It was November 17, 2004, the eve of the 28th Great American Smokeout. I was sitting at my desk in my home office around 11:00 PM. I had ten cigarettes left in my second pack of the day. Cigarettes were getting very expensive, and I started asking myself why I smoked and if I could quit. I had been conditioned to believe that I smoked because: It was a "habit", I "enjoyed it", it "calmed my nerves", and it was "great after a meal". The truth was, I didn't enjoy it anymore. In fact, when I thought hard about it, none of the reasons I thought I smoked were true. Really, when I pictured what I was actually doing - lighting leaves on fire and breathing it in, all day every day - I felt kind of stupid. Take away the burning leaves in my hand, and I was just a motionless nitwit in a parking lot, staring blankly at nothing in particular for 10 minutes at a time. I had to face the cold reality of it all - I had a drug addiction. Plain and simple. Not smoking shared some of the same qualities as holding my breath. I "enjoyed it", and it certainly "calmed my nerves", when I finally took a breath. The truth was I needed to smoke, and if I didn't, I would panic. My next thought was, "I will not be a drug addict." It's important to note that those words remained in my head throughout my journey.
I heard that the Great American Smokeout was the next day. If you don't know what that is, it's a day that The American Cancer Society asks smokers to quit for 24 hours. I decided I would put my "drug addict" theory to the test. If I could make it for the entire 24 hours without smoking, and it wasn't difficult, maybe I wasn't a drug addict after all. Maybe it truly was just a "habit". So at 1:00 am, Thursday November 18, 2004, I put out my last cigarette of the day and went to bed.
I always started my days by rolling out of bed, turning on the news, and lighting up. Even when I was running late, I would have at least one to "wake up", preferably two. I was already walking to the room where I had left my remaining five cigarettes, before I remembered I wasn't going to smoke that day. I wanted a cigarette, but at this point I was excited and curious about what a day without cigarettes would be like. Denying myself cigarettes for as long as possible seemed kind of fun. I hopped in the shower then went to work. Around lunch time, when I would have already smoked six cigarettes on a normal day, a tinge of panic started to take root. By 5:00 PM it was no longer a tinge. By 7:00 PM my mind was consumed entirely by one thought - "Smoke now!". I was also 100% convinced that I was, without a doubt, an addict.
My mind and body was focused entirely on trying to get me to smoke. Every second I was making excuses to smoke: "I'll quit later", "Just have one", "I'll just cut back", "I can't cope with this". Cope. That's a great word. That's something I had to figure out how to do, and fast. I probably should have been more prepared. But now I had to improvise. First, I started by repeating two thoughts: "I will not be a drug addict", and "I can do anything but smoke." The first thought reaffirmed the main reason I could no longer tolerate smoking. The second thought gave me license to pamper myself. More on that later. Second, in a frantic internet search to find ways of coping with withdrawal symptoms, I found some breathing exercises that actually seemed to help. I would breathe as deeply as I could, then blow the air out like I was slowly blowing out candles. Sounds silly right? But that helped a lot. I also found an active quit smoking support group online. I read, and breathed, my way through the rest of the evening. When it was time for bed I was exhausted. My mind fought me until the end. "Are you really going to go to bed without having even one cigarette? Come on. That's not you. You're a smoker." And that's exactly what I did; went to bed without one cigarette. I was excited and proud of myself at the thought of waking up the next day, and remembering that I went an entire 24 hours without a cigarette!
"I went an entire 24 hours without a cigarette!", I thought to myself when I woke up. Then I thought "Smoke NOW!!!!" every second after that. Clearly, although they worked, I would need more than breathing exercises in my coping arsenal. On my way to work I stopped and bought a box of nicotine patches, and read all of the instructions. I was going to follow the instructions to the letter. I needed something passive. Something I didn't have to remember to take, or chew, or whatever. Something that just worked. Nicotine patches seemed to fit the bill. After sticking one on my arm, gradually over the course of the day, I started having the distinct feeling I had just smoked a cigarette. The patch gave me physical withdrawal symptom relief in a big way. That freed me to work on coping with the mental withdrawal symptoms. Those coping skills consisted of: Repeating "I will not be a drug addict" to myself, a support group of people going through the same thing I was, and French toast. Remember when I gave myself license to pamper myself with "I can do anything but smoke"? That included eating anything I wanted. "Anything" turned out to be stacks and stacks of French toast, whenever I wanted it. My goal was simple: quit smoking. I knew if I added unrealistic caveats - I can't gain weight, I can't lose my temper, I can't feel bad - I would never quit. My goal was not to die of lung cancer due to a drug addiction. Considering that, tight jeans was just fine. I could diet later.
That was the start of my journey, and I knew it would be a difficult one. I had smoked all of my adult life. It was definitely a part of my persona, part of my routine, and something that I was always doing or about to do. So, I was scared of losing my identity. Looking back, "drug addict that smells bad" is an identity that I, without a doubt, would want to lose forever. But in the moment I had to face the fear of the unknown. Who would I be when that large part of me was gone? I had heard that mourning that loss, just like mourning a death, would be a part of quitting. I just didn't know what a big part it would be. In the end, though, I value the person I became and the person who accomplished kicking one of the most powerful addictions out there, so much more. That part of my life was great thing to have lost.
Over the next ten weeks I stayed on the patch and followed the instructions. Almost immediately I started having vivid dreams. The box even describes it as one of the side effects. This is something I had never experienced. In a nutshell, for all intents and purposes my dreams were a reality while I was in them, and they seemed to last hours. I would remember every detail. This wasn't at all a bad experience. I even missed them when I was off of the patch. Speaking of getting off the patch, during the last couple of weeks on the patch I was scared I couldn't live without them. I even thought, worst case scenario, I would be buying patches for the rest of my life. I was thinking if that happened, at least it would be a fate much better than death. But I followed the directions to the letter, and I truly felt almost nothing when I stopped.
Over the next year I posted to my forum when I needed to rant, and I supported others when they needed to rant. We helped each other through it, and we all knew exactly how the others felt and what they needed to hear. Remember the five cigarettes I had left in my pack? That pack remained beside me, along with my lighter and ash tray. Right there on my desk within reach, for an entire year. I thought it might be a distraction at first, and I was prepared to rid my home of everything related to smoking if it turned out to be one. But, it was oddly comforting. There was something comforting about having them there, and ready to be smoked. I can't quite put my finger on why that was. I think, if I was forced to explain it, it removed a small fear of not having the means to fail. I was able to completely dismiss, and never give another thought to, the logistics of failing. Eventually the pack was put in a drawer, forgotten, and thrown away at some point in time.
My biggest fear was that I would always want a cigarette. That it would always be an ache in the back of my mind. When I first quit, it was easy to mistakenly see this as an inevitable reality. I thought of smoking every five seconds all day every day. How would it ever be possible to never think of it? Even to go an entire day without the thought entering my brain? Well, thankfully, that day happened around three months in. I woke up the next morning and remembered that I had not thought of smoking at all the previous day. Then I went longer and longer periods of time without thinking of cigarettes. I was beyond happy to know that I would not always want a cigarette, and I would eventually stop thinking about it entirely. When was that? Probably close to a year, but at that point I was going weeks without thinking about smoking. And the point is, cravings permanently went away. It, mercifully, does happen.
I quit 11 years, 2 months, 3 days, 21 hours, 18 minutes, 59 seconds ago. I have saved US $32,655. I have not smoked 163,275 cigarettes. Know how I know that? As a professional computer programmer I distracted myself by coding my own quit meter: yourquit.com At the time, there weren't many tools like it. The meters out there didn't do what I wanted either. Weeks mattered to me. I didn't quit 8 days ago, I quit 1 week, 1 day ago! First Week Done is a big deal! Not to mention leap years, what programmers were considering a month (Jan 31 to Mar 3 is most certainly 31 days, but not one month), etc. So I coded something dead accurate as far as time quit goes. Feel free to use it for yourself.
I hope you find some inspiration in my story and some questions you might have answered. If not, feel free to ask me!