Monday, March 3, 2014

11 Years A Slave: My Battle With Nicotine

So far in this blog, I have mainly touched on topics directly related to my sobriety from alcohol.

But there is another chemical with which, like many other people, I have battled with: nicotine.

Here is my story of being a slave to nicotine for 11 years.
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Ask any child and they will tell you that smoking makes no sense.  I remember secretly plotting with my sister and brother to steal my aunt's cigarettes when she wasn't looking so we could throw them in the trash.  We didn't understand that she could and would just buy another pack (if she didn't have another few packs waiting for her in the freezer), and as a matter of fact, we didn't care.  We just didn't want our beloved aunt to die.  I'm sure that everyone that has grown up in the last 50 years, smoker or ex-smoker or never-smoker, has childhood memories such as these if they loved someone that smoked cigarettes.

One could then ask why so many of these people, who had such an early conviction against cigarette smoking, eventually take the plunge themselves and spend a literal monetary fortune to enable themselves to inhale a chemical that positively has no benefit on the human mind or body whatsoever.  As a matter of fact, this chemical does nothing but steadily drain a person's money, energy, and health to the point of exhaustion and death.  Why would anyone do such a thing?

The answer is simple, and shouldn't be debated beyond this simple fact: nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known to man.  Smoking isn't a "bad habit", as so many people excuse it.  As Allen Carr put it in his book The Easy Way To Stop Smoking, (and I'm paraphrasing here) "I love lobster.  But you don't see me making a habit of spending a fortune on lobster, filling my pockets with lobster, and making sure I have a lobster hanging at my lips at every waking moment through my day." Nicotine usage is not a habit, it is a powerful drug addiction and nothing less.

I started smoking cigarettes when I was just a month shy of turning 18.  Why?  Because of a girl.  I started smoking because I wanted to look "cool" to a girl.  That's right.  I have no shame in admitting it. 

We were at a high-school party and I was recently single and had developed a crush on this girl.  A few of us were drinking in her SUV parked outside of some guy's house.  She lit up a cigarette, looked at me and joked, "Come on, Donny.  Everyone's doing it."  I knew she meant it playfully, but I didn't want her to look at me as uncool or square, or even just a tad bit different than her.  So it was then that I took my first puff, starting a journey that caused me to effectively waste approximately $23,660 over the course of 11 years, all to impress a girl in my senior year of high school that I had a fleeting crush on.  Hell, I don't even know what happened to that girl or where she is today, but I know that her and I never got together and that particular crush faded a couple weeks later in lieu of a crush with another girl.  The ends do not justify the means.

It started with just a pack every week or so.  I didn't even know how to inhale properly.  "Donny's wasting those cigarettes over there," my friend Stephen laughed to all my other smoking friends. "He's blowing the smoke out before he inhales!"  Dammit, I didn't want to look like an amatuer!  With the advice of my friends, I learned how to inhale properly.  The first time I did so I was driving home late one school night.  The rush to my head made me so dizzy and sick that I stopped my car in the middle of the empty street because I thought I was about to vomit.

But I didn't.  And kept smoking.

There were early moments where I truly believed that I could stop at any time.  I specifically remember telling myself, one night while secretly smoking on my mom's back porch, that I wasn't addicted.  I was just doing this for a while to fit in and I would eventually easily quit.  Right?  Actually, I was right.  I did eventually quit, and I found it surprisingly easy. But it took a lot longer to get there than I originally planned.

I turned 18 and over the next few months, my last semester in high-school, I became comfortable as a smoker.  It went well with the punk rock look I started sporting that year.  It gave me something to look forward to on my break at work.  It made me feel and look like an adult (at least in my mind), and was a step towards breaking the image I had developed in early high school that I was a goody-two-shoes.  I was tired of being called a square and a nerd, and I desperately wanted to fit in with the cool kids.  Cigarettes were a step in that direction, and my increased alcohol consumption would soon follow.

(It's interesting now, seeing that both my addiction to nicotine and my dependence on alcohol developed from an attempt to fit in at school and rebel from the nerdy image I had developed.  I suspect that it is around this same age and for this same reason why many start smoking and drinking as well)

The next few years were textbook: I went through the painful experiences of parents and loved ones discovering that I was a smoker. Eventually I was up to near a pack a day.  It quickly started affecting my health, as I remember having severe sore throats all the time, and I would smoke despite of them.  I wasn't making much money after high school but that didn't stop me from buying cigarettes.  I struggled paying all my bills on time and never had more than just a few hundred dollars in the bank at any given time.  I specifically remember checking my bank account one day and seeing that it contained a mere six dollars, and I used four of those dollars to buy another pack to tide me over until pay day.  Cigarettes had sneakingly become a seemingly unavoidable and necessary part of life.  The addiction had taken hold and interwoven itself into my twenties.

From the age of 25 to 29 and the onset of my alcoholism, smoking went from a common addiction to something that was down-right disgusting and horrible.  I started smoking inside my house and kept ash trays in every room.  I would wake up and smoke 3 cigarettes before even getting out of bed.  I would smoke at least 1 cigarette for each stop I would make in my car throughout my day.  There were ashes and cigarette butts everywhere.  In addition to my own wretched ash trays of a house and car, I also worked at a bar which allowed smoking, so there was very little through my days that stopped me from smoking a cigarette.  As a hardcore fan of video games, I had even perfected a method of smoking a cigarette and playing a game at the same time. 

This is an actual photo of the ash tray beside my bed in March of 2012.  Disgusting.


I was never ahead financially.  At the end of my career as a smoker, I was spending twelve dollars a day on the 40 cigarettes I would smoke each 24 hour period.  That's $364 a month.  A MONTH!!  Just a little less than a full week's pay-check.  I had to check my bank account on a daily basis to make sure I had enough left to pay my bills.  At one point, I had to ask help with my rent from my mother in order to stay afloat.  It never occurred to me to stop smoking. I was hooked for life.

Not only was I hooked for life, but I was a proud smoker.  I loved it.  I was obsessed with the image of a cigarette hanging from my lips.  I thought it lent to the devil-may-care rock-and-roll attitude that I wanted to convey and that it also lent a certain rhythm to my conversations that was unmistakably cool.  And with a phlegmy cough added at certain points, I was definitely proud to look so...um..."Keith Richards Unhealthy".

In the 11 years that I was a smoker, I only tried to quit twice.  Once was in college and once was when I started having panic attacks as a result of my alcoholism.  Both times I miserably failed and gave in at the 23 hour mark.  I was terrified of quitting.  Everything I had ever heard about quitting had always told me that it was one of the hardest things human beings ever had to go through.  The thought of facing such an excruciating test of my patience and my ability to control myself gave me anxiety instantly. 

After I quit drinking, my cigarette intake definitely increased, as it often does with recovering alcoholics.  Slowly I started to realize that, while I had quit drinking and was freeing myself of one addiction, I was still a miserable slave to another.  As my judgement became unclouded in those early months of sobriety, smoking was starting to make less and less sense.  The liberating feeling of quitting drinking was great, but how worthy was it if I was still gonna eventually die an early death one day at the hand of nicotine?

But it was so hard to quit!  Or was it?

My friend Alvin gave me a box of books one day about two years ago.  I was instructed to let my coworkers go through the box and take home any books they wanted.  For months, this box sat in the back room of my workplace, still half-full with books.  One day while taking out the trash, I considered just tossing the box of books into the dumpster.  But I just couldn't throw away perfectly good literature, so I took the box home and set it inside by my front door.  For another month, this box stayed in the exact same place.  Eventually I decided to move this box from the spot by my front door to my storage closet in the back of the house.  But before I did, I perused the books inside one last time.  One title caught my eye: "The Easy Way To Stop Smoking".  I took it out of the box and set it on my coffee table, where it stayed for another few months.

About 8 months into my sobriety, I became sick with a sore throat again.  Cigarettes were tasting increasingly more disgusting.  I wasn't even finishing half of one before extinguishing it, yet I marched on.  I did, however, begin to consider quitting, despite the anxieties surrounding the thought.  I could quit, but I would need help.  I had heard mixed reviews of the drug Chantix, but knew a few people that had used it and quit successfully.  So I called my doctor and made an appointment in a few days to discuss taking the drug.  I would have to spend money I didn't really have to gain access to this drug, but it would eventually save me money in the long run.  I was ready.

But I felt like there may have been a simpler way out.  I remembered that book on my coffee table.  That night, I picked up the plain blue copy of Allen Carr's The Easy Way To Stop Smoking and read while laying in bed.  The cool thing about the book is that it encourages you to smoke while reading it instead of making you feel guilty for doing so.  I read and puffed away.

The book's primary focus is breaking down the brain-washing that we, as members of modern society, have undergone when it concerns a) the reasons why we smoke, and b) the assumption that it is so hard to quit.  Mr. Carr makes the point that there is absolutely no benefit from smoking and that it is, in fact, not hard to quit at all but that it is easy.  It was the first time that I had ever heard anyone on this planet say that quitting smoking was easy, and this man was a hundred-a-day smoker before quitting. I was skeptical, but I read on.

I also soon realized similarities in the attitudes that Mr. Carr had about quitting smoking and the attitudes that I had developed about quitting drinking.   They were all centered around not letting yourself feel deprived.  Familiar with this idea and method, I began to actually, for once, believe that I could stop smoking.

I was intrigued by what this man had to say about smoking.  Why do people smoke?  Because of stress?  Boredom?  To feel satisfied after a meal?  To look cool?  Because we're gonna die anyway?  He shot each of these beliefs down with each chapter of the book.  I read half the book before bed, and finished it when I woke in the morning.  It took me about 5 hours. After I finished, I went out on my porch and smoked two cigarettes back to back.  I inhaled deeply, and with each puff I thought about how ridiculous of an act smoking is.

I was gaining nothing from it.  I was losing money daily.  I was losing health by the minute.  I foresaw a future of dying of lung cancer in a hospital bed, surrounded by tearful loved ones.  It wasn't making me look cool; it was making me look sad and pitiful.  There were no females that were impressed by my ability to inhale cancerous vapors.  I was stinky, yellow-toothed, and oozing phlegm.  There were yellow stains on the sides of my forefinger and middle finger where the tar had seeped out of countless cigarette filters onto my skin over the years.  I couldn't breathe efficiently and there was an ever-present hacking cough throughout my day.  I was a slave to nicotine, and I no longer wanted to be a slave to such a destructive master.

Mr. Carr was also a firm advocate against replacement therapy.  With nicotine gum a relic of the late 1990s, but modern electronic cigarettes on the rise, I had decided that I would not go that route.  The key is to kill the addiction as quickly as possible.  By feeding it more would only prolong nictoine's exit from my system, thus needlessly prolonging my addiction and withdrawal symptoms.  I wouldn't chew gum or shove food down my throat to fill the void, nor would I make changes to my other daily habits in order to quit.  I would be hardcore and quickly learn to live without that cigarette hanging from my lips.  I would quit cold turkey, and never consider picking up another cigarette for the rest of my life. 

I finished that last cigarette and went inside.  I gathered up all my lighters and ash trays and threw them in the trash.  I cleaned the ashes from my coffee table and night-stand.  Yet I cluched the half-a-pack of cigarettes I had remaining.  I looked at it and considered keeping it in case I broke down in the next few hours and decided that I would quit tomorrow.  Or the next day.  Or the one after that.

Fuck it.  I took out the remaining cigarettes and tore them in half, tossing their meaningless remains into the trash.  I was done.  I called my doctor the next day and cancelled my appointment to discuss taking Chantix.  I could do this without pharmaceutical help.

And yes, it was much easier than I ever imagined it to be.  And today, 11 months and 4 days later, I have resisted smoking 13,660 cigarettes.  I feel better.  I smell better.  I look better.  Coughing is something foreign to me now.  I have more money in the bank than I ever have had in my life.  I go to bed and wake up feeling rested.  I don't have this chemical addiction nagging at me through every moment of my day, begging to be fulfilled by another puff of nicotine.  I experience moments with loved ones more fully, as they aren't punctuated by a constant need to take a break to go feed an addiction.  But most of all, I have a very different future than I most certainly would've had if I had never decided to quit.  And I predict this future to be much more fulfilling.
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If you or someone you know is trying to quit smoking, I highly recommend Allen Carr's book The Easy Way To Stop Smoking.  You can find it at most book stores or download it to your tablet or smart phone.   It is endorsed by many celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres, Ashton Kutcher, and Anthony Hopkins.  It has not only worked for me, but also for my twin-sister.  A few of my friends read it and quit for a while, but failed because they did not continue to follow it's simple directions:  Decide to quit smoking, rejoice in that decision, and never smoke again.  It's as easy as that, I promise.  The only thing holding you back is your belief that it is terribly hard to quit.

Click here to find "The Easy Way To Stop Smoking" on Amazon!










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