Today marks one year since I have smoked any Tobacco.
Before that, I smoked nearly every day for over twenty nine years. That’s a long time, so I felt I needed to go at least one full year without smoking at all — not even one drag — before I could consider saying that the addiction was kicked. I didn’t want to be one of those smokers who declares, “I quit!” after a few days and ends up going back soon after.
So here I am, at the twelve month milestone, and I am happy to say the habit does indeed feel actually broken.
I did not plan the timing, though I’d been seeking it since the previous spring when I was camped out in the desert and had the strong realization — at least as emotional as rational — that I needed to stop soon because it was going to kill me otherwise.
I had always thought there was no way I would be able to stop unless I was by myself in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Last year was the first time I had ever found myself in that circumstance, so I decided to take advantage of it.
On the 22nd, I drove the 11 miles to town (three of it unpaved) to stock up on groceries so I could stay put for at least two weeks. I smoked a cigarette in my truck in the parking lot of a store and that might have been the last one. Maybe it’s funny that I can’t remember. I didn’t make a ceremony out of it, that’s for sure.
The first three day period was one of the most intense experiences of my entire life. Every waking minute was torture. It was like having a panic attack, followed by another panic attack, followed by another panic attack, followed by another panic attack, on and on, with no breaks, all day long. For most of one afternoon, I swore my breathing would stop if I didn’t focus on each and every inhale and exhale. I wondered if I was dying. Something *was* dying, of course.
I didn’t sleep well and I ate at least twice as much as usual. I saw why some people put on weight when they quit smoking. My own eating subsided to normal levels within a week.
Days #4 and #5 were slightly better than the first three, but were still challenging.
At no point did I seriously consider having a puff. Not even during the moments when I couldn’t think about anything other than how bad I wanted to. Having decided to do this thing, my stubbornness won out. I just wanted to push through the experience, get it over with, and see what was beyond it. That’s why I didn’t get a nicotine patch or gum or anything like that. I wanted the cold turkey experience.
After a week, it got easier. At two weeks, the challenge was fading. I went to town at some point after that, and smelled cigarette smoke for the first time. I experienced desire, but no real temptation.
One typical syndrome of withdrawal from long-term nicotine addiction is a mental fogginess that can last about a month. I underestimated how serious this would be, and was dismayed by how difficult it was to think clearly. I found it impossible to write. One of my goals for my stay at the cabin had been to finish a book project, but I soon had to admit it wouldn’t be happening. Every time I sat down at the keyboard, I’d blank out. I couldn’t put together a single complete sentence. This was super off-putting. I figured that it would pass since I had started writing at age 10 but not smoking until 18.
Eventually it did as, along the way, other things changed.
For the first few months, I experienced little fits of anger on a fairly regular basis. They never lasted very long — a few minutes at most — and left no residue in their wake, but they were real. I saw them for what they were — chemical reactions — and tried to get caught up in them. I’m sorry to say I was a bit short with some people during this period, but it was just online so no real harm was done. These episodes have since ceased, and now when I feel angry it’s because there’s something to be angry about.
An amusing side effect was an increased appetite for beer. I had not drunk beer regularly since my late 20’s, during the 1990’s. In the years leading up to 2016, I’d had maybe two a year, always heavy stouts or porters. But now I wanted a beer at least once a week, sometimes more often. Never a dark one, though; I craved pilsners and ales: light, golden brews that went down easy. This urge has since faded but I definitely consumed more beer in 2017 than in the fifteen years prior added together. Perhaps the sedative effect of the Hops was what drew me.
I did not notice immediate improvements to my senses of taste and smell, which many people report. This was disappointing because I’m a big fan of food. But in August, when I was working on a farm in northern California near the wildfires, I was the most sensitive person there to the smell of the smoke and to its effects in the lungs. In fact I needed to wear a paint mask in order to do physical labor outside (which was the majority of the work for me to do).
What sharpened noticeably were other senses, or what might more properly be called sensitivities. I realized that smoking had been dulling my emotional experience of life. Sadness and joy both had been held to limits.
I’m not surprised that I self-medicated in this way. In my early teen years, my perceptions and sensitivities had separated me from my peers, often painfully. Mood swings tore me apart. Suicidal urges and ideations haunted me. One mental health professional told me that my emotions “fell outside the normal range” with both my ups and my downs.
I first experimented with smoking during the spring of my senior year of high school when we were allowed to go off campus for lunch. That summer after graduation, it was a regular part of hanging out with friends. But it was not until college that it became a daily habit, and then an addiction.
As the years went by, I lived in different cities, held various jobs, and experienced relationships with many people. My smoking persisted throughout it all. For the most part, I refused to feel bad about it. I accepted that I had an addiction and simply attended to it. Smoking felt good. I figured that, one day, the dynamic would change.
That day turned out to be December 23rd, 2016, when I was 47. Finally, smoking felt bad enough to want to stop. But it was more than that. Finally, I accepted myself enough to want to experience living without Tobacco’s muting effects. So I took the plunge and emerged a much freer person.
That’s what I wanted most: freedom. Addictions, habits, dependencies — they limit our movement and control our choices. They are narrowing. In my pursuit of expanded awareness, the Tobacco addiction had to go.