One year ago, almost to the day, I quit smoking. Three months after that, I started back up. As I type these words, nine months after that, I'm trying again, wrapping up my first full day of quitting. And, like last time, it is all I can do to stop myself from punching everyone in their softest body parts.
But as I sit here feeling like Nazi Facemelt from Raiders of the Lost Ark, I realize that there are some things that this first, torturous day of quitting can teach a man about life ...
Being fired from your job. Coming out of the closet. Giving up anything that people consider trivial, like video games or pornography. Only being able to satisfy eight of the 11 women currently in your bed.
Hey, not everyone subscribes to the old-fashioned "seen and not heard" philosophy.
If the person you're talking to hasn't done it, they won't get it. And you can't get pissed at them for that.
Ever heard someone in an office announce that they've quit smoking? Or maybe you've done it yourself. It's always met with some polite cheers and a "Good for you, buddy." From an outside, non-addicted eye, that seems like a perfectly normal response, right? It's deserving of praise, but what the hell else can a person say about it? The most they can do is give their version of "I agree with this decision" and get back to pretending they're not playing Minecraft on company time.
So within seconds of your announcement, the world goes back to normal, and you're left feeling a little shorted. This is a big fucking deal, guys. But what we tend to forget while we're waiting for someone to start our celebratory parade is that 72 percent of the U.S. doesn't smoke, and not all of the ones who do have tried to quit. To the rest, your decision to quit smoking is on par with their decision to give up chocolate -- they don't realize you feel like weasels have gnawed on your muscles and then shit in your brain.
"Oh, don't even get me started! Cheesecake, now there's an addiction! Why ... why do you have that bat?"
Yes, they know what withdrawal is -- we've all been in high school health classes. We've had to attend those boring, mandatory anti-drug rallies. We've all been forced to sit in our underwear and hum Stone Temple Pilots guitar solos while the guidance counselor shot heroin into his eye. But they "know" about withdrawal in the same way that I "know" about pregnancy. That's why I can always pick out the addicts based on their sympathetic response to somebody quitting -- it's like you had just told them that you were donating both of your kidneys to a homeless stranger ("Oh ... wow. Really? Man. Well, good luck"). Forget the polite congratulations; these guys have walked through the pulsating underbelly of hell that you're about to travel. And they know that you will only find hate there.
Why Remembering is Vital:
When you make a change like this -- whether it's smoking, or trying to lose 50 pounds, or changing knife-fighting styles -- your whole world stops for a while. You want the rest of the world to stop with you. After all, when it's a bad habit you're trying to quit, you're used to people giving you shit. Every time we take a smoke break, it's "You know that stuff will kill you. When are you going to quit that nasty habit?" So when we finally do decide to take the plunge, we're expecting a little bit more than an acknowledging nod. It doesn't have to be a blowjob in the middle of a Broadway production. Just something that was at least on par with the enthusiasm they put into their annoying reminders about how unhealthy it is to inhale poison.
That's when you realize that, for the most part, you are on your own. That's hard to take when the nicotine starts to disappear from our systems and everything in the entire world becomes an excuse to smoke again ("I'm getting too angry. I need to smoke to take the edge off. It's for everyone's benefit, not just my own." Or, "Quick, give me a smoke! My nipples are throbbing!"). Anything to get that chemical back into the bloodstream.
"Businessclown! Throw me your lighter!"
It's those moments of self-pity when the weak-willed say, "Fuck this. If they don't care, then neither do I." And they're right back to smoking as quickly as it takes them to walk to the nearest gas station. You have to lower those expectations, especially when you're trying to cure a bad habit. It's not like building a house or getting a huge tattoo of a winged dick on your back, where you have something to proudly show off later. You're just trying to get back to zero, and people who have never been in negative territory won't get it. And neither do you, when the roles are reversed.
"No, I tried that. I just wound up smoking them down to lowercase letters."
Hunger pangs less than an hour after you've eaten. Stress-related stomach cramps before a big job interview. When you've realized that when the time came, you didn't have to dodge bullets.
"All I see is blonde, brunette, redh- ah, I'm just fuckin' with you. I see numbers. Nothing but goddamn numbers."
Monday night I stepped outside and smoked my last cigarette. Five minutes after I finished, I started feeling the effects of withdrawal: achy muscles, anxiety, shaky hands, panic. Five minutes. While the nicotine from my last smoke was still fresh in my system.
And it wasn't just an anxiety attack, it was the same exact physical withdrawal I had felt many times before. My brain knew I had made the decision to quit, and in response, it started hitting me with mock withdrawal symptoms before I was being physically deprived of the drug. When it comes to addiction, your brain can be kind of an asshole.
About 10 hours into my first smoke-free day, my legs and knees were killing me. It wasn't unexpected -- one of my biggest problems with past attempts was physical pain in my legs. But it wasn't until this time around that I realized this most likely had very little to do with nicotine withdrawal and everything to do with the fact that I sit in a computer chair for 16 hours a day.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Cheese, but we just can't figure out what's causing your leg pain. Have you tried not being retarded?"
It turns out that your brain can play all kinds of tricks on you like that. It's the control center for your entire body, after all. If it feels like flipping the "your balls are being dipped in acid" switch, there's not much you can do to stop it. Even if you're a woman.
Why Remembering is Vital:
We tend to trust our body and the physical signals it sends. You need to constantly remind yourself that everything your body sends you, from hunger to exhaustion to anxiety, can turn out to be completely manufactured bullshit.
Remember walking on the train tracks when you were a kid? Playing that game to see who could walk on the rail the longest without falling off? With enough practice, you could even jump from rail to rail without touching the rocks in the middle, right? Now, imagine taking those same tracks and raising them up 1,000 feet into the air. Would you still be able to balance yourself and jump between them?
Everything about what you're physically doing is exactly the same. Your feet haven't changed size. The rails are the same distance apart as they were back on the ground. But because they're now up so high in the air, your mind (rightfully) adds in the element of danger, and suddenly, walking on those rails becomes impossible to anyone with a healthy, normal fear of heights. The activity hasn't changed -- your mind has.
Sorry, buddy, but you're going to have to just eat shit.
If you can keep that in mind and catch your brain fucking with you, it's a whole lot easier to head it off at the pass and backhand that shit like a 1940s actress. This is why they say that a large part of addiction recovery should involve counseling. Not only are you retraining your mind to wipe out years of repetition and automated response, but you're also teaching it to stop throwing tantrums like a fucking toddler (i.e. giving you symptoms when there actually are none -- "mental withdrawal"). If left unchecked, the mind can keep doing this for quite some time -- my last relapse happened after three months of not touching a single cigarette. Note: In the interest of being fair, I was still on the patch at the time.
As well as the nicotine ... enhancer.
And let me stop here and remind everybody: This isn't an "If you do these things, you'll succeed at quitting smoking!" article. I've never succeeded in quitting smoking, so anything I say to that effect would be total bullshit speculation. What I can tell you, though, is that all my laps around this track have given me a really good view of where the potholes are.
When you're halfway through a project and realize that it's too much of a pain in the ass to finish. Going back to a bad relationship. Breaking a diet. Continuing to watch Adam Sandler movies, hoping they'll be like those dirty CDs he put out 15 years ago.
SPOILER: They are not.
Let me tell you about something that actually happened to me 10 or so years ago. I was making an attempt to quit drinking because of all the reasons that make sense. Mostly the fact that it was killing me. I told my friends that I had finally had enough, and that this was it. I spread the word like I had just discovered the Lord.
Two weeks later, I got a big tax check, and I immediately bought a case of beer. When my best friend found out, he asked me why I went back to drinking. I told him, "Well, I can afford it now. The problem before was that we never had the money for beer, so every time I bought some, I was putting us further and further into the hole, financially." I remember being taken by total surprise when he asked, "Wait, when the hell did it become about money? That wasn't even an issue when you first told me you were quitting. So when did it go from not being an issue at all to being the sole reason that you quit?"
The second I sold my mother's kidneys for this fix.
I wasn't lying -- my brain had retroactively rewritten history, changing the terms of the deal so that I would have permission to break it. I quit drinking because it was becoming a major health issue ... but the second I came into some money, I modified the original reason for quitting to "We couldn't afford it." It worked, because now that we had the extra money, I could start drinking again. See how fucked up an addict's mind is? Here's what's worse: We all do it -- although none of us do it consciously. Ever broken up with a guy or girl because they were fucking insane, only to find yourself calling them a month later? "Why, I don't even remember why we broke up!" (Hint: It's because he shaved your mother's name into his pubic hair.)
As you got lonelier and hornier, your reasons for making that life change started to blur and fade.
Why Remembering is Vital:
This one's pretty obvious, right? I mean, do I really have to spell this one out?
Actually, to a person addicted to nicotine, yes. Those modifications will come up constantly, and if you're not able to spot them and expose them for the bullshit lies that they are, you will be back to smoking just as fast as I was. Probably telling your disappointed friend something completely fucking stupid like "Well, now that the stray cat is back in the neighborhood, I'm not spending nearly as much on mouse traps and bait. So I can justify the expense. Plus, mice hate secondhand smoke, so it's helping our environment."
Remembering exactly why you quit is so important that most help programs tell you to keep a card with the reason written on it and carry that shit at all times. That way, you can't con your way out of your progress. When you start to have cravings, just pull that fucker out and read it. If it's fresh in your mind, it's that much harder to modify when your brain starts to freak out.
Gonna need some specifics here, dipshit.