it. I would keep smoking the rest of my life probably. And it would kill me. It would ruin my clean bill of health. And that scared me more than anything.
I thought about quitting and I wasn’t sure when to do it. I knew I wanted it to be on or before my birthday, but I kept making excuses for when Day 1 should be – mainly because I knew it wasn’t going to tickle (meaning, it wouldn’t feel good to quit) and I wasn’t looking forward to the physical and mental anguish of withdrawal. Because let’s be honest, it fucking sucks.
Then, out of nowhere, three months before my 30th birthday, I ended up going to two funerals, both for people who unfortunately had struggled with substances and died.
That opened my eyes a lot. I realized that by smoking cigarettes, I am no different than these people laying in the coffin. If I kept chipping away at my health, slowly but surely, cig by cig, it would eventually land me in the same place. And death by cigs was not a way I wanted to go.
So two weeks later, before my 30th birthday, I went out with all my girlfriends and had the wildest night of my life. We stayed out until dawn and I drank and smoked to my heart’s content. I woke up the next day feeling like shit and that was it. I did not smoke that day. Or the next. Or the next.
I made it to my 30th birthday and was smoke-free. A few times over the following few months, I would be in situations with friends and either take one puff of a cigarette and hate it or have one (seriously, just one) when I was drinking and feel awful about it the next day. But I pretty quickly became totally repulsed by them—and I haven’t touched one since. I’m now that person who holds her breath when passing someone who is smoking on the street—mainly because my lungs are screaming at me: No, no, no, please don’t ever breath that shit in again!!!
My relationship with smoking had changed. I no longer needed it. And I saw it for what it was. Something that might feel good in the moment, but was ultimately killing me. Much like a bad boyfriend, it was time to look this frog in the face and say no more.
So how did I finally quit smoking? It wasn’t about the HOW. It could have been cold turkey or with hypnosis or acupuncture or the patch. Those are all different roads to take to get to the same place. Ultimately, what made it successful for me, was looking at WHY I smoke and figuring out a new solution for that.
It wasn’t easy for a while. Most of my good friends still smoked. So that was tough and I slowly stopped going to as many social events, mainly because I couldn’t sit on a porch around cig smoke all night anymore.
I know I might sound like I am so perfect now and I’ve mastered life because I quit smoking. I am not. After I quit, my relationship with alcohol changed too. Without smoking breaks, I realized I was drinking a lot more for a while there. And not just like had one too many. So, that was something I had to reign in too.
I gained a little weight but I’m okay with it. I’d rather be a little curvier than super skinny and smoking a pack a day. I don’t live each day thinking about the next time I can have a cigarette. I have dreams about smoking and even in my dreams, I say no. Which means this choice is really deeply rooted in me now. Hallelujah!
I’m super lucky that I don’t have any obvious diseases from my decade and a half on cigs. But I can tell you that since quitting, my metabolism and thyroid are messed up from it. My skin gets insanely dry ever since I quit. My stomach was bloated for like 14 months because my digestive system was trying to heal. I’ve found out I have an autoimmune thyroid issue—which I know was most likely brought on early because I smoked. My main point is I was lucky enough to avoid cancer, but I definitely see the consequences of my habit that haven’t been fun.
I understand more than anyone what it’s like to feel like you need something to survive. To feel like you’re not even really sure how you would act without using that substance to get you through. But from my experience, I couldn’t just slap on a patch and say that was it. I had to really dig deep and figure out what my dependency was based on.
And I had to realize – and truly own – the fact that I deserve better. I deserve a healthy, vibrant life. I deserve to live freely every day. I deserve to breathe.
The thought of having a cig now absolutely grosses me out. Every fiber of my being curls up at the thought of it. An ashtray is my worst nightmare.
The moral of all this is that: If I can quit smoking, anyone can. And I really mean that.
Also, I want to point out that, at no point in talking about this, have I used the word “addict” or “addiction.”
I feel like those words are super shaming. A person is not born as this like a crazed addict who just gets hooked on things and has no moral compass whatsoever. In my experience, anyone who is labeled an “addict” usually has some other issue going on, probably stemming from something that’s not even their fault (maybe it’s the way they’re wired or they’ve grown up in abusive situations or suffered from lots of trauma and loss)—and they’re self-medicating with a substance, which can then become substance abuse.
And although it is ultimately their choice, I definitely try to be more compassionate and understanding, especially because I’m a person who could be labeled as an “addict” too. Because anyone who is using something, whether it’s cigarettes, alcohol, or heroin, is someone who is hurting and who is looking for a little buzz to fill them up. I’ll step off the soapbox now—but I listened to this podcast earlier this week and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I’m obsessed with Jonathan Van Ness—and the ideas he discusses with Dr. Jaffe on addiction and abstinence are very on point:
I hope this is helpful for anyone who is trying to quit smoking. I know I spent countless hours reading articles and blog posts when I was trying to quit. If you want to chat more, I’m happy to connect! So many people helped me, so just remember it’s not something you have to do alone.