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.”
There was something about that number that undid me.
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.
- 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.
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.