Up In Smoke, Part 2: Assessing the Severity of Addiction

There’s no such thing as a wasted attempt to quit smoking, although in the past I’ve certainly felt ashamed, even humiliated, by my failure to maintain smoking cessation.  The longest I’ve ever managed to quit smoking?  Three weeks.  Still, it is a fact that the vast majority of would be quitters fail in their first attempt to quit smoking, even, alas, their next several attempts.  To some, trying to quit and failing may seem pointless.  At its rosiest, trying to quit and failing is often seen as little better than a few days or cigarettes of less lung damage.  I’d argue that attempts to quit, and the following failures, are necessary for the final achievement.

At least in my case, I didn’t realize the extent of my addiction until I tried to quit.  At any point in the daily cigarette routine, the gentle pull of addiction, the feeling that says “Go out and have another cigarette; wouldn’t that be a nice way to top off that cup of coffee?” feels more like a want than a need, something I could willingly disregard at any time. The first two hours after a cigarette, before the half-life of the chemical expires, where the smoker can still feel the nicotine’s effects to some extent, often go by without a thought.  When a smoker is sick, sleeping, or temporarily engrossed in another activity, they can spend several hours without a cigarette with barely a second thought.  Such moments, unfortunately, are more rare than they might seem.  I find smoking has taken up an almost ritualistic niche in my life, demanding that I pay more service to it than any other activity, no matter how well loved those other activities used to be.  In my first year of smoking, I thought that, come winter, the negative temperatures and howling snowstorms would overcome my desire to smoke.  Instead I began exposing myself to -40 below wind chill and blizzards ten times a day for ten minutes at a time.  I was no longer able to pretend that smoking was a pleasurable diversion, or that I had the sort of control I thought I had.

Conscientious efforts to quit revealed a still bleaker picture.  What felt like a gentle pull after an hour or two, or at first waking, developed into a ravenous hunger, then an all-consuming obsession.  I was not prepared for the pathetic, quibbling excuses my mind concocted to defray my willpower’s rapidly crumbling defenses, or the onslaught of the actual effects of withdrawal.  I’d done my homework first, and laughed at the withdrawal symptoms.  They didn’t seem so bad!

Depending on the type of cigarettes, how many cigarettes one smokes a day, the addicted person’s genetics, and their habits, it’s likely some would-be quitters have it easier than others.  My first attempt, at only five normal cigarettes a day, had manageable withdrawal symptoms.  It wasn’t pleasant, but I could tough it out.  The only problem with the ease with which I quit at that point was the illusion that quitting smoking was easy; I could do this again later any time I wanted, and hey, I kind of wanted a cigarette now.  I relapsed, and at present, I now not only smoke somewhere between 10-14 cigarettes a day, but each cigarette contains 75% more tobacco than the cigarettes I smoked when I started.  In translation, withdrawal symptoms from a ¼ pack are a cakewalk compared to what essentially amounts, with the added tobacco content of my new brand, to an entire pack of cigarettes a day.

I did, however, learn something from my first attempt to quit smoking, and the dozen(s?) of attempts thereafter.  In my latest attempts to quit I’ve barely lasted a day, and at best a few before the withdrawals are too severe to stand.  I could, of course, go out for nicotine replacement theory, because it seems to work so well for some of the other people I know, but quitting smoking seems to be an individual thing, and so far cold turkey seems to be the most effective for me.  I still know that I would require more willpower than I know I have currently to overcome a brain used to a pack of cigarettes a day screaming at me to smoke.

Right now I’m withdrawing.  My brain, used to the fuel of at least ten of my current brand of cigarettes, is being forced to make do with two and a half, in half cigarette increments instead of full cigarettes at a time.  While I wish that I’d managed to make it through today without a single cigarette, I know that my throbbing headache would be a migraine.  My stuffy nose, sore throat, and hacking cough would be the worst cold I’d ever had.  I would not be able to see my screen to type this.  I shouldn’t have driven anywhere today as is, because my vision is quite fuzzy enough.  My lungs feel as if they’ve been stuffed with rocks.  I’m sore all over, cranky, irritable, and if I didn’t know it was withdrawals, I’d be certain I’m coming down with the flu.  All that, and all I had to do was cut a cigarette a day.

As much as I whine about the withdrawals, I’m mostly shocked that I’m having them at all, and disturbed by just how dependent on stable, high levels of nicotine my body really is.

And yet…

Suddenly, I can taste my cigarettes again, and they taste terrible, of course.  I haven’t enjoyed a single drag, and I’m smoking comparatively little enough that there isn’t a positive abatement in the withdrawal symptoms when I do.  Every foray outside (I refuse to smoke inside or in a vehicle) is unpleasant.  I expected to have to fight to reduce my cigarette consumption, but instead the very act of reducing the number of cigarettes I smoke is sensitizing me to just how abhorrent they really are.  I’m finally washing the jacket I always smoke in because I can no longer stand the smell.  It’s progress.