Live Through This

Letting Go

Quitting smoking.

Illustration by Beth

When I was young, I watched about a thousand PSAs on TV about why I shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. These PSAs were theatrical, and graphic, and grim. They told me smokers would die ugly, live unhappily, and perhaps turn into giant talking cigarettes themselves. At least one of them gave me vivid nightmares about having my internal organs catch fire.

Another thing about those PSAs: they didn’t work. I started smoking when I was 12. I did it for the stupidest, most predictable reason, too: I got an in with the cool kids at my school, and they all smoked. So I smoked. The habit continued, and intensified, on and off, for years: I smoked socially in middle school and high school, on my own in college, and then, eventually, I was just a smoker. A chain-smoker, actually. My boyfriend—who was a social smoker—started hiding his cigarettes from me, because he knew that if I found them, I would smoke the pack, and smoke it quickly, and not realize how much I was smoking until the cigarettes were already gone. When I challenged him about the hiding of cigarettes, he compared my behavior to “a scene in Trainspotting.” AND MEANT IT.

So, I’m not going to warn you not to smoke. If you already want to smoke, or if you do smoke, that doesn’t work—in fact, I’m pretty sure that all of those warnings were why the “cool kids” at my school smoked cigarettes. Smoking was bad and dangerous and adults didn’t want us to do it, and therefore, it was something we automatically wanted to do, all the time, forever. So. No graphic lung-cancer descriptions for you, young person! I know those are super sexy and enticing!

I am, however, going to tell you why you shouldn’t smoke. Or, for that matter, flirt too hard with any addictive substance. The reason is this: sooner or later, you’re going to want to quit. Everyone does. The problem with smoking—or being addicted to anything—is just that simple. You either have to keep doing it until it kills you, or you have to voluntarily undergo the worst time of your life.

I quit smoking after spending a weekend in Texas. I had to go on a long flight to get there, and I was scared. I was supposed to be working that weekend, but I wasn’t really worried about work: I was just afraid to go six hours straight without smoking. Once I got to Texas, I realized that I didn’t know how to get around town, or where anything was, so I spent that entire weekend carefully hoarding and timing and counting my cigarettes, in case I ran out and couldn’t buy more. A bunch of my friends were also in Texas that weekend. But during every conversation, I was thinking about when I could have another cigarette and how many cigarettes I had left. Furthermore, I was so broke that I was scavenging free food from parties for the entire weekend. Which really made me wonder why I was spending $12 a day on cigarettes.

I’m telling you this because it provides a fairly clear snapshot of how your mind works when you’re addicted to something. I don’t mean to exaggerate my situation; being a smoker is actually one of the least stigmatized, least obviously harmful addictions. Things would be worse if my life were built around staying drunk all day, or scoring coke. But every toxic habit works in a similar way, whether it’s coke or cigarettes or gambling or a crappy relationship. Every part of your life is organized around getting the fix, and everything else is expendable. Over the course of that weekend, I realized how screwed up my priorities were. My work wasn’t as important to me as smoking; my friends weren’t as important to me as smoking; money wasn’t as important to me as smoking. Eating, apparently, had become less important to me than smoking.

And I was sick of it. So I decided that I was done. Which is when the pain started.

I mean, not at first! At first, it was great! I started to get my senses back—smoking kills your sense of smell and taste—and I wasn’t tired all the time, and my skin stopped breaking out, and I could actually breathe. Quitting: clearly it wasn’t that hard! I just had to want it! Which I did!

Yes, it was super-easy, as long as I was still putting tons of nicotine—the active, addictive chemical in cigarettes—into my system. My quitting strategy relied a lot on “replacement” methods, like nicotine lozenges and patches. Which I do recommend, by the way: There’s no need to make this harder than it has to be. But, during the “easy” part of quitting, I wasn’t actually quitting anything except for the smelly part of my habit. When I cut my nicotine replacement therapy in half, I promptly lost my entire mind.

I was a loser. I was a failure. I was mean. I was stupid. I didn’t deserve to write. I was a terrible writer. Everyone hated me. I hated myself. I should quit writing. I should move back to my parents’ house. I should go back to bed and stay there forever. I was going to die. Probably I already had cancer. Probably I was already dying. So what was the point of quitting? All of this could go away. All I needed was a cigarette.

People tell you that addictions are often a form of “self-medication,” that most bad relationships with substances are about burying your real emotions. When the substance goes away, the emotions come out. I knew this. But I wasn’t prepared for what I was hiding. For the next week, I paid for every time I’d ever forced myself to stop worrying by lighting a cigarette, by being more intensely, irrationally, constantly afraid than I had ever been in my life.

I mean, I know. This sounds like magic Oprah talk. I was also just experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms, which include anxiety; anyone who starts smoking eventually has to face the choice between letting the cigarettes kill them or feeling like this. And, again, I don’t want to be melodramatic: As awful as this felt, it definitely wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Heroin withdrawal is agonizing. Alcohol withdrawal (if the addiction is severe enough) can cause fatal seizures. And you should still quit, because by the time you have to care about withdrawal, the addiction is probably going to kill you anyway.

But I genuinely believe that there’s more to it than that. Many compulsive, self-destructive behaviors really are just bad coping strategies. Most of the problem drinkers I’ve known were profoundly sad people who drank to prove they were “having fun.” Most of the potheads thought too much; many of the people who did a lot of ecstasy were uncomfortable with their bodies. And those last two supposedly don’t create physical dependency. But, if you look at the people who do them constantly, you can’t tell the difference. The behavior of addiction doesn’t rely on physical dependency. It relies on your willingness to use something external to compensate for something inside yourself. I was a shy person who had chosen to make a living by sharing controversial opinions. So I’d cultivated this tough-girl idea of myself, to cope. And what was more tough than smoking?

Well, I will tell you. What was tougher than smoking was “not smoking,” because I was actually terrified of everything and everyone on the planet. I had just never learned to deal with that in any way that did not include “having another cigarette.”

All of this sounds grim. And I will be honest with you: I relapsed, more than once. If I went out, I would sometimes bum a cigarette before I even realized what I was doing. When I was scared, especially in social situations, it was almost impossible not to buy a pack—which, since I was constantly scared in social situations, was a problem.

About three weeks in, I attended a party, where I met someone who’d been cruel about my writing. We’d never met face to face. I knew that it would probably be stupid to try talking, but not trying felt cowardly. I went over to him, and I said several things along the lines of (I swear to god) “It’s like, I know I’m too sensitive, I am just like a big HEART with SKIN on it,” and then I went over to our hostesses’ window and smoked approximately seven cigarettes in a row and went home. Because I’d bought a pack before coming to the party, because I am not a hero.

And that’s how it is. Many people try to quit more than once. Many people fail. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried. My mother, who used to smoke three packs a day, still says that she technically hasn’t “quit” at all: She’s just waiting until she’s 75, so that she can smoke in the nursing home.

But I have hope. Because at a certain point, during every relapse, I’d realize that I wasn’t fixing anything. People might still dislike me, and I was still scared of them. I was just scared while smoking. If I was smoking to “focus,” I didn’t actually get smarter or more talented. I was just myself, but with cigarettes. Ever since I was a little kid, smoking had been a prop: Something I used to “prove” that I was tough enough to hang out with the cool kids. But it never made me tougher. And it never made people like me. It only made me a smoker. The cigarettes had lost their magic powers. They were just objects now.

Yesterday, it started to happen again: Somebody was making fun of me, and I had work to do, and I was scared, and I hated myself, and everything was awful. And then I saw them: my boyfriend’s hidden cigarettes. Hidden under his work notebooks, next to his desk. They were there. I could take one. He wouldn’t know.

And I didn’t care! I looked at the cigarettes for a while. I thought about how I used to think they could fix me, about everything I thought they would take away. And I looked at myself, in the middle of my life, handling it without them. And then I walked away. ♦

31 Comments

  • DewoftheDesert May 11th, 2012 3:20 PM

    this is awesome! exactly what i felt when going through this.. what people don’t usually talk about is the weight gain (that is what torments me). And it does not go away :-(

  • Marguerite May 11th, 2012 3:20 PM

    aw! what a sweet ending! im very happy for you!

  • mayaautumn May 11th, 2012 3:22 PM

    so so interesting! i actually love rookie with all my heart (haha) because it covers basically EVERY single topic that girls want to discuss/know about etc.. well, you nkow what i mean
    but seriously, who knew an online magazine could be so great?!

    http://cottonmixblog.blogspot.co.uk

  • Abby May 11th, 2012 4:03 PM

    This is sooo goooodddd….

    Congratulations, by the way, that’s so great! I’m really glad that I’ve never even tried anything, because I’ve seen what drugs and alcohol can do to a person. But I think it’s going to be an entirely new battle next year in college… I hope I can stay away from the bad stuff.

  • Aria May 11th, 2012 4:12 PM

    I know right? Rookie is awesome!
    I love the ending! Sady was brave for just walking away from the cigarettes. My grandmother smokes. She tried quitting, but she just can’t. I hope she will edventually have the courage to stop like Sady.

    http://www.thelittletreehous3.blogspot.com

  • hils May 11th, 2012 4:55 PM

    oh man, all true! I am 36 and I quit smoking when I was 32 after smoking since I was 14, it was absolute hell. I even had anxiety so bad that I went to a cardologist and told him I felt like my health was failing since I had quit smoking. he was like “if you’re waiting for permission to smoke you will be waiting…forever” and then told me to start exercising. LOL
    smoking helped me deal with anxiety and after cigarettes were gone it was at least 5 years of shitty anxiety and learning to deal. I recently discovered meditation and am basically anxiety free for the first time since I quit.
    note to anyone who wants to quit: the key to my successful and permanent cessation was having water with me at all times. something to worry about having with me, something to do while driving, something to do socially or hold in my hand, whatever. after many failed attempts, the water trick helped me be a non-smoker for good.

  • diamonddogs May 11th, 2012 5:14 PM

    This is amazing! I’m going to show it to my friend because she’s addicted and even though I try to help, I can’t because i’ve only ever had drags.
    Thank you once again Rookie!!

  • mwong1025 May 11th, 2012 5:40 PM

    I really love this story: it’s written beautifully and I really like the collage. It’s inspiring how you took control of your life and stop letting this addiction control you. Although I never have a smoking addiction (I need to save up for books. BOOKS ARE COOL GUYZ ~) I’m really inspired by it. And it really goes with this month’s theme of power, too!

    http://www.style-abuse.blogspot.com

  • ute May 11th, 2012 5:59 PM

    PSAs made so angry when I was in school, even though i’ve always been against smoking. My father has been a smoker for as long as i’ve known him (haha) and i know he will NEVER stop (he tried once, and it lasted one short and depressing week), so i felt like PSAs were showing me how much of a bad person he was (or the different ways he was going to die SOON). I bet the ones who make them never think of that!

  • eliselbv May 11th, 2012 6:13 PM

    I’m actually 16 and I started to smoke 2 years ago for several reasons. First like most of the teenage girls I had issues with my weight, and I thought that smoking would help me to eat less and secondly, I’ve always been the first of my class, reading a lot, watching old movies and listening to Cat Stevens instead of Lady Gaga. I felt really uncool (don’t know if this word exists, excuse my french) and I thought that smoking would be a good way to be more “normal”. And I kept smoking for two years knowing everything about the dangers of cigarettes but not giving a damn about myself. The only reason why I stopped smoking was the face of my big brother when he learnt it. He seemed really disappointed and texted me an hour later “You don’t need that shit to be awesome”.
    I had no pain to quit smoking because I was not addicted yet and today I can smoke some times to times not because I need it, not to look cool but just because once in a while it can be a pleasure.
    My message is first : never start
    Second: quit smoking as soon as possible

    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • KayKay May 11th, 2012 6:53 PM

    I recently started smoking occasionally, like social smoking, with friends and at parties and stuff. I don’t really know how it’ll continue, but I hope I’ll have the strength not to become addicted. I guess I’m both too scared to find out what will happen and too scared to confront what I’m trying to hide. Self-control isn’t exactly one of my strong points, if you get my drift.

  • Lena-Maria May 11th, 2012 7:15 PM

    Sady, thank you very much for this article! Me too, I started smoking with 12, now I’m 21 and I do want to quit so often but I didn’t do it yet for stupid reasons as weightgain, beeing nervous all day and because of “the problem” to be a non-smoker at a party.
    All of my friends do smoke as well so you get this tricky “everybody-does-it-so-it-can’t-be-that-bad-illusion” of smoking.
    You see, ridiculous reasons.
    The thing is, that you do always “need” a cigarette in an emotional estate as depression, happiness, anger, … you’ll just have another cig for “coming down” or because you feel that good. So you associate emotions with cigarettes and can’t think of them without.
    Becoming a smoker is one of the most shitty things I ever did in my life.
    Thank you again for this “realistic”, or at least for this non-dogmatic way you told about this addiction. Just keep going the quitting! (höhö)

  • lorobird May 11th, 2012 7:59 PM

    Thanks Sady for being so awesome and sharing so much.

    I’m trying to quit, I’ve been trying for like a year, but half-heartedly. My boyfriend and I rarely buy, but when we buy, we keep buying for at least a month. It’s stupid. We’re both occasional smokers, and we both quit and go back at the same time. We don’t even smoke that much, five or six a day when we’re at our peak…

    It’s a hard habit to let go of, though. Especially when you go out, having a cigarette is like a break from awkward conversations (and man, am I awkward).

  • Pia May 11th, 2012 9:41 PM

    Ugh. Quitting smoking sucked so bad. I forgot everything I learned in college for a month. I had panic attacks under my desk.

    Feel for ya

  • Ruby B. May 11th, 2012 10:55 PM

    omg, Rookie just covers EVERYTHING. This is so good because it’s not preachy or anything.

  • SweetThangVintage May 12th, 2012 1:01 AM

    Congratulations! :D

  • rubyhobbit May 12th, 2012 2:28 AM

    I use to buy 2 packs a week. Then I knew it was a stupid awful habit so I decided to stop for a while. I quit for a whole year actually. Now I cant stand the smell. Man, if only I can get my friends to quit :/

  • Caden May 12th, 2012 3:52 AM

    I like that this article wasn’t preachy or bossy. It annoys me so much that television advertisements seem to vilify smokers as selfish or uninformed. I love that this article so coherently expresses how quitting is such a complex, difficult and personal process. People need to do what’s right for them!

    Caden x
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/pinkpoppies1991

  • Mila May 12th, 2012 12:49 PM

    this whole article is great – and the ending! i really like the idea of just walking away from the cigarettes and the addiction.
    and sady, i think you’ll totally get to quit smoking! you’re so strong and have the right attitude. i wish you luck <33

  • JadeAnna May 12th, 2012 1:27 PM

    What a great article – and so true! I stopped smoking a year ago after 2 years of giving up on drugs and alcohol… And had a double relapse earlier this year. I gave up alcohol again, after realising that I would never be able to be a “normal” drinker and once an addict, always an addict, but am still smoking right now. I know I will be able to quit again, just focusing on one thing at a time!

    I think my main problem is that I actually really enjoy smoking. That’s why it will always be the hardest thing to give up, and my one addiction that I am OK with for now.

  • pocketmouse May 12th, 2012 4:19 PM

    I’m nineteen and currently quitting heroin, obviously a bit more severe, but this article hits home, it’s so so accurate. ily Rookie!

    • Anaheed May 12th, 2012 4:31 PM

      Love you too, pocketmouse! Best of luck to you. You can DO THIS.

  • Raebbies May 12th, 2012 10:24 PM

    thank you, i’ve been having urges to smoke even though I’ve never done so and this has helped stop me from getting one

  • tallulahpond May 13th, 2012 1:21 PM

    Great article! This is completely off subject, but you should get Laci Green (youtube relationship and sex expert) to do an Ask a Grown Woman thing! I would love it if you did!

  • prudence May 13th, 2012 6:48 PM

    This came at a perfect time.
    I’m 20 and I started smoking occasionally when I was about seventeen, you know, at parties, social gatherings. I always said I wouldn’t get addicted, I’m not like that, it’s just for fun and I know how bad it would be for me. But I did, get addicted that is. I had, and still have a true love-hate (or maybe more hate-love) relationship with cigarettes, and I’ve thought about quitting every day for about year and a half now.
    I’ve tried quitting for a few times, last time it actually lasted for two, maybe three weeks which I was so proud of, everything felt so much better: breathing, eating, moving. And it was absolutely awesome not to smell like smoke all the time. Buuut… then there were a couple of parties and that was it.
    Now I really want to, and am motivated to quit but this just gave me an awesome boost. It’s always great to read about quitting from someone who has actually DONE it. And who doesn’t judge or preach, you get that from everyone and everywhere anyway.
    So I humbly thank you, Sady, for making my day with this article and helping me with my goal.
    I can’t wait to smell fresh and not feel like my teeth are decaying and soon dropping off (I’ve been having a lot of dreams on that subject.)

  • Jamia May 13th, 2012 11:46 PM

    Congrats Sady!!!!

  • fishintheC May 14th, 2012 12:16 AM

    “The behavior of addiction doesn’t rely on physical dependency. It relies on your willingness to use something external to compensate for something inside yourself. ”

    Wow. So true. Addiction gets to the most desperate and vulnerable people. People say that anyone can fall into addiction, but if you’re a self-assured person who is lucky enough to be emotionally balanced, you’re at less risk to be addicted to heroin than a sad kid to pot. This article, like every other article on Rookie, is really amazing in how honest and accurate it is. Most excellent.

  • Ana FnM May 14th, 2012 12:33 PM

    Addictions! what a fascinating and complex subject! Sady, thank you very much for sharing your experience. I was also a smoker many years ago, and my favourite part about smoking was when I was writing a screenplay… I would get excited about the process of writing whatever I was writing about, and then I would feel this urge to have a cigarette, to give my excitement some companionship… it was kind of a ritual for me.
    I don’t smoke anymore, but surely I sometimes replace those moments of intense emotions, insecurities etc.. with other forms of addiction…

    Reading about this article has offered me the opportunity to stop for a moment and look at what my addictions are these days… to be more aware of them and be more conscious about the things I do, and why I do them. Thank you Sady!

  • Antara May 15th, 2012 5:14 AM

    Addiction has been a topic I have been interested in since the past two years. I’ve never smoked, drank or taken drugs and even if I might drink a little someday, the other two will stay out of my life. My grandfather’s condition worsened due to his smoking habit (he quit when he turned 40-ish) and I lost the man I loved more than my life when I needed him the most.
    What I am trying to say is that addictions have these long term effects not just health-wise but in so many ways that it is ridiculous.

    And this piece that you wrote, best article on smoking I have read till now.

  • MinaM8 May 15th, 2012 7:32 AM

    That was great! Th ending genuinely made me smile! Congrats :) and hopefully I’ll never smoke!

  • Johann7 May 16th, 2012 1:19 PM

    Of course, everyone has somewhat different experiences with drug use and addiction. I started smoking around age 16, pretty lightly and only socially at first, and then more intensely as my (untreated – I was extremely resistant to therapy as a teen, for a number of reasons, some rational, some not) depression worsened. I smoked a pack every day to three days for years, but in the past couple of years, I’ve cut back to mostly the way I smoked when I first started: I go days without a cigarette, and most of my smoking is joining friends for a cigarette when we’re out somewhere.

    I didn’t have any sort of big “I need to quit/cut back” event or moment, nor have I ever experienced any sort of severe withdrawal (possibly headaches, though there are any number of reasons I might get headaches when they happen, and they don’t always happen, so I’m not positive it’s withdrawal). I also never seemed to be as addicted as some of the people I know/knew even when I was smoking more heavily – I had friends who would be losing it after a long airplane flight or day of work without a smoking break, while I’ve never had such an issue (I only ever have ‘craved’ a cigarette in response to intense stress or when drunk).

    I’m not suggesting anyone SHOULD go out and take up smoking, but the intense addictive response is far from universal, and there’s some evidence now that one’s response to nicotine is linked to genes: http://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2009/12/studies-link-family-genes-to-nicotine-addiction

    I think the best anyone can do is make careful, informed decisions.