I’m 24, which means I’ve been smoking for seven years. I started during sophomore year of high school as most teenagers begin: stupidly. I had friends who smoked, I was angsty, I wanted to rebel against everything (my parents) — these are the best “reasons” I can conjure to explain why I first picked up a cigarette. Understanding the person you used to be is like distinguishing the features of a hitchhiker in the rear-view mirror; it gets harder as the distance between you grows.
I started with Marlboro Reds, again influenced by my friends (their brand of choice) or, perhaps more subconsciously, my father (he smokes Marlboro Lights). From there, I went through a series of brands that reads like the shortlist of inventory from behind a bodega counter, but to me reveals something about my life at each point, a compact manifestation of that period’s tastes and possibilities. There were the Dunhills that I indulged in thanks to an enterprising friend who illegally imported them from Israel; there were the Buy-One-Get-One-Free Camel Lights that became a staple during freshman year at Rutgers, when being broke was a way of life. Each brand sets off a reel of memories that have a smoldering flavor like films have soundtracks.
By most measures, I was never a heavy smoker. Even after seven years, a typical day of home to work to home would entail at most only six or seven cigarettes. This may be why the process of quitting, which I undertook two months ago, has gone smoother than I imagined. Still, it hasn’t been all that easy. Quitting is a necessary step, one that many people will resolve to make in this new year, but it has difficulties that most non-smokers don’t understand and that some smokers might not even acknowledge. Here are some of the toughest aspects of quitting I’ve faced thus far:
Struggle No. 1: Feeling Absolutely Terrible
The most obvious challenge of quitting is breaking the physical addiction. Nicotine triggers the release of neurotransmitters, naturally occurring chemicals in your brain that influence everything from sleeping to being horny. Two of these neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, affect emotions, attention and mood. Smoking initially increases the release of both chemicals, which makes you feel good, but eventually these positive effects wear off and you need to smoke just to keep your dopamine and serotonin levels normal. Then you need smoke more to keep them normal. Then even more. This is how addiction works.
This is also why withdrawal sucks. Once you cut out the nicotine, your dopamine and serotonin levels plummet, leaving you angry, anxious, impatient and scatterbrained. They’ll eventually go back to relatively normal levels as your brain naturally starts producing more dopamine and serotonin to compensate for the lack of nicotine, but until then, you’re going to feel like a teenager with ADD who was grounded after your girlfriend left you.
Struggle No. 2: Being Hungry — ALL THE TIME
This is also an aspect of physical addiction and the withdrawal process, but one that’s so distinct, it earns its own bullet.
Besides giving you a mild high, nicotine also suppresses your appetite. This is partially why runway models and soldiers stranded in the trenches both smoke, and partially why people who quit smoking put on weight. Quitting means your appetite returns to normal, and with that comes a couple of pounds. Personally, it’s difficult to tell whether the seven to 10 pounds I’ve gained over my college average are due to quitting or just a byproduct of leaving my early 20s, but that bruise to my self esteem is not as awful as the near constant HUNGER that came with quitting. Larger portions, second helpings, desserts, snacks — for a while, you’re just never sated. You’re looking for the satisfaction that comes from capping a meal with a cigarette, but nothing gives it to you. It’s like that episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia when Charlie and Dee are hunting for human meat after they think they’ve had a taste — but in reality, they’re just suffering from stomach worms after eating raccoon. Yeah, at times, quitting cigarettes feels like having worms.
Struggle No. 3: Hanging Out
Spending time with friends after quitting is a twofold challenge. The first issue is that your friends probably smoke. Some of these smokers will be supportive of your decision and some will react with sympathy, like two of my friends who, upon hearing that I had quit, attempted to console me by saying, “Damn dude, that sucks.”
Seeing your smoker friends will be hard because of the obvious temptation, but also because of the rhythms and routines of social gatherings. Much of smoking cigarettes is social; you typically take a break from the larger party to stand outside and speak more intimately with someone. You have a couple of beers at the bar, talking with everyone there, but then you and your old friend from high school take it outside to catch up. The cigarette allows you to seamlessly make that transition. This may sound insignificant, but a college friend of mine actually picked up smoking because he felt left out when everyone went out for a cigarette; he wanted to be part of the conversation but didn’t want to be standing outside for ostensibly no reason like an asshole. Plus, there is no easier way to start a conversation with a stranger than by asking for a lighter.
The second difficulty of hanging out after quitting isn’t that it necessarily involves smoking but that it often hinges on drinking, and nothing complements a drink like a cigarette. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who started smoking at 15 and only decided to quit in 2000, once mused that the difficulty of quitting cigarettes laid in finding a suitable replacement to complement coffee. But what if coffee reduced your inhibitions, was drank by the gallon at every party and got you hammered? That’s the challenge alcohol presents.
Struggle No. 4: Making New Routines
The hardest aspect of quitting isn’t enduring the physical ailments or resisting the temptations, it’s breaking tobacco-stained routines and filling the new cigarette-shaped holes in your life. As creatures of habit, smokers have their dedicated moments to spark up: on the way to and from the subway station, while waiting for the girlfriend to get off of work, at 3:30 to break up the mid-afternoon office monotony. The way dinner, bed, drinking binges and sex all fall into a repetitive schedule if maintained unaltered for long enough, so too does smoking. It integrates itself physically, chemically and psychologically into the course of your day, so that cutting it out creates an extreme, pervasive unease, like forgetting to wipe after taking a crap. Then, once you get over that feeling of disruption, the questions emerge: What do I do now as I walk to the subway? What do I now while waiting for my girlfriend? How do I get out of this boring ass office?
Struggle No. 5: Telling Other People
The need to share your decision to quit smoking with other people is understandable: Those who have been chiding you for years to drop the habit will be relieved that you finally did; your smoker friends will need explanations as to why you can’t bum them a cigarette and how you could possibly not have a lighter or even matches on you; and then you’ll want the support too, someone to slap you on the back or pat you on the head to let you know you’re doing the right thing, even if it feels like slowly being mummified in ants.
The difficulty with telling other people you’ve quit is that the praise will fade and your decision to quit will remain, accompanied by the obligation of your word to the people you’ve told and their scrutiny of your progress. And this is when support can turn into condescension and criticism. The odd cigarette you can’t resist — a minor setback rather than the ultimate relapse on the road to quitting — becomes a thing of contention: Friends who smoke will say they “don’t want to be that guy” who bums you a cigarette, and non-smokers will question your commitment. They all have the best intentions but fail to understand that, after all, if you keep yourself from having 99 cigarettes but succumb to one, isn’t that a success?
I realize that I’ve hammered on about how difficult quitting smoking is, how much it sucks and how terrible it feels, and that I may have thereby caused one or two readers contemplating the plunge to back out. To them I say: JUST QUIT ALREADY.
As silly and melodramatic as it sounds, I was scared to quit. I thought it was too big of an ordeal to tackle while studying and working and facing the already pressing challenges of everyday life. I was afraid that quitting would make me unfocused and irritable, that withdrawal would impact my work and my social life. I over-thought it and postponed quitting until some hazy day when either conviction or cancer embraced me.
Then the decision came, as easy as it was uninspired. It wasn’t an occasion, just a passive choice. I didn’t think about it too much and, aside from writing this screed, I try not to think about it now. I don’t really talk about it, and if I’m in a position where I feel I NEED a cigarette, I have one. My only rules are to not buy a pack and to not make quitting into a big deal. I’ve tried to make light of the endeavor above because when you inflate the process to become gargantuan and absolute, huge in its challenges, deep in its trials, unforgiving in consequence and circumstance, you make it impossible.
Originally published on Thought Catalog.