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(18 minute read)
Quitting smoking is a very personal thing. It’s like life––everyone experiences it in their own way. I’d like to say that my way is the right way, but that’s only true for me because my way is my own journey. Even though we share the world, we walk a different path. I do not walk in your shoes. If I did, I’d be miles away from you––rather than closer––with your shoes, while you’re barefoot and wondering what the hell.
However, there is a common experience inside the battle with nicotine. It’s why smoking cessation is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s why so many people successfully quit––solidarity is a huge help.
But it’s also why so many people fail to quit. There’s a buy-in to new techniques and solutions all the time and we think, if I just do this, I’ll finally get cigarettes out of my life once and for all.
Here I share what I’ve encountered, experienced, and learned about quitting smoking. When I refer to ‘we’ or ‘you’, it is only to suggest that you may also have similar feelings. I realize well that my beliefs are not universal truths.
But please read it in full. My struggle to quit smoking has been painfully drawn out and I’m finally at a place of honesty with myself about it. I won’t claim to be out of the woods because if I do, that means I’ll never encounter another tree and that’s simply not true. The difference is, I know all my clever little tricks now and I’ve retired them. They sit up on a shelf and stay pretty quiet because the desire to smoke is less and less as I come to understand my addiction better and better.
When we don’t understand our own battle, it’s a scary thing to have to confront it––or it’s just downright uncomfortable. But through understanding we begin to accept (not resign to) our struggle and acceptance fuels change (I see my struggle for what it is, now what can I do about it?). Anyway, the journey always starts at the beginning––with you, at the dawn of each moment.
Countless times throughout my life I’ve sat and stared at the cigarette between my fingers like I’d just borne an alien child. Why am I doing this to myself? I’d wonder. Toxic smoke swirls and lingers around me. It seeps into my pores and the cracks in my skin. It yellows my eyes and teeth and creates a concoction of thick curdy phlegm in the back of my throat rivaling that of a yeast infection. I will hack it up the next morning.
Have I grossed you out? Certainly takes away the image of the sultry, sexy smoker beneath the blue light of a cocktail bar, all lashes and lips sipping whiskey, doesn’t it?
If you’re a smoker ready to quit, you’ve already acknowledged this. Keep reading.
If you’re just toying with the idea of quitting because you want to save money and you’re tired of feeling like shit, but you’re not quite ready to buy into non-smoker stock, you’ll likely toss a Fuck You my way and light a smoke.
Because maybe you don’t think you feel like shit, but trust me, you do. It’s just that the feeling has become so normal you don’t even notice it anymore. You’re inhaling toxic fumes multiple times a day (or maybe just once a day)––of course you feel like shit.
But wherever you are in your journey I get it and I respect it. I’ll see your Fuck You and raise you a strong, clean olive branch, right here, whenever you need it.
That is, until I get tired of listening to excuses––but I won’t because I know all of them.
The straw man churning out excuses for continuing to smoke eventually collapses.
I’m just stressed out right now or I just bought a pack––it would be a waste to not smoke it (as if smokers are suddenly so concerned with waste––nevermind wasted breath, energy, and life).
Then we’ll convince ourselves that it’s really not that bad, and those arguments against the dangers of smoking are as resilient to time and intelligence as the wall is to a head’s wrath. You know, the ones that go,
“My grandpa smoked for over 50 years and was as strong as an ox until the day he died.”
“With all the air pollution smoking can’t be much worse, it actually makes my lungs stronger and more resilient,”––as if smoking can protect your lungs the same way a vaccine protects you from disease (Stephen King’s The Dome almost had me convinced).
But the gold medal reason to keep smoking is the same one used for staying in a bad relationship––“I like it” but, paradoxically, “I hate it” (she says as she draws thick, stinging smoke into her lungs).
What does that actually mean? The real thing we like is feeling good. Isn’t that all we really want in life? There are far better ways––real ways––to accomplish that goal that don’t also make you feel like crap or cost a fortune.
(Besides, if we give ourselves everything we like whenever we want it, we become self-indulgent assholes).
These excuses are the most common of all logical fallacies: Bullshit. Most excuses are. But we’ve gotten really good at deceiving ourselves so that we can keep doing something we know we really shouldn’t be doing. At some point, we get to a place where we realize that the only way to stop doing something is to just not do it anymore.
You tip your hat and bid that old, nasty habit goodbye and walk away from it forever.
But it’s not that easy.
The whole reason we continue smoking is an illusion, a little story we invent for ourselves so we can continue something we don’t want to give up. And when you hear the same story over and over, you start to believe it.
Sticking with the relationship metaphor, quitting smoking is like trying to end a dysfunctional relationship. Like that person we’ve become attached to, cigarettes have become so well integrated into each area of our life that we’ve convinced ourselves life would suck without them.
But it’s not just like a relationship, it is a relationship, and probably the most dependable one we have (and simultaneously, the most toxic). It’s even more reliable and comforting than having a dog.
They’re a companion, unfailingly there when we’re stressed out, angry, tired, at the end of a shitty day or after a bad night’s sleep. They join the party when there is cause for celebration. They hang out with us when we’re bored. Even when we’re sick they’re there. They may as well grow arms and give us hugs.
And we think all of that is enough to balance out the fact that they’re bad for us. But every one of those hugs is an attempt to regain control and drag us further into the matrix of destruction and death––just like an abusive and manipulative partner.
So we have a moment of realization and call the whole thing quits (and likely tell our friends and family). Then we find ourselves reunited at 2 am after––you guessed it––a few drinks. And we’re back where we started.
Once you’ve given yourself something for so long that has as many imagined benefits as cigarettes do, there’s going to be some separation anxiety.
Maybe you opt for a little help because God forbid we have to struggle a little. We’ve made our lives so incredibly comfortable that we don’t even realize how much we’re actually suffering because of the things we do to ourselves.
Most people already know that “therapy” like patches and e-cigarettes are useless because they give us the very substance we’re addicted to. How can we expect to cleanse our bodies of the thing we keep giving it? I don’t want to get wet, I don’t want to get wet, I don’t want to get wet, said the man who jumped into the sea in order to stay wet so he could avoid getting wet.
But smoking is not the problem. It is a problem, yes, but it’s not the problem. We are the problem and it doesn’t go away. We learn how to manage it so it feels like that part of us has gone away, but it’s always there (wherever you go there you are).
Maybe that sounds terribly dire, but it depends on how you look at it. The struggle to quit smoking has multiple layers, but the most significant one is the one that changes everything once we recognize (and accept) it––keep reading.
For a smoker, reaching for the cigarette and lighting up is part of almost every situation in life. And between cigarettes, we’re thinking about the next one, about whether we have enough for the day and if we don’t, where we will get the next pack. Our planned access to cigarettes at every point of the day becomes so normalized, so subtle that we don’t even realize such an act is sucking the energy out of us (along with oxygen, stamina, vitality). That’s why even after years of breaking the habit the desire to smoke still comes up.
There are so many triggers to the habit: with coffee or a drink, after sex or eating, in waiting, when feeling stressed out or bored, when talking on the phone. In whatever facet of your daily life you placed cigarettes, your brain will remember and reignite the desire, or at the very least, the thought to smoke.
Years of smoking creates a deeply-rooted thought-behaviour pattern. Even now as a non-smoker, I often feel vulnerable using a lighter to spark a stick of incense or light a candle!
As someone who smoked for 20 years (between 15-20 cigarettes a day––more if I drank alcohol), I know a little bit about the process.
I always said I was fine with smoking, that “I liked it”, and I would continue until the following things happened:
When I realized it made me smell bad.
When I started feeling short of breath without having moved.
When I started noticing gray skin, yellowed eyes, and stained teeth.
When I got tired of spending the money.
When I got tired of standing outside in sub-zero temperatures just to get my fix.
Photo: When I started travelling, I smoked hand-rolled cigarettes thinking the act of having to roll would deter me from smoking so much. Turns out I liked rolling as much as smoking.
I quit smoking for two years. Two whole years. I locked myself up in my apartment, avoided socializing for three weeks, and scratched the walls of my inner asylum until I realized that one doesn’t actually need fingernails for any particular life activity. I knew my tendencies for self-deception were of the epic variety and that I would create any excuse necessary to have just one more cigarette––always the last one.
I wrote a score of reasons why I didn’t want to smoke anymore so that when I felt that urge and tried to talk myself into having one, I could refer to my list where my past, stronger, wiser self would remind me why I didn’t want it in my life anymore.
I kicked the walls.
I listened to this Radiohead song over and over––it was my breakup song.
I counselled myself in the mirror about how life would go on without cigarettes. I promised myself I would eventually learn to have fun without them. And I convinced myself how weight gain and constipation were far better fates than what continuing to smoke might eventually deliver.
I cried and ate a lot of Oreo cookies.
I’d like to say I did healthy things like exercising more or stepping out onto my balcony and appreciating each clean inhalation. But I didn’t really. I was hard-ass with myself in a judgemental kind of way that is not necessary for everyone but was for me.
Being brutally honest with ourselves 100% of the time is a necessary part of the process.
When you think quitting smoking is going to be the hardest, most painful thing you’ve ever done, you might be right, but you walk into that fear anyway because it’s the only way. We don’t leave a bad relationship by any other means than walking away. We don’t stop a behaviour any other way than by just stopping it. We quit smoking by simply not smoking another cigarette.
See, there’s a great big monster inside every addiction. It’s enormous, this monster. I damned this monster to hell and back during those first three weeks trying to expunge it from my being.
But even when I quit smoking the monster remained.
Alan Carr, the author of The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, claims that nicotine is the monster in cigarette addiction––but I think it’s more subtle and far more powerful than any outside stimulus. Blaming our external environment is easy and ignores that quitting smoking is an individual responsibility.
Of course, there is a constant interplay between ourselves and the external environment and we can’t deny that nicotine has a physiological effect on the brain that impairs our ability to think clearly.
But in the end, nicotine is just a substance that propels the addict within us to latch onto it, to find answers in it, to seek out companionship and relief from pain, loneliness, boredom––all the qualities of a bad relationship.
Nicotine is just a scapegoat for the clawing, hungry beast inside us that likes to manipulate our thoughts and talk us into doing the things we promised we wouldn’t do.
What feels like anxiety, frustration, irritation, or anger when we can’t have that cigarette we so desperately want are actually just symptoms and distractions of the bigger giant––
The Big Empty.
And what do we do when something is empty? We fill it.
Maybe it’s sated for a short while, but that kind of emptiness is impossible to fill or remove altogether because it’s built right into us. It’s like trying to remove the blade from the knife.
The activity we employ to end the suffering of the craving, to fill the Big Empty, is the same thing that causes the suffering. And the more we try to fill that empty space with something from the outside, whether it’s a cigarette, alcohol, media, sex, or peanut butter, the more entrenched that hollow space becomes. Like a woodpecker pecking at a tree over and over and over, that chiseled-out space becomes bigger and deeper with nary an insect to be found.
And the desire to stop this process altogether is what keeps the process alive. Why? Because desire without real action leaves us hungrier than ever.
In Buddhist mythology, Preta is an image used to depict extreme suffering––“a hungry ghost” with a tiny mouth and throat and a big belly. It exists when we feed, feed, feed ourselves but are never satisfied.
Image: Falk Kienas/iStockphoto––The realm of “hungry ghosts” in the Bhavachakra of the Wheel of Life and Buddhist representation of the Universe.
That emptiness is at the core of addiction. Even if we don’t think we’re addicted, we still find ourselves reaching for the thing that’s going to fill it up––or at the very least we think about it compulsively––and trying to fill it from the outside in.
But the emptiness is within; filling it with an external stimulus is not going to work. It will always result in a battle because the external world is always changing so that if (when) that outer replacement ceases to be, the whole damn scaffold buckles.
When we make our happiness or wholeness dependent on the external world and those vicious little sticks of formaldehyde and tar, we end up either miserable or running from misery.
In the case of cigarettes, when we continue to try and fill what is empty with the very thing that is contributing to the emptiness in the first place, we’re like dogs chasing their own tails.
What an energy-sucking act of futility.
But it’s so hard. It means you have to acknowledge and accept that clawing, hungry Big Empty.
Now before I sound all self-righteous about smoking and confronting the inner beast, I have a confession to make. I started smoking again after two whole years without one––that’s 730 days (give or take half a day). After the initial three weeks of staring down that horrible feeling inside, I enjoyed a peaceful two years in which the desire to have a cigarette nary arose. I was neither for it or against it. I just didn’t want it anymore. I was sure I’d never want it again.
Until one day, when I did want one and I gave into it. Why did I give in to my desire for a cigarette after so long without one?
I thought I was strong enough.
The Big Empty never actually went away, it was always there, stooped at the back door, dressed in dark clothes, a fedora concealing half its face, a cigarette pinched between its lips.
In that moment I learned a very important and humbling lesson about addiction.
It is when we feel that we are in the greatest control of our addiction that we are most susceptible to it. Simply stated, our strongest point is actually our weakest. A five-tier house of cards is painstakingly impressive but do little more than breathe in front of it and watch it collapse.
The strong point is when the ego gets involved. The ego says, “nah we’re good, we’ve got this, we can have just one and not go back.” (It’s kind of in cahoots with the Big Empty). It’s not that that overly-identified part of ourselves is trying to trick us––it actually does believe it because sometimes, in other situations, it’s true: I can have just one cookie and not eat the whole box. I can have just one kiss without having to jump into bed with someone.
Like smoking, quitting smoking also has a set of behaviours and thought patterns attached to it so the more we plan do it, the more it becomes a habit to want to quit.
It’s a false rewards system in that it feels like we’re accomplishing something without having accomplished anything at all. We don’t have to actually quit. And in order to want to quit, we must still be smoking––see the paradox? It’s like wearing shoes that hurt your feet because it feels good to take them off at the end of the day.
I told you––there are a lot of layers.
Every planned attempt to quit is a desperate hope that we may one day wake up and through some divine act of nature, simply not want to smoke anymore. It’s a clever form of escapism to remove the responsibility for the act of quitting to some external force that may affect our mental state to such a degree that we no longer want a cigarette.
Quitting smoking is an inside job and there’s no way to make it anything but our own task.
It’s hard––but it’s not hard forever. It goes a little like the sea. Waves arise, swell, and crash, finally becoming gentle laps upon the shore. The waves are what it’s like for the first little while when we quit––we simply must ride them. Then they become gentle laps upon a shore. Some days the water is completely still. Other days, little ripples remind us of the water’s energy and of what it is capable of becoming.
Keeping our eye on the water is critical.
Filling the emptiness is a psychological need and it can’t be met by anything outside of ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we should seek to fill it with something inside us either; it is an act of futility to attempt to fill it at all. Like trying to fill the space between two mountains.
That void is a necessary part of who we are and it’s a very powerful thing. It’s so powerful it can make us want to destroy our bodies. It’s also powerful enough to contain miracles. Think about it––the uterus is an empty space, necessary for new life to grow.
But most of us are afraid of emptiness because we think it contains a whole lot of nothing. Even language warns about it: a+void=avoid. We avoid emptiness by attempting to fill it because God help us if we have to experience nothingness––it may remind us of death.
So we fill it up because that’s what we’re supposed to do with empty space, right? We’d much rather have somethingness––anythingness–––than that awful clawing, hungry Big Empty.
But what if we think about it this way?
What does it feel like in that awe-struck moment we stand in the middle of a vast mountain gorge? It’s inspiring, peaceful, there’s room to expand, to grow. That space inside us, deep down in the gut or up in the thought attic or wherever we feel it in our body, inspires movement. We can explore and get comfortable with empty instead of feeding the impulse to fill it up.
The energy that movement creates is us as we are meant to be. It’s all our beingness and creative potential springing up because emptiness doesn’t have walls or distractions or rules. Emptiness is just a space in which to play.
If you’re empty without cigarettes, it’s okay––that feeling won’t last.
If you feel like you want to kill someone, that’s okay (but don’t)––the frustration goes away.
If you feel like life will never ever be fun again without cigarettes, that’s okay too––but it’s not true.
It’s just fear of the Big Empty.
Walk into it, have a look around and sit down for a while. Getting to know this space is the most important thing you’ll ever do.
Featured Image courtesy of Cameron Flett, an incredibly talented tattoo artist in Chiang Mai, Thailand. See his portfolio on Instagram @artofconsciousness.
Wow, fantastic article!
As a ex-smoker I can relate to the struggle of guitting smoking.Very good article Colleen.
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You’re welcome Vinny 🙂
This was beautiful. Thank you
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Thanks Luis, and you are very welcome. I hope it helps 🙂
Thank you for your perspective and honesty. I needed to be reminded that everything I feel/think comes from inside me. As I have been told many times, all suffering comes from desire. Thank you Colleen.
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I am on day 3 and feel empty. I fear this, it’s not a craving but I need to fill the void not smoking is leaving. I am eating junk but reading this has helped enormously. Thank you.
Eat junk then, it’s okay. It won’t last for long. Filling the void is impossible. Instead, make friends with it. I wish you the best of luck on your journey and feel free to reach out anytime. I know this struggle well.
So pleased I found your post. You describe The big empty with so much accuracy and it totally resonates with me. The big empty has been with me for a while, even though I quit smoking 18months ago. I have been trying to fill the big empty with food, needless to say this has not sated the beast. Your insight and perspective have been a light bulb moment for me and I really want to thank you for it. It all makes sense now – no more binge eating for me, just acceptance, gratitude and endless possibilities 🙏
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Thank you Jane! I’m so happy to hear that my words have inspired you and helped in some way. Please feel free to reach out any time 🙂
In tears after reading this. Thank you.
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Thank you for commenting Hupatia. I hope those are tears of relief – good luck with your journey 🙂