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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Quitting An Addiction

Hello there ... My name is Ghosty, and I am an ex-smoker.

After thirty years of smoking, I have been smoke-free for seven months, plus a few days. I have never gone this long before, so I'm quite proud of myself for having made it this far. I don't brag much though - I also know that the chances of relapse are quite high before I reach the two year mark. Of all the things you may hear or read about people who have quit smoking, this is the easiest one to underestimate if you haven't quit yourself (or, even more so if you're not a smoker to begin with).

Surely the addiction is over with by now? Isn't this just a case of willpower at this point?

In a manner of speaking, yes. It's all willpower. My body gave up it's physical reliance on nicotine in the first month I had stopped smoking. The psychological addiction, however, is much more difficult for some people to deal with, and it's the hardest part of quitting smoking to explain to someone who has never smoked. Saying "it's a case of willpower," or "it's all in your head" doesn't quite translate into the reality of what's going on. It oversimplifies the situation a hundred fold.

So, allow me to use a parable for what I go though on a daily basis that a non-smoker might understand.

Let us say that you are used to sleeping with pillows on your bed. The chances are, you actually are used to doing that, but this being the wonderful wide Internet, one never knows ... and it makes for a better example that way. Let's say that you simply cannot get a good night's sleep without that wonderful down pillow you've come to rely on for years and years. It comforts you, cradles your head and muffles the outside sounds so nicely.

Then one day you realize that you must give up your wonderful pillow. It makes your neck stiff in the morning. You walk around with feathers sticking out of your ears. The thread count is a little low, and you have a cross-hatch pattern permanently etched into your cheeks. You've put up with these annoyances for a long time, because you sleep so well with your friend, the pillow. You'd bring your pillow with you to work, to restaurants, even on dates, just for little breaks to snuggle up to it for a few moments. Every hour or so. Sometimes more often if you can manage it.

You have your pillow while you drive, and after every meal, and before you go to bed (as ironic as that may seem). You cannot leave the house without your pillow. You cannot function without your pillow. Your whole life, everywhere you go, everything you do, is centered around your next opportunity to snuggle with your pillow.

Maybe the neck-aches get to be too much, or it becomes too expensive to keep your pillow-habit. Whatever the reason, you decide to quit. The first weeks are the worst - sleeping with a substitute, or no pillow at all, means no sleep at all. You're tired. You're cranky. You start doing other things to compensate, like trying to sleep at odd hours (or not getting up once you do get to sleep), or eating when you aren't really hungry. Eventually, those things start to wear off and you find that you can live without your old pillow. He wasn't good for you. You looked bizarre with feathers in your ears, anyway. And yet ...

Seven months later, you still think about your pillow. Still! You see someone else with their pillow, and you want yours. You enjoy a big meal, and you want your pillow. Drive your car, or type at your computer, or watch everyone else in the office go outside for a pillow break, and you want your pillow. Sometimes, for no apparent reason at all ... pillow. You have thoughts about buying a new pillow - a whole pack of pillows. How warm and comforting they were. How good they made you feel ...

And that's when you have to repeatedly tell yourself, no, they did NOT make you feel good. The feathers made it hard to breathe. Your neck hurt all the time. Whatever the reason for doing it, you have to remind yourself every single day that you are an ex-pillow user, because the back of your mind still wants irrational pillow-time!

Multiply that by 100. It's not an old want. It's an old need. Thirty years of my life centered around smoking. I must undo thirty years of trained, induced, reinforced behavior. That's why it's so hard to quit. The physical addiction is the easy part. The nicotine merely supported the trained behavior that I have to untrain myself in now. It's overcoming the daily, nagging, relentless urge to go back to the life I knew for so very long.

This thing that made it difficult to breathe, almost impossible to climb stairs, took much of my money, made my clothes stink, robbed me of the taste of good food, and inched me closer to cancer, emphysema and death every single day, and I have to fight my own mind to stay away from doing it anymore.

That is what quitting an addiction is like. That is what it's like to quit smoking.

I know I make it sound horrible, and in ways, it is. It is not as simple as "it's in your head." That expression is typically used by people who have never done it themselves. It is why the relapse rate is so high, and why ex-smokers tend to be very supportive of each other. We know it can be hell.

We're very proud of each other, and proud of ourselves, for making it though one more day.


txmedicalfreak said...

Ghosty ~ This is a great analogy, funny too. My mother was one of my greatest naggers to quit smoking, she couldn't understand why I didn't just quit buy cigarettes. She had to have a certain kind of pillow (for as long as I can remember) I think your analogy would have made sense to her. I don't think that she would have ever quit nagging me to quit smoking but she would have under stood the addiction better. After all mother's just want what is best for their children.
Once I take the leap and finally quit, when I get the urge to smoke...I am going to think about your pillow and feathers in my ears and laugh off the urge. Thanks ~ Mandy

Kss said...

Congrats that you gave up smoking .. I am very happy for you. Yes, I do agree it is all about willpower (to break the habit) rather than addiction.

If one has discipline, they can quit it without much problem. :D

Kelly said...

You explained this better than anything I have ever heard! People do not understand what it is like and it is so easy for them to say "Why don't you just stop???". You really hit the nail on the head with your story!

shirley said...

Hi Ghosty! So glad you have been smoke free for seven months.

I just started a smoking cessation class. It will be several weeks before I receive the Chantrix.

Keep up the great work on your blog!

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