How to quit smoking

I picked up smoking in the silliest of ways. I was well over 25, had successfully avoided the peer pressure of “looking cool” in school, never took a drag on a cigarette and there I was 10 years after high school smoking regularly. I say “silly” because I could just have easily never started. My girlfriend at the time used to enjoy the occasional cigarette and in an effort to be closer to her I did too. One thing led to the next and before long I was buying my own.

In total, I must have smoked a little over 3 years before I quit. I wasn’t quite equipped with the proper mental tools and did what everyone else does: try my best to stay strong, chew nicotine chewing gum…the typical short-term tricks that work until they don’t. All it takes is one fateful night around smokers and we’re back at it.

I can’t remember the number of times I failed before it finally worked. I would believe I was a non-smoker until I was confronted with tobacco at a party. I’d resist for a few hours until I promised myself I would only let go that one evening. As everyone who’s ever drunk will know, alcohol and strength of mind don’t make a great team. My determination became as weak as a drunkard’s old spongy liver and my promises were the empty words of a flake.

Well lo and behold, one day I did quit and I remember how it happened. Two things triggered the “real” desire to quit: something that my brother said and pleasure of rediscovering nature.

One of the dangers of smoking regularly is to “become” a smoker. I mean by that the identity of the smoker. There comes a point where you don’t picture yourself not smoking and the separation with smoking is like being given a new citizenship or profession. Yesterday you were a cashier and today you’re heavy machine operator. It’s that brutal. Smokers will know that they struggle to keep their hands busy when they try to quit. The don’t know how to “act” as a non-smoker and feel a bit naked in the new world.

My first step to quitting smoking was to challenge this identity and with it the notion that I enjoyed smoking. One day, as my brother watched me smoking he said “no smoker in the world actually enjoys smoking,” And you know what, he was right! Smoking isn’t like a cup of tea or a honey sandwich that you can really taste and savour. Smokers fully realize that it stinks, that their fingers stink, that it makes them cough but fall victim to a mental confusion: they confuse “enjoying” with the positive chemical trigger they get when they light up.

Think about it for a second: you don’t enjoy the action of taking your lighter out and you don’t enjoy putting a cigarette between your lips. You don’t enjoy lighting it up and you don’t enjoy the action of inhaling the smoke. So in all these separate actions, there’s really nothing that you like and that you would reproduce in a different context. It would be like saying “I enjoy putting a spoon in my mouth”. There is a difference between “liking” something and the chemical responses of the brain. It seems basic perhaps, but I think it’s the way out.

Looking at it from this new angle, smoking became absurd to me. It was true: no smoker draws in the smoke and goes “Ooh what a nice rich flavour!” It doesn’t even taste of anything. No smoker carries different brands of cigarettes to vary the taste bud experience. At least a honey sandwich actually tastes nice. Smoking is just a chemical rush that you don’t technically “like”.

Now that I had seen that I was performing an action that was not truly likeable, I was dismantling my persona as a “liker of cigarettes”. I chose to stay clear of the self-forgiving path of “Oh, I’m too weak blablabla” and just quit. This too is a pitfall when trying to quit smoking: convincing ourselves we have the identity of “being weak”, which is as unfounded as it is stupid. No one has an “addictive personality”. These are just crutches that we use and vaguely-understood notions of psychology. Following this, it was a frustrating few days but luckily I had chosen the best time of all to quit: the season of Spring.

The time of the year at which I quit played a role in my success too. Spring comes with nice smells and gave me an incentive. For the first time in years, I could smell flowers and enjoy the season. There was an actual immediate benefit that I would see, and most certainly you need to find yours.

Think of it as having a romantic partner. No one forces themselves to find a romantic partner for an imagined future benefit. “When I have a partner I will be so happy decorating the rooms of our house together”. No one says that, and for good reason. The whole incentive is to enjoy the romantic partner immediately, not 2 years down the line.

If we don’t truly know why we go through “disagreeable” things, we usually quit. Blindly sticking to a discipline is never enough. This is the same reason so many resolutions fail. People don’t believe in them and don’t see the benefits that are far away in the distance. Saying “I will be thin” is not enough for a diet to work. My advice is rather to enjoy the diet now: find interesting foods instead of forcefully depriving yourself of the bad foods you like.

It is after all the way the human brain works: always looking for the easiest way out and avoid pain. Quitting smoking without the promise of some sort of compensation would have been hard for me because it would have been a punishment. Being able to smell the perfume and feel connected to the earth once more made it worthwhile for me immediately. I replaced one pleasure with the other.

As a final piece of advice I feel it’s important to know the tricks the mind plays on us. Some basic psychology is necessary here. We should understand the difference between a true pleasure and a chemical reaction. We should know why we think what we do and where these ideas came from. (In the case of: “I am prone to addiction” or “I’m not strong enough”) We should know that we naturally dislike change and that in many ways we are always fighting our own self because there are different forces at play: the conscious mind and the subconscious.

I wish you luck in your journey to quit smoking. Remember that it is a mental issue more than a physical one and that it is your own strength of reasoning that carries the key to quitting. I have now been a non-smoker for over 15 years, my wife smokes regularly in front of me and I don’t have the slightest temptation. I could (and have) take a few puffs on a cigarette while still thinking it’s disgusting.

I will never smoke again because I have seen the absurdity it truly represents. At this stage, it would be more effort to force myself to smoke than to not smoke. I know you can too, and I wish you all success!

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