Today marks a year since I quit smoking cigarettes. This was not my first attempt. I have been trying to ‘quit’ since the last 5 years. Until last year, I failed every single time, sometimes within mere hours. Every failed attempt brought me despair, self-loathing, and shame. Somehow I persisted and rid myself of this crazy habit after much suffering along the way. I guess one has to wade through deep waters of failure to set foot on the banks of success.
I am writing this post as a way to distill my decade-long journey with nicotine and how I ended up kicking the butt in the end. Nursing this habit for so long, has been without a doubt, one of the stupidest mistakes that I have made in my life. Hindsight is 20/20, especially now that the dark clouds of my addiction have lifted. I hope that this post may help others who find themselves to be in the same bind as me.
My mother and the nuns who taught me at school, always stressed that smoking was an undesirable habit. I agreed with them because I couldn’t stand the awful reek of tobacco smoke. My father was a heavy smoker who worked in Kuwait for most of the year. Whenever he came down to Mumbai, he would smoke in the house. This is unacceptable behavior today and should have been so even then. I was too young then to grok patriarchal power dynamics and its pernicious ways. My father’s habit made me detest cigarettes while I was in school, which I suppose was a good thing.
In my mid-teens, I found that the cognitive dissonance around tobacco was growing. It still disgusted me but somehow I started associating it with ‘cool’. I blame it squarely on the complex biological maelstrom known as puberty which had a way of transcending good logic. The movies I watched had heroes lighting up. All the musicians that I was falling in love with were smokers. The fiction books I was reading had elaborate character quirks which involved smoking. My perceptions about smoking were even more complicated when I landed at St. Xavier’s College in 2002. As an unsavvy middle class kid coming in from the northern fringes of the city, I was pretty insecure. I was desperate to be part of the ‘hip’ crowd.
The stage was set for all these complex factors to intermingle and break down my defenses. My friend group was getting curious about smoking cigarettes. We saw so many seniors and popular people smoking and we had to try it ourselves. One fine day we did. I regret this a lot. Sometimes I suffer the delusion that if I hadn’t gone with my friends that day, I would have never smoked. Peer pressure is especially strong among impressionable teenagers and only strong and self-confident kids can overcome it. I was neither and so the wave dragged me along. It is important to clarify that the only one to blame here is me and not my peers nor the environment that I found myself in. I should have known better. All the facts about the dangers of cigarettes were available to me but I had become blind in the pursuit to fit in among the crowd.
Once the habit kicked in, it grew like a virus. I started associating cigarettes with everything. Long walks, tea breaks, exam prep, moments of stress, getting drinks… everything. Everything needed to be an elaborate ritual which involved smoking a cigarette. Quite a few of my friends viewed it the same way. We kept at it without the slightest hint that we were now slaves to nicotine. I continued my smoking habit when I went to study at IIT Kharagpur in 2008. I am amazed now at the liberal attitude the institute had towards smoking then. You could smoke almost anywhere in that enormous residential campus, excepting classrooms and official buildings. Cigarettes were available in campus shops and cafes. Some professors and most students smoked in copious amounts. At the time I found this to be a good thing. I was tending towards libertarianism and smoking was an expression of my freedom. This is a common argument among those who smoke. The freedom to choose. It is a good argument and does apply to most things in life. Applying it to smoking though must be the dumbest thing anyone can do. It is also the most insidious. This ‘freedom’ is the mask that addiction wears while it is busy hijacking your free will. My brain was doing some complex logical somersaults to keep the nature of my addiction hidden. I found out much later that cognitive biases were a thing. If you don’t know about these, please, please, please, check them out now. In general, everyone should be aware of the elaborate repertoire of devious tricks that the brain plays on you during waking life. It will definitely do you good.
I returned to Mumbai in 2010 to work at a marketing startup. I discovered that smoking was even more legitimate in the professional world. Smoke breaks became the default way to take a break and bond with colleagues at office and with people at conferences. And so the habit continued unabated. Some of my close friends began pointing out that I smoked a lot and I should cut it down. I had put on a lot of weight and was often out of breath doing the simplest forms of physical activity. I had to confront my bad lifestyle choices and I had some success in 2013. I lost a ton of weight but I continued smoking. I tried many times to quit smoking during this period. Frustrated after several attempts, I gave up. This was also when I realized the true nature of the beast that I was up against. I dispensed with all that ‘freedom of choice’ crap and started referring to my nicotine habit as an addiction. My addiction at this point was so strong that losing 30 kg was easier than kicking the 10 cigarette a day habit.
2014 saw me moving to Bengaluru for work. At this point I was trying to quit smoking again. I figured that a change of scene would help me succeed. I kept failing still and it was starting to get quite ridiculous. I would set a quit date weekly. I would quit smoking in the morning and by that evening I would fail. Those who find themselves in this cycle will appreciate the kind of horrible trap that this is. At this point I had tried every single recipe/hack/self-help guide, even those nicotine chews. Nothing worked and I kept relapsing with every attempt. The smoke which had been corrupting my lungs was now corrupting my soul.
In 2016, I had been working with a health-care company for more than a year. It was embarrassing to smoke in private and then go to work on helping people live healthier lives. I felt like an impostor. I had become a product manager and was under considerable stress at this point. I realized that my smoking habit was getting much worse, as a result. And then sometime later that year, doctors diagnosed me with hypertension. My blood pressure was pretty high and I had to take a 2-week break from work to start medication. The shock of having this condition at the ripe old age of 30 instilled a sense of renewed determination. I used these two weeks to figure out a strategy to get healthier. I had to accept the fact that if I continued abusing my body, I would not be long for this world. I started researching addiction by reading new papers on the subject. I powered through countless blog posts, articles and books on habit building as well. One thing that hit me again and again was how dangerous cues were. Most de-addiction strategies fail because they don’t account for them. Social cues are subtle hints from the social environment which guide behavior. These can be both positive and negative. Over time negative social cues and some personal cues that you have built up along the way can wire your brain in precise ways. Any smoker will understand the lure of walking past a pan-walla (tobacconist). The moment you pass by the shop, your brain sends you a signal to indulge in the patterned behavior. This behavior keeps getting reinforced over time, if not checked early enough. So as more time progresses the addiction only gets stronger. This applies to many other things as well.
I mapped out all the cues that led to smoking and found some of them appearing more often than others. The biggest one was drinking alcohol. Ever since my college days, cigarettes had been a firm fixture whenever we gathered to drink. I decided that I would have to stop drinking. The second one was loose change. I guess I can genuinely say that the Indian Government’s demonetization move helped me in some way. I stopped carrying cash around. The third one was to change my route whenever I was walking to office or other familiar areas. Other cues to look out for were stress attacks, the morning coffee routine, and the post dinner urge. I came up with strategies to counter every one of these.
I wanted to start with a progressive way so I settled on this order.
- Quit meat in November.
- Quit drinking in December.
- Quit smoking in January.
Quitting meat and alcohol were temporary measures in order to practice for the big one. It turned out to be quite easy to avoid meat and by the end of that month, I was getting ready to quit alcohol. It so happened that I contracted a throat infection at that time and lost my voice for a few days. It occurred to me that this was the perfect time to quit smoking. Heeding this impulse I prepared myself mentally and then dove in. I quit smoking (and drinking) on November 29th.
It was beyond horrible. I had vicious craving attacks every 15 minutes. Every single thought in my mind would turn to cigarettes. It got worse every single day for the first two weeks. My many moods were smashing around in my head like a badly played billiards match. My deepest apologies to those of you who had to experience this craziness. My sincerest thanks also to those who helped me during this period. I pulled through somehow and worked hard on avoiding any problematic cues. I stopped drinking, I stopped hanging out at social gatherings. I avoided all panwallas on my way to office and stopped going outside for breaks. Whenever I wanted to take a break, I went to the pantry and made myself a green tea. I would sip it with full concentration and get back to my work. I kept adding days. After two weeks of not smoking, things started getting better. The worst was over but my newfound control was still too fragile. I had to make sure that I maintained control over every cue and craving that came my way. To my utter surprise, it got easier. I kept my streak going and two months passed by. I would get cravings every single day but they were tame and pathetic compared to the ones before. They had lost most of their power over me. My brain was learning that these cravings would not work anymore. A decade of auto-pilot behavior was becoming obsolete and would soon crumble.
Sometime in March of this year, I realized that the cravings had disappeared. In roughly four months, I had managed to break a habit which had consumed me for more than a decade. Two very distinct emotions flooded me at this point. I felt accomplished in a way that I had never felt before. I also felt a prolonged sense of regret and anger. I could not forgive myself for being careless with my health and future. Why had I been so blind to this addiction for so long? I still don’t understand how two contradictory emotions can co-exist at the same time but they did. They exist even today whenever my thoughts stray towards cigarettes and nicotine. This is what bittersweet tastes like. I try to tell myself about the futility of actions past and try to move on to the next improvement that I can make in my life. Right now, that is getting fit, ripped even, if I can manage that. This is my challenge for 2018. Quitting cigarettes has given me the optimism to believe that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. You can too!
This has been a long post and I do appreciate you reading this far. I want to leave you with some truths that I have encountered during this journey.
- ‘Smoking less’ ain’t a thing! Dead serious.
- Exposing anyone to your passive smoke is exceedingly cruel.
- Don’t pull any punches. Call it an addiction.
- Quitting cold turkey is the best way to quit.
- Don’t tolerate smoking in public places.
- Don’t tolerate smoking in private places as well.
- Help smoker friends realize that they are nursing an addiction.
- Offer help. They need it.