I quit smoking a couple of months ago, after being a smoker for twenty years. At this point it seems pretty likely that I’ll stay quit. The physical withdrawal has passed, the habit has been (mostly) broken, and the balance has shifted heavily onto the side of not being willing to go through that again. I guess we’ll see.
It was super hard. I’ve tried to quit using the patch a couple of times in the past. Aside from the amazingly vivid dreams, I found it really annoying to use. Sometimes it made my skin burn and I’d agonize about whether I should just take it off or not before finally just taking it off. Sometimes it would feel like way too much nicotine and I’d be nauseous and clammy. Or, in some of the worst cases, I’d have terrible anxiety and become convinced that I was going to have a heart attack, until I took the patch off.
So I knew I had to quit cold turkey. I didn’t believe that nicotine replacement would work for me. Maybe it does for some people.
My dad told me it would happen in two’s: the first two days, the first two weeks, the first two months, the first two years. That seems about right. The first few days were awful and I basically just counted down the time until the days passed. I was mean to people. I have never felt so easily frustrated in my life.
My body felt terrible: constipation, trouble sleeping, and just general skin-crawling heeebie-jeebies. But the worst part was how out of control my emotions were — huge swells of sadness that I couldn’t figure out how to break.
After two weeks I felt more or less normal, except that I was far enough past the immediacy of quitting that I would forget that I wasn’t smoking. So, I would have some kind of minor frustration, or finish with something challenging, or get in my car, or eat a meal… And then I’d think, “great, now I can smoke.” Except I couldn’t! And that feeling, the realization that I didn’t have that activity anymore, was devastating. I think this might have been the hardest thing, in a way.
Two months in and it’s pretty OK. I still have that sinking feeling of “oh yeah” from time to time. The worst thing now seems to be how it’s affected my activities. Smoking served a really structural role in my daily life. When I was smoking, I could divide my time into two types of time: doing things and thinking about doing things. Smoking became the 5 minute thinking time that bridged doing things time.
For instance, if I were writing something, I would spend some portion of time writing, and then if I got stuck, I would go smoke to think about how I was stuck. Generally, the duration of a cigarette is enough time to come up with some ideas for most problems.
Or, if I was in a contentious situation, stepping away to smoke and think was often a good way to deescalate the situation and come back to it with the ability to compromise. I’m sure the actual ebb and flow of nicotine addiction helped in delineating these states, but anyway.
I feel really confused a lot, still, about how to organize my time. I’m having trouble allowing myself to do things that I know will be frustrating in any way. I feel lessened, somehow — less effective. Everyone I know has been very supportive of me quitting smoking, but there is an upper limit to this. Thirty days of bad behavior might be tolerable to someone, but six months, or a year, of slightly off behavior… That isn’t a momentary state — that’s enough time for you to alter the dynamics of a relationship. It’s long enough to be perceived as a different person.
I worry that I’m not as good at anything anymore, and then I tell myself that it will pass — that if it takes a year for that to change, that that’s OK. It just doesn’t feel OK.
I really do feel different, which is surprising, and not welcome, yet. Interestingly, I don’t really struggle with the idea that smoking will solve this problem. I’m just struggling with feeling this way.
So why did I quit? I think if you asked most smokers they would have no trouble finding reasons to quit. For me, it’s that my wife is pregnant (which is amazing!). Two years ago we were not expecting a child and we rented our home. If I had died suddenly, while I’m sure that would have been terrible for my wife, it wouldn’t have been financially catastrophic. Now, with the baby coming, and with owning a home, I need life insurance. You spend about twice as much for a life insurance policy if you’re a smoker. I needed roughly 30 days smoke-free to be 100% that I’d pass a blood test for nicotine.
It’s funny that that’s what did it — that a relatively small psychological hurdle could get me to actually quit. It’s not like I’m even particularly frugal — I wasted money everyday on cigarettes for two decades.
But I don’t think that’s the interesting question. I think the interesting question is “why didn’t I quit before this?” Why did I smoke for so long?
Smoking kills people. People who smoke live shorter lives. Smoking smells disgusting. For any non-smoker, the smell of cigarettes on a person is completely off-putting — in other words: it’s anti-social. Smoking in public is against the law in the city I live in. Smoking has become taboo, effectively, especially in the Bay Area.
As I’ve gotten older, smoking has felt more and more like some kind of stubborn holdout behavior, like people who still have a paper delivered.
So what’s the existential problem I’m feeling? Is it that the version of myself that didn’t care enough about his own life to quit smoking has been slowly overwritten by a different person? A new person that’s a homeowner and a future parent, and who cares about the shame of being anti-social and outside of current social mores?
A cigarette can be an act of rebellion, I guess, if you think it’s the only thing distinguishing you from people that look and seem a lot like you. A destructive relationship can be the place you feel most comfortable, if you’ve been there long enough.
I feel really embarrassed by how attached I am to a juvenile worldview; I feel a huge sense of loss at the same time. And now I have to find some new way to feel better about that, and I guess I can’t just say “fuck it.”