What I Learned from 2 Months as a Smoker
This month I’ve given up a lot of things: Facebook, coffee, alcohol. But I was reluctant to give up a new vice that had long been lingering but only became a consistent fixture in my life a few months ago: smoking.
Cigarettes are everywhere in Laos. At the market, the corner stores, the supermarkets. A pack costs a dollar, for cheaper brands, roughly 50 cents. In Chicago cigarettes cost about a dollar each. In Laos you never feel bad bumming one, it’s of very little economic consequence. I’ve bummed cigarettes off a driver I was hitchhiking with, new friends in a restaurant and from who ever I’m out eating and drinking with.
I smoked my first cigarette senior year of high school in my blue Mazda with Seth Witt, a friend from theater and band. They were cloves and he asked me to buy them because he wasn’t yet old enough. Similarly to the occasional drink indulged, I smoked sporadically senior year including on the high school roof, accessible thought the back of the sound booth, at parties and around camp fires.
I love smoking cigarettes. I like the ritual, the rush of nicotine, the shared experience when I’m smoking with others, the solitude and alone time when I’m smoking by myself. If my college roommate freshman year hadn’t been so vocally and vehemently apposed to tobacco use, I likely would have ended up a smoker. Instead I continued my dabbling here and there. Never buying my own packs, knowing full well I’d have no self control, and instead accepting when offered and going long stretched in between.
My old strategy for many years was to only smoke occasionally and only from someone else’s pack. I knew I couldn’t be trusted to have my own and wanted to take the decision out of my hands. A friend and her boyfriend visited me in Laos a few months ago. The cheap price and frustrations of life in Laos led him to buy a pack. Hey, it’s only 50 cents, why not? She wan’t happy and when they left, he gave the half finished pack to me. I figured I’d hang on to them but not buy more when they were finished. A few weeks later while rock climbing I was offered a bubble gum flavored cigarette. I can totally understand why flavored varieties are banned in the states and Europe. It was delicious. Like a little hooka. I returned home, stopped by the bus station and bought two packs of mint. Then a pack of bubblegum.
I thought these packs would last me a long time. They didn’t. I started out smoking one or two a day. This increased quickly to four. I saw the slippery slope. I’ve gotten a little sliver of how addiction works. Cravings aren’t all encompassing, they’re hardly even noticeable. It’s just a small nagging voice, “wouldn’t it be fun to smoke?” “You deserve it, just five minutes.” “Take a break. It will be nice.” “Stop what you’re doing, it’ll be there when you come back.”
I see both sides of smoking. The negatives: the smoke itself, the smell, the health consequences. But I also see the positives: the taste, the euphoria, the relaxation, the social aspect. You've gotta put into your life positive replacements to quit successfully.
While I enjoy smoking, I also hate smoking cigarette. I didn’t like the shame of being in peak physical form, a yoga teacher and distance cyclist yet hiding this bad habit. Once I quickly put out a butt in the sink as it started raining on the porch and I was going to move to the covered garage, but I wasn’t home alone as I thought. I didn’t like sneaking around my roommate or getting smoke in my eyes. I don’t like the last drag that’s sharp and burns my throat. I don’t like the seeming lack of control over when and how much I was smoking. I went from one in the afternoon, to one in the morning and one in the afternoon to four a day pretty consistently over the course of a month. Then I was between 3 and 5 per day for a month. That’s when I realized, “Shit, I’m a smoker.”
How did I quit? I told myself firmly that I wasn’t buying another pack, that when this one was gone, that’s all there is. I replaced my smoking area with a meditation area. I washed out and put away the ash tray. I replaced it with a little bowl of rice with a candle and incense inside. I swept the balcony clear of leaves, dirt and ash. I still go out there in the morning. This time with my Headspace App, light the candle and incense and breath deeply to the narrators calming words. This replaces many of the triggering benefits of smoking minus the actual cigarettes. It's been two days. So far, so good.
Most of my friends don’t smoke. Those that do know I’m good for a cigarette on occasion. Like everything in my life, I choose not to be dogmatic about this. I likely will join a friend for a bummed smoke again in the future. I likely will enjoy it. Maybe I won’t. The point is I’m not creating a hard and fast rule. Willpower in that sense doesn’t work. I am choosing not to buy another pack. And I’m choosing not to smoke at my house. I have a newfound respect for long time smokers who have quit successfully. Mindless change is easy, deliberate change is hard.