Quitters never win, part 2

If you haven’t read part one, do that first.

So, I woke up one morning and decided I’d never smoke again, and to make quitting easier, I’d also temporarily stopped drinking alcohol. The first week or so was fairly uneventful, and I was all, “Pffffft, this isn’t so hard, I don’t know why everyone says it is!” Oh, my aching hubris.

As days rolled into weeks, I came to the realization that cigarettes had become a sort of social anxiety “bandage” for me, in lieu of developing actual healthy coping mechanisms or addressing the anxiety. For most of my 20s I didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford a therapist. Smoking was my therapy. But now, I wasn’t smoking nor was I able to temporarily numb the anxiety with booze (because that would lead to smoking).

I’d estimate that about 90% of adult socializing, if it doesn’t involve children or religion, involves alcohol. I tried to spend time with my friends, but I grew increasingly resentful when I watched them drinking/smoking. Even the faintest lingering tobacco odor was enough to trigger a downward spiral of negative thoughts: “I never get to have another cigarette ever again; I’m always going to want to smoke for the rest of my life; even when I do drink again I can never let myself get too drunk, because then I’ll try to bum a cigarette!”

Nevertheless, I continued not smoking, so I eventually began opting out of socializing entirely. As an introvert, the idea of spending a Friday night at home — alone, with a book, listening to a chillhop streaming radio station, marinading with a Lush bath bomb in my giant garden tub — sounded great to me. (I miss that bathtub!) When I reached the 60 day mark, my friends who were former smokers all assured me that the worst of it was behind me now.

Here’s the thing about quitting: people openly talk about side effects like cravings, irritability, headaches, weight gain… virtually nobody talks about the fact that, hey, if you already struggle with mental illness, nicotine withdrawal can seriously f@#$ you up. The short explanation is nicotine consumption causes your brain to release dopamine (hence a relationship between mental illness and addictive behaviors), and suddenly cutting that off means you may be more likely to experience unwanted changes in mood or emotional state.

I’m not talking about just “having the sads.” About the best way I can describe how I felt was engulfed in a miasma of nihilistic emptiness. Life seemed pointless to a level of absurdity. I’d already lost interest in socializing, but now I started to lose interest in everything.

I went to see both my regular doctor and then two different therapists (none of this was free, by the way) and nobody seemed willing to help me. Apparently you aren’t allowed to advocate for your own mental health, because as soon as you suggest that maybe you need medicine and that your problem can’t be treated with diet, exercise, meditation, or “quitting caffeine” (yes, those are actual suggestions given to me by medical professionals), they assume you’re a drug seeker and dismiss you outright.

After having a scary moment where I felt the compulsion to drive my car off a bridge, I went back to my regular doctor, intending to give her a logical but impassioned plea to, you know, help me not kill myself. Instead of giving her the calm, rational explanation I’d prepared, I ended up breaking down into ugly crying. I guess this made her FINALLY see the gravity of my situation, and she sent me home with a prescription for Wellbutrin.

To say that this medicine saved my life is not an understatement. It was like night and day for my mental health. Now, I’d love to say everything was 200% easier from then on, and end this post with “and I lived happily ever after,” but…

My marriage dissolved by the end of 2017. It was not related directly to my quitting, but that certainly didn’t improve an already deteriorating situation. Of course I’d hoped he would want to quit with me, but that’s not something you can guilt or coerce someone into. Sometimes people grow in different ways, and there isn’t anyone at fault. I think that my giving up smoking was just part of that.

Another thing nobody talks about is that when you quit, your sense of smell comes back, and for me it came back with an unholy vengeance. Since I’d been numbing myself with alcohol and tobacco (and sometimes other drugs) for so long, I’d forgotten how much of a sensory overload it is to just live a “normal” life… like, sober. I have no idea if other people struggle with this, but it seemed like the world was all at once an extraordinarily stinky place.

I could find a coworker by following their perfume trail down the hallway, I could identify people who all used the same brand of laundry detergent, I could walk into someone’s home and immediately know if they had a dog and/or cat. I stopped using any kind of personal care products with scents because they were all terrible. And don’t even get me started on food — people who microwave fish in shared work spaces should be fired, lol.

So, everything I’ve described up to this point probably makes quitting smoking sound like the worst experience on the planet. In reality, it’s not as bad as people say — it’s actually worse. But, it’s also completely worth it.

No matter how miserable I felt, there has never been a point in the last 2 years where I ever wanted to go back to smoking. Because after I pushed past the initial withdrawal period and the struggles that ensued, some amazing things happened:

  1. Not only did running become more enjoyable, I shaved almost 20 minutes off my best half marathon time. For reference: as a smoker, I ran my best half in 2:26. As a non-smoker I ran it in 2:09. (This was with zero additional training or other lifestyle changes besides quitting.)
  2. Food started to taste better, and I lost the desire for extremely salty or sugary flavors. Instead I was appreciating simple things like the sweetness of a raw carrot or the umami of roasted seaweed.
  3. My skin and teeth improved. I didn’t have to spend any money on professional teeth whitening; the stains naturally went away with regular oral care (brushing, flossing, mouthwash). The creases on my face went away and I dropped a bunch of products from my skincare routine because I didn’t need them anymore. (Now I just wash with a gentle cleanser, wear sunscreen every day, use a moisturizer at night, and exfoliate 1 or 2 times a week.)
  4. I saved SO. Much. Money. I calculated that with my regular habit I was spending about $800 a year (or more) on cigarettes. Smoke money became tattoo money!
  5. I stopped getting the annual “really bad respiratory infection” that almost every smoker seems to get, usually in winter.
  6. Traveling became a lot more enjoyable because I wasn’t constantly either waiting for a chance to smoke, attempting to find a place to smoke, or trying to ration cigarettes. This especially made a difference when flying / being in airports, as well as cities where you’re not allowed to smoke in many public areas.
  7. I stopped constantly worrying if my hair, clothes, or car smell like an ashtray.
  8. I felt happy to quit making all that garbage — cigarette filters contain plastic and aren’t biodegradable, and the packs contain non-recyclable plastic and foil. Plastic lighters aren’t recyclable either.
  9. Instead of causing me to be drowsy or sedate, Wellbutrin had a mild stimulant effect (not sure how common this is), which resulted in newfound energy to do things like finish a painting for the first time in years.
  10. The initially awful aspects of quitting did improve. Cravings do in fact go away. I’ve been drunk, both in and out of smoky bars/casinos, and at no point have I ever felt compelled to light up. I enjoy being around people now more than I used to (which I honestly did not think was possible).

Usually people think of quitting something as taking the “easy” way out, but in this case, it’s anything but easy. If you’re considering dropping the habit, just know that it’s hard, but also know that in this case, quitters DO win.

Quitters never win

Up until 2 years ago, if you’d asked me, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?”, I probably would have said running a marathon, or perhaps leaving my job and moving to another state. Yeah, that’s what I WOULD have said… until I tried to quit smoking.

When I began writing this, I realized that I’m not sure why I even started smoking in the first place. I wasn’t like most of my smoker friends, who grew up stealing Marlboros from a parent or older sibling, or were goaded by other kids into sneaking smokes at school. No one in my immediate family smoked, and one needs to actually have friends in order to experience peer pressure.

I started smoking in my early 20s, when it seemed like everyone in my primary social circle was doing it, and I guess I just wanted to fit in. At that time I didn’t really have much of a personality; I pretty much went along with anything my friends were doing, which seems to be a pretty common experience for people who grew up lonely. I thought I could limit smoking to “only when I’m drinking.” But, the problem with “social smoking” is that it inevitably leads to plain old regular smoking.

Most young people don’t worry about the health consequences of their decisions. Who cares, that’s Future You’s problem — hopefully a future you with health insurance. It wasn’t until I was nearing my 30th birthday that I became acutely aware of how smoking was negatively affecting my quality of life. I could still run, just not very fast or very far before getting out of breath. No consistent physical activity + sedentary office job + living as a self-proclaimed “foodie lush” in New Orleans = weight gain. My teeth were permanently stained, I had bags under my eyes, my skin was always dehydrated. I felt how I looked: tired, doughy, and just… old.

Let me tell you, it’s not a fun experience to look at yourself in the mirror and all at once hate everything you see; especially after spending my teenage years hiding my body in baggy clothes, there I was, right back to that place I swore I’d never return. And this time I was also getting wrinkles?!

Perhaps even more infuriating was the idea that smoking could — in fact, very likely would — prevent me from physically achieving my goals. I’d always wanted to do things like run a marathon, go on a safari, do a polar expedition, and hike around some famous mountains. It was unlikely that I’d be able to accomplish any of these as an almost pack-a-day smoker. I was unhappy and knew I had to change something.

Shortly after turning 30, I left New Orleans and relocated to Jacksonville. I transitioned to a paleo diet, then went vegetarian, plant-based, and finally adopted a fully vegan lifestyle. I dropped some weight, my skin improved, and I began feeling good about myself again. I was successful in tapering off my smoking as I began doing 5 and 10k runs. I got down to about a pack a week, and anyone might assume that I would stop smoking altogether when I began to take running more seriously and started training for half and full marathons. Believe it or not — my “reward” to myself at the end of each race was to light up a cigarette.

after completing my first full marathon in 2016

It wasn’t like I didn’t attempt to quit — I tried (and failed) several times, with different methods: slowly weaning myself, chewing nicotine gum, vaping, constantly holding a toothpick in my mouth, sucking on hard candy. (I didn’t want to try Chantix after I read that it can cause insomnia and unstable moods.) My then-spouse was also a smoker, and we mainly hung out with other smokers in bars that allowed smoking. All of this made the situation even more challenging. As I approached my 35th birthday, I finally admitted to myself that it was phenomenally stupid of me to be making all these positive lifestyle changes in an effort to have a longer and more fulfilling existence, yet still making excuses to knowingly poison myself on a daily basis.

I was forced to do some serious personal introspection about my previously failed quitting attempts. Eventually I realized what the common denominator was: in order to quit smoking for good, I’d also have to quit drinking alcohol for some unknown period of time. Since I started as a “social smoker,” it was impossible for me to mentally separate smoking from drinking. I simply could not have even a single beer without immediately fiending for a cigarette, and the more I drank the weaker my willpower became.

On June 15th, 2017, I woke up that morning and decided I didn’t want to have another cigarette. Ever.

(to be continued)

So what had happened was…

Hey there.

Uh, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of some major life events that have transpired since I last made a post here:

  • I’m no longer living in Florida, and have been in North Carolina since last October.
  • I was accepted into a graduate program, and am now working on figuring out my finances so I can earn a Master’s Degree.
  • I got divorced and moved into my own apartment, which I lived in for a year until I relocated and moved in with my romantic partner.
  • I started smoking again, then quit again — actually for good this time (my 2-year quit-iversary will be in June).
  • I also quit drinking, which I might expand upon later.
  • I’m still vegan, though! My 3-year veg-anniversary will be in August.
  • I did a second RunDisney weekend (a 10k + half marathon, 19.3 miles total!) last April, which I meant to post about but never got around to.
  • I visited Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco, El Paso, Puerto Rico, Fiji, Jamaica, Curacao, Aruba, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and Mexico. I started a travel journal/scrapbook again (an actual, physical book!) but I have intentions of also posting here about a couple of those adventures.

The other day I realized I’ve had this domain for about 18 years. I suppose if I’d committed to it at the beginning, it could be something really cool by now. While I’ve put aside my daydreams of being a full-time blogger, I’m hoping I can find the motivation to simply start writing again.

In the past I think I’ve felt pressured to find an internet “niche” and stick with it in the topics of my posts, so a lot of things I started to write just never got published because they didn’t match whatever “type of blogger” I was attempting to be. But now I’m just going to write about my life without any sort of contrived direction to follow. My goal is to post more frequently than once every 2 years, lol.

You may notice that the layout is now very minimalist; lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the “simple” web designs we had in the late 90s, so that is what inspired it.