At around 18 months sober, I noticed the same addictive pattern of thinking and behavior that I had experienced with drugs, alcohol, and food—except this time the substance was nicotine (cigarettes). While I managed to get sober, and maintain a period of sobriety, I was plagued with thoughts and actions around smoking that was like being stuck in addiction:
- Thinking about the next smoke.
- Planning my day around smoke breaks.
- Lighting one up and already thinking about the next.
- Constantly counting my money to make sure I had enough to buy the next pack.
- Panicking if I ran out of money.
- Forgoing food to smoke.
- Chain smoking.
- Leaving meetings half way through to go outside and smoke.
- Becoming resentful with anyone who got in the way of my taking a smoke break.
- Being defensive with anyone commenting on how much I was smoking.
- Negotiating deals to get cheaper tobacco so that I could smoke more.
Soon enough, I was smoking 30 cigarettes a day! I’d wake up in the night and smoke; it would be the first thing I did as I woke up in the morning; I’d smoke before walking into work; I’d smoke twice at work before my lunch break; and I’d smoke several cigarettes during my lunch break. The same pattern in the afternoon. As soon as I got off work, I’d smoke two; one-after-the-other.
Smoking had become my new crutch—my only crutch left.
It was draining me, taking up too much of my life and damaging my health. My asthma—that I hadn’t had since I was a child—recurred so badly that I needed rounds of steroids and antibiotics for repeated chest infections. I was sick all the time. Not to mention being breathless, exhausted, and broke.
I knew it was time to stop. I knew that continuing to behave in this way wasn’t aligned with the choices I had made to stop harming myself with addictive behaviors. It didn’t make sense to stop drinking and drugging but to still harm myself with smoking. Recovery, for me, had to be in all areas of my life.
At that time in my recovery, I was a member of Narcotics Anonymous—which is a program of abstinence. Many members had detoxed off all substances—alcohol, heroin, meth, prescription pills, crack etc—just by using the program. It seemed only logical that if they could do that, I could surely stop smoking that way too. It was suggested to me that I use the program to stop smoking.
I tried, several times, and I failed.
I don’t know if my lack of success was because smoking was something that I had done since I was ten years old—and one of my most ingrained habits—or that it was my crutch for my staying sober. I’d learned to rely on it as my only source of escapism. But it was too hard to just stop, cold turkey.
I’d previously given up smoking in my 20’s with the use of nicotine replacement products (patches). I recalled it being hard, but possible. I decided to give it a go again. I chose patches because the alternative of vaping, for me, is the same behavior that I was trying to stop.
I felt torn though—like I was a failure to the 12 step program for needing to use a substance to get off a substance. Why could I stop drinking and drugging with the 12 steps, but not smoking? I mustn’t be trying hard enough? I mustn’t have had enough. I’d tell myself.
My (then) sponsor worked in treatment services and when I spoke to her about my frustrations, she told me about the hundreds of people that she had seen successfully stop using drugs by using a less harmful substances like methadone, Subutex, or Suboxone; or benzodiazepines. She told me it was about harm reduction: using these prescribed drugs was more controlled, they were reduced systematically, and less likely to cause the types of harm seen with street drugs and straight alcohol detox. Stopping immediately is either not suitable for everyone, or unsafe—depending on the substance being abused.
She told me that I had to do what was right for me—if that meant reducing harm by using nicotine patches to help me stop, then she thought that was a great option. I reduced harm by stopping the ingestion of carcinogens (and other chemicals) into my lungs; I let my lungs heal; and I significantly reduced my expenditure.
I was reassured by her advice and decided to give it a go. These are the steps I took:
- I visited my doctor and joined the no smoking clinic. At that time, I lived in the UK where this treatment was free, fortunately. I enrolled in their program which provided weekly prescriptions of patches, and a weekly check-in. I was prescribed patches in reducing doses over a period of 12 weeks.
- I asked a national advice line for help. They provided a support package in the mail, which included a calendar highlighting changes to my body each day I’d stopped, fidget gadgets, stickers of support, a Facebook forum I could join, and support with a counsellor. You can find similar support at 1-800-QUIT NOW, or National Cancer Institute’s Smoking Quitline (1-877-44U-Quit)—who offer counseling.
- I took the advice that I should find a distraction activity to deal with my cravings. I took up running. Not only did it distract me from the action of smoking, I refocused that pent up energy into running. The fact I felt better mentally and physically, spurred me on with my decision to stop.
- I asked friends for support and asked them to refrain from invites for a smoke break, or offering me a cigarette. I also had friends on standby to talk to when I was having a particularly bad craving.
- I downloaded an app that told me how much money I saved on a daily basis.
Stopping smoking was one of the hardest addictive habits that I have had to break. But I want to share my experience that it is possible. It makes no difference how you get to the end point; the key is to choose an option that is the least stressful and most compatible with your recovery. A harm reduction therapy method was much less stressful for me and ultimately led me to success. I am now nearly four years smoke free.