Like many people who become smokers, I previously would have bet good money that I would never get hooked. I knew the dangers and never understood why such things would be pleasurable when I was a kid.
My parents didn’t smoke and I never worried about becoming a smoker because there didn’t seem to be any reason to do so; it was a trap with no bait.
My experience probably mirrors that of most smokers. I had my first cigarette when I was 16 at a friend’s house one Friday night.
I didn’t really know what to think before I tried it.
There was a combination of a rush from “breaking the rules” and the fear that this thing would turn me into an addict and lead to an early grave.
Or maybe, I would cough a bunch and make a fool out of myself in front of my friends. Maybe my parents would catch me and be ashamed, or maybe, the world would just explode. I just didn't know.
Then I smoked it. And quite frankly, it was a bit of a letdown.
There was no high (other than a bit of lightheadedness), and it certainly didn’t taste good. It wasn’t so bad or so bitter that I coughed, but I do remember thinking to myself, “what exactly is the big deal with these?”
As the years went on I became a bit of a cigar aficionado. I don’t think I ever really enjoyed smoking them, but I really did enjoy the occasions when I smoked them.
One of the most common was around a campfire with a bunch of friends. The cigars seemed to add to the experience, but in hindsight, I’m not sure why such pleasant experiences needed any additions.
Regardless, I would have never considered myself a smoker at the time. I just had cigars with friends on the weekends on occasion.
During college, a few of my friends smoked and I would occasionally have a cigarette with them.
This was back when I would still get a little lightheaded from a cigarette. So, I guess I “enjoyed” these, although I’m not sure why. It’s not like the lightheaded feeling was particularly good.
Then, a few friends got pipe and we would smoke our pipes together, almost as a joke. Then, when playing poker I would smoke a bit, then when drinking, then before tests to “help” with the stress, and on and on and on.
When smoking alone, I would only smoke Black and Mild’s or other small cigars. Somehow, this assured me that I wasn’t actually a smoker. By my senior year, a day rarely passed without one such cigar or a few cigarettes or something.
While I was certainly already under nicotine’s spell, the physical effects were pretty minimal. I played many sports and was very active, so it didn’t seem to have any major negative effect on my life (other than the smell).
After college, day by day, I started to smoke more. When I was around 23, I had a big dilemma of what to do with my life and I somehow found solace in smoking.
No, they didn’t taste good, solve my problems or relieve any stress, but I guess they were something to do.
They gave me an excuse to go outside and walk around to ponder my predicament. Why I needed an excuse for such things never really crossed my mind.
By the time I was 24, I was a full-blown smoker, smoking a pack a day.
This was so unbelievable to me that I avoided talking about it to my parents or admitting I was a smoker to any of my friends (even though they all knew). "You know, I can quit at any time."
Well, not really. I lost track of the times I tried to stop. I tried the gum, didn’t work. I tried going cold turkey, didn’t work. I tried switching to cigars, didn’t work.
I had a plan I thought was certain to work: I would put four cigarettes in a pack and those were the only ones I could smoke that day. Then, I would do the same for the rest of the week.
Then I would go down to three for the next week, then two, then one and then voilà, I would be done!
It didn't work.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to jones for a cigarette to someone who’s never been addicted to them. There’s an empty feeling in your stomach that is soon joined by an unquenchable anxiety and restlessness.
Your mind hones in on what it “needs,” and demands it to the point that you can't focus your attention on anything other than that.
Going a full day without a cigarette just felt like torture, and when you’re trying to quit, you start to wonder why life would even be worth living as a nonsmoker, if this is the state in which you have to live.
This is especially true, given that all it takes to fall off the wagon is one little four-inch tube of rolled paper with tobacco in it.
One stressful or weak moment when your willpower fades, and then you’re standing there, smoking a cigarette, mad as hell at yourself, wondering where the enjoyment is in it and sulking about needing to go through the whole quitting process again.
One time, I quit for two months and was quite relieved. “I’m finally done.” But then, the health and energy benefits I briefly wrestled back became less readily apparent.
The struggle wasn’t fresh in my mind and after one really stressful day, I thought, “Why not just smoke a Black and Mild, like old times before I was addicted. One can’t hurt, right?”
And back to smoking I went.
It wasn’t until three years ago that I actually was finally able to leave the cancerous filth for good. I was lucky enough to stumble across a book called "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking" by Allen Carr that I strongly recommend to anyone out there who has been caught in the smoking trap.
More recently, I’ve discovered that the research on willpower shows that it can be likened to gas in a gas tank. You run out and need to replenish it.
So, using willpower to quit smoking is folly because you can't simply have willpower going all the time — it needs a break. Willpower is great for doing things; it is not so great for NOT doing things. (For more on this, see "Willpower" by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.)
Allen Carr makes the key observation that we don’t need willpower to not do something we don’t want to do, so he focuses on why people do smoke instead of the reasons they shouldn’t.
After all, no one smokes for the reasons they shouldn’t.
So what were my excuses? Smoking helps relieve boredom. Well, smoking is about the most boring thing on the planet.
How about smoking relaxes me?
And, smoking helps me concentrate. Wait a minute, smoking helps concentration and relaxation? Those are opposites!
In fact, smoking does nothing for you.
The only thing it does is end the aggravation of nicotine withdrawal. And fortunately, the physical effects of nicotine withdrawal are actually mostly in our own heads.
As Allen Carr notes:
Most smokers go all night without a cigarette. The withdrawal 'pangs' do not even wake them up. Many smokers will leave the bedroom before they light that first cigarette; many will have breakfast first. Increasingly people don’t smoke in their homes and won’t have that first cigarette until they are in the car on the way to work… These smokers have eight or maybe 10 hours without a cigarette — going through withdrawal all the while, but it doesn’t seem to bother them.
Indeed, it’s amazing how much aggravation an illusion can cause. It’s the feeling of being deprived of something that causes us so much grief. Indeed, our minds can actually make us physically sick.
Once I realized this, quitting was actually quite easy. And, there is good evidence that this method is far more effective than the others available.
For anyone who isn’t a smoker, it’s critical to understand that the bait is mostly comprised of lack of bait.
Smoking may seem so mundane and pointless that it couldn’t possibly be addicting, but don’t flirt with this!
And, for anyone who already got caught, like I did, give Allen Carr’s book a try.
After all, what do you have to lose other than a dangerous, filthy, expensive and unhealthy habit addiction?
Note: Andrew Syrios is not affiliated with Allen Carr’s organization in any way.