FAIRBANKS, AK — I never knew any habitual smoker who didn’t want to kick the habit. Cigarettes are gross and become less appealing with every drag. No literate American smokes without recognizing they are slowly killing themselves. Graphic warnings portraying this gradual suicide are printed on every pack and are displayed prominently on every advertisement.
As I matured past my teen years and began to recognize my own mortality, every cigarette became a battle of conscience between a desire to feed the addiction and guilt over my lack of willpower. I began to repeat the same mental process with each cigarette.
Initially, I was always excited to smoke and get a nicotine rush. But with every drag the pleasure would ebb to be replaced with disappointment in myself and my obvious dependence. Each cigarette was a significant emotional event which always ended the same way; a smoldering butt held loosely between the third knuckles of my right index and middle fingers, the once-white filter a mottled yellow. I suffered feelings of self-loathing as I progressively despised my dependency a little bit more each time.
I stared at each butt as the last centimeter of white wrapping smoldered down to the filter; hating the cigarette, the chemicals I could feel crawling through my veins, lungs, heart and brain, the permanent stink which clung to me like a miasma of contempt, and myself for being a slave to the cravings.
I attempted to quit smoking hundreds of times, but only succeeded once. However, some attempts were more successful than others. A few times I was able to make it a week or more, but usually I would only make it a few hours. With the mounting failures I began to mentally tally all the reasons I used to constantly rationalize having just one more cigarette.
My habit triggers were largely event-based. I smoked because my battle buddies were smoking, because my squad leader had dropped me for some dumb private infraction, because I was drunk or hungover, because I had just eaten, because I wanted to get out of work for a few minutes, because I wanted to talk to a cute girl smoker, etc.
Recognizing all the reasons I smoked eventually led me to realize that I didn’t just have to change this one thing about myself, I had to change my behavior across the board. For example, I have never once drank alcohol without also smoking cigarettes. So if I wanted to finally quit smoking, I would have to quit drinking as well. So now I’m also 15 years sober.
I also accepted that I had to distance myself from close friends and battle buddies who smoked; not an easy task for a private living in the barracks. We were an incredibly tight group of guys. I loved those dudes. We worked together, partied every night, got in trouble together, and always looked out for each other. That’s why it hurt so deeply when I realized that if I wanted to quit smoking then I’d have to quit them, too.
As most cliques go, we all shared common habits and vices. By not smoking I was ostracizing myself from the group. No one wanted that. So my friends tried to bring me back into the fold by smoking around me constantly and offering me cigarettes. I eventually realized they didn’t want me to quit smoking just because they enjoyed my company. If I was able to break the addiction then they would have to face the hard truth that they could as well. I believe all smokers want to quit to some degree. But it was just easier for everyone if we all agreed that we’d be smoking for the rest of our nicotine-shortened lives.
But I didn’t accept that. I made a plan to kick the habit once and for all. I figured the first few weeks were the hardest, so I put in for leave and flew home to be with my family while I went through the worst of the withdrawals. I knew I had to surround myself with people I could never smoke around and was fortunate to have impressionable young siblings who looked up to me. Being home definitely made it easier to cope with the cravings.
When I returned to work I had to find ways to maintain my momentum and keep busy. I started spending Sundays and a few nights a week with a church group. I volunteered to take other troops’ shifts so I couldn’t go out partying. After I hacked up all the black gunk in my lungs I even found running became enjoyable as I explored the forest trails of Fort Eustis, Virginia.
It was a long journey, but eventually each day I made it without a cigarette became a victory instead of a torment. Now, 15 years later, I count quitting as one of the great accomplishments of my life, especially when I read statistics about how few people successfully kick the habit.
Quitting is miserable and it only takes one cigarette to bring temporary relief. Each minute without smoking is progressively worse as the cravings beat down on my resolve and eventually convinced me that just one more cigarette wouldn’t be the end of the world. Even if I made it a week or two without smoking, it only took a single cigarette to become a full-fledged smoker again. Repeated failures wore on my resolve and tempted me to realize that I couldn’t win and to just accept smoking as part of who I was.
My advice to people who want to quit smoking: decide to be someone else; someone better. Go into this transition with the mindset that you are changing your lifestyle and your self-image. Want to quit smoking more than you want to be who you are. That is no easy thing and it takes a long time and a lot of effort, but I promise it is possible.