I quit (I think): A pack-a-day smoker tries to kick the habit, again and again

01/05/2014 1:00 PM

01/06/2014 2:34 PM

“Let’s chat about you and tobacco,” my smoking cessation coach told me the first time we met.

I explained that I’d been smoking a pack a day since I was 16 and that I love smoking, especially that first cigarette in the morning with my coffee.

But I’m quitting smoking for an article, I told her. Just for a month. I needed the distance to grasp how smoking became enmeshed in my daily life. I had to clear the air to understand my addiction and what, if anything, made cigarettes redeemable in a society that’s trying to stamp them out.

Week 1: Sunflower seeds and sanity

This wasn’t my first attempt at quitting. But in the past, my efforts had followed the same plotline. I would finish off my remaining cigarettes and resolve to abstain from then on. I would usually cave within three days, as soon as the cravings exacerbated by some petty frustration sent me speeding to the nearest gas station for a pack of Camels.

This time around, my ability to pay attention was the first thing to go. I was in a haze. Mood swings followed, a constant petulance and anxiety and need to lash out at the most benign things.

Only a day in, I’d already started compulsively chewing sunflower seeds. The constant split-chew-spit rhythm helped me focus.

A co-worker asked what my deal was. I told her, “These seeds are what’s keeping me tethered to humanity.”

The whole situation was untenable, and I realized I couldn’t make it alone. One of the perks of being in graduate school was that I could get nicotine patches for free so long as I attended coaching sessions, which is to say, I had to talk about my addiction with a complete stranger.

Tiffany Bowman, my cessation coach, wasn’t the sort of moralizing teetotaler that I expected. She got it, probably because she’d briefly been a smoker herself when she was younger.

A lot of people don’t recognize that a major reason most of us start smoking is that it’s enjoyable, she said. She told me that it was OK if I failed and had a cigarette. She said I should view it as a momentary lapse that didn’t have to doom the whole expedition.

Week 2: Irish girls and addiction

“Do you mind if I ask how you started smoking?”

What smoker hasn’t heard that question?

For me, it wasn’t because all my friends were doing it or to conquer some sort of adolescent tedium. It definitely wasn’t because I thought it was the “cool” thing to do.

When I was going into my sophomore year at Rockhurst High School, I participated in a kind of abbreviated exchange program that brought a group of Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland for two weeks. They stayed with high school students in Kansas City.

The catch is, almost all the Irish girls smoked.

I’d sit with them as they smoked and would casually take drags off their Marlboro Lights. At first I had to suppress coughs. But as my lungs grew accustomed to the feeling, I started to enjoy it.

They left after two weeks, but the cigarettes stayed.

I can’t say when I crossed into the realm of addiction, but by the end of that school year, smoking had become part of the architecture of my day. My mornings began with a cigarette as soon as I sipped my coffee; my evenings ended on my back porch with one last smoke before bed.

“So what are the odds of quitting now,” I asked Tiffany during the second week of my project. How many people actually follow through when they start coming for cessation counseling?

About a quarter, she said. That didn’t bode well.

Week 3: Akrasia and quitters

By the end of the second week, I’d found a nice equilibrium.

The patch seemed to work, and I wasn’t thinking about smoking much during the day. The cravings would come, though, especially when I passed a smoker on the street.

Quitting had even seemed to have a domino effect on some of my friends, two of whom decided to quit shortly after I did.

At the end of the third week we all went out to a bar with a friend from out of town. A pack-a-day smoker (who shares my affinity for Camel Turkish Royals), he pulled out his cigarettes as we were sitting outside on the patio.

When he offered to share, two of us demurred. But when the third said yes, we changed our minds and asked for a cigarette. So there we were, three people who were trying to quit but too weak to say no.

The Greek philosophers had a term for this sort of weakness: akrasia. It roughly means acting against our better judgment.

Plato held that no man would knowingly choose to do something that’s to his detriment. But any smoker knows that Plato was wrong. We all know smoking is harmful. But maybe there’s something in our physiology or psychology that makes it hard for us to say no to cigarettes.

In “The Tipping Point” Malcolm Gladwell notes that most smokers share a certain impetuousness and weakness. Smokers “make snap judgments. They take more risks. The average smoking household spends 73 percent more on coffee and two to three times as much on beer as the average nonsmoking household,” Gladwell writes.

Maybe the reason the three of us sitting at the table that night couldn’t say no was that we’re hardwired to say yes.

Week 4: Ritual and worship

The last time I met with Tiffany before my month was up, she was curious whether I would keep coming back.

I’d like to, I told her. The part of me that was not overcome with akrasia knew that I wanted to reach the point where I didn’t have to wear a patch just to keep the nicotine coursing through my bloodstream. Part of me wanted to make it through months, not hours, without thinking about a cigarette.

But part of me didn’t want to quit smoking. Despite the health risks and cultural repudiation, there’s a competing narrative, one that you won’t see in the anti-smoking pamphlets scattered in clinics across the country.

Tell me that a cigarette isn’t ambrosial while you sit on your porch in the morning with a cup of coffee or that a cigarette with a little espresso isn’t the perfect way to end a full steak dinner with friends, when you’re all satiated, content and a little drunk.

There’s something sublime about those moments: the feeling of the smoke pressed against the roof of your mouth; the slow inhale and long satisfied exhale; the beautiful repetition and symmetry of it all.

And there’s something necessary about the reprieves that smoking gives you, the time away from normal contours and currents of everyday life for a few moments of solitude

These were the things I’d missed most about smoking. Although it could be the addiction talking, there was part of me that still didn’t want to quit smoking entirely.

So I told Tiffany the truth about what would happen: “I don’t know.”

Epilogue: Quitting quitting and starting again

I stayed on the patch for about a month after that meeting, gradually reducing the nicotine dosage. One morning at the end of October I forgot to put the patch on, and by the time I realized it, I’d gone an entire day without craving a cigarette. I didn’t need the patch anymore, and that seemed like the biggest milestone yet.

But quitting, as I’d learned during the previous month, was an endeavor with peaks and valleys. And after three months off cigarettes, I started slipping back into old routines. First I bummed cigarettes off friends at the bars. Then I had a pack on me when I went out to the bars so that I didn’t have to beg them off others. And after Thanksgiving, I started smoking from that pack whenever I felt like it.

I was back to my regular smoking. Relapsing taught me how fragile that line is between momentary weaknesses and addiction, how easy it is to fall back into old habits. But it also made me realize that I’d found an answer to Tiffany’s question: I really do want to quit smoking.

The day after Christmas, I went back on the patch. Almost four months after I donned my first patch, I’m quitting all over again.

I already made it through the mind-splitting physical withdrawal symptoms and three months of quitting smoking. I made it too far to quit quitting.

So my resolution for 2014? To quit for good.


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