Dirty Little Secret

I have a dirty little secret.

It may not be that big of a deal to most people, but it is to me because I struggled with it for a very long time.  This time in particular for 9 years on and off.  There were other times before that, but the most recent was this time around.

This pic was was drawn by Jae Korim, a talented fellow.
This pic was was drawn by Jae Korim, a talented fellow.

My dirty little secret is that I was a smoker.  Today I am celebrating one year of sobriety from my addiction to nicotine.   A year ago, I finally broke free of the monster and quit.  I think this is only significant to some people who are or were smokers because they KNOW how hard it can be to quit.  It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done, done and done again.  I don’t know how this compares to other types of addiction in respect to how difficult or easy it is because it’s the only type I dealt with but I sympathize with anyone who deals with addiction.  What was a source of stress relief in a very short period became a stressor if I didn’t get my daily doses.  The struggle is REAL.

It’s dirty to me because there’s shame involved.  I was never proud to be a smoker and tried hide it as best as I could from people who didn’t know me well by trying to hide the smell or the act itself. It’s a disgusting habit,  it will make you look like shit, yada yada yada.  It was also embarassing because most of the people I knew who smoked, quit a long time ago but I still hadn’t managed to make it stick.  People would always remark “oh you don’t look like a smoker” when they finally found out about my secret, years and years after knowing me.  WTF does a smoker look like? I don’t know what non smokers or the general public think when they think about smokers, but the demographic of smokers cover many facets of society, from panhandlers to students to housewives to business/professionals to celebrities to Leaders of the Free world (like Barack Obama).

I can’t speak for others, but quitting smoking to me was hard because cigarettes are legal and readily available.  It’s not hard to score a pack of smokes or bum a smoke off of someone.  The process of becoming an addicted smoker was not some overnight thing that happened-it was very a gradual process in which the addiction factor snuck up on me.  Malcolm Gladwell discusses smoking in his book ‘The Tipping Point’ and states that generally most people do not become addicted to nicotine immediately.  Most people experiment as teens and pass a certain threshold (3 year period or a certain mg of nicotine) and become ‘addicted’.  I myself was introduced to smoking in my teen years by some friends who were experimenting with it.  It was casual and lighthearted because I didn’t feel myself needing a daily cigarette, but it slowly evolved on and off for a few years from social smoking to a daily occurrence and then eventually within a few years to realizing I was addicted when I wasn’t able to quit like I had during my experimental period.  In some respects, it took me a long time to accept that I was a REAL smoker and only did when I was trying to quit and realize how smoking had become a normal thing to me, like breathing, eating, sleeping or walking.

I had quit for about two years and then one night about 10 years ago, while out with friends made the mistake thinking I could be a social smoker.  After bumming a few cigarettes from friends, I was back to buying packs shortly after and realized I couldn’t quit and it was alot harder then the previous times before.  From that point 9 years ago shortly after I started smoking again, I had been trying to quit on and off unsuccessfully the moment I realized it was an issue.  I went through short periods of time like a week or a month or two of quitting only to relapse shortly after.  It sucked large and was hard because it meant disappointing people around me who I knew loved me time and time and time and countless times again.  That’s why this time around I didn’t tell my family until I was out of the ‘first trimester’ of quitting.  I figured if I could be ok for 3 months, I might be safe this time around to share the news without having a relapse again.  This is also why I am only sharing this with everyone else a year after the fact that I have manage to make the quitting thing stick.

I will tell you that I have tried Zyban, the patch, nicotine gum, lozenges, champix/chantix (which I had an allergic reaction to), Allen Carr’s book, e-cigarettes, hot yoga, the gym, knitting, pretty much anything and everything in the name of quitting. The only thing that has ever made me successfully quit and stay quit was going cold turkey.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses a correlation between smoking and depression and brain chemistry and a side effect the drug Bupropion now is marketed as Zyban.  This made alot of sense to me interms of withdrawal symptoms after quitting smoking.  Do I have depression? No, but I think my brain chemistry altered after I started smoking and I understand that NEED for a hit of nicotine/dopamine/norepinephrine and the relief in the form of a hit it brings after not smoking for a few hours.  I am ashamed to admit that that I know this because I had a brief period where I was using the patch and would eventually rip it off because I didn’t feel like it was working and would go smoke a cigarette a half hour later.

I think it is worth mentioning that if you decide to try a medical substitute for smoking cessation, there is Zyban and Champix (or Chantix as is marketed in the US).  I will say both DO work, but not without out side effects for me.  For Champix, I tried very briefly and developed an allergy to it as in it made it difficult to breathe, so I was on this for a short period of time, maybe two weeks.  I also tried Zyban for a slightly longer period of time (a month to a month and a half max) and remember it having annoying side effects like weird dreams, cotton mouth, dizziness, forgetfulness and made my stomach flip constantly and feel like I was on a roller coaster-and I HATE roller coasters.

Both Zyban and Champix were originally marketed as antidepressants, so you should check with your doctor before taking them for smoking cessation especially if you are on other medications.  I personally didn’t like the way I felt on them and the side effects made me quit taking them but I will admit they do work.  I have never been on antidepressants or drugs that work like them for depression so I don’t know how they are supposed to make you feel compared to if you do take medication for depression, but I just felt weird on them in general. The way these both worked for me is that you take them and continue to smoke as you normally do.  After a short while (half a week to a week) you start to notice you don’t get that high or hit feeling when you smoke a cigarette.  It sometimes didn’t even feel like I was smoking even though I would take a drag/inhale.  There is no other way to describe it but it feels like it’s pointless to be out there, so I guess you eventually stop.

I never got that far though, because I quit early on because of side effects when it’s recommended the program lasts for 7 to 12 weeks.  I feel that these are avenues worth mentioning if someone is interested in quitting using a non-nicotine replacement therapy method.

As for Cold Turkey, it takes alot of will and patience. Right before I quit, I was maybe smoking half a pack (10-12 cigarettes) a day.  I didn’t try to decrease.  I have done that before but never was able to will myself off completely and would get stressed and the number of cigarettes I would smoke would start climbing again.  This last time a year ago, I finished the last cigarette in my pack and decided to play a game and count the hours from my last cigarette.  I would tell myself I didn’t want to start at hour 1 or day 1 again and go through withdrawal in the first 72 hours again because I had played this game a number of times in the past few years but would fail because the first 72 hours were painfully hard.  I counted the hours, then started counting days, and at 3 months I started counting months.  I had never made it to 3 months in all other attempts to quit over the past 9 years.  I changed my habits and avoided my fellow smoker friends in person for the first 3 months and only left the building at work when it was home time.  It may seem extreme but I used to go for smoke breaks which is why this was essential to break that habit.

One observation I did make is that everything I used to do while smoking felt like multitasking.  Talking to a friend while smoking seemed like I was accomplishing something, like some sort of task.  But just talking to a friend for a while made it feel like I was just wasting time and made me feel idle like I should be doing or accomplishing something. Going out for a break to read a book felt like I was wasting time, but if I combined that activity with a cigarette, it felt like I was do something important.  I don’t know why this is, but it just that way for me.

A coping mechanism for a while was that I replaced cigarettes with coffee.  I drank ALOT of coffee the first 4 months.  I eventually switched to green tea and other herbal (non caffeinated) teas and that helped alot because 4+ coffees left me jittery and unable to fall asleep at night.  As for weight gain, it did happen,  the first few months I couldn’t stop snacking.  I gave myself a pass with this because I knew any weight I would put on would be subsequently easier to lose then the actually struggle to quit and stay quit.

All in all I will say one of the memorable moments was in 2008 or 2009, Levar Burton was coming to town and this was in the early days of twitter before everyone and their mom was on twitter*.  I remember reading his blog and seeing that he had quit smoking recently too.  I remember tweeting him saying I was blown away that he, my Reading Rainbow and Star Trek hero was even was a smoker and that I was trying to quit too but struggling.  I’m not sure I even expected a response, but like many of my tweets (and yours) I’m really just talking to myself like a crazy person.  Levar actually wrote me back in a DM (Direct Message and said “keep breathing” and “you can do it”.  And then we talked about his anagram tattoo and some other things which was totally awesome and became best friends.  All of that is true except the best friends part.  In my heart we are BFFs.

So I guess my point in posting this is that if you are trying to quit too, you can do it.   You might fail numerous times and go back like I did many times in the past 9 years, but that’s ok.  One day you too can make it stick.  My advice is try and take advantage of a cold or flu if you get one and use that as your withdrawl from nicotine point.   And if you want, I can DM you too because I’m fabulous by association because one time I talked to Levar Burton on the interwebs.  Cool story bro, am I rite?

*Yes, before everyone and their mom was on twitter.  My mother and Aunts are now on twitter (asking me of course to create accounts for them that they never use in the past year) so they can follow the Pope.  Yes, you read that right.  My mom and aunts are nerdly little church ladies and now you understand where I get my big nerd factor from.


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