Quitting Smoking Was Harder Than Recovering from Alcohol Addiction
I remember vividly the exact moment that I realised I had a drink problem:
I was sat at a dining room table in a house 4,000+ miles away from home and I could not stop shaking.
My veins itched a horrible, unwavering itch, like they were scratching through the flesh.
My skin crawled.
Sweat poured, and my mind could focus on nothing more than the terrible truth.
Only alcohol would make this sickness go away.
I had spent years burying my head in the sand, ignoring a problem that -by now- had grown too large for me to ignore any longer.
I had to face the ugly fact that I was addicted, and if I didn’t feed that addiction soon, I was going to become much sicker.
So I drank.
I drank hard, and they drink nearly destroyed me.
The following day, I was a quivering, shaking, sweating mess. Because of my behaviour in alcoholic blackout, nobody was talking to me.
My life was a disaster.
My body, mind, and spirit were wrecked.
Something had to change.
I had to change.
I had to get sober.
So I did, slowly and painfully.
After 24 hours of shaking, sweating and vomiting, I went to my first 12 step meeting.
The next few days were spent shaking, rattling and relapsing.
I just physically couldn’t go more than a few days without at least having a drink.
Eventually, I would start to pull together a few days without a drink, and would start to experience how good it could feel to live a life free from my addiction to alcohol.
There was always another drink waiting for me.
After six weeks of full sobriety, I got horribly, horribly drunk at Chicago airport, barely made my flight, and then passed out on the plane and slept the whole seven plus hours back to England.
It would be another three months before I would have my last drink.
Once I did, I found that another problem rolled up right in its place:
My smoking habit was getting rapidly out of control.
I had been a regular smoker since I was 16, (I was 28 at this point), but once I put the drink down, I found that my smoking habit increased.
In other words:
I had just replaced one addiction with another.
I went from one packet a day to two. On a particularly long day, I would smoke over forty cigarettes a day.
It was killing me.
A few years passed.
With every sobriety milestone I celebrated -six months, one year, two years, three years- my lungs grew heavier, my breath shorter, my coughing fits longer and more painful.
Just like the drink, I continued to smoke despite the damage it was doing to me.
Just like the drink, I continued to fill myself with poison until my brain and body literally couldn’t take it any more.
Unlike the drink, giving up smoking was quite literally the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, coming off the booze was hardly fun, but I honestly believe that I would have traded a week of all the sweating, shaking and mental torment that came with alcohol withdrawal for a single hour of the pure evilness that overwhelmed my body when I tried to quit smoking.
I had first tried to put the cigarettes away a year into my sobriety. Even at that point, I knew that this stuff was not just making my life lousy, but also making it a lot shorter.
Unfortunately, I only lasted a month that time, and continued to smoke for the next two years.
During that time, I would sit in 12 step meetings and hear people talk about their addiction.
They would talk about consuming alcohol or their drug of choice against their will — a true slave to their addiction.
They would talk about the panic that sets in when it’s late at night, ten minutes before the shop closes, and if they didn’t go now to get their booze, they would have to do without.
They would talk about feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse.
I would identify with all of that as it applied directly to my cigarette addiction.
I was hooked, and hooked bad.
A true slave to my addiction.
I was no longer smoking because I wanted to, but because I had to.
In time, I came to realise that I was doing this against my will.
I would cough violently in a morning, cough so hard I would almost puke.
Then, when it was all over, I would breath a sigh of relief, saunter into the kitchen, and force more smoke, tar, and pure shit down into my lungs.
It had to stop.
It was the start of 2016 when I made a conscious, determined decision that I was going to break the hold that cigarettes had over me.
It would take me most of that year before I finally smoked what has so far been my last cigarette.
Much as with the alcohol, I could string together maybe a few days without a cigarette, but there would come a point when my body and brain turned against me and battered me into submission until I gave up and gave them the nicotine fix they needed.
To steal a phrase:
There was always one more attempt, and one more failure.
Withdrawing from alcohol made my skin crawl and my veins itch, but withdrawing from cigarettes felt like something far worse all together.
My skin didn’t just crawl, it turned in on itself, began to tighten around the flesh until I was wracked with an intense feeling of violent aggression that made me want to throw my arms around, thrash my legs out and just scream.
My veins didn’t just itch, they threatened to burst through the flesh, strangling, choking, dragging me to the ground and holding me there until I gave in and fed the demon inside me with a blast of filthy nicotine.
My head throbbed, my mind buzzed.
Concentrating on work was impossible.
Concentrating on anything was impossible.
When it got this bad -and it always got this bad- I would give in and light up.
Then I would feel bad for giving up and start beating myself up, overwhelming my mind, body, and soul with feelings of shame and self-loathing.
I would have to change the way I felt, and because the only way I knew how to do that was by pouring toxic chemicals into my body, I would smoke again, feel worse again, and thus the cycle would continue.
I was getting desperate.
Willpower alone clearly wasn’t going to cut it. The occasional prayer brought comfort but no actual results.
I tried nicotine patches, but eventually the withdrawal symptoms would become so intense that I would rip them off and grab a cigarette.
I tried the highly successful Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Alan Carr but found that it did little more than distract for a while between cigarettes.
I tried switching to vaping. That was a dumb idea, and some how made everything worse because I found myself puffing on that little stick all day long, constantly feeding myself nicotine and thus making it even harder to quit.
I even tried a book by Paul McKenna called Quit Smoking Today Without Gaining Weight, but whereas many of Paul’s other books had yielded positive results for me, this one didn’t.
Eventually, I tired the last resort.
That was Champix (or Chantix as its called in the US).
I had actually tried this before, during the time that I tried to quit one year into sobriety and found that it had actually helped.
But with the passage of time, and with my nicotine intensified, this time it wasn’t as easy.
In some ways, it worked in as much as it kept me from smoking for periods of time, but even then, I could only quit smoking if I was in the right from of mind.
On a couple of occasions, I found myself knocked for six by a few seriously stressful life events and couldn’t cope with the resultant anxiety until I fed the nicotine demon and made him go away.
But don’t get me wrong, I got no pleasure from those last few cigarettes.
My last memories of smoking were of forcing smoke into my lungs whilst bending over, coughing violently and throwing up on my kitchen floor.
After one such incident, I knew I was done.
I knew that no matter what, I just could not put myself through that kind of ordeal again.
I was through with cigarettes, and would withstand whatever kind of horror came as I battled to finally free myself from addiction.
That was September 29th, 2017.
As I write today, I am officially 208 days without a cigarette
(or just under seven months if you prefer), and I’d love to tell you that the ordeal is finally over.
But it isn’t, not exactly.
Yes, I am 208 days smoke free. Yes, I breathe better. Yes, I enjoy life more. Yes I am grateful for things I never thought possible, but I still get the itch.
It may not be as prominent. It may not be as overwhelming nor as violent, but it’s there; a nagging, horrible little itch that says “I’ll go away if you give me nicotine.”
Trust me, in the four and a half years since I took my last drink of alcohol, I have had that deep feeling that I needed a drink exactly twice. Both of those times, the feeling went away by hauling ass to a 12 step meeting or simply changing what I was doing.
But when that same deep feeling comes on me for a cigarette, there’s little I can do but wait. I just have to sit there and wait until it goes away.
After all, I still remember very clearly the vomiting, the violent coughing and the mental torture that came with early nicotine withdrawal, and I would rather go through anything -including dealing with my alcohol problem- than suffer another moment of the pure evilness that consumes me when quitting smoking,