A Different Quit

(First posted to alt.support.stop-smoking on January 9, 1998   The original with responses is here)

I smoked a pack a day for about 35 yrs. I tried more than my share of "methods" to quit. Some were helpful, most were....less helpful. I seemed to go though the same stages and feelings with each "quitting" experience. The clenched fist, foot stomping, "this is the last one" determination to quit. - the "last cigarette" leap and it's heart thumping fear. - the terrifying march of the hours, one after the other, as I waited for the urges - and then the slow erosion of my resolve as I craved and said "NO!", and still craved and said "welllll", and finally caved and said "oh, what the hell. I'll have just one.", and once again "that was that". A creature of habit? A creature of patterns? Yes, lots of patterns. Aren't we all?

There was nothing odd about my quitting attempts. I had tried gum, patchs, cold turkey, hypnosis, SmokEnders, LifeSign, and a mouth wash called Tabinol. They all seemed to revolve around the nicotine cycle. How to go about getting off the nicotine merry-go-round. How to stay off cigarettes long enough that I wouldn’t want to smoke. Ahh, but here was the problem. How long would it take till I wasn’t plagued by urges? How long till I could be free of always wanting a cigarette? I had succeeded in quitting once before for about 8 months. And during those 8 months there were many times I thought that a cigarette would be "nice". There were many times that I felt urges to smoke and managed to beat them down and live through another day without a cigarette. That is until I had "just one."

I finally quit cold turkey on March 15th of '96. I expected the pattern to start out pretty much the same as it always had in the past. But, hope springs eternal, and I was hoping that this time would be different. My quit buddy group was emailing fast and furious. I had all my quitting paraphernalia in place; my orange juice, my tooth brush and mouth wash, my apple flavored rice cakes that are great with butter or peanut butter and jam. Had my puter cranked up and I was "ready".

I didn't have to wait long before the rollercoaster started rolling. I remember that first morning sitting and pecking furiously at the keyboard. I was trying to document some thought that was swirling through my head and I jumped up to go to the kitchen. I had always smoked in the kitchen with my cigarette held under the stove exhaust fan. As I got half a dozen steps toward the kitchen it suddenly occurred to me, "Hey!! this is my "going for a smoke motion". I stopped dead in my tracks and thought a moment about this action I had repeated so many times. Why was I going through this motion?? Where did it come from?? I had been wrestling with an idea, up against how best to phrase a sentence. My train of thought had felt blocked and for some reason, I automatically headed for a smoke as I searched for a way to continue writing. But how would a cigarette help me complete a sentence? Where was the reason? Where was the connection? What irrational behavior! Why not just sit back down and think? Turning back to the puter, I watched these thoughts follow one after the other. And as I sat back down, I realized I felt an odd, sort of out-of-synch sensation. Why?? Well, I had been on my way to light up a cigarette and in the span of a few thoughts, I had done a u-turn back to my desk. Why wasn't something inside me screaming "Give me a smoke!" Where was that invisible hand that had always taken hold of my being and gripped me tighter and tighter until I fed it a cigarette? I didn't understand what was happening. However, I continued to type away until the next mental obstacle was encountered and I started to leave my chair to "go smoke." Half way out of the chair I stopped and said, "I've seen this pattern. This has nothing to do with smoking. This is about a sentence that I can't complete." Once more I sat down in the chair and continued typing.

The afternoon passed with me watching familiar patterns materialize, be judged, be rerouted, and each time that internal tug/urge would quickly dissipate and disappear. With each cycle some sensation inside of me would cue the start of a smoking pattern. They all seemed to come from an incomplete sentence, or from being hungry around noon time, or later from simple fatigue at having been at the puter for several hours.

Part way through that first cold turkey day I realized that I was following a behavior modification process that I’d been exposed to years before. Where I had always believed smoking to be simply one nicotine fix after the other, I now began to suspect that my years of smoking had really been a pattern of behaviors, and here I had stumbled onto a tool for dealing directly with the urges instead of just hoping that they would go away with time. That "tool" for altering behavior is based on the idea that: between the *occurrence* of an event and our reaction to it, there is a mental dialogue that determines what our reaction will be to that event. And also that the dialogue is usually one that we are unaware of on a conscious level. Further, by altering the script of that dialogue we will alter our reaction to the event.

When I look back at why I smoked, what I remember is that I seldom smoked a cig because it tasted good or because it felt good. I usually, like any chemical addict, smoked so that I wouldn't be/feel uncomfortable. A sagging nicotine level brought on that awful feeling we called a nicotine fit. What were it's characteristics? Nervousness, trembling, sweating, irritability? I remember these and there are probably others, all uncomfortable sensations. And how did we "cure" the condition? We smoked a cigarette. Pretty simple solution, and effective. This is where I see the internal dialogue being established. As neophyte smokers we "learned" to relieve discomfort by smoking a cigarette. I'm sure very few of us willingly waited till we were uncomfortable. The onset of the sensations associated with a sagging nicotine level triggered a response that, with practice, happened more and more automatically until "we" were no longer consciously in the loop.I believe that once we had established the dialogue that went, "When I feel a sensation that feels like a nicotine fit, I'll smoke a cigarette to cure it", then ANY EVENT that produced feelings similar to a nicotine fit should/could be cured with a cigarette. I doubt that we looked closely at "why" we lit a particular cigarette. With every one smoked, with every repetition, the pattern became more ingrained. Soon, any and every discomfort or stress was "cured" by smoking. If that dialogue never changes, are we destined to repeat the same patterns over and over? Even when I’d been quit for 8 months, were the patterns still buried inside? How long can we hang tough and hang on? Seems to me to be an awfully precarious position. Certainly in the initial stages of a quit, hanging tough is what gets us through. But as a long term modus operandi, it's way too risky.

Urges can be about anything. We might have an urge to eat or cry or go for a walk or avoid the boss. As smokers we turned almost every urge into an urge to smoke. The following is how I see the anatomy of an urge:

1- Our bodies experience a sensation. The first sensation/cigarette connection was the nicotine need. As a smoker's nicotine level drops he begins to experience that feeling we call a nicotine fit. In time it also became the physical manifestation of anger, hunger or fatigue. (Or any other stress).

2-Some part of our mind "decodes" the sensation and makes the association with a cigarette. As a smoker, this association would be valid since smoking a cigarette is absolutely the best way to "cure" the discomfort of a falling nicotine level. However, that decoding part of our mind doesn't distinguish between discomforts. It associates cigarettes with any discomfort, i.e. lowered nic level, anger, hunger, fatigue. Further, on this level these associations are usually unconscious in that these connections have been made so many times we don't need to "think" about them.

3- Our conscious mind then thinks "Oh, a cigarette is what I "need". That will make me feel better." It’s at this point that we experience the urge to smoke. And this is also where the mind games are played out. If we relate to an urge to smoke only at this last step, we've already "assumed" that a cigarette is the correct and proper response/association to whatever discomfort/sensation we're experiencing. Once that "assumption" has been made, the stage is set for the play that goes... "I really want a smoke! But I quit! But I want one! But I won’t!". It's not suprising that our "I won’t smoke!" often seems so weak against an association we "assumed" was correct many thousands of times. It’s also at this point that, "Just one won't hurt" or "Just one and I'll feel better", begin to sound like perfectly valid arguments.

However, if we can catch the process at the 2nd step, then we can consciously decide whether smoking would be an appropriate response. This requires that we search out the root emotions/sensations/events. If we can identify them, then instead of automatically thinking "Oh, a cigarette is what I need.", we will look for more reasonable, rational responses. If we're hungry, we'll eat. If we’re fatigued, we'll rest. If we're angry, we'll yell. If we feel terrible and have no idea why, at least we won't automatically assume that smoking will make it better. And we won't be caught up in the nicotine mind games but, rather, be one step ahead of them.

By identifying the smoking patterns we followed, we can begin to see how smoking was connected to our lives. As we break those connections, we begin to experience all the emotions that go with living. And we experience them without the "urge to smoke".