How I Quit Smoking on 6/23/06

How I Quit Smoking on 6/23/06

On June 23, 2006, I sat on the deck behind my house in Pittsburgh, watching the sun set over the distant hills, and smoked my last cigarette.

I quit because a few months earlier, my doctor had said, “So you’re a smoker?”

“Yeah, just a half a pack a day,” I said, although the truth was I often smoked a pack a day.

“When did you start?” she asked with a frown.

“When I was eighteen.”

She looked up. “Well, you’re thirty-eight now, so you’ve been smoking for twenty years.”

Twenty years?

There was something about that number that undid me.

Twenty years!

That was over half the number of years I’d been alive. So I decided to quit, and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty.

Bad Things That Happened

  • I had many, many emotional meltdowns.
  • I lost language for awhile. You know how older people will start a sentence and then stop and say, “Guess I’m having a senior moment”? Yeah, I had one of those every fifteen minutes, which is scary when you make your living as a writer and teacher. I can’t afford to lose words.
  • I gained 30 or 40 pounds, weight that aggravated my bad back and I’m just now shedding.
  • I also went through a period after I quit smoking and before I met my husband where I replaced smoking with drinking, and yeah, that wasn’t a solution.

This time period is fairly thoroughly chronicled in my second book, Comeback Season, so I’ll spare you all the gory details. If you want to “watch” me cry in my basement and double-fist Everlasting Gobstoppers, feel free to read the book.

How I Quit

Everyone smokes for a different reason. If any of this resonates with you, great.

The main thing: In order to quit smoking, I had to rethink my entire life and how I lived it, which was really, really hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I mean that. The hardest.

I read a book whose title I have forgotten, but the gist was that you can’t rely on nicotine replacement, because then you’re just replacing one addiction for another, getting hooked on gum or the patch. You aren’t solving the problem, which is–figuring out why you need cigarettes emotionally and psychologically. My friend, the poet Richard Robbins, once told me this: The physical need for nicotine leaves you after two or three weeks, and after that, it’s all a mind game.

Figure out why you need cigarettes emotionally 

Why did I need them?

Reason 1: Quitting smoking made me realize that I’m an introvert. For twenty years, I’d used cigarettes to help me “push through” the day. Say I’ve been teaching all day, and in the evening, there’s a visiting writer on campus who needs to be taken out to a big dinner with lots of people at the table trying to be clever, then a reading, then a big reception of more people trying to be clever. When I smoked, I could handle a day like that–as long as I smoked. But when I quit, I realized that I only have enough charge in my battery to get through one, maybe two big extroverted social interactions per day. After that, I’m done. I’ve got to go home and recharge. This isn’t always convenient, and sometimes (I think) people believe I’m being rude or standoffish. I was raised to be polite and accommodating, even if doing so is not in my best interests. In order to quit smoking, I had to stop worrying about what other people thought about me, stop wondering if I was doing what others expected. That was (and still is) really hard.

Reason 2: Quitting smoking made me realize my brain likes reward pellets. Cigarettes were my reward for…well, almost everything. Teaching a class. Finishing a story. Finishing a paragraph. Driving 500 miles. Driving to the grocery store. A friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, told me once that what he missed about drinking was how he’d come home from work every night and have a little party with himself. When he quit drinking, he still needed the parties, so he’d smoke and eat instead. Then he quit smoking and just ate at them and gained a bunch of weight. So: no more parties with himself. He started running 10 miles after work instead. That phrase, “having a little party with myself,” resonated very strongly with me. It’s the need for those little parties that’s my problem, as well as how I celebrate.

Find other guilty pleasures

Gradually, I’ve changed what my reward pellets are, taking away cigarettes, then booze, then bowls of popcorn/crap food, and next I need to tackle Facebook/Twitter.

I’ve found other, less harmful guilty pleasures:

  • young adult novels, particularly romances
  • a visual novel/TV series, one episode right after the other, like candy.
  • smoothies
  • smelly candles
  • painting my nails
  • shopping at Goodwill
  • kissing my dog

Give yourself lots of coping mechanisms

My last piece of advice is this: when you first quit smoking, you have to give yourself as many “outs” as possible. White knuckling is stupid. When I really wanted a cigarette, I’d try to calm myself down with candy or regular gum, maybe some breathing, then maybe some tea or fruit juice. I’d call my mom or my Health Coach, or go for a walk, or pop in a movie and try to zone out. I stepped up my therapy appointments. I allowed myself–at most–one or two pieces of nicotine gum a day and didn’t buy more than one box. I had a long list of ways to “tackle” the craving, and if it truly wouldn’t dissipate, I’d take an Ativan. Please understand: I needed every one of those coping mechanisms. One less, and I probably would have fallen off the wagon.

Smoke-Free Campus

Last month, my employer, Ball State University, announced that, starting Aug. 1, it’s eliminating all designated smoking areas on campus. You can’t smoke anywhere but in your own vehicle with the windows rolled up. I’m amazed by this, and if I was still a smoker, I’d probably be freaking out right now.

But I’m not a smoker anymore. So I’m not.




  1. Kiley Neal says:

    Thanks for sharing, Cathy, and happy smoke-free-iversary. I love to hear about people quitting smoking. My mom quit cold turkey when she got pregnant with me, and her coping mechanism was to go and brush her teeth every time she got a craving. Now my dad is trying to quit at 55 and eating a lot of butterscotch candies! Will definitely share some of your advice with him.

  2. I quit smoking before my sons were born. I am a grandmother. However, since I have asthma, the possibility of a different scenario is real. I write songs and sing them now, not possible with a partial lung–or worse. The suggestions you give work for other addictions, potato chips, coffee, or chocolate. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for writing about this, Cathy. It sure sounds like a difficult move. After my father quit smoking (mostly a pipe) he claimed that no one understood how hard quitting was for him and thus never gave him enough credit. I’m sure he was right, especially after reading your post. Problem with my dad was that what we all REALLY wanted him to do was stop drinking. That he would never do.

  4. Kyle says:

    I’m not a smoker, but the rule requiring smokers to hole up like lepers in their car coffins seems terribly inhumane.

    • Cathy Day says:

      I guess the thinking is that they can/should/will be forced to smoke at home, but not on school property. Cars being ones own property. I’m someone who used to smoke outside academic buildings or on my way between buildings. Never thought about how others felt about breathing in my smoke. It makes sense to me that a colleges are doing this as a way to stand behind all their green, sustainability, healthy-living initiatives.

      • rebecca says:

        I used to be a two-pack-a-day smoker. Almost 17 years ago I went cold turkey. And still when I walk through someone’s cloud of smoke it gives me a craving. So I really appreciate all efforts to make it so I don’t have to breathe in that poison again.

        Kudos to you for quitting and for staying away, the hardest part!

  5. Lee Martin says:

    Cathy, thanks so much for sharing your story with us. And good for you for having the strength of character that it takes to quit. I had my last cigarette in 1979. Quitting was the best gift I ever gave myself. It just keeps on giving!

  6. Congratulations on the anniversary of doing such an incredibly hard thing and thank you for sharing your process. It sounds like you really took care of yourself while you were quitting, which really made it work. We all need to take better care of ourselves.

  7. Sarah Adler says:

    Wow! That is exactly it. It is the little reward pellet and finding new ones that are pleasurable but not destructive. And, the need for the quiet time is so critical. I now know I can’t multitask. I don’t like a lot of noise and I have no urge to go out with large groups of people. I do it to meet new people and push my envelope, but I know what to expect from myself. Age is a great thing.

  8. Maija says:

    Cathy, nicely done! Congrats on your seven years as a nonsmoker!

    I quit, in my mid-30s, when my two children were small, after reading about a study that showed that one predictor of whether a child is likely to grow up to be a smoker is whether that child’s mother smoked when the child was age 3.

    When I read that study my eldest was 5; my youngest was about to turn 3. I’d tried several times before to quit, but I got busy.

    I used what I’d learned in Al-Anon about the psychology of addiction — the illusion that the substance will help. Because cigarettes are so highly addictive, there’s no such thing as just one. I knew from experience that for me, one cigarette would soon lead to two packs a day. So all I had to do was turn down that one… OVER and OVER and OVER again.

    Shortly afterward I quit, my youngest got his fingers caught in a grocery store conveyor belt — drama, cries, commotion — and we dashed to the emergency room (he was fine). During the most stressful moments, I said to my husband at the time, “I’m going to go home and stuff two packs of cigarettes in my mouth all at once.”

    He said calmly, “No, you’re not.” Much to my surprise, I didn’t. I wouldn’t have helped anything.

    A few years later, my mother — a lifelong smoker — was diagnosed with emphysema. She died after a lengthy, miserable decline. Awful for her, awful to watch.

    May those who still smoke find freedom from the addiction. Life is so much better without it.

  9. Maija says:

    I forgot to mention… My then 5-year-old grew up to be a smoker; my 3-year-old did not. Just coincidence, perhaps.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thank you for sharing that story! I like that example, of saying no over and over. My dad started smoking when I was young and still does. My siblings and I have all used tobacco.

  10. Simone says:

    This is great. There are surprisingly few “real life” stories of people quitting smoking without some “ulterior motive” of convincing everyone else to quit etc. It’s so nice to just hear a blow-by-blow account of what you did and how you did it. I appreciate the honesty and I’m sure this post will motivate and inspire plenty of other wanna-be ex-smokers.

  11. M.A.Sinnhuber says:

    Thanks for your story, Cathy. I was a 10-year smoker. A daughter is a 30 year smoker. I will send your article to her. Back in the 70’s, everyone smoked. A 3-pack/day smoker, I quit (cold turkey) because I knew I was killing myself with chronic bronchitis and ill health. This was before the patch, so for while, I smoked a pipe to get nicotine, then cigaratello-cigars. I would go into other’s offices and inhale the second hand smoke to get high. I gained weight too but weight comes off…and on…and off. The docs are ‘watching’ a nodule on my lung, because I smoked almost 50 years ago. Thank you for sharing your important, inspiring story. xoxo

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