Five years and one day ago, I had my last cigarette. Which means exactly five years ago today, I quit smoking.
Quite possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I did it. Here’s how I did it, what I lost, what I gained, and what I learned that time I quit smoking.
How I Did It
When I tell people that I quit smoking, they congratulate me on accomplishing something so difficult. But I feel like I had a head start; I had quit once before in my twenties (and then I started grad school, so I started smoking immediately).
The first time I quit, I had wanted to stop smoking. I wasn’t smoking that often and was pretty much over it. But not this time. It was work getting myself on board with the idea of quitting. I loved smoking. So no, I didn’t want to quit. I just knew that I should. I’d been smoking almost half my life and that was long enough. And I had a niece and a nephew who I didn’t want to think smoking was cool (even if it totally is).
I picked a date that I would quit. Knowing from experience that this would be an unpleasant experience, I set a date about two months out into the future. I chose August 25th because I like the number 25 and it’s exactly six months before my birthday. After I set the date, I started mentally preparing for life without cigs. And I started gradually cutting down to the point that I was only smoking one or two a day (unless it was a shitty day, then it was a free-for-all). That way, come quit day, I wouldn’t have to try to not smoke ten cigarettes. I’d just have to not smoke one.
Did that make it any easier? Maybe. But I don’t think so. My first day as a quitter was an incredibly irritating day. And I remember thinking to myself in a moment of extreme frustration, “I can’t wait to get home and smoke a cigarette.” And then remembering, “Oh wait, no I won’t. Sigh.” I went cold turkey; no patches or gum or anything. I drank a lot tea for some reason. Don’t ask me why. I didn’t read it anywhere or anything like that. I just needed something to replace my nightly ritual of smoking cigarettes out my bathroom window. So I replaced getting up to go smoke a cig in the bathroom with getting up to make a cup of tea. Or nine cups of tea, depending on the night.
It was rough, I won’t lie to you. The first few days weren’t bad. Maybe because I was just running off the adrenaline of meeting my goal each day of not having a cigarette. But as I got to the two week mark, I was jammed up. A little ball of rage filled with this angsty, angry energy. I had a strange desire to fight somebody; I wanted to kick things and punch people.
The truth is, as trite as it may sound, I had made the decision that I was not going to smoke again. Under any circumstance. I could scream, I could cry, I could eat my body weight in candy. But smoking a cigarette just wasn’t an option anymore. So I didn’t smoke one. And I made that decision every day, over and over again, until it was no longer a decision that needed to be made. It was just a way of life.
What I Lost
When people encourage you to quit smoking, there’s a lot of talk about what you’ll gain: extra money in your pocket, better lung function, years added on to your life. But no one tells you what you lose. No one mentions that when you quit smoking, cigarettes aren’t the only things you’ll be giving up.
For me, one of the hardest things was coming to terms with when deciding if/when to quit smoking was giving up my identity as a smoker. I felt like, to a certain extent, being a smoker was a part of who I was. It had become an unintentional part of my persona. I was that 90s rom com cliche usually portrayed by my hero and spirit animal Janeane Garofalo: the cynical, sarcastic girl often dressed in black with a cigarette in one hand and a giant coffee in the other who is entirely too cool for everything. You know, the tough, smart ass with hidden (or in my case, not-so-hidden) vulnerability.
So, it felt scary to let go of something that felt like such a part of me, as gross and unhealthy as that may sound. But not to worry folks; five years later and I’m still a sarcastic smart ass who drinks coffee by the keg.
Another thing that I lost when I gave up my Parliament Lights was my ability to control when and where I will cry. For all of you nonsmokers out there, allow me to explain: Cigarettes are a great way to manage stress (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves). Frustrated? Smoke a cigarette. Pissed off? Smoke a cigarette. Bored? Happy? Sad? Smoke a cigarette. Fixes everything.
So when I stopped having a cigarette to relieve my stress, diffuse my anger, or otherwise manage my emotions, I’d usually just end up crying. All of the pent up angst would just come flowing out of my eyes, regardless of where I was or who I was talking to. Now a days, it’s just a thing. I’m used to it. I will start crying in the middle of a conversation, sometimes for no reason. Don’t worry about it; it happens all of the time. Just ignore it. I do.
What I Gained
In addition to the 15 to 20 pounds I gained (and later lost) after quitting, I also gained the ability to take freakishly deep breaths. Or as my friend Tracey would say, “I keep choking on fresh air.” It was unsettling at first. I’d take a deep breath and the air would just keep coming in. And in time, I stopped making a funny noise when I inhaled deeply (I believe it’s called wheezing. Sexy, I know).
I also gained some extra money. As I was gearing up to quit, people would say to me, “You know how much money you’ll save?” And me being me, which is a pain in the ass when it comes to details, I wanted to know exactly how much money I’d save. So, I set up a savings account and had the $30 I spent each week on cigarettes automatically deducted from my checking account. Would you like to know how much money I didn’t spend on cigarettes that first year after quitting?
$1,560 plus interest. That bought me three plane tickets and a bunch of shit I didn’t need from H&M. It’s crazy town that I would spend that kind of money, year after year, and not think twice about it. But cigarettes are delicious so I can see how it happened.
What I’ve Learned
I’ve learned that I still love cigarettes. I still love the smell of second hand smoke. Sometimes when I’m standing at the corner waiting for the light to change, there will be someone standing next to me smoking a cigarette. And I kid you not, I will lean in and take the deepest inhale I can. It’s kind of creepy. But I still do it. Because I still love cigarettes.
Which is why I haven’t had one in five years. I know people who have quit smoking and can have one here and there. I’m not like those people. If I have one cigarette, I’m going to smoke ten cigarettes. In fact, just as a fun experiment, I actually had two drags of a cigarette at a party a few months ago. And even after 4 years and a bunch of months, I was ready to smoke a whole cigarette. And then another and then another. Because cigarettes are my favorite. So now I know. No cigarettes for this girl.
And here I am: Five years later and still cigarette free. I’m happy to say that I haven’t become one of those reformed smokers who gets really preachy about quitting. So I’m not going to tell any of you to quit smoking. I mean, you should. But you know you should. So do what you got to do. But if you decide you do want to quit, let me know. I’d be happy to be of assistance. We can eat candy together while you cry about how you’d like to punch people.