Friday, April 27, 2012

Quitting Smoking: I did it and so are you!

One of the things that I've done recently that I'm most pleased with is to finally quit smoking, and I thought I'd take a bit of time today to talk about it.

I started smoking around the age of 18 or 19, can't remember exactly when. The reason was because it seemed cool. I know, biggest cliche ever, but hey, it was the early 1990's, grunge music was kicking heavy metal's butt out of the cool kids table, and having a smoke was something to do. The sad truth is that smoking - is - kind of cool, no matter what the anti-drug ads, parents, teachers, doctors, and everyone else say about it. You get to inhale smoke, exhale it, look like a rebel, intimidate people (if you want to), look mysterious, look thoughtful, look creative, look pissed off, and get a buzz. It's a way to bottle up emotion, deal with stress, relax, and do something in awkward situations like parties. If you're standing around smoking, well, at least you have an excuse to talk to the person next to you.

The problem with it of course is that it's also a horrible, filthy, expensive, life-stealing habit that makes you smell terrible and die an agonizing death that includes being slowly choked into oblivion by your own cancer-filled lungs. Not exactly sexy.

I'm 37 years old, and one thing I noticed as I aged up a bit was that when I was younger, smoking was considered to be more cool and socially-acceptable. I began to notice in the past five or so years that there were far fewer smokers around me, and I'd get "looks" from people as I smoked outside. The look said, "YOU'RE A FILTHY, HORRIBLE PERSON WHO IS FILLING MY PURE-AS-SNOW-LUNGS WITH SECOND-HAND DEATH, TERROR MERCHANT!!!" Well, maybe that's a bit harsh, but it seems like people are willing to let a 25 year old smoke, but if you're still 35 and smoking, it's somehow worse. It could be that I simply witnessed a cultural shift, that society in general has become less tolerant of cigarettes, but it seems tied to age to me. I guess people think you should be smarter at 35 than you were at 25, and those people wouldn't be wrong.

Ultimately, quitting smoking is the best thing to do. I smoked for somewhere along the range of 18ish years. That's a lot of addiction. You really do see a visible difference over time between smokers and non-smokers. Smokers look "grey", for lack of a better phrase, and honestly tend to have more wrinkled skin. The other thing (at least for me), is that it contributed to a "lifestyle chili" that left me fat, unhappy, and out of shape at the age of 37.

This chili includes numerous ingredients, including a lack of physical activity, smoking, beer, bad jobs, and an overall unhealthy lifestyle. (image from Wikipedia)

I'm sure I'm not the first person to decide to make some changes following the birth of their first child, but that was the initial motivating factor for me. Sure, I'd "tried to quit" several times in the past, but the honest truth was my heart just wasn't into it. I'd bitch for a couple of days as I suffered from the physical withdrawals of smoking, then get mentally weak and light up. This brings me to Jerry's First Rule of Quitting Smoking:

You have to fucking actually quit smoking cigarettes.

Jerry's Second Rule of Quitting Smoking is:

You have to deal with the mental weakness and other bullshit issues that a lifetime of addiction will cause, and actually deal with it, not whine about how tough it is and then crumble like a cookie left to get all dry and crumbly somewhere dry and crumble-prone.

Easier said than done! Not following rule one or two is the leading scientific cause for people not quitting smoking, I think.

To get back to my initial decision, after Jeffrey was born I realized that by smoking I wasn't just hurting myself (or my wife, since she had to watch me smoke), but I was sending a terrible message of addiction to my son. Additionally, I could see what a lifetime of bad decision making had led to, and didn't want Jeffrey to be 20 years old telling his friends about his dead dad who passed away from lung cancer. I wanted to be healthier and not spend a ton of money on smokes, either, but the primary motivating factor for me was a desire to not-die combined with a desire to not have my son watch me kill myself through cigarettes.

Here's the rub, though: I may still die of lung cancer. That's the sad truth, and is something that all of the American Lung Association types and quit-smoking folks don't tell you. Even if you quit, you're simply going to not make it worse. It's not like quitting smoking magically turns decades of nicotine crud into magical fairy dust that comes out of your butt when you fart. It takes years, perhaps even decades, for your body to slowly purge the badness from you, and even then the damage may already have been done. This isn't the kind of motivational message that stop-smoking-now folks like to pass along, but it's true, unfortunately. I may still die of lung cancer due to the smoking I did, and I'm just going to have to live with that. The seed of cancer may have been planted, so to speak. The problem is, thinking too much about this kind of thing makes it easy to justify continuing to smoke. In my case, I had to simply resign myself to this reality, and realize that yes, damage has been done, but by stopping now I can hopefully prevent an absolute and turn it into a possibility. This brings me to Jerry's Third Rule of Quitting Smoking:

There are a bunch of ways you can convince yourself to keep smoking, and it can seem really hopeless. Give yourself a list of reasons to not smoke, and make it honest. Don't put, "I want to be healthy" if you don't give a crap about being health-conscious. Instead, say, "I will buy myself a Playstation 3 with the money I save" if that's the kind of thing that will actually work for you.

Incidentally, I now own a Playstation 3. It's awesome! Coolest video game system ever made, in my opinion. Besides playing Hi-Def Netflix, streaming movies, and Blu-Ray discs, it also has killer graphics, a wireless controller, great games, and even looks kinda swank. I'm sure I'll be talking about playing games on it in future columns. There were other things I put onto that list of reasons to no longer smoke, including a longer life, not having Jeffrey grow up in a home with smokers in it, and making my wife Sarah happy, but for me, the "peer approved" list of standard motivational junk just wouldn't work for me. I'm a rebel! I hate "the man", and telling me I can't do something is about as good a reason as any to do it! For me, I needed an honest list, with clear goals, and I needed to make those goals better than, "I want to feel better about myself."

<---What I wished my internal stop-smoking voice was like.
What my internal stop-smoking voice was actually like.--->

 (Baby image from Maggie Smith on, other image is of Bruce Lee, attribution unknown.)

So, I made the list. I took 24 hours to still smoke and enjoy it, then stopped. Didn't have "one last smoke" after my cutoff point, didn't buy a pack "just in case", didn't "put it off until a time when I wasn't so stressed out", whatever. I quit. I put it down on a calendar as a quit date, and did it.

Actually, I continued to get lots of nicotine. Honestly, this made a huge difference in my success rate, because I very, very slowly, over the course of a few months, weaned myself off of my addiction. For me, it wasn't really the physical addiction, since that goes away approximately three days after your last cigarette, but it was the mental hook of nicotine over time that got me in the past. By using a nicotine patch, I was able to address the mental habits and plain 'ol routine of smoking that had kept me smoking for years, and still get the physical drug that was keeping me sane. Slowly, over 12 weeks, I followed the three-step patch program, and for me at least, it meant that I was able to withdraw from nicotine relatively easily.

That's not to say I didn't "nic fit." I got very crabby (just ask Sarah), lashed out, whined and cried a lot (mostly internally), and frequently craved with the strength of a thousand suns a cigarette. It's hard for non-smokers to understand just how deep that need can be, and how it isn't just a matter of "dealing with it." But then again, here's Jerry's Fourth Rule of Quitting Smoking.

You're gonna just have to deal with it. Yes, it sucks. A lot. You'll need internal strength to conquer your smoking addiction.

It does get easier! Honestly. For the first couple of days after I took off that last nicotine patch, I would have brain-melting fits of need approximately every-couple-of-pretty-much-constantly-you-fuck! Seriously. But here's the thing: by the one-month mark, it was every couple of hours. By two months, every couple of days. Now, even when I experience a knife-stab of nicotine addiction need, it doesn't phase me. Yeah, I still get those fits, but the strength I get from knowing I've beat this thing easily counteracts whatever brain chemistry is reacting to my long-term addiction.

One thing that helped me is to think of the plight that severe heroin addicts and alcoholics face: They can't just start shooting up or drinking again because they feel bad and it's tough. To be successful at beating a severe thing like addiction, you have to be willing to not do it despite the long-term challenge. One remaining issue with smoking is that while it's really, really bad for you, everyone knows it, and society is largely turning into a place where smoking is rejected, it's pretty darn easy to smoke. You can't just shoot up heroin outside of your office's side door, but there's a pretty good chance you can smoke if you want to. Now, I'm not saying we need to get the force of law involved, I'm just saying that as a smoker it's a factor that works against you when you want to quit. For me, when I'd be in that position, I'd think of the addicts out there that had it worse, and used that to give me a bit of strength to not cave in.

It's true that you'll want support, because peer pressure works, if nothing else. Ultimately, having friends and loved ones "watching over you" will provide a necessary bit of oversight in the early days, but it will never replace the requirement that you have to be the one to not cave in. This brings me to Jerry's Fifth Rule of Quitting Smoking:

If you are a lifelong non-smoker, shut the hell up with the advice. You probably aren't helping.

It's harsh, but true, at least in my case. "How's the quitting going?" made me want to pretty much punch someone in the gut. "Make sure to drink lots of water! Have you had some fruit?" made me want to vomit ninja throwing stars in their face. Now, I realize that "Jerry's quitting smoking" was something that was a part of the daily goings-on around them, and people tend to talk about the things that are happening in their life. I know they wanted to help, honestly! Rather than advice, though, I would have preferred comments of reinforcement. Something like, "You're doing great, it's an impressive thing you are doing." "You look good today, thanks for quitting!" Maybe I'm being dumb here, but non-smokers need to realize that quitting smoking is really, really hard, and making someone feel better about themselves is probably better than giving them bullshit advice about something the advice-giver has not actually experienced.

I am incredibly happy that I've finally kicked this horrible smoking habit. I know in my heart that I will not cave in, no matter what happens. I really do feel better and "have more energy" as they say, and not-smoking has given me a significantly larger pool of money to spend. Smoking is expensive! I hope I can convince Jeffrey to not start smoking, but that's up to him. It could be that when he's older, smoking will truly be a relic of the past. If not, he'll probably smoke because it'll look cool. My hope is that he realizes how bad it is, and doesn't follow in his dad's footsteps.

Quitting smoking is one of the hardest personal challenges I've accomplished so far, and I'm really glad I did it.

Next up: I get fat, and decide to do something about it. Thanks for reading!


  1. wow, that's really helpful. I just quit today. Day 1 and I'm ready to kill someone. This does get easier, right?

  2. Yes! It gets a lot easier, as long as you have the strength to stick with it past those first couple of terrible days. Good luck!