Around 1am on Sunday morning, I marked four weeks since I had my last cigarette. While this is not the first time I have quit smoking, it’s the first time I quit just for me. The last time I quit, it was for my unborn daughter. Other times I’ve quit, it’s been for boyfriends, or because “I’m supposed to”. This time was different, though I haven’t quite put my finger on all of the different ways that it’s not the same.
I suppose the most important way that it was different was that it really was mostly for me. Sure, I was also quitting because I knew it would make my family and friends really happy that I had finally quit, but as any addiction counselor will tell you, the addict has to want to quit, way deep down. They may be able to go through the initial stages of quitting a bad behavior for other people, but it won’t stick. They have to want it badly enough and think they’re worthy enough of the effort. It also helps to have actual evidence for how things will be better afterwards. I had that in the form of knowing how much better I would be able to do karate and other exercise after I quit. At least, that was the most tangible reason. Others made themselves known over the next few weeks.
Like not being stinky, though my friends tell me I was unusually conscientious in that regard. I could tell the difference in my vehicle, mostly. I also noticed I needed less sinus medicine and had less frequent headaches. Food did indeed taste a bit better. My sense of smell improved, which was good and bad. Good when I wanted to catch a whiff of a bowl of potpourri, bad when one of my aging cats laid a stinkbomb in the catbox (which was almost enough to make me want to smoke again just to dull my senses again!).
Then I went to the gym, where the difference was showed to me in red numbers across the stationary bike readout. I had to work much harder to get my heart rate to its target zone and keep it there, whereas before I had to struggle to keep my heart rate under my target zone. This meant I wasn’t heaving for breath anymore, but my legs were on FIRE. Consequently I’m getting a much better workout than I was before and I suspect I’m incredibly healthy for my age, all things considered. At least that’s what the longevity calculator said in my fitness book, which told me my life expectancy has gone from a frightening 59 to a more reasonable 72. A few more adjustments and I’ll have that puppy up in the 80s.
The first two to three weeks were undoubtedly the worst. And I’m here to tell you that whoever came up with that bullshit about cigarette cravings only lasting 3-5 minutes needs a swift kick in the ass. Sometimes that shit goes on for hours, and there’s fuck-all you can do about it except keep busy and wait for it to pass. Indeed, many cravings are brief, but not all. Telling quitters otherwise is doing them a disservice. I’ve become quite opinionated over the last four weeks about the phenomenon of cigarette addiction in America, and without going into too much detail just yet, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that if we really want to get that last 20% of the country off the smokes, we need to treat it much more seriously than we have. Quitting smoking is just as important and as difficult as quitting alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or any other addictive substance or behavior. It’s not a weekend activity or something to be taken lightly. If I ran things, everyone who wanted to quit smoking would get a paid month off work and a voucher to go somewhere nice for a week while they detoxed. It’s that big of a deal. I’m sure some of my friends who have met quitting with less success than I have might agree.
Indeed, if we treated things like smoking and food addiction with the urgency that we treat something like heroin or cocaine addiction, I don’t believe those problems would be as prevalent. Of course, addiction treatment in general needs a serious overhaul in our country. Namely, we need to ditch our Puritanical roots that make us think that someone who has trouble kicking something just isn’t trying hard enough or somehow deserves their fate. Really? Why not just shoot them in the head if that’s how you feel? Or do they deserve to spend the rest of their lives in unhealthy misery as punishment for their inability to kick said habit? Health begins with love, not punishment.
And that is perhaps the biggest difference between this attempt to quit and my others. I wanted to do something good for myself, not punish myself by taking something away that made me happy. And smoking did fill a pleasant niche in my life. If it didn’t, I would have stopped long ago. I had to give myself something bigger and more important to fill that gap, and I did. I filled that gap with the love and support of my friends and family, and in doing so knocked yet another light-filled chink in my stalwart wall of self-loathing that I’d built for the last three decades out of fat, sugar, and cigarettes. Now I’m building ladders out of karate, yoga, and community.
So, credit where it’s due. It’s been four weeks since my last cigarette, and I miss them less and less every day. I’m sure some gut-wrenching stressor will come up at some point in my future, during which I will have to resist the temptation to drive to any one of the four convenience stores within less than a mile of my house that sell my favorite brand and style, but I’ll just have to deal with that when it comes along. So far a healthy dose of “be here now” has helped a great deal and I hope it continues to do so. Not being afraid to have a good cry every now and then also helps a lot, something else our culture seems to have a lot of trouble with. Mostly, though, I had to think I was worth the effort and give myself enough carrots to keep me going on the path. And even if I had NOT successfully quit these last few weeks, telling myself I was worth the effort was a remarkable exercise in and of itself, because I still have trouble believing I’m as awesome as people tell me I am.