28 April 2011

It’s been 1,000 days since my last cigarette. After smoking a pack a day for five years, I quit cold turkey almost 3 years ago.

It certainly hasn’t been easy. I still get random cravings for cigarettes, and joke with my friends that when I turn 80 I’m going to start smoking again. I sometimes think about how awesome it would be if doctors suddenly decided that smoking was super healthy. There is a dark recess in my brain that has not and will not accept the fact that I should not be smoking. Whenever I think about travelling the world, that dark part of my brain inserts a picture of me smoking wherever I go. Guess I’m still addicted.

I try not to be one of those self-righteous ex-smokers. The purpose of life is not to postpone death, and the choice to smoke is a personal one.

Like many smokers, I tried to quit multiple times and failed. The best previous quitting experience lasted 12 days, and the worst lasted under 2 hours.

I knew I needed to have a strategy to get through the first 30 days if I ever wanted to quit. I figured if I could find a way to get through the first 30 days without a cigarette, I would be able to keep it going. The strategy I came up with was as follows: It was my mother’s 50th birthday coming up and I was going to quit for her birthday. However, I knew I couldn’t just promise to quit, because it was very likely I wouldn’t be able to keep the promise. So I decided the gift would be that I had already quit for a month.

Now, during the first 30 days, whenever I thought about caving, I imagined how happy my mom would be that I quit, and contrasted it with how she would feel when I said that I wanted to quit for her birthday, but wasn’t strong enough to do it.

Even though I was keeping my quitting a secret so that I could surprise my mom on her birthday, I told some friends who got daily emails with my progress. This was really helpful because I was able to vent my frustrations, and they provided me with some great support.

One of the things I learned is that it’s not about stopping smoking; it’s about never smoking that next cigarette. Imagine you’re in this huge castle with thick walls. Outside of the walls are millions of cigarettes trying to get in, but they don’t stand a chance. They fling themselves hopelessly against the walls, drown in the moat, and you don’t need to be concerned with them. However, there’s one massively giant cigarette with a battering ram whose only job is to break a huge hole in your wall so all his millions of buddies can get through. This is the bastard you really need to worry about. You need to marshal your entire army to fight just that one cigarette. As long as you don’t let him through, you win the war. If I never smoked just that one next cigarette, I never needed to worry about smoking all the other cigarettes either.

From previous failures, I knew it would be difficult to break all the little habits I had formed around smoking. I wasn’t just quitting one thing, I was quitting 20 things that I used to do every single day. I needed to quit the waking up cigarette, the walk to the train cigarette, the walk from the train to work cigarette, the morning break cigarette, the before lunch cigarette, the after lunch cigarette, the afternoon break cigarette, the late afternoon break cigarette, the leaving work cigarette, the walking home from the train cigarette, the before dinner cigarette, the before desert cigarette, the after desert cigarette, the commercial break cigarettes, the out drinking cigarettes, the before bed cigarette, and all the cigarettes in between (believe it or not, there were cigarettes in between).  Each one of these was difficult to break.

The closest I came to caving was when I went out drinking with some friends a few days into quitting. At one point I had firmly decided that quitting was stupid, and I was going to smoke in 30 minutes. Then, I decided to wait another half hour. Somehow I made it through the night.

In addition to the short-term needing to quit for my mom, I also signed up for a triathlon, and started working out. The constant working out and the looming race helped me through the rest of that first year.

Now it’s just about not breaking the chain, and making sure that I have reinforcements to not smoke as I keep going. Whenever I think about smoking, I also think about having to tell my family and friends that I started smoking again. It doesn’t take too much ongoing effort not to smoke, and hopefully that will remain true for many more thousands of days.