I was a college student—not a “real” smoker—when I tried to quit for the first time. Oblivious to the severity of my addiction, I purchased a box of nicotine patches with confidence. I’ve smoked only a few years; if these things work for old people with black lungs, they should be more than enough for me! So I was caught off guard when the first wave of anxiety crashed on day one. The patch was not helpful. The most noticeable effects were intensified dreams and skin irritation. By day three I wanted to rip it off my arm, roll it up and smoke it. I bought a pack of cigarettes and vowed to try again when I was “ready.”
I made my second attempt while staying at my parents’ house over summer break. I chose my new nicotine-replacement weapon and discovered how loosely the word “gum” can be used. The texture resembled regular gum, but there was no chewing involved; just a few chomps to release the chemical before positioning it between the cheek and gums. The foul taste was annoying, but the continued cravings were intolerable. Less than a week later I was smoking again.
Third time’s a charm, I thought, when the nicotine lozenge hit the market in my early twenties. The product was similar to the gum, in that it bore little resemblance to the refreshing treat in the advertisements. Instead of soothing my withdrawal symptoms, the lozenge added scorching heartburn for a hellish combo. Without much hesitation, I lit back up.
My fourth attempt began at the doctor’s office. Feeling hopelessly addicted in my mid-twenties, I was prescribed a drug called Bupropion that decreases withdrawal symptoms without nicotine. I drove straight to the pharmacy, where I learned that the medication is dual-branded: ‘Wellbutrin’ is for treating depression and ‘Zyban’ for smoking cessation. My health insurance denied coverage for the latter purpose. I couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket cost, but somehow managed to resume paying for cigarettes.
I was in my late-twenties when I tried to quit for the fifth time. There was a shiny-new pharmaceutical crutch on the market and the hype was promising. Rather than treating withdrawal symptoms, Chantix blocks the brain’s nicotine receptors, rendering cigarettes unrewarding. I was mistakenly undaunted by the side effect warnings: rapid-onset nausea and vomiting were overwhelming. Ten days into the gastric nightmare, I had a Pavlovian response to the mere act of opening the pill bottle. Nope, I’ll take my chances with lung cancer.
Inspired by my thirtieth birthday, attempt number six was relatively successful. I took a different approach with a combination of mental strategies: meditation, hypnosis, self-help books and online support forums. These were more effective than previous support tools because they gave me something to do when I was crawling out of my skin. I lived nicotine free for months before gradually descending the slippery slope of “social smoking.”
Finally, at thirty-two years old, I quit quitting. I gave up my belief that overcoming the chemical addiction was enough—or even possible—without dissolving the root of it. I had smoked for fifteen years; twelve of which had been a cycle of guilt, cessation, and relapse. I could no longer deny that I was emotionally dependent on my physical addiction.
When I wasn’t actively hating myself for it, I dearly loved smoking. I loved the ritual of it: sliding a cigarette from the pack, lifting it hand to lips and inhaling deeply… the quiet sizzle of flame against dry tobacco. I loved the flavor, especially paired with coffee or beer. I loved the security of a new pack: twenty little rewards tucked in my purse. I loved smoke breaks as personalized units of time: instruments of transition between one activity and the next. Want a moment to shift gears before an unavoidable task? I’ll call him after this cigarette. Need a controlled dose of procrastination? A cigarette needs to be snuffed out in a few minutes. Alright, back to work. Ironically, it was the riskiest of habits enabling such a guarded way to live.
My emotional attachment was also driven by the social aspect of smoking, where my addiction began in the first place. As a teen, I didn’t think the habit itself was cool, but it did offer some protection against being mistaken for—or accurately seen as—uptight. Even in the adult world, it’s safe to assume that our prudish peers aren’t among the folks huddled in the rain during intermission. And, while there’s nothing intimate about fifty drunk college kids smoking outside a frat house, there’s an unspoken camaraderie between adult smokers. Phew, I’m not the only smoker at this wedding. A perceived sameness invites conversation between people who would otherwise avoid eye contact in an elevator. The single habit in common creates shared experiences, like the one between two frustrated strangers finding relief in the only smoking lounge in the whole f*@#ing airport.
Once my denial was surrendered I couldn’t unsee the truth: I was addicted to being a smoker. On one hand, it was a relief to understand why I was still consuming cigarettes against my own rational will. But the concept of being a nonsmoker—something I hadn’t been since childhood—remained unappealing and intimidating. My desire to stop smoking was no match for my fear of being a nonsmoker. What if dissolving that part of myself leaves an empty space? It wasn’t more willpower I needed, it was courage.
The expression “cold turkey” was aptly described by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle, as “the hideous combination of goosepimples and what William Burroughs calls ‘the cold burn’ that addicts suffer as they kick the habit.” It was excruciating at times, but I faced the fear of drowning in irritability and gave myself permission to do whatever it took to survive each craving. I was allowed to cope by any means necessary… anything except nicotine. No matter how unbearable it got, I didn’t entertain a single thought of caving in. The moment my mind began sneaking toward justification, I intervened. Nope; the bailouts are ended.
It was absolutely awful. Reminding myself that every escape route was closed—that I was staying put—felt like waking up the morning after a loved one’s death. Slowly remembering the devastating new reality; forced to accept the loss all over again. Oh my God, this is really happening. It was true grief, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever willingly done, but I did it.
Today, as I celebrate five years of nonsmoking, I offer my encouragement to anyone considering the same journey:
Once you’ve conquered your fear of success, it doesn’t matter how completely your brain is controlled by addiction. Your resolve controls your hands, mouth, and lungs—and therefore has the last say.
There are millions of former smokers in the world, none of whom had any superpower to succeed. You don’t even have to pretend that you want to quit smoking; an addicted brain will never feel “ready.” Just admit how much you hate what’s happening… and then do it anyway.
Yep, this is a nightmare, but my decision is made. I’m doing this.
There’s no denying the agony of a starving addiction desperately pursuing sustenance. But the miserable anxiety is not a sign of wavering conviction; it’s the byproduct of success, and it’s temporary. Between your last cigarette and functioning comfortably without nicotine, there’s a finite amount of suffering. Every moment of discomfort chips away at that total.
Embrace the pain, don’t struggle against it. Hang on… ride it out. As Osho encouraged, “Don’t swim against the current. Stay in the river, become the river; the river is already going to the sea.”
Written by Megan Kendall: Find me on Facebook here!