Overcoming smoking.

How we choose to define one habit or another, as good or bad, is up to us. To be able to make such choices consciously however requires an unusually high degree of self awareness.

I had a problem habit. Cigarettes. Or should I say “nicotine”? No – its cigarettes. This is about much more than the drug; It’s about the habit, it is about the problem. It’s about cigarettes having been a problem habit of mine. According to my own rules, cigarettes were a problem, and I just knew it. It wasn’t as simple as “I want to quit” though.

I want to be the one who chooses whether or not to smoke. I do not want to be controlled by my cravings, I don’t want to have to say I’ll never smoke another cigarette for the rest of my life. I want to be the one who is in control. I want to choose to smoke, or not to. The Epicurean idea to take things as they come, but not to get attached nor seek them out, is pretty much where I want to be. With caution I’d even say it is where I am…

I’ve found a huge amount of support and inspiration from my GP’s quit smoking service, reading books, and watching the odd YouTube here and there.

I’ll start with the more obvious things I’ve noticed about giving up cigarettes and then move on to more in depth aspects and illustrate a particular technique I would like to share.

I hope you will find this account interesting and the ideas useful if you’re aware of a problem habit of yours. For me it was quite obvious cigarettes were a problem. That’s the biggest hurdle though, questioning yourself and the initial identification of a problem, and it is rarely as obvious as with cigarettes…I think the best approach is to explore your hunches. Once over that hurdle, this is how I eventually overcame the problem and identified precisely why it was problematic and I could not unsee it as problematic, which assured me that I had work to attend to. I’ve omitted some very intimate details from the examples given however if you’re interested in trying this out, I’d encourage you to make it very personally relevant to you…

Giving up cigarettes was always a lot easier when I didn’t have cigarettes around but I never liked having to get rid of everything like that, it felt like cheating and besides, there will always be cigarettes for sale and as I don’t mind asking someone for a cigarette, I knew it was never going to be possible to tie myself eternally to the mast.

There were times I wanted to quit but I was still smoking, I’d be beating myself up inside over every cigarette, it was impossible not to do, it was a reaction. It’s superficiality meant it never worked. I would endure my self punishment just so that I could have a cigarette. That punishment would just absolve my behaviour but it wouldn’t get below the surface and attempt any insight.

During the months, sometimes years that I’d quit for, and right from the start, I’d often focus on how good I felt about myself not smoking, sleeping and tasting better, enjoying my noncigarettestinkyness, and perhaps above all the lack mental anguish about all the negative self talk and punishment mentioned above.

These three techniques despite their imperfections made for a powerful combination, and I stopped smoking, but I would relapse.

One morning, having had breakfast first not a cigarette and a different kind of coffee I did not feel such strong cravings. I realised then I had a strong association between espressos and cigarettes. I broke that association consciously next time I tried to quit by quitting coffee long before trying to quit cigarettes.

Realising I’d associated coffee and cigarettes so closely was an early stage in my heightened sense of self awareness about cigarettes.

A different kind of association helped me enormously through the early most intense cravings in the first few days. It was to take a couple of deep breaths (cliche – I know!) This was an effective technique because it’s incompatible with smoking, but similar. I once tried to replace cigarettes with exercise and healthy food, but on the occasions I wasn’t able to exercise I would feel the craving unbearably intensely, however breathing will always be able something I can do wherever and whenever. Breathing alone wasn’t enough though and when I next relapsed I decided to try and develop a better technique.

I’d started to keep a table in the back of my notebook recording my cigarettes and cues. I began to make the list while smoking, I wouldn’t attempt to resist a cigarette, instead I would note down what it was that made me think about a cigarette, for example coffee, or completion of a task, or seeing a box of cigarettes on the pavement. I found it so interesting noting my cues down, it was enlightening – addictive even! This was when I really knew I had the work to do I mentioned earlier. I began quickly to understand what scenarios I associated cigarettes with and occasionally even just noticing a cue nullified the craving. Other times if the cue was hunger, or to do with beginning for example, I’d just satisfy the cue directly by eating something, or saying to myself “ah forget the cigarette, let’s just get on with this…” and POW! no craving. This became a virtuous cycle, it was really a good feeling finding out and knowing what was going on in my head!

As mentioned I’ve omitted cues which were much more personal, but I’d encourage you to be as candid and uninhibited with yourself when making your own records.

Date/time Intensity Strength Cue Response More
Dec 31

07:40

3 3 hunger smoothy 114
11:00 4 2 finshed emailing note on Done List
13:00 hunger smoke 12
19:00 2 3 topping up nicotine levels
1 Jan

21:00

socialising smoked 18
4 Jan

22:00

5 2 enjoyed a film talked about it
22:01 Hunger
22:02 Wiskey

 

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’d note how much I wanted a cigarette (Intensity). Then I’d note my capacity to withstand the craving (Strength). Having interrupted my craving to make this numerical assessment I’d find I was in a space where I was more capable of perceiving what it was that made me think about smoking in the first place. In the beginning I would note some things one minute after another towards the end I skipped days at a time. If a craving was highly intense and my strength was low I’d often find a range of different cues at play. Keeping this table soon enabled me to identify the root causes of my cravings from there it was a small step to figure how to satisfy them directly.

It was extremely satisfying to note the strength and intensity of my cravings and identification of my Cues was accompanied by more than a couple of moments of surprising clarity of mind.

Reviewing my cues, I realised there were about 12 distinct cues or themes, for example finishing emails and having watched a film are both “completions”. For each specific cue or theme I wrote one alternative response for future reference. I only wrote down one alternative response for each cue. I had more in mind but in the moment of a craving, I would not have the attention for more than one alternative. When a particularly intense craving, or two, took hold I could disentangle and withstand them easily by referring to this summary list. Satisfying these cues directly quickly became automatic, perhaps because it satisfies the cue better than any cigarette used to. I needed to refer to the paper list less and less frequently.

Cue Alternative
hunger eat
completion of a task add to done list
topping up nicotine breathing
socialising talking about smoking 

Once or twice a day I’d plot the Strength and Intensity recordings on a graph which stretched over a week or so. The graphic representation showed me clearly when my weakest moments were likely to occur which also helped immensely early on. After about a week the frequency with which I kept the table and graph had decreased to the point I no longer needed them.

In the context of this much self-awareness my uncontrollable urges to smoke slipped quietly away. I’m by no means a non smoker at this present moment, I could be, but I am in Paris! What’s most important for me is that I chose to smoke each and every cigarette I have smoked in the last month.

I concentrated on cigarettes I hope it’s useful with other ‘bad’ habits too. I wanted to write about this for a long time. I’ve been writing short stories,  I prefer non fiction though, so I thought I’d try writing some. Hope you enjoyed – please let me know what you think!

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