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.
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)