How I Stopped Smoking: The Slow Habit Shuffle

I’m an impulsive, all-or-nothing type person. What’s moderation? What’s discipline? How the hell did I quit smoking? Especially since I loved smoking. Well, here’s the story, along with some motivational bullshittery because it’s New Years, the time of year where people vow to quit smoking and get in shape – and I’ve had some success so far.

First Some Background

I first attempted to quit smoking about 12 years ago, when the taste of cigarettes had become utterly foul to me. I managed to get all the way down to one cigarette a day, but just couldn’t give that one up. So I gave up. I said, “Screw it. If I’m going keep smoking, I’m going to damned well enjoy it.” And I bought myself a pipe and 25 grams of some shitty vanilla tobacco.

I smoked that damned thing for 10 years, until all I could stand was the finest Virginia tobaccos. I loved it. Other people loved it. The same people who used to do that “hack hack, cough cough” routine as they passed by would take a deep breath, fill their lungs with the stuff, and say, “Mmm, that smells so good!” It was like burning incense, with nicotine, and I still get a twinge of nostalgia thinking about it – but I don’t get the craving.

The thing is, I haven’t touched a cigarette since. I’d completely transferred my habit to the less addictive, less additive-infected pipe tobacco. The cravings were different. They didn’t come with the same pain and urgency. It’s probably the same reason vaping helped my SO stop smoking around the same time.

Vaping didn’t help me quit the pipe though. I was definitely addicted, smoking on average about 50 grams of tobacco a week. I had a pipe in my mouth the whole time I wrote my first novel. I didn’t want to quit, but I had to. The reasons were piling up: my teeth are trashed, my SO developed an allergy to my favorite tobacco, taxes raised the price to $1.50 a gram and I’d lost my day job due to chronic migraines.

So how did I finally quit? I’ll break it down into a nice little listicle, because everyone loves listicles!

1. Remember that willpower is like a muscle.

On the one hand, that means you can build it up with practice, but on the other, it also means it gets fatigued. My SO, who had stopped smoking a month before I did, told me, “Just distract yourself.” For the first month, that was the best possible advice. I pretty much let everything fall by the wayside. My entire focus was on denying myself that one thing and indulging everything else. For the first month, I did almost nothing but play Dwarf Fortress and cram jujubes down my aching maw.

2. Create friction between yourself and temptation.

I’ll admit, it was probably easier for me to stop smoking a pipe than it is for anyone to cut out cigarettes. While cigarettes are only a corner shop away, good pipe tobacco requires a special trip to the tobacconist. Also, hardly anyone smokes a pipe, so you don’t run into anyone likely to lend you a gram of quality loose tobacco. I also left my pipes dirty so I’d have to clean them before I could smoke again. I’ve never settled for a cigarette instead because ew, gross.

Nevertheless, making sure you never break down a buy a pack will limit how much you smoke if you do succumb to temptation. My SO frequently admits to bumming smokes off co-workers. I rib him a little, but make sure he never feels like he’s totally fallen off the wagon, because that only leads to What the Hell Syndrome. I tell him five cigarettes a week is way better than a whole pack.

3. If you’re really having trouble not giving in, make your body regret it instead of your brain.

I smoked a decent cigar at a wedding last summer. It was a treat, but I overindulged. Having not smoked for a whole year, smoking a whole cigar made me turn so green I had to go to bed early. I suppose feeling utterly retched helped me not have any cravings afterwards.

The other night I watched QI, where they talked about how you develop food aversions: if you puke, your brain will associate it with the last thing you ate or drank, whether or not it actually caused the vomiting, and it can take years to reacquire that particular taste or smell without retching.

So, I dunno, maybe if your cravings get so bad you can’t resist, go buy yourself a cigar instead, a nice big one – get yourself a double corona or torpedo and smoke the whole thing down. Smoke that thing until you puke. That’ll teach your body a harsh lesson about what you’ve been doing to it.

4. Habits are transferable.

It’s easier to stop a bad habit if you replace it with another habit. The end goal is to replace a bad habit with a good one, but you begin by replacing a bad habit with a less bad one. Going immediately from smoking to carrots was too much for me to ask of myself in one go. Instead, I shuffled from one habit to another over the course of an entire year, slowly building my willpower to do the right things and stop doing the wrong ones.

I craved the pipe deep in the bone – literally – my jaw ached for the damned thing. The e-cig did nothing for that, so I ditched it and chewed Wine Gums instead. They had just the right amount of chewiness to stop my jaw aching. After a while, I weaned myself off the snacking with lower calorie substitutes like gum and breath mints. Unfortunately, all those things were terrible on my teeth. I had to stop, but stopping took a whole damned year. By slowly turning the jaw-deep craving into one that could be satisfied by taste alone, I gradually weaned myself onto something nice and safe: tea.

I haven’t quite gotten rid of the sugar cravings, but I’ve reached the point where I can satisfy false urges of hunger with a quick bought of exercise and a cup of tea after. I still treat myself to dark chocolate, daily, and I’ll never give it up. I probably won’t have to though, because I cook 90% of my meals and don’t cram a ton of sugar and starch down my throat every day.

The goal is to do better a little at a time. One row of a chocolate bar is better than the whole bar, and one minute of exercise is better than none. This attitude has me exercising and sitting down to write every day (the chocolate’s for word-count rewards). It’s moderation. It’s discipline. I finally figured those out.

5. You have to shift your perspective, using whatever psychological tricks work.

When I stopped smoking, I told myself there would be time when I’d buy myself 10 grams of tobacco, as a treat, and smoke the whole lot as a reward for publishing my first novel. That still hasn’t happened yet, but I may not even want that smoke once I’ve earned it. Still, the promise for either that or a fine cigar for whatever celebration kept me honest.

When people ask, I don’t say I quit, but rather, “I don’t smoke anymore.” This phrasing reminds me that it’s my choice. I’m the one in control. I’m not hiding from a horrible addiction, waiting for it to creep around the corner and pounce on me when I’m not looking (except for the dreams I had about hanging out in cigar stores and suddenly finding myself with a smoke in hand and wondering how the hell it got there, but those are just dreams). I am just not smoking, because I have better things to do with my life. Also, being able to taste every nuance in a fine wine or cup of tea is worth not smoking for.

I’m not a rabid anti-smoker though, like so many fresh converts. I can take a big whiff of someone’s smoke on the street and not be enticed or offended. Honestly, I think the fear of exposure can drive people right back to smoking again. These are people who give up in defeat because they feel like they can’t win. Of course you can’t when you’re targeting the wrong enemy. It’s not the thing itself, but rather your addicted brain, and it’s trying to trick you. My SO sneaks smokes at work because he’s bored. The solution is to fight the boredom rather than the cravings, because he doesn’t get the cravings at home where he’s not bored.

The mental hurdle I had to get over was thinking my vices were sacred expressions of freedom. I was damned if I’d let anyone tell me what I could and couldn’t do. I turned that stubbornness against itself in the end, by telling myself I’d be damned if I’d let a poisonous plant rule the rest of my life.

Smoking once had an exalted place in my mind. When I stopped smoking cigarettes, I bought a whole pack and strung them onto a thread, tied it to a barrel clasp, and made a choker as a project for my jewellery class. I couldn’t have done that before. My best friend in junior high threatened to flush my cigarettes down the toilet once, and every smoker in the room yelled and ran towards her like she’d threatened to burn a sacred idol. Puncturing a whole pack of them so they could no longer be smoked was a statement: they held no power over me anymore.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, there’s plenty of advice on the internet, so you just kind of have to try stuff out and see what works. All I know is this has worked for me. It might not work for you, but hopefully there’s something in there you’ll find useful.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.