How I Quit Smoking

January 29, 2008

Full disclosure: After 7 or 8 years of not smoking at all, ever, I began to take an occasional puff while drinking at a certain bar. It remains a rarity and, apologies to Clinton, I don't inhale.

People who've known me a long time know how much, and how enthusiastically, I used to smoke. Even many of my smoking friends were alarmed at the extent of my addiction. For a time, I smoked Lucky Strikes, which were filterless. Later, it was filterless Camels. I smoked 2 packs a day when I could afford it. This went on for about 10 years.

And now, for about 10 years, I've been free of nicotine addiction. As a result, I was able to complete a marathon this past summer. As such, I think I'm uniquely qualified to discuss how to quit. Or at least how *I* quit. So here are some things about my experience that may help you.

1. I slowly cut down on the places and situations where I smoked. A lot of people try to phase cigarettes out by counting the NUMBERS of cigarettes they smoke and reducing that number over time. I tried that many times and it didn't work for me. What DID work was saying, "okay, no more smoking after meals", then phasing out different situations over time. They say the nicotine addiction is relatively short-term and broken rather quickly. It's the HABIT of smoking that's tough. For me, it was helpful to spend time breaking some habits BEFORE I tackled the chemical addiction. Phase out smoking while driving. When you have a handle on that, phase out smoking while walking or standing. If there's something you just can't phase out, like smoking while drinking, then plan to avoid drinking when you're ready to try and quit. After a time, I had phased out smoking while driving, smoking inside, smoking after meals. I only allowed myself to smoke when I was seated and outside. At that point, I was ready to quit.

2. I joined a gym and I exercised. I did a lot of CARDIO exercise and spent a lot of time in hot tubs, steam rooms, whatever was available at my gym. I reasoned that this all helped me get the nicotine out of my system faster, faster, faster. If you're not big on exercise, it's okay. You're not trying to kill yourself or lose weight, you're trying to sweat, sweat, sweat. If you can't work hard, then work easy, but for a long time and with greater frequency. Joining a gym is important, as opposed to walking outside or doing Jane Fonda tapes. It's time near other non-smokers. It's a place where you're not allowed to smoke. It's a place you don't associate with smoking.

3. I ate! I know a lot of people worry about gaining weight when they quit smoking. I decided I'd rather be overweight than to continue to ruin my mouth, my voice, my lungs, my heart. I tried to eat good, nutritious, delicious things, but I also indulged in foods that were high in fat and sugar. I avoided spicy foods because they trigger the desire for a cigarette in me. Food tastes better after you've quit for awhile, so enjoy it!

4. I also gave up caffeine, temporarily. For me, caffeine and nicotine were conjoined twins. I used the two drugs to alter my moods, to cancel one another out, to achieve a certain balance. Quitting one without quitting the other led to severe mood swings, trouble sleeping, etc. Quitting them both together was hell, no lie, but I don't think I could have given up cigarettes without this crucial step. Giving up caffeine was not intended to be permanent, but to last only for the 2 or 3 weeks that the nicotine withdrawals were worst.

5. I tried to do, eat, and be around things that I don't associate with cigarettes. This was difficult. I had smoked for so long that there wasn't much that wasn't associated with cigarettes. But drinking milk was a good one for me. Eating ice cream. Dairy and cigarettes? ew! The same was true for swimming.

6. Okay, this is a weird one and maybe not for everyone: I still went on smoke breaks. One of the toughest things about quitting for me was giving up on the social time, the break from work, and the natural bonding enjoyed by the little clutch of people huddled smoking in the parking lot. So I didn't give that up. I went out there and stood there with them, but didn't smoke. Which leads to:

7. The support of my frienemies. The support of my real friends didn't make much difference. But my smoking friends at the time (around 1998-99) were, basically, tools. Maybe they're reading this right now and that's fine. This is not news to them. Anyway, I wanted to show them that I could do it, and could stand there on smoke breaks and not smoke.

8. Breathe. Take time to just stand and breathe. Go walk outside and just breathe deeply. Or sit at your desk and do it. I've never been attracted to meditation, per se. But when all else failed, I just closed my eyes and took a few really deep breaths, reflecting on how nice it was to be able to do that, for a change.

9. It's not forever. It's for today. Try not to think "I'll never have a cigarette again." Try to think "I won't have a cigarette today."

There it is. I hope these tips help someone somewhere to get over that hump. There's nothing more difficult that I've done in my life than quit smoking. It took a lot of false starts and a lot of trips back to the drawing board. But there's also nothing more rewarding. For the rest of your life, you'll be able to say: "I shook a nicotine addiction; I can do anything." That's the best reward.

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