I've never considered myself a real smoker.
I had my first cigarette when I was just a teenager. The relaxation that came over my little stressed-out body was like something I've never experienced before, and I thought to myself (as most addicts do): "No matter what comes, I will never give this up."
And that, my friends, is the terrifying truth of how addiction works, isn't it? (Imagine me saying that to myself at 13 YEARS OLD. Freaking creepy, man.)
The reality of what was happening: My bloodstream was being flooded by toxins, which absolutely and thoroughly relaxed me as my oxygen was cut off, and I experienced that artificial and very fleeting high that nicotine provides.
That combined with the bad-girl punk-rock IDGAF rebellion vibe that cigarettes offered was extremely alluring to me all throughout my teenage years. People didn't want me to do this. Well, you guessed it, that just made me want to do it more than ever.
I never regularly smoked. I would sneak one here and there, especially when I went out, or (and God, does this sound awful) when it was just my dad around because one of the results of his injury in Vietnam was a lack of smell. (What an evil thing to admit.)
When college came around, I would smoke a couple of cigarettes a day here and there. It was a fun way to relax and to feel rebellious all at once. And then I met the man who was to become my husband and then my ex-husband. He thought it was a gross dumb habit. God bless. The two of us had our problems, but him inspiring me to quit is something for which I owe my eternal gratitude. I didn't smoke for years. Every once in a while if I drank too much, I might have one, but I regarded this as being very bad behavior on my part, and I certainly never bought cigarettes regularly like I used to do.
Here's the problem with that association I had built up in my head, though.
I essentially Pavlovian-like identified my dedication and devotion to being "good" for my ex (and perhaps to all men in a way) with not smoking. And out of this unhealthy associative construct, I developed a rebellious routine of every time I wanted to assert my independence or divorce myself from feeling owned by some dude, I would smoke.
Man, would I ever show THEM.
So when I first came to xoJane in the summer of 2012, I had just declared victory over cigarettes once again and I told all of you about a book ("How to Stop Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good") that had helped me finally quit occasional and feverish smoking once again.
I wrote that piece, and I had several months banked as a non-smoker when I did. Predictably enough, then I had some stupid tumultuous non-relationship with a very handsome guy who turned all the critical faculties in my head to a squash, and when he said something hurtful I reacted like a 2-year-old throwing her toys around the bedroom, and I walked up to someone as we strolled together and asked that stranger to bum a cigarette.
You don't control me!
This guy knew that I didn't want to smoke. He knew that I was doing this in the same way the crazy bitch in "Fatal Attraction" might threaten suicide when she is being tossed aside as the other woman. I was saying: Look at me, I'm going to do something to harm myself because clearly you don't care about me so I don't care about me.
Of course, this was playing with a lot of fire, not to mention just straight-up idiotic. Because I am an addict. And so the smoking provided the same release that say non-purging bulimia once provided me -- where I had both the rush of eating too much food (pleasure) but also the self-harm satisfaction of punishing myself by hurting myself (pain). Add to that the feeling of being told I wasn't supposed to do something -- inspiring the basest human reaction of wanting to rebel against what you cannot do -- and it was a very intoxicating cocktail.
When I finally decided I needed to get my nicotine mind right near the end of 2012, I had managed to quit once again using Nicorette. It was New Year's Eve and I was planning a quiet night at home with my brand new dog Sam. I went to the bodega that night to prepare for what would be a sweet, relaxing evening not having to deal with that s-show of a holiday. That's when I decided to "treat myself" by getting an electronic cigarette -- you know, since I don't drink -- just to kind of give myself a little bad-girl pleasure for the night.
Big mistake. Huge.
Holy crap, I thought, as I sucked on the little e-cig crack pipe. This is amazing. It's the buzz of nicotine without the guilt of all the tobacco and chemicals that comes with a normal cigarette.
I read of course the warning: "This e-cigarette is the equivalent of 2 packs." Because, you know, you're supposed to pace yourself not just suck it dry every second. But, naturally, I had smoked the whole damn thing by the next day. Such would be my pattern with e-cigarettes (and the pattern of most smokers I talk to who have dabbled with these little vapor-happy devices).
Then my podcast cohost Graham Smith introduced me to the wonderful world of high-end vaping, and he hooked me up with all manner of delicious flavor choices that had some nicotine in them, but did seem a little less evil than the bodega-bought brands (Logic, Blue, 'NJoy, etc.) This was an entirely new level of love and joy, and I would sit and puff, sit and puff, write and puff, forever able to give myself a buzz of nicotine, nicotine, nicotine.
I panicked when I left my house without my device. "That's the only thing about these e-cigarettes," a fellow vaper told me before we both did a TV show together and he let me have a hit off his, "I literally freak out if I go anywhere without it."
And that right there shows you the amazing hold that e-cigarettes have over people. It's the exact same bullying manner that real cigarettes control your life. You are forced to plan your activities around them, and you obsess as to when your next one will be. You (secretly) can't stop thinking about them when you are eating or having sex or having a fight or having the best, most relaxing time ever. When is your next smoke break going to be? You know it's going to be great, that's for sure. So when is it going to be? When is it going to be, when, when, when?
I've tried to quit here and there ever since I first fell down the vaping rabbit hole (and right on, if you are a vaper, because believe me, I get it and I applaud the fun that it provides -- I just have a delicate super-sensitive makeup, and so different drugs like nicotine can affect me much more than they do the average person).
Ultimately, the impetus to really give quitting it a go again only came when I started writing out various lists of goals to accomplish, and then started checking them off. Suddenly, I found this goal as a constant nagging "To Do" that I really wanted to try to conquer.
So, even though I doubted that it would work, I re-listened to the Audible version of the book that I first told you about back in August 2012. And like, say, an AA meeting where you have completely forgotten a notion that you may have heard a million times before, I had the exact same experience as I re-listened to this book. I suddenly found myself empowered to quit in a way that I hadn't felt in quite some time.
I was at my dermatologist Dr. Colbert's getting a Triad facial when I did my check-in with the aesthetician who always asks me about what I am doing to take care of my health. I just looked at her steely, admitted to my e-cigarette addiction, and said, "I'm at the point where I honestly have half-given-up. Life is so hard, and I'm so unhappy in a lot of different areas, that if this provides me some comfort and ability to get through the day, then who cares if I end up dying earlier. You know? It just comes down to that."
She said, "I think a lot of people feel that way." And I knew she was right. What I was saying wasn't anything special.
But I kept seeing what I had written on that list every time I updated it. I had jotted it down on my list of goals, and that was what finally -- guiltily -- prompted me into re-listening to the audio version of "How to Stop Smoking and Stay Stopped" once again. (Even though I didn't have much hope for it to work initially.)
Here were the lessons that I re-internalized from the book and which have helped me resist purchasing an e-cigarette on, say, an especially crappy day (and I've come close a few times recently):
- Instead of wishing that I suddenly could have the desire to smoke just magically lifted from me, the real trick here is in learning to be OK with the uncomfortable feeling of desire. That is what drives us to feel out of our minds and need to do something. That fidgety nausea, that feeling of wanting to be satisfied and knowing exactly how you can do it (so why not JUST DO IT), that desiring to smoke is what drives us to do anything to get us out of the discomfort zone of desire -- including going back on our promises and starting to smoke again. All simply so we can avoid the discomfort of desire. The real magic trick here: If you can learn to withstand the discomfort of desire -- and recognize that this is the feeling you are experiencing, you will be able to resist temptation. "Right now, I'm feeling the desire to smoke," you can say to yourself. "And I'm just going to let myself accept how uncomfortable this feels, and get through it." It's amazing what acknowledging this will do in being able to resist a seemingly all-consuming temptation.
- You have to know that you can smoke at any time. It is the feeling of deprivation that makes you feel insane -- like a trapped hunted animal. But if you tell yourself that even if you are half dead with a lung coming out of your mouth, you still have the free will and the opportunity to smoke if you want to, you will feel WAY less crazy and way more in control. Instead, you have to shift your frame: You are actually CHOOSING not to smoke because this is something you are doing for yourself. You are being selfish. This is something you are doing for you.
- You develop a little "outline" that you can remind yourself of when the desire rears itself in a huge way that seems like it is going to take over your entire life and body if you do not satiate it. The outline might be simply listing all of the reasons you are choosing not to do this, but it is crucial in getting you through these most difficult moments until the real craving has passed -- and eventually becomes less and less extreme. This is also why I can't emphasize enough the importance or reading or listening to this dumb book all the way through. The author actually goes through all of the ways that we talk ourselves into smoking and just obliterates each argument. It's like he is talking to our lying conniving little smoker egos directly. The one that he said that helped me recently from caving in on a particularly bad day was that I told myself, "If I decide to go back to nicotine, not only will I have all the problems that I'm dealing with on this already crappy day, but I'll then have the added problem of having re-initiated this habit that I worked so hard to quit." It helped. It's nice to listen to someone who knows all the little tricks and lies we tell ourselves to justify behavior that isn't all that healthy for us.
And that's it. Will I smoke tonight? Tomorrow? This year? Ever again? I don't know. But I'm thrilled that this is working for now, and for all you pleasure/pain-seekers out there, I wanted to share with you my progress once again.
So tell me your nico-story. Are you one of those lucky souls who has never had a cigarette in your entire life because of some exceptional wildly proactive parenting? What made you know not to ever indulge? Or -- if you have smoked, when did you start and when did you quit? (Or when did you decide NOT to quit?) Are you a nicotine replacement user? A vaper? What brand do you use, and do you have any desire to quit or are you different than me, and you don't feel chest pains from doing it, like I did? Please know: I support all y'all -- smokers and non-smokers alike.