How I Quit Smoking
About a year and a half ago on a Monday morning, I realized I had a problem. It was my first semester at Hunter College and I was determined to do well. My alarm went off that day, and I saw that I had 45 minutes to get ready and hop on Zoom for class. As I headed to the bathroom to begin my routine, a sudden urge crescendoed through my body, an ache that continued until it took over every other thought and plan. My body was stiff, nerves irritated, and palms sweaty. Shit, I need a quick smoke, I thought to myself. I started checking my pockets, drawers–hell, even kitchen cabinets. But there was no use. I knew this because the night before, I had dumped all my cigarettes in the toilet, convinced I had smoked my last cigarette and was done for good. But there I was, stressed and furious about my past self’s foolish decision to throw my cigs out.
The nearest deli was ten minutes away and class was in half an hour, so I ran over. I rushed to the store and demanded a pack of Newport 100s and a mango “puff” disposable vape pen. I reached into my pocket and, in a moment of complete devastation, realized I had forgotten my wallet. It was now time to let it go, return home, and go to class. But I knew deep down that there was no f*cking way I was going back to my apartment without a smoke. So I did what many smokers do in times of desperation - I asked every person walking on the block for a smoke. I was there 15 minutes desperately hustling on workers, parents, grandmas, until I finally bummed a cigarette. Praise the Lord! When I lit it up, I got 15 seconds of that magical, euphoric feeling of relief I was obsessively craving. But after those first couple of hits, I felt disgusted and didn't understand why I needed this drug so much. I ran home and was 15 minutes late to class.
As a teenager, I was familiar with the basic health risks of cigarettes. Between teachers, friends, and disapproving girlfriends, I had heard it all: smoking significantly deteriorates your overall health and harms every organ in your body, ultimately causing cancer, heart disease, and bronchitis; the list goes on. I was not necessarily in denial about this information. I just didn’t really care at the time. Lots of things we do are bad for us, and I knew eventually I’d probably stop. But years went by and the habit stuck.
After a few years of smoking half a pack to a pack a day, I increasingly began to feel the immediate consequences of chronic smoking. I had less energy, coughed all the time, and was constantly short of breath. So I told all my friends and family that I quit and switched over to vaping for a time. It was the perfect solution because anytime anyone had something to say about the habit, I would tell them that the health risks they talked about were related to smoking, not vaping. But vaping did not fix my problems–and if anything, made me feel worse. I was still experiencing the same symptoms I had with cigarettes, but with more intense nausea and headaches. (The jury is still out on the health risks of e-cigs). My new problem was that I now had access to nicotine 24/7, indoors and outdoors. I was consuming heroic amounts of nicotine like never before. I’d wake up in the morning and realize I had been hitting my vape while asleep. This attempt to quit smoking was a total failure – not only did I soon return to smoking cigarettes, but I was vaping as well!
On that Monday morning, it was my obsession with the drug, and not just my consumption, that truly made me aware of how much of a problem I had. The physical side effects were certainly unpleasant, but more fundamentally, I was enslaved to nicotine. When I woke up in the morning, it didn’t matter what commitments I had. I was going to smoke and prioritize that over everything else. When I was stuck in a long class, I was unable to focus on the lecture or listen after a while, as I obsessively awaited the moment I could finally light up. I was sick of having something external dictate whether or not I’d have a good day. I didn’t feel fully free.
I tried quitting many different ways, some more successful than others. Vaping did not work for me; neither did chewing tobacco. I tried smoking a pack of Marlboro Reds in under 45 minutes to create a negative association- that certainly did not work. (I definitely do not recommend it!) I tried vaping and smoking with lower nicotine levels. That didn’t work either. Nor did my attempts to taper off the amount I was smoking- I’d eventually be smoking just as much as before. After countless relapses, I did some research.
The first recommendation I read was to write down all the reasons I wanted to stop, resulting in an extensive list. It was clear I desperately wanted to stop. This list was very useful to look at anytime my mind tried to rationalize (which it constantly did) having a smoke. I began telling my friends and close ones that I was trying to stop, to gain an extra layer of accountability. Ex-smokers advised me to avoid certain people and places that might trigger cravings during the first few weeks. I decided to get a nicotine patch to alleviate physical withdrawal as I dealt with the obsession. I downloaded Smoke Free, an app that tracked how many days I was abstinent and how much money I saved, which gave me an external incentive. With that, I threw out my vapes and cigs, and my journey began.
Any smoker can attest that the first few days of abstinence are miserable. It feels like war. I decided to postpone my dietary and financial goals and put all my focus and energy into trying to quit. It was OK if I was spending a little too much money, or eating lots of comfort food during that time. The investment would eventually pay off. I found that treating myself to bubble tea (the chewing helped relieve the stress) and sweets helped with cravings. To get over them, I needed something to look forward to, something that would stimulate me. Most importantly during those first couple weeks, I constantly reminded myself that cravings only last up to 30 minutes, so however intense, there was a set end to them.
The key for me was to spend the least amount of time alone with nothing to do. I decided to fill up my days: school, work, exercise, calls with friends– I had to be exhausted and ready for bed at the end of the day. I was constantly on the phone talking to buddies, spewing out all the stressful and angry thoughts that consumed my mind. I had to get out of my own head, stay busy, and devote my attention to something else.
A particularly important and difficult step was overcoming the ritual aspect of smoking. That smoke by the window before bed was ingrained, having been part of my life for nearly a decade! It took some time for things to feel normal again. I decided to burn some incense by the window to form a new ritual–that helped. Life was still rocky, but things became increasingly more manageable.
I’m not going to lie, those were some pretty brutal days. The following weeks were slightly better, but still tough. I was emotional, snappy, and on edge–not the most pleasant person to be around. I had to take things minute by minute, and hour by hour, as the process was very overwhelming. It took a while to get better, but at a certain point I realized I had not had a craving in weeks. Moreover, I could physically feel improvements in my health. I was no longer short of breath, I had more energy, and my sense of taste and smell improved to levels it seemed I had never experienced. Not to mention, I was exercising more, my skin cleared up, and my smoker's cough disappeared.
I felt good and did not want to lose that. Most importantly, I could wake up in the morning and do whatever I wanted without an obsessive compulsion to smoke. I no longer came late to class or work delayed by my need for a fix. Essentially, I rediscovered a sense of freedom I hadn’t experienced since my early teenage years. This was truly incredible and worth more than anything to me. The hard work had finally paid off.
As of today, I have been smoke-free for a year and three months, avoiding more than 7,500 cigarettes and saving $4,200. My health has never been better, and I have been able to use the tools gained from this journey to shake other bad habits. I wish any current smoker reading this the best in their journey.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 5, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/index.htm
Peel, A., Rockett, J., Freidrichsen, P., Zangori, L., Elmy, C., & Wagner, B. (2020). Is Vaping Harmful?: Using the issue of e-cigarette regulation to teach homeostasis and feedback loops. The Science Teacher, 88(1), 51–57. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27048204
Robson, S., & Salcedo, N. (2014). Smoking. In Behavioral Fitness and Resilience: A Review of Relevant Constructs, Measures, and Links to Well-Being (pp. 21–24). RAND Corporation. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/j.ctt14bs379.11