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October 18, 1998

Smoking

"Tried every way to quit"?

HERE'S WHAT WORKED FOR ME

In a previous item headed ANTISMOKING FUNDAMENTALISM (See BB ARCHIVES "ENVIRONMENTALISM" Posting January 27, 1998) I mentioned that I used to be a heavy smoker myself until about sixteen years ago, when I found a costless and painless way of quitting that I'd share with anyone interested. Enough people have expressed interest that it seems worth posting generally.

The background was that I had passed 40 and had smoked since I was 15, enjoyed it, wasn't unduly bothered by the cost, and shrugged off the health side with indifference. So, at the outset there wasn't any big motivation to quit. What got me (typically for a writer) was curiosity. I wanted to know if it really was as tough as all the things I'd read and heard said.

The most important thing in deciding how to go about it, it seemed to me, was to be realistic about myself. In my case that meant cold turkey was out. There was no way I could recite words like "That's it, watch: my last pack!" and believe, deep down inside, that I really meant it. What? Never again that feeling of drawing in a lungfull of soothing relaxation when sitting down at last at the end of a hectic day? Never, ever again that taste that went so perfectly with coffee or a pint of Guinness? The very thought was enough to send my hand groping shakily for the pack in my pocket. No, if it was going to work, the way to begin couldn't be by fooling one's self.

Second, it needed to be realistic about life. Life has ups and downs, good days and bad days. The problem I saw with people who tried to quit by cutting down gradually was that they'd go along for several days or even weeks doing okay until they bumped into some friends in a bar, showed up at a party, or just woke up on one of those days that start with the thought "I have to have a cigarette" . . . and all the hard work went down the tubes. The worst part was the psychological feeling of defeat, of going all the way back to square one and having to start over, as in a game of Snakes and Ladders. A realistic plan, I decided, would have to take account of days like that by permitting the inevitable occasional splurge without occasioning the sense of defeatism that comes from knowing you've broken the rules.

So the rule I finally came up with was this. "Don't light your first cigarette today any earlier than you lit the first one yesterday. And for the rest of the day smoke all you want." And that's it. No need to read anymore into it. It means just what it says.

It doesn't even say you have to light the first one any later than yesterday. So let's imagine that today I've really got the taste and could use a cigarette right now. I don't have to grit my teeth and try to kid myself I can fight it off forever--or even until tomorrow because I've used up my quota for today. All I have to do is wait no longer than I did yesterday. Well, sure, even I, with my level of willpower--which is close to nonexistent--could manage that much. And then forget it for the rest of the day because I'd achieved what I'd said.

But of course, if I feel really brave today, I could try stretching it for another whole fifteen minutes, say . . . and then forget it for the rest of the day. The only burden I incur is simply, now, to do at least the same tomorrow--and the day after and so on if I want, until I happen to feel really brave again. Yep, I found I could do that all right.

And it didn't matter if I wound up at a wedding or a party or a night out with the guys where I smoked more in an evening than in the last three days put together. The plan allowed for those fluctuations. As long as I kept to the single rule that said not to start any earlier the next day than the time I'd been starting, I could succumb to such occasions without risking the crushing feeling of being sent right back to the beginning.

I quickly found I could do without a cigarette before breakfast but didn't care because I'd have one with coffee after, and then didn't need that because I could wait until sitting down in the office. Very soon I was hardly smoking in the morning at all--and since I knew I could smoke all I wanted for the rest of the day, there wasn't that daunting feeling, the first effect of which is to make a smoker want a cigarette. It took a long time to go without that one at lunchtime though, and put it off until first thing in the afternoon. A couple in the evening persisted for a while too--and I really looked forward to them.

But food tasted good again, and the world became an interesting place of all kinds of odors I'd been missing. I stopped wheezing going up the stairs, and the extra notes in my billfold at the end of the week were appreciated. My curiosity was satisfied; I decided I didn't want to go back.

So that was what worked for me. For others who have tried other methods unsuccessfully and care to give it a try, be my guest. I'd be curious to hear the results.

(Also, by my estimates, over 30 years the savings will add up to something like the value of a house. If this works for you and you feel a strange compulsion to remit a small portion of what it's worth, send checks to me at: Coolbracken House, Church Terrace, Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland.)

 
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