Hello, all. Hope you’re having a terrific weekend. I’m about to head out to a day of celebratory festivities, since it’s a very special occasion for me. Today is my one year quitiversary: that is, the one year anniversary of the day I quit smoking. So prepare yourselves for an unusually candid post.
Most people who meet me comment upon my lack of obvious vices: I eat healthily, I rarely drink, etc. But you’ll all be surprised to know that I’m a former smoker. And not only that: I’m a former pack-a-day, non-social, non-occasional, totally consistent, smoker.
I remember my first. I was seventeen. It wasn’t peer pressure or the media. It was plain old curiosity. I bought a pack during a free period at school, walked to central park, sat on a bench, and lit up. It tasted, as most cigarettes will to the uninitiated, pretty bad. But even in spite of that, it was incredibly seductive. It made me a little anxious, a little high—it felt like a coffee buzz, but better. And when I got back to class and smelled the rich scent of tobacco on my hands, I had a premonition: uh oh.
No, I didn’t pick up the habit right away. It took college life for that to happen: when you live in a small apartment with your very vigilant mother, it’s not easy to mask a habit. But then I got to Columbia, a schoolyard for the urbane, the neurotic, and the nicotine-happy. Giant stone urns, filled with sand and brimming over with butts, stood outside each building. As on any campus, students gathered before class, after class, and during class to get their fix. And within a month of my freshman year, I joined their company.
For the next seven years, I was a smoker. I wasn’t a social smoker. I didn’t smoke when I was drinking. I didn’t smoke once in a while. I smoked. Period. I smoked a pack a day until the year before I quit. And, truth be told, I relished every cigarette I ever had.
I smoked in with my morning coffee. I smoked when I got home from work (to “unwind”). I smoked during my lunch break. I smoked after meals. I smoked after sex. I smoked after the gym—it was my reward, I reasoned! I smoke when I was stressed, and I smoked when I was mellow. I smoked when I was healthy, and when I was sick (I smoked right through strep throat once; another time, I smoked myself from bronchitis into walking pneumonia). I smoked after tears (I always thought that cigarettes tasted particularly wonderful after a good cry) and when I was happy. Through good times and bad, ups and downs, I smoked.
That I was also a vegetarian, and then a vegan, didn’t seem to deter me. That I exercised daily didn’t deter me. That I had made those choices under the rubric of being “healthy” didn’t really deter me, either, though at a certain point, the hypocrisy started to settle in. I valued a healthy lifestyle, but I made exceptions for the unhealthy habits that I happened to like the most? My doctor once chuckled during a physical and asked, “how does it feel to be compromising all of the incredible things you do for your body?”
I’m not sure of when exactly it was that I decided to quit. The rumblings began two years ago. I was fully vegan at that point, and I felt great. Over the next year, I tossed the idea of quitting around in my head. What would it mean not to smoke anymore? How would I end meals? What would I do at 4 PM when I was tired, or stressed out at the office? What would I do as I waited for people outside of restaurants when they were running late? How would I stay focused when I was editing? What would I do with my hands while I was talking on the phone?
Then I went to Mexico on an eight day yoga retreat. And for the first time in seven years, I went a day without smoking. Then two, then three, then four. I wasn’t trying: I was practicing three hours of yoga a day, running every morning, and cigarettes simply didn’t cross my mind. When I realized how long it had been, it occurred to me that I’d been given a gift: nearly a week without nicotine. Don’t they say that it only takes a week or so for the junk to leave your system, and the rest is all mental? Whatever the case, I knew I’d never have another chance to go five days without any of my triggers: stress, NYC, editing deadlines, etc. So I decided to quit, right then and there.
On April 19th, (in the grips of a lousy case of Montezuma’s revenge), I smoked my last cigarette as a smoker (I say this because I’ve had a few since I quit, in full disclosure) outside of the Cancun International Airport. I threw the rest of my pack away, came back to New York, and with a few exceptions, I haven’t smoked since.
At first, I didn’t feel so bad, and I thought to myself that perhaps I was special, and quitting wouldn’t be terrible for me. Maybe the armor of my healthy living would magically protect me from nicotine withdrawal. Then it hit me. First came the quitter’s flu. For those of you who don’t know, this is a four-day ailment that looks and feels a whole lot like the real flu: headache, fever, sore throat, cough. Then came headaches: dull, achey, unrelenting pains behind my forehead that persisted for days at a time. Then came lousy moods. I was short tempered, cranky, and irritable from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed.
This didn’t last too long, at least not in my case: after three weeks, the worst had passed. But in many ways, the hardest was yet to come. What hurt the most wasn’t the headaches, or lousy moods, or irritability. It was my sense of loss. For many quitters, it’s social gatherings that prove the most trying: being at bars and not being able to run outside for a cigarette; not being able to light up at outdoor concerts; not joining coworkers for midday smoking breaks (interestingly, there’s much research to prove that social smokers have the hardest time quitting: because they associate smoking so deeply with activities that they continue to engage in, they can’t seem to disassociate and break free of the pattern. Chain smokers know that they’ll have to make universal change, and they approach quitting prepared to do it).
And these things were hard, believe me. Hardest, though, were the hours after I’d gotten home from work. For seven years straight, this was the time when smoking helped me to relax. More importantly, these were the quiet, contemplative hours when smoking gave me company, bolstered me against negative feelings or a sense of isolation. Many recovering alcoholics describe a dread of evenings, a fear of coming home and not being able to pour themselves a drink. As a friend who was trying to sober up once put it to me, “What will I do if I have to be alone with my thoughts?” I wasn’t afraid of my thoughts, but I did feel, suddenly, very alone. Cigarettes were my little friends, and I missed them.
I missed a part of myself, too. Gone was the type-A woman who inhaled a cigarette on her rushed morning commute. Gone was the convivial colleague who went downstairs for chatty smokes during the day. Gone was the girl who lingered at parties so that she could get to know the smokers outside. Gone was the stress-addled editor-on-a-deadline, who chain smoked out her kitchen window as she worked into the wee hours. When I told my friend Jordan that I had quit, he expressed huge admiration, but also confessed, “I dunno. It’s just hard to imagine you without envisioning you outside John Jay [our freshman dorm] with a cigarette in your hand.”
Hey, it was hard for me to imagine myself without a cigarette in my hand, too. As we all know, smoking is a habit, but it’s also an aesthetic. From images of old Hollywood to passages in Fitzgerald novels to the downright erotic billows of cigarette smoke curling around Don Draper’s shoulders in an episode of Mad Men, cigarettes carry heavy connotations: sex, seduction, cool, fashion, aloofness. I never smoked to impress my peers, but I did fall for all the symbolism, the style, the timeless lure. And I missed it.
I wish I could say that it got easy quickly. It didn’t. It got easier, but it took months. Evenings were hardest. Each night, I sat at home, my right hand (the smoking hand) itching for the feel of a cigarette between my fingers, and fighting the impulse to run to the corner deli and pick up a pack. Each night, I promised myself that, if it all became too terrible, I could buy a pack tomorrow. But I just had to get through the night. Getting through the night turned into getting through the week, then the month, then the year.
Certain things helped. The fact that I could suddenly run a few miles without heaving helped. The energy I woke up with every day helped. The bright skin helped. My coworkers helped, with sweet emails and encouragement. My friends helped with their support. The look of utter, unabashed relief on my mother’s face when I told her I hadn’t smoked for a month helped.
And so it went, until the day (and I don’t remember which day it was, but it was early summer) when I realized that I hadn’t thought about cigarettes in a while. Hadn’t remembered them fondly, hadn’t lusted after them, hadn’t sniffed them outside and reminisced. After that moment, I think, it all became much easier.
Now, a year later, it seems a bit crazy to think that smoking ever figured so prominently in my life. It’s like trying to remember the intensity of being in love with someone long after you’ve fallen out of it: you know it occupied every corner of your consciousness for a while, that it obsessed you, that there wasn’t anything you did without thinking about the love object. But you simply can’t evoke that feeling again. I loved cigarettes. Some people smoke because they’re addicts; I was an addict, but I also savored the taste, feel, smell, and ritual. But I am, fortunately, no longer in love. I still feel pangs every now and then, but for the most part, it’s ancient history.
I wish I could give you some prescriptive advice here, magic tricks that helped me. I’ll say that quitting cold turkey was the best way to go. I’m a compulsive person, and if I had started with Nicorette I don’t doubt I’d have gotten hooked on that, too. Tea, oddly, helped: I think it satisfied the oral fixation (I like ginger tea). Running and exercising definitely helped. Drinking more coffee than I usually do helped, too: I needed to re-create the buzz, at least for a while. The push up trick definitely helped.
At the end of the day, though, it was a matter of determination. Quitting smoking, like giving up any bad habit, is predicated entirely on willpower. No one can make the process easy for you. So you’ve got to call upon your biggest reserves of inner strength. Those of you who have achieved healthy and necessary weight loss know a lot about those reserves: the commitment it takes to keep pursuing a healthy goal in spite of so many impulses to give up, skip the gym, and make food choices that are not worthy of you. Those of you who are recovering from disordered eating know a whole lot about it, too: the courage it takes to keep moving back towards normalcy, even when you secretly want nothing more than to stay skinny and stay sick. Will power doesn’t just manifest itself in the obvious or dramatic scenarios, like quitting smoking: we need to use each and every time we choose to do what’s hard instead of what’s easy, what’s new instead of what’s familiar, what’s ultimately rewarding versus what’s momentarily pleasing.
If you take anything away from this post, I hope it’s a sense of possibility, an assurance that there is an ultimate reward for all the willpower you’re trying to muster. Whatever your goal is—whether you’re trying to quit smoking yourself, trying to lose weight, trying to gain weight, trying to coax your mind out of disordered habits, or simply trying to eat and live in a healthier way—you can achieve it. There was a time when I believed I’d never be able to kick smoking: I didn’t want to, and I didn’t think I could. It took me a while to really want to quit, but once I did, I shocked myself with my own steadfastness. You can—and will—too.
I won’t pretend it’s always easy, even now. Springtime is the hardest, for me: the smokers are starting to emerge from hibernation, dotting the sidewalks and releasing seductive clouds of tobacco into the air, and I miss being one of them. The other day on my walk home, I was behind a smoker. At one point I caught a whiff of her cigarette and was so overwhelmed with nostalgia that I almost burst into tears on the sidewalk. But it does, I promise, get easier. So hang in there. Be encouraged by this. And good luck. xo