Monday, July 15, 2013

Smoking, and Why (and How) I'm Quitting

If it all works out, photos of me smoking (like the one above) will be more and more rare.

I'm looking at the title of this post, and it has the words "quitting" and "smoking" in it. Honestly, I'm still pretty shocked by the very idea that these words are being applied to me, but they are.

I'm 44 years old, which means I've been smoking for close to 30 years. It's not something I'm proud of. I don't blame anyone except myself, and up until recently, I had never really considered quitting. Not once. Have I been aware of the dangers of smoking? Of course I have... the entire time. The fact was, and remains today, that I like smoking. The act of it. The feel of it. Everything about it. It's not easy to stop doing anything you really enjoy, unless you have a compelling reason to do so.

It turns out that I do. While I know this is a vague concept, it should be easily understandable: nothing good in my life over the next 15-20 years will happen as a result of my being a smoker. While I'm relatively healthy for now, the facts are clear that if I continue smoking, I will minimally run into emphysema or a related COPD that will affect my lungs and/or heart. I find it likely that while the symptoms aren't very evident, it's possible that I've already caused irreversible damage to those organs over the three decades in which I've been a smoker. These things will only get worse, and impact my lifestyle in a negative way. And that's the good possibility; the bad one is to get lung cancer. Let's not discuss the horrifying details of that disease.

So, that basically means that I don't want to die young, and that I don't want my remaining life to be filled with illness and pain. That alone is a trump card that beats my "But I like smoking!" excuse. In my mid-40s, I don't have a luxury of saying, "I'll quit later." Not to be melodramatic, but there is no later.

More Reasons
I'll be short with this: when I was in my teens and 20s, smoking was still socially acceptable. The fact is that it's simply not today. Now, I normally don't give a crap about what's in style or not, but the trend toward a non-smoking world is only going to continue, and it's going to make life mighty inconvenient for people who still choose to smoke. I'm also sick of being self-conscious as a smoker... the smell, the stigma, the special scheduling arrangements that I'd build in to allow for smoking. It's finally at a point where the effort isn't worth the return. Let's not bother discussing the fact that in 2012, I spent over $180 per month, approximately $2,200, on cigarettes that are all doing their best to kill me.

Step One: The Cut Back
I don't have a plan to quit smoking. In fact, I never planned to do it at all. Last Tuesday (July 9, if it matters), I'd been noticing that my chest was hurting a bit. Nothing serious. Just a slight discomfort that seemed to be exacerbated each time I had a smoke. Coincidentally, on the same day, I ran across an article about the upcoming implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known commonly as "ObamaCare". In it, I noted that of all the groups of people who purchase health insurance, even under the act, as a self-employed 40+ smoker, I'd be paying some of the highest rates in the USA for insurance.

So, that day, I casually decided to see how I'd feel about cutting back on my smoking. A very simple plan: I've spent most of my time as a smoker using about a pack per day (20 cigarettes). That meant I was smoking on average of one per hour, with some more around mornings and mealtimes. I was aware that many times, I'd smoke not because I felt I really "needed" a cigarette, but because it was what I'd habitually do at certain times, and with certain triggers. Get done with a phone meeting? Have a smoke! Finish eating lunch? Have a smoke! Wrap up an assignment for work and hit the "send" button? Have a smoke!

What I decided to do instead was to be aware of those moments, and instead of automatically reaching for my pack of Marlboros and a lighter, I'd simply ask myself if I thought I really needed one. If the answer was yes, I'd smoke. If not, I'd wait. That's all. Well, I found something really interesting: I didn't "need" to smoke nearly as often as I thought I did. By about double. Yeah, really. Instead of smoking once every hour (or more), I found from that very Tuesday night that I could smoke every two hours and still feel like I was getting all the nicotine I really needed. That took me from smoking a pack per day down to a half pack. A 50% reduction, right away. I started setting little two-hour landmarks so that if I thought I was going to have a smoke, I'd note the last time I had one. If two hours hadn't passed, I'd give a serious effort to reaching that point before smoking.

Easy or hard? Both.
There are times where I've marveled at how much easier this has been than I thought it would be. Sometimes, the two hours between smokes just zip by. A few times, I got to my two-hour benchmark, and still didn't feel compelled to smoke right away. And then there are other times, where the sudden withdrawal of the amount of nicotine in my body is very apparent. I've felt physical withdrawal effects at times. I've had moments of irritability and anxiety, and occasional times where I've had trouble concentrating (with my mind preoccupied on my next smoking time). Plus, as a bonus, I've had some sweatiness and shakiness that one feels when you ingest a chemical for more than half of your life, and then suddenly cut the amount in half. But all in all, I'd have to say that it's easier overall than I would have predicted.

Anything good happening so far?
You bet. I didn't expect cutting down to a half pack to make a difference, but it really has. My lungs feel more open. I'm less stuffed up when I wake up in the morning. My energy level feels higher. The aforementioned chest pain is gone entirely. And, while this is an intangible, I feel pretty good about myself for even trying this, and that's encouraging me to continue.

This is awesome!
Hold your horses. There's a name for a guy who smokes a half-pack of cigarettes per day. He's called a smoker.

The fact is that I have not quit smoking. I've cut back. That's good, but there's no guarantee that I'll remain committed to this plan, or that I'll be able to take the next, much harder steps to eliminate smoking entirely.

I have friends who have been wonderful offering advice, suggestions, and personal anecdotes, and I appreciate all of them. There are tools like nicotine patches, gum, and e-cigarettes that I may need to eventually turn to so that I can cross the final path toward being a non-smoker. For now, I'm happy this is working out. While I'm not putting up some hard and fast schedule about quitting, it would be great to ring in 2014 without a cigarette in my hand. We'll see.

For now, I'm rather surprised that I've stuck with a rather spur-of-the-moment decision for the last five days, and that good things are already happening. I believe I'm up to this challenge. We'll see how it goes.


Cicadetta said...

An uncle of mine died of kidney cancer at the age of 55. He was a life-long smoker. And yes, those to things are related. Your lungs are not the only organs you put at (more) risk by smoking. Yeah. The stuff in your Marlboros screws with your kidneys, too. Not a pleasant way to go.

I know you know this stuff. I'm just really, really glad you're quitting, and that's why. Social stigma aside, I don't want to lose anymore family or friends to a risk factor like cigarettes. So I really hope you succeed. And as a non-smoker, I wish I could help, but… well, I probably can't. In any case, good luck with this! You can do it! *hugs*

Zak Claxton said...

I thank you for your support, Cica. As you're already aware, it's beyond a simple matter of willpower. A physical addiction makes it extraordinarily difficult to stop, and the best way I have of describing it is to imagine how your body would feel if you stopped drinking water. You'd start by being thirsty, and then go through more and more physical discomfort. Unlike water, stopping smoking won't kill me, but in a way my body reacts as if that's what it was experiencing. So yes, I too am glad to have successfully cut back, and it's going very well. But the quitting part won't happen overnight, and the less pressure I put on myself to hurry the process, the more likely it will be a successful in the long term.