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.

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