Nicotine Free

Image “The Smoke” by lucaszoltowski

Today I’m nicotine-free for a year and a half. That’s an amazing thing to be able to say. I struggled for so many years to quit, and failed so many times, that I seriously doubted I’d ever be at this point.

Having struggled with nicotine for so many years and finally feeling confident that I’ve kicked the habit for good, I’d love for this post to be a “Here’s-how-I-did-it-and-here’s-how-you-can-too” type of post. I know I searched for enough of that type of guidance over the years that I tried to quit. There are certainly some resources like that out there… but I think we all know how likely they are to really help you quit. Unfortunately the best that I can do is to cover the “Here’s-how-I-did-it” part, and hope that it leads you to your own “you-can-too”.

The bottom line is, and most people won’t like this, you’ll quit when you’re ready to quit. When you’re ready to quit. Over the years I tried many times to quit for many people. And I sincerely wanted to quit for them. But of course, I never stayed quit. That’s the power of nicotine addiction. Towards the end I wanted to quit for my wife (many times), and then for my children. I think that’s a pretty noble reason. Yet, I couldn’t do it. Because while I truly wanted to quit for them, I wasn’t truly ready to quit. Trying to quit for somebody else, while noble, will set you up for a double-whammy. If you fail, now you’ve not only failed yourself, but you’ve failed the people for whom you were trying to quit. Of course, the effort and even the desire itself are commendable… but we’re our own harshest critics, and we’ll take that particular failure doubly hard.

When I finally did quit smoking, it wasn’t even a “grand event”. There was no countdown. There was no big fanfare of a final cigarette. I simply got to a point where I was ready to quit.

Back in early 2009, I made the decision to get healthier. Not healthy per se, just healthier. And admittedly, I had set a pretty low bar for what that meant. I was a programmer who led a sedentary lifestyle, ate poorly, and smoked. “Healthier” wasn’t a huge commitment. That decision was the result of seeing a photograph of myself and really not liking how it looked. At the very least, I wanted to drop some weight, and fast. I decided that on March 1st of that year, I’d start a 30 day Master Cleanse. I also wanted to start exercising, so I purchased a Wii Fit. I knew that the Wii Fit wasn’t anything like actually going to a gym, but I wanted to start slowly. It was a good decision, as even the basic Wii Fit exercises left me winded and feeling sore the next day.

It was almost a full two weeks into the cleanse, where I was dropping weight and exercising regularly, that I was standing outside looking at the lit cigarette in my hand and thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d be putting forth the effort to exercise, and sabotage that effort by continuing to smoke. I knew it was a bit sad that I found the Wii Fit to be such a challenge, and knew that smoking was a big part of that. As a programmer who didn’t make exercise a part of his life, I was planted in a chair or on a couch most of the time. While this is bad for a variety of reasons, it allowed me to continue smoking without facing the consequences of being a smoker. I didn’t get winded because I rarely moved.

Now that I was exercising regularly, I could feel what being a smoker was doing to me. And feeling it every day. Sure, I’d encountered the random occasion that I’d have to run a short distance or climb a flight of stairs and I’d be winded. But this was now something that I was coming face-to-face with every. single. day. That made it much harder to ignore.

So on March 13, 2009… I threw away my cigarettes, and haven’t smoked since.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t as clean of a break as I’d have liked. I wasn’t confident that I’d be strong enough to stick with it, so I started using nicotine gum. Now, nicotine gum is something that’s supposed to help you get through the difficult early period. Specifically, the first twelve weeks. You start with a high dose (4mg) to help you deal with cravings, and then wean yourself off by going to a lower dose (2mg) and by relying on the gum less frequently. I stayed on the gum for slightly longer than 12 weeks. By my calculations, it was 25. Months.

Not much of a success story, really. I had traded one addiction for another. I was willing to “settle” for this particular “win”, since I figured the nicotine gum was healthier than cigarettes and no more expensive. Not to mention there was no unpleasant lingering odor. But I was still an addict. I still panicked if I left the house and realized I didn’t have any gum with me. My “victory” over cigarettes was somewhat hollow.

As fate would have it, in April of 2011, I had to get a physical as part of the application process for a new life insurance policy. Part of that physical would be a urine test that would check for nicotine. Even though I hadn’t smoked in over 2 years, I’d still have to pay a higher “smoker’s” rate if there was nicotine in my system. So on April 4th, I had to make a choice. Continue to chew the gum and pay a substantially higher rate for life insurance, or do what I had put off doing for two years. I chewed and subsequently spit out my last piece of nicotine gum, and once again went through the agonizing “first three days”.

This time though, I made it to four days. And then five. Eventually a week. And then a month. And now a year and a half. A year and a half. I keep saying it over and over in my head because it’s still somewhat hard to believe.

Looking back at it, I admit that it’s an ugly victory. But if there’s anything to take away from this, maybe it’s that the victory doesn’t have to be pretty? You do what you have to do. You give as much as you can, if not more. And while the losses and relapses hurt, you stand up and you stand toe to toe and you just don’t stop moving forward. You make the effort and with a little bit of luck fate steps in and helps (as with my insurance physical), but I promise you this… it’s all worth it. Don’t worry about losing a round here and there. When the final bell rings and you’re the one that’s still standing, the hurt and the pain are distant memories.

It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be.