January. The month of frosty mornings, new beginnings and the traditional new year cleanse.
If, like me, you’ve decided 2015 is the year you finally stop smoking, you are most probably struggling to cope with everybody’s least favourite house guest: nicotine withdrawal (or Nick to his friends).
You’ve probably been trying to get rid of Nick for weeks. You’ve been trying to starve him out, but the more you ignore him, the louder he shouts. He’s a manipulative chap, and will spin the most fantastical bullshit to convince you to give him what he wants. Another hit.
That’s right, your houseguest is a junkie, and he’s going cold turkey right there, in your head.
Sadly, the available support from the usual official sources is not much cop. Anything remotely human or relatable having been stripped from its text by so many public sector pen pushers. As you’d expect, the NHS provision is clinical.
We’re also supposed to adopt the correct public sector bullshit language. We’re not allowed to say “I’m giving up smoking”. Instead, we are supposed to say things like “I’m quitting” or “engaging in cessation”.
These phrases choke me more than smoking a Montecristo would right now. I’m not an American talk show host, I’m a potty mouthed, middle class, 30 something English woman.
None of the literature really speaks to me, but apparently I’m so suggestible that I can’t even be trusted to talk normally any more without being destined for abject failure.
If you too are struggling to relate to this cold, impersonal advice, and wish you would be treated as if you are more than just a list of symptoms, I hope that perhaps I can share with you some helpful tips that I’ve discovered on my own journey.
I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert, but it’s well intentioned advice from an actual human who’s struggling with you, not a government PR droid who has no concept of what you’re going through.
Hopefully we can evict Nick together, flicking the Vs at the establishment as we go…
The first two days
Despite what you’ve been told, the first couple of days are actually the easiest. This is because you’ll be full of the enthusiasm of novelty. Not only that, but if you quit on New Year’s Day, you’ll probably be absolutely hanging*, so will have an aversion to smoking any way. Plus, if you’re lucky, you’ll have had a couple of days off from work, so won’t be subject to any stressful situations other than running out of paracetamol and box sets to watch.
Boredom is your biggest adversary at this early stage. Because you’ve a bit if time on your hands, you need to be completely distracted. This is where indulging your inner gamer can be really helpful.
Any game will do, as long as it completely absorbs you. I’m talking the kind of distraction that will see you forget to dress yourself or eat. It could be The Times crossword, Angry Birds, Sudokus.. whatever. As long as you become completely unaware of everything around you it will do.
I got especially into The Room, and completed both games in two days. I was so absorbed that not only did I forget to eat or brush my hair, but I also completely forgot about smoking. Winning.
*’Hanging’ is a vulgar British expression. The full expression is ‘Hanging out of my ass/arse’ and means to be suffering from an especially shitty hangover.
Cravings are easy
For some unknown reason, virtually all stop smoking literature focuses nearly all of its attention on the cravings. To my mind, this is further evidence that the people writing this shit have never smoked in their lives, let alone experienced stopping.
If you too have given up smoking recently then you’ll know that the cravings are a piece of piss to deal with. You get a couple of little butterflies in your stomach, much the same as you would if you wanted to call someone you really like, but know you shouldn’t.
So what do you do? You ignore the feeling and eventually it either goes away by its self, or something else happens and you just carry on with your day.
Problem is, by focussing all of their attention on the cravings (which we have established are the least of your worries), the people who write this supportive literature are doing you a massive disservice. By putting all the focus on cravings, they are failing to address the actual problem: nicotine withdrawal. It’s almost as if they don’t realise that cravings and nicotine withdrawal are as opposite as a butterfly and a saber toothed tiger.
What nicotine withdrawal feels like
If organisations such as Smoke Free are to be believed, nicotine withdrawal will just see you feeling a bit down and eating rather too many KitKats than you ought to.
No wonder there’s little sympathy for quitters from those lucky sods who’ve never smoked. If I had no experience of nicotine withdrawal, I’d probably tell you to get yourself a one way ticket on the ‘Man Up Express’ and this article would be much, much shorter.
So, let’s talk about the effect on your mood.
What’s described as irritation actually feels like the Big Bang. It starts out as a tiny seed of irritation in my stomach which proliferates, doubling in strength per second until I’m so filled with rage and frustration that I find I’m crying in Waitrose because I can’t find the creme fraiche.
Then there’s the anxiety. This is unlike any anxiety I’ve ever experienced (and I used to suffer from full-on panic attacks back in the day, so I feel I’m qualified to comment).
Nope, this feels more like the start of a medical detox. I feel too jittery and disorientated to safely cross the road. Talking to colleagues at work fills me with paranoia and the sensation that I’m on the verge of a manic episode. I literally feel as if I’ve been spiked with some sort of strong amphetamine laced with LSD.
The sensation is so strong that it has foiled every attempt of mine to give up smoking thus far. That’s why this time I’m using 24 hour patches to keep me even, and an inhalator for the odd moment I need a little something something.
If you’re planning to go cold turkey, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to live any kind of normal life for that first week. After all, you wouldn’t expect a heroin addict to go through a detox, but still function as a normal workaday human now would you?
And it’s been established that nicotine is as, if not more, addictive as many hard drugs, as you can see in this article written in the New York Times.
As such, if you’re serious about stopping using this method, maybe consider taking a week off work. Create your own Betty Ford clinic at home, where you can feel as weird as you like without fear of getting fired/run over by a milk float. I’d also recommend the packing up and sending off of any romantic partners/children/family pets for your sanity and their safety.
What about the weight gain thing?
OK, I kind of agree with the whole appreciation of sweet foods thing. I am developing an almost fetishistic appreciation for chocolate digestives right now, but that’s mainly because all other food has started to taste like shit.
If you too have recently given up smoking, and if you also have an appreciation of all things edible, chances are you’ve been really looking forward to regaining a restored sense of taste and smell.
So how disappointing is it when your senses start to reappear, that instead of food becoming even more delicious, it transpires that everything you’ve been eating actually tastes like catfish shit.
Weirdly, the only foods that do taste more delicious than they used to are sweet things. In fact sweet foods are the only foods that taste like food at all.
Luckily, I’ve discovered that these new food preferences also extend to fresh fruits and salads. Try it for yourself, and perhaps we can be the first reformed smokers to actually lose a few pounds and say “fuck you, NHS Choices, no fatties here”.
Smoking, like any addicted behaviour, is a plaster*; a plaster we’ve been sticking over our wounds to stop our feelings spilling out. When someone irritated us, did we say anything or did we have a cigarette? When we were worried about something, did we deal with it or did we smoke?
I think you can see where I’m going with this one.
When you stop any addicted behaviour, all of the personal issues you haven’t dealt with will come to the fore. You’ve ripped off that plaster.
The good news is, you can use this as an opportunity to give your brain a good spring clean. You finally get to confront everything you’ve been squashing inside by smoking for all these years.
Naturally, this will probably involve allowing yourself to feel all sorts of emotions that you’re probably uncomfortable with. BUT if you accept this as an important part of your healing process, and embrace it as such, allowing yourself to fully experience these feelings as and when they arise – I promise you that once it’s passed you’ll be rewarded with the kind of euphoria you’d usually have to do a shady deal in the back room of a nightclub to achieve.
Let’s talk about rewards
When you were little and you drew a particularly good tree, or sat especially straight, or conversely if you had a bad day because the hyperactive kid hit you with the Millennium Falcon, your parents or teachers gave you a nice pat on the head or bit of chocolate as a reward.
Once you grew up, your internal systems of behaviour and reward were literally hard wired into your brain. Perversely, adult humans tend to have a preference for harmful rewards, such as tobacco, alcohol, drugs or junk food, and that’s why these things are addictive. They release dopamine into your system, which makes you feel sated.
My husband uses the analogy of a spoiled little brat inside your head. When you stop these addicted behaviors, the little kid is stamping his feet because he wants his treat. Sort of like when Eric Cartman has a hissy fit because his mom won’t buy him an iPad.
I’d love to give you a list of healthy, non-addictive alternatives at this stage, but sadly any behaviour can become harmful and addictive if you repeat it regularly enough.
So, alongside smoking, we’re going to have to give up that sense of entitlement you and I both share. Eventually the microscopic neural pathways that have hard wired us to think like Eric Cartman will die. And what a relief that will be for us, and for anyone unfortunate enough to be in our orbit while we withdraw.
The pat on the head we can, and must, do. Don’t forget to admire your skin, every day, noticing as the lines diminish and translucency returns. Stop short of buying your face fresh cut flowers, but there’s nothing wrong with admiring your new found glow.
Similarly, if you struggled with a particular exercise before, give it another go. You’ll be amazed at how much your physical abilities will have improved within a short space of time.
These are our rewards, and you’re not a big headed twat if you allow yourself to feel good about them.
More helpful information from an actual human being
If you’re also giving up smoking and have any stories or advice you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it. Please take advantage of the comments section below to vent!
So for now, so long and good luck.