100 Days Without a Cigarette: What I’ve Learned About Quitting Smoking So Far
At some point in the past week, I celebrated a milestone in my journey to smoke free living: 100 days without a cigarette.
On the one hand, I’m tempted to downplay the importance of this small yet not insignificant milestone by reminding myself that, before this, I had been failing to stay smoke free for the better part of a year.
Prior that, I had almost a decade of unsuccessful quit attempts behind me, so yes, it’s not exactly as if I’ve never been on this journey before.
On the other hand, I say ‘Screw that part of you that wants to diminish your accomplishments, you did good.’ Yes, I did good, not so much for the achievement of reaching 100 days itself, but for actually paying attention during those 100 days (and the days leading up to them) and learning a few things about myself, about the real reason why I smoked in the first place, and about how to make quitting smoking that little bit easier.
It’s those things that I want to share with you today.
Quitting Smoking Forever is Never Going to Work For Me
The first thing I learned during this period is that swearing off cigarettes forever actually does me more harm than good.
I know that might sound crazy, but hear me out.
In an ideal world, I would be able to completely absolve myself of any stresses or pressures whilst quitting smoking. I would be able to shield myself in a bubble of tranquility, completely separate from anything which just might raise my stress level even slightly — and thus trigger the desire to smoke, believing (as I did at the time) that a cigarette would reduce my stress level and return things “back to normal.”
Sure, that would be great in an ideal world, but let’s be honest, back here in reality, that’s never going to happen.
Even on a good day, there’s still the usual pressures of work, of managing a home, paying bills, keeping up with social commitments. There’s still all the usual stresses that everybody has to deal with every single day.
There’s No Need to Add Unnecessary Pressure When Quitting Smoking
There are days when that stuff alone is enough to have me reaching for a cigarette, so why add to it? Why burden myself with the additional pressure of committing to something forever.
I don’t know if you know this, but forever is a pretty long time. I mean, seriously, just try to wrap your head around that concept.
This is FOREVER we’re talking about here. Years upon years upon decades upon decades upon..oh my goodness, I’m so overwhelmed! What have I done? Look at the sheer ENORMITY of the commitment I’ve made. It’s too much, I’m panicking! Quick, give me something to calm me down! What calms me down? Oh yeah, a cigarette..give me one of those..Oh, shit.
Yes, that may be something of an exaggeration, but not much. It’s basically the same psychological process that happens when I stare a big work project in the face, or think about how much cleaning I have to do around the house. If I don’t break those things down into smaller parts and instead look at the whole thing in one go, the sheer scale becomes pretty intimidating, so intimidating that I don’t want to start it in the first place, and instead want to do something that changes the way I feel; in this case, smoke a cigarette.
If you’ve ever thought ‘Oh my goodness, I have so much to do on this project that I can’t face it, I’m going to procrastinate by going on Facebook instead,’ you’ll likely have some idea of where I’m coming from.
By Not Lasting ‘Forever’ I Make Myself Feel Worse — Now I Need to Change the Way I feel
So, by making the commitment to quitting smoking forever, I’m giving myself all this added, unnecessary pressure. That pressure becomes so intense, and the enormity of this ‘project’ fills me with so much fear, that I need to change the way I feel, and the one thing I can rely on to do that is, of course, a cigarette.
So I smoke a cigarette, but instead of changing the way I feel for the better, all that does is add to my misery, because now there’s a little terrible voice inside my head which sounds a bit like this:
You suck. Look at you. You were going to quit smoking forever and ever, and you couldn’t even make it this far. You’re a failure, a loser, this is just like all those other times that you failed. Remember? Remember how badly you’ve sucked at everything you’re whole entire life? Man, you really do suck, don’t you?
In other words:
You know what happens when I start telling myself that I’m a bad person and that I deserve to feel bad? I start treating myself how I feel I deserve to be treated, in this case badly. So I pollute, poison, and choke myself with another cigarette because what’s the point anyway, right? I already failed, one more isn’t going to make a difference. Besides, it might just change the way I feel.
This is dumb thinking, but it’s precisely where my train of thought goes at times like these. All the while, what’s actually happening is this:
- I give myself all the pressure and fear of quitting something forever.
- When I don’t manage to do it, I add to all those existing negative feelings with more negative feelings about what a terrible person I am
- I smoke again, and the more I smoke and the more I spend time in this vicious cycle of stress, fear, and self-loathing, the more I smoke, and the harder that cycle becomes to get out of.
I learned in time that if I just continued to stay in that cycle, I would never really get anywhere.
For me, that meant doing something different. It meant no longer committing to staying smoke free ‘forever.’ It meant that, just as I would with a huge work project or an overwhelming amount of housework, I had to break things down into smaller parts in order to make them seem more achievable, more manageable, and far less intimidating.
How do you break something like quitting smoking down into smaller parts? In my case, I decided that I was no longer going to commit to staying smoke free for the rest of forever, but for a single day.
I could break it down even further. I didn’t even have to stay smoke free for 24 hours, I just had to stay smoke free for the relatively short period of time between waking up in the morning and going to bed again at night, something I always think of as pillow to pillow.
If even that was still a challenge -and believe me, in those first few days of this quit, it was a major challenge- I would break it down even further.
I just had to get through the morning, through the hour, through these next few minutes until the aching craving and the obsessive thinking went away.
Eventually, the cravings and obsessions went away almost permanently, and this is how I learned the second biggest lesson in my 100 days of smoke free living:
The Biggest Battle I Face When Quitting Smoking is The Battle Inside My Own Head
With anything like this, I’m absolutely the last person you’ll hear saying ‘it’s all in your head.’
Trust me, I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks for most of my life, and I know how soul-destroying it can be when somebody says ‘it’s all in your head,’ as though you’re just imagining the whole thing and could make it go away just by pure will alone.
Truthfully however, I found that after a while, the biggest threat to my own smoke free living came from within my own head. After a short while, real, genuine physical nicotine cravings subsided to the point that they were barely noticeable.
The mental cravings however, now they were a whole new level of torture.
It would be particularly worse during those parts of my day when typically I’d smoke, such as first thing in a morning or after wrapping up a piece of work for my day job. There would be a little voice inside my head harping on at me and saying something like this:
OK, this is the time were you usually have a cigarette. You know, this event occurs in your day, and you mark it with a cigarette. You’ve been doing this for years, so go on — go smoke that cigarette. Go on, where is it? Where’s that cigarette? Where’s that cigarette that you always smoke at this time. What do you mean it’s not coming? What do you mean there is no cigarette? Why not? What’s going on? I don’t like this at all!
Honestly, I learned that the best thing to do when that happens is simply to acknowledge and accept it. If I started trying to fight that voice, force it to go away, or pretend like it wasn’t happening, that would somehow only exacerbate the anxiety and intensity of my feelings, and make the mental cravings feel worse.
I Learned to Accept My Cravings — And That They Will Pass
I learned to acknowledge and accept those feelings, and also to trust that if I just let them be, they would evaporate and no longer trouble me.
I learned to realise that what the little voice was really saying to me was:
This is the part of your day when you go and do something different.
So, most of the time, when my mental cravings kicked in, I would go do something different, whether it was going for a walk, taking a shower, washing the dishes, phoning a friend, or anything else. Just doing something that broke my routine and shifted my thought focus away from “oh my goodness, I want a cigarette,” and onto something else.
Occasionally, I have to be honest, that didn’t work. Instead, I would find myself doing what I came to call the shake, rattle, and roll.’ — just a general sort of trembling and brief moment of insanity that I would accept and let pass, sometimes visualising the idea that these feelings were the feelings of all the toxins and pollution leaving my being, and of me being cleansed and restored.
It was that cleansing and restoring that I learned I had to work on most of all.
I Learned That Quitting Smoking Was Only the First Step to Being Free
You see, once I started to remove cigarettes from my life, I was left with a whole bunch of crap that I had no way to properly deal with. I was left with all that stress, that pressure, that fear, anxiety, depression, all that self-doubt and self-loathing, all those little Zoidbergs in my head yelling ‘you’re bad and you should feel bad!’
I was left with tension, pain, and the fundamental truth that for some reason, I must really hate myself. After all, what other justification could there be for treating myself so badly that I would deliberately and purposefully choke, poison, and pollute myself.
I wouldn’t dream of visiting somebody that I love and care about and forcing all that smoke and all those toxic chemicals into their body, so why do it to me? What is wrong with me that I would treat myself so badly?
Yeah, I was left with all that and no way to cope with it. I had removed the one thing that would change the way I feel, and now I desperately needed to change the way I felt and had no way to do so.
So I resorted to finding other things to change the way I felt. Instead of cigarettes, my new drug of choice became junk food and Netflix. I would spend literally hours on the sofa, stuffing my face with pizza, ice cream, cake, cookies, all manner of unhealthy crap.
The end result, was that rather enjoying the new found freedom, health and happiness that came from being smoke free, I would feel physically and mentally worse than ever. The physical side came because my body wasn’t getting the vital stuff it needed to function, the mental side would come from that same voice of self-loathing I’d heard so many times before.
Look at you, you fat piece of shit, stuffing your face all day. Nobody will ever love you or find you attractive because you spend all day eating junk food and watching Netflix. You’re going to get diabetes and die alone like the fat, worthless piece of crap you are. In fact, you should just kill yourself now and get it over with. Yeah that’s right, I’m your depression, bitch. I’m back, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Except there was -and is- plenty that I could do about it. I didn’t have to live with this depression, but nor did I have to smoke or spend my life eating junk food and putting myself down. I could do things differently.
For me, that meant starting to address the root cause of my problems and addictions. What was it that was making me so unhappy? What was it that was making me feel like the world was such a terrifying and overwhelming place that I needed to poison myself with sugar or nicotine just to feel better? Why was I hating myself so much that I would deliberately sabotage my own happiness?
More importantly than all that — what did I need to do to start treating myself better? How could I start believing that I deserved to be just as happy as everybody as everybody else and treating myself with the same love and kindness that I would treat those I love and care for?
Those are things I haven’t learned yet, but that I am learning. Slowly. One day at a time, because as I’ve come to learn, that’s the only way I’ve made it these past 100 days without a cigarette, and the only way I’m going to make it through to the end of the day.
Thanks for reading, and if you’re attempting to quit smoking yourself, the very best of luck to you. You can do it. Trust me, if I can make it this far, so can you.