The Hardest Parts Of Quitting Smoking

I’m 24, which means I’ve been smoking for seven years. I started during sophomore year of high school as most teenagers begin: stupidly. I had friends who smoked, I was angsty, I wanted to rebel against everything (my parents) — these are the best “reasons” I can conjure to explain why I first picked up a cigarette. Understanding the person you used to be is like distinguishing the features of a hitchhiker in the rear-view mirror; it gets harder as the distance between you grows.

I started with Marlboro Reds, again influenced by my friends (their brand of choice) or, perhaps more subconsciously, my father (he smokes Marlboro Lights). From there, I went through a series of brands that reads like the shortlist of inventory from behind a bodega counter, but to me reveals something about my life at each point, a compact manifestation of that period’s tastes and possibilities. There were the Dunhills that I indulged in thanks to an enterprising friend who illegally imported them from Israel; there were the Buy-One-Get-One-Free Camel Lights that became a staple during freshman year at Rutgers, when being broke was a way of life. Each brand sets off a reel of memories that have a smoldering flavor like films have soundtracks.

By most measures, I was never a heavy smoker. Even after seven years, a typical day of home to work to home would entail at most only six or seven cigarettes. This may be why the process of quitting, which I undertook two months ago, has gone smoother than I imagined. Still, it hasn’t been all that easy. Quitting is a necessary step, one that many people will resolve to make in this new year, but it has difficulties that most non-smokers don’t understand and that some smokers might not even acknowledge. Here are some of the toughest aspects of quitting I’ve faced thus far:

Struggle No. 1: Feeling Absolutely Terrible

The most obvious challenge of quitting is breaking the physical addiction. Nicotine triggers the release of neurotransmitters, naturally occurring chemicals in your brain that influence everything from sleeping to being horny. Two of these neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, affect emotions, attention and mood. Smoking initially increases the release of both chemicals, which makes you feel good, but eventually these positive effects wear off and you need to smoke just to keep your dopamine and serotonin levels normal. Then you need smoke more to keep them normal. Then even more. This is how addiction works.

This is also why withdrawal sucks. Once you cut out the nicotine, your dopamine and serotonin levels plummet, leaving you angry, anxious, impatient and scatterbrained. They’ll eventually go back to relatively normal levels as your brain naturally starts producing more dopamine and serotonin to compensate for the lack of nicotine, but until then, you’re going to feel like a teenager with ADD who was grounded after your girlfriend left you.

Struggle No. 2: Being Hungry — ALL THE TIME

This is also an aspect of physical addiction and the withdrawal process, but one that’s so distinct, it earns its own bullet.

Besides giving you a mild high, nicotine also suppresses your appetite. This is partially why runway models and soldiers stranded in the trenches both smoke, and partially why people who quit smoking put on weight. Quitting means your appetite returns to normal, and with that comes a couple of pounds. Personally, it’s difficult to tell whether the seven to 10 pounds I’ve gained over my college average are due to quitting or just a byproduct of leaving my early 20s, but that bruise to my self esteem is not as awful as the near constant HUNGER that came with quitting. Larger portions, second helpings, desserts, snacks — for a while, you’re just never sated. You’re looking for the satisfaction that comes from capping a meal with a cigarette, but nothing gives it to you. It’s like that episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia when Charlie and Dee are hunting for human meat after they think they’ve had a taste — but in reality, they’re just suffering from stomach worms after eating raccoon. Yeah, at times, quitting cigarettes feels like having worms.

Struggle No. 3: Hanging Out

Spending time with friends after quitting is a twofold challenge. The first issue is that your friends probably smoke. Some of these smokers will be supportive of your decision and some will react with sympathy, like two of my friends who, upon hearing that I had quit, attempted to console me by saying, “Damn dude, that sucks.”

Seeing your smoker friends will be hard because of the obvious temptation, but also because of the rhythms and routines of social gatherings. Much of smoking cigarettes is social; you typically take a break from the larger party to stand outside and speak more intimately with someone. You have a couple of beers at the bar, talking with everyone there, but then you and your old friend from high school take it outside to catch up. The cigarette allows you to seamlessly make that transition. This may sound insignificant, but a college friend of mine actually picked up smoking because he felt left out when everyone went out for a cigarette; he wanted to be part of the conversation but didn’t want to be standing outside for ostensibly no reason like an asshole. Plus, there is no easier way to start a conversation with a stranger than by asking for a lighter.

The second difficulty of hanging out after quitting isn’t that it necessarily involves smoking but that it often hinges on drinking, and nothing complements a drink like a cigarette. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who started smoking at 15 and only decided to quit in 2000, once mused that the difficulty of quitting cigarettes laid in finding a suitable replacement to complement coffee. But what if coffee reduced your inhibitions, was drank by the gallon at every party and got you hammered? That’s the challenge alcohol presents.

Struggle No. 4: Making New Routines

The hardest aspect of quitting isn’t enduring the physical ailments or resisting the temptations, it’s breaking tobacco-stained routines and filling the new cigarette-shaped holes in your life. As creatures of habit, smokers have their dedicated moments to spark up: on the way to and from the subway station, while waiting for the girlfriend to get off of work, at 3:30 to break up the mid-afternoon office monotony. The way dinner, bed, drinking binges and sex all fall into a repetitive schedule if maintained unaltered for long enough, so too does smoking. It integrates itself physically, chemically and psychologically into the course of your day, so that cutting it out creates an extreme, pervasive unease, like forgetting to wipe after taking a crap. Then, once you get over that feeling of disruption, the questions emerge: What do I do now as I walk to the subway? What do I now while waiting for my girlfriend? How do I get out of this boring ass office?

Struggle No. 5: Telling Other People

The need to share your decision to quit smoking with other people is understandable: Those who have been chiding you for years to drop the habit will be relieved that you finally did; your smoker friends will need explanations as to why you can’t bum them a cigarette and how you could possibly not have a lighter or even matches on you; and then you’ll want the support too, someone to slap you on the back or pat you on the head to let you know you’re doing the right thing, even if it feels like slowly being mummified in ants.

The difficulty with telling other people you’ve quit is that the praise will fade and your decision to quit will remain, accompanied by the obligation of your word to the people you’ve told and their scrutiny of your progress. And this is when support can turn into condescension and criticism. The odd cigarette you can’t resist — a minor setback rather than the ultimate relapse on the road to quitting — becomes a thing of contention: Friends who smoke will say they “don’t want to be that guy” who bums you a cigarette, and non-smokers will question your commitment. They all have the best intentions but fail to understand that, after all, if you keep yourself from having 99 cigarettes but succumb to one, isn’t that a success?

***

I realize that I’ve hammered on about how difficult quitting smoking is, how much it sucks and how terrible it feels, and that I may have thereby caused one or two readers contemplating the plunge to back out. To them I say: JUST QUIT ALREADY.

As silly and melodramatic as it sounds, I was scared to quit. I thought it was too big of an ordeal to tackle while studying and working and facing the already pressing challenges of everyday life. I was afraid that quitting would make me unfocused and irritable, that withdrawal would impact my work and my social life. I over-thought it and postponed quitting until some hazy day when either conviction or cancer embraced me.

Then the decision came, as easy as it was uninspired. It wasn’t an occasion, just a passive choice. I didn’t think about it too much and, aside from writing this screed, I try not to think about it now. I don’t really talk about it, and if I’m in a position where I feel I NEED a cigarette, I have one. My only rules are to not buy a pack and to not make quitting into a big deal. I’ve tried to make light of the endeavor above because when you inflate the process to become gargantuan and absolute, huge in its challenges, deep in its trials, unforgiving in consequence and circumstance, you make it impossible. TC mark

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=711861810 Sean Cheah

    exactly

  • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

    What is so wonderful about smoking? Everything! I like the way a fresh firm pack feels in my hand. I like peeling away that little piece of cellophane and seeing it twinkle in the light. I like coaxing that first sweet cylinder out of its hiding place and bringing it slowly up to my lips. Striking a match, watching it burst into a perfect little flame and knowing that soon that flame will be inside me!
    I love the first puff, pulling it into my lungs… little fingers of smoking filling me, caressing me, feeling that warmth penetrate deeper and deeper until I think I’m going to burst!
    Then ‘woosh!’… watching it flow out of me in a lovely sinuous cloud, no two ever quite the same!

    • elledee

      thought that was Sedaris. Frasier works too, I guess.

  • Humpte

    Sad to tell you, but you haven’t really quit. You’ve just altered your smoking habit a bit. You’re still a smoker. If that works for you, great. No need to feel bad about it. But don’t kid yourself. If you’ve gone without for only two months and still have one once in a while. You still smoke.

    Think of an alcoholic saying:
    “I’ve quit drinking. I’m not a drunk any more. I only drink when I really NEED to. And that’s ok.”

    Such is the nature of addiction. And that’s why I’m struggling as I write this with terrible nicotine withdrawals. For the third time! Twice already I thought I won the battle. And after months I just had an odd cigarette for the social side of it. Or because things got tough. Or because …

    So either you smoke or you don’t. There’s no in between. However much I’d also would like there to be!

    • Guest

      i see what you’re saying, but i’m not sure i completely agree. for example, you say there’s no in between. there is absolutely in between. then again, if you’ve only quit for 2 months and you still have one when you “really NEED one,” i would agree that it’s not appropriate to say you’ve officially quit.

      • Humpte

        As I answered Holydances above, I might have been a bit too harsh. So to Arvind, hang in there and do it the way the feels best. Ain’t that what life ought to be about anyhow (and cancer doesn’t feel especially good, but one has to live also..).

    • http://www.twitter.com/ArvSux Arvind Dilawar

      Having a cigarette on occasion does not make you a smoker (as most smokers will tell you), just like having a beer once in awhile does not make you an alcoholic. That just makes you a normal person.

      Cold turkey may be the way to go for some people, but it shouldn’t be the only acceptable route to quitting. That’s like saying that you have to be straight edge for your entire life to keep from becoming a smoking, alcoholic, drug-addicted skank.

  • Anonymous

    Love.

  • Anonymous

    He’s quit, dude! Quitting an be as hard as heroin. My aunt is a 30+ year smoker and is official quit. She may have one cigarette every 6 months. But come on, there’s no definitive answer everybody is different.

    • Humpte

      Yeah, sorry, might have been a bit harsh. As I said am going through some withdrawals myself at the moment so I’m not at my rosiest of moods. So I suppose it might very well be different for some. Which makes it even worse for me. For for myself it’s a case of all or nothing. However much I’d like to be able to just have a puff every one and again when the urge strikes. But I’m back at a pack a day after two cigarettes.

  • Anonymous

    Everybody’s quit is different

  • Breonmr

    i’m curious, did you finish your pack before deciding to quit? or did you just throw the rest away? did you have one last little guy?

    • http://www.twitter.com/ArvSux Arvind Dilawar

      I had half a pack of Benson & Hedges left, which my girlfriend (a non-smoker) was holding for me in her purse. She asked if I wanted them back, and I said no.

  • Neil Brooks

    Quit or no, at some point in your life, you’re going to die. I personally wish you a very long and happy life but at some point, we’ll all be dead. It sounds quite macabre to be saying this but once we accept this fact we can all start to live.

    Ask yourself why you’re quitting. If it’s to live forever then you’re kidding yourself. You’re still at an age when your own mortality isn’t so much an issue right now but make a note of how it feels when you cross 35. The feeling at that point alone could make you reach for a 20-deck.

    Good read.

  • Nicole

    I would sincerely love to read a follow up to this once you have actually quit smoking.

  • Anonymous

    Kudos.

    My one friend’s reasoning for not starting smoking is this:
    If you’re with friends and say you’ve gotta have a cig, and then they say, “You smoke now? Since when?” What are you gonna say, “Yeah! I just started last week!”

    When you get to a certain age, you can’t just fall into smoking, as if you’ve just been cruisin’ since 10th grade, all smoky and nonchalant. You really have to make a decision. I’m always like, “Oh maybe I should just start smoking or something,” haha for like ZERO reason. I don’t feel left out with smoking friends, and their smoking doesn’t bother me, I just see it as a thing that I could start doing so that I could remember these years as “when I was still smoking.” But then I think about how it’s just extra money and I’m not even addicted to nicotine so what’s the point for me?

    Smoking can look so cool, though, in the purest most beat-ass sense of the word. Damn. Missed the boat!

  • anonymous

    Hi,

    I’d like to know your thoughts on how to support someone who wants to quit.
    Thanks

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