…and Other Improbable Tales ~ 1996 AD
This is not officially a part of the Walkabout series, but rather something I wrote over two decades ago. I am posting it for a chain smoker I met in Kentucky and I hope other readers may find it interesting or useful.
There is a huge amount of marketing going on now about how to quit smoking. It was once a self-help subject and about the only thing being sold was maybe gum drops or weird little tubes with nicotine that you suck on. Then it evolved into a horror story / cautionary tales sort of thing. The American Lung Association would show you pictures of a healthy lung and a diseased (i.e. “smoked”) lung in order to scare you into quitting. Usually these were microscope slides but occasionally they produced whole disembodied lungs for better shock effect. Then came that prescription nicotine chewing gum and the smokeless cigarette. Now, these staged nicotine patches are promoted as if there is no other way to cast out the demon weed. It makes a certain level of sense that you can handle this addiction by gradually phasing out the active element. But, consider the following.
You can’t smoke in an office or most job sites anymore. Hospitals, schools, restaurants, airports, bus terminals and train stations have few, if any smoking areas. Likewise for busses, trains, taxis and airplanes. You can’t smoke in public buildings and damn few private ones. You can’t smoke in most people’s houses. You can only smoke in your car and outside. In fact, smoking is almost exclusively an outdoor sport these days. All of this forces
the smoker to delay input of nicotine. So, how do they want you to kick this habit? By using a smokeless and invisible patch so you can indulge the habit in all these places unbeknownst to anyone but yourself.
Is it just me or does that sound a little counterproductive? I tried the nicotine gum and the smokeless cigarettes. Both took away the smoke but left me with the cough. Both did nothing to reduce the craving for a cigarette. I “tapered off” and wound up tapering right back on. I tried a lot of things that helped, hindered or had no effect whatsoever. I quit “cold-turkey” many times and relapsed for various reasons, every time but the last. Each time I learned something that helped the next time. So, I am passing on this knowledge so you won’t have to waste your time, effort and suffering learning the same painful lessons. These are my observations about what did and did not work for me. Your case is most assuredly different. Read.
What Didn’t Work
Wrist-popping rubber bands
I don’t know who came up with this but, is it weird. The idea is to punish yourself for wanting a cigarette. You wear this rubber band around your wrist, see? And then every time you get the urge to smoke, you reach over with the other hand and snap the band to cause yourself pain. I tried this for about three hours. Then I took the rubber band off and set fire to it with my lighter before lighting up a cigarette.
They almost got it right, though. There is a subconscious element behind addiction that I call the addict-brain. It’s the little voice that keeps saying “Just one more won’t hurt, come on, ya sissy!”.
By the way, I’m not a psychiatrist or anything, I just make this stuff up as I go along.
Make a “penalty bet” with another smoker.
Example: First one to start smoking again pays the other $100.
I learned that you have to pick someone you know and trust for this because either party could cheat and no one the wiser. The addict-brain is like that little cartoon devil on your shoulder saying, “So, whose gonna know?”. Also, it has to be someone you see all the time so you can wallow together in withdrawal misery. Now you are accomplishing two things. First you throw a huge strain on a friendship. Second, you assure yourself to be reminded constantly of what you can’t have. It is a bet that can only be won when your trusty friend loses. And after you win at friend’s expense you have no reason not to relapse. In fact, now this constant acquaintance is smoking again and has little mercy for the one who took his money. Not to worry, most times I managed to convince the other guy to call it off and we had a smoke together.
Go off in the woods with no cigarettes.
I had this plan, you see. I was going on a week long canoe trip and was the only smoker in the group. So this was the perfect opportunity to force myself to quit smoking. I would have the beauty and serenity of the wilderness to console me. Lots of exercise and fresh air to purge the poison from my system, right? So we are on the way out to the drop-off point, no turning back now. The outfitter whose job it is to see that we don’t run out of things is also a smoker. He asks me if I packed enough cigarettes for the trip. I tell him my plan. He immediately hands a pack of cigarettes to another guy in the group and says, “Give him these when he gets crazy.”
He was right of course. Don’t you think he had tried that before? Here you are going to great expense to go out in the lakes to enjoy some well-deserved leisure and you would guarantee yourself a miserable time. I lasted a day and a half before I demanded those cigarettes in no uncertain terms. My fellow camper gladly relinquished the entire pack. He didn’t want to ruin his vacation either.
Tell everyone you’re quitting so you’ll be too ashamed to start smoking again.
There is no such thing as “too ashamed” for the addict-brain. I tried this scheme a few times and all I accomplished was to lower myself in the eyes of all my friends and neighbors. Smokers had some sympathy but non-smokers wouldn’t even try to conceal their disappointment in me. Sometimes I tried to hide it from them but I have noticed, now that my sense of smell has returned, that smokers carry a distinct aroma. I wasn’t fooling anybody but the other smokers and even they most likely had their suspicions.
The last time I quit (and I truly believe it was The Last Time), I was never heard to say that I was quitting. They would have laughed in my face anyway. If anybody noticed and asked, I said, “No, just trying to cut down a bit.”. If I did relapse, no one was the wiser. You might think that this was making it easier on myself. Yes it was, but not for the reason you might think.
These days, smokers are laughed at, screamed at, shunned, herded into outdoor smoking areas by the garbage dumpster, ridiculed, derided
looked at with disgust, shamed, blamed, lambasted, blasted, hated, berated,… I think you get the picture. Why on Earth would I want to heap more ridicule on myself by being generally known as a backslider, too? No, thank you very much, I kept it to myself. Non-smokers haven’t got a clue as to what I was going through and they don’t care. Other smokers understand, but they can’t help you. Quitting nicotine is a devastating personal journey. If it can be accomplished, the strength must come from within. Forget what other people think and don’t expect any support.
Give up all your vices at once.
Coffee makes me want a cigarette. So does beer. I always want a cigarette after a big meal. And besides, you gain weight when you quit smoking. So, I’ll go on a diet, give up coffee and alcohol and that will make it easier to quit smoking? Tell me another story, Uncle Steve. This theory usually came up around New Year’s Day. That’s right, spoil your last day off till Easter. There are monks who have given up less than this. Absolute failure is a certainty.
The smokeless cigarette
This was one of the weirdest things I tried. The smokeless cigarette was a little cigarette shaped plastic tube, open at both ends. It had a sort of sponge in the middle with some nicotine in it. You sucked air through one end and a small dose of nicotine came with it. They even put a cigarette paper around it so you’d know which end to suck on. The nicotine was enough to irritate the throat so you would cough. Smoking at least had some deadening effect on the throat for a short time. These things were much more expensive that regular cigarettes. So, at best I am still addicted and have the major symptoms but have exchanged one delivery system for a more expensive and less comfortable one. So now you have quit smoking. Congratulations. Now if you could give up those silly plastic tubes, you’d be home free.
Nicotine chewing gum
This is yet another drug delivery system. Maybe if the Doc reduces the prescription little by little I can give up the gum, too. I never did like chewing gum anyway and it leaves the primary addiction firmly in place. My dad wound up using the gum and smoking. The Doc pulled his prescription when he found out.
Smoke cigarettes that you hate so you won’t smoke so many.
It pretty lame, don’t you think? This reminds me of the vaudeville routine where the temperance zealot tells the drunkard, “You must give up the Demon Rum!”.
“You’re right.”, says he, “I’ll switch to Demon Gin!”
This works for about one day.
Smoke using a tar-trap filter
This is a lot like the smokeless cigarette only instead of breathing nicotine filled air, you wind up breathing hot, dry, nicotine filled air with no taste. Undoubtedly, this is better than smoking a normal filter cigarette or (God help you) an unfiltered cigarette. But once again, the primary addiction is left intact.
Myths about Smoking
It’s the filter that gives you cancer.
I am not making this up. This myth actually circulates in public. I didn’t buy that when I heard it as a child but I have met adult people who genuinely believe this to be fact. I don’t hang around with them.
Smoking menthol cigarettes makes you impotent.
This one I discovered in Venezuela. Apparently, this is almost universally believed among the male smokers in that part of South America. Women will look at you funny, too. I smoked a heavy menthol brand, at that time. Any time I was asked for a cigarette, it was politely refused once I pulled the pack out of my pocket. Usually with a drooping- finger sign language gesture. For a while, I tried to tell these guys that they were full of baloney. Finally, I started saying that , yes, this is the only way that doctors have come up with for me to control my incredibly excessive libido.
Smoking keeps the mosquitoes away.
Absolutely true. Mosquitoes are a lot smarter than they look. Actually, smoking keeps a lot of things away – good health, long life, about 80% of women.
Smoking helps you concentrate.
Unfortunately, this one is also true. I had read this but I didn’t really believe it until I experienced the difference. After I quit it was much harder to concentrate. I had an even shorter attention span than usual. Bake the casserole in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. The feeling went away after a while.
It’s not really addictive.
Cocaine wasn’t supposed to be addictive, either. They used it to cure alcoholism, at first. Swell. Anybody who truly thinks that smoking is not addictive is either a smoker in denial or a nonsmoker in ignorance. My father smoked from the time he was 10 until he wound up permanently on oxygen at 62. On the way he had chronic emphysema, repeated severe laryngitis, asthma, hives, permanent hacking cough, pneumonia, a collapsed lung and a stroke, all of which can be laid at smoking’s door (except maybe, hives). Was he just exercising his right to choose? Of course, his father was a smoker too.
I learned to smoke in blind imitation of my father and most other adult men, at the time. He tried to warn me off but I wouldn’t listen. I guess I couldn’t take him seriously while he still smoked. I spent my whole life watching his deterioration and I still smoked. So, you think maybe I did this as a conscious choice of lifestyle? Am I stupid or what? I could see my future by looking at the old man, coughing in spasms till he passed out.
No, I’m at least of above average intelligence. I smoked because I was addicted. If you don’t think so, then you’re wrong. So, there!
Myths About Quitting
You’ll gain weight when you quit.
Regrettably, this is also true. Smoking keeps your metabolism at a slightly higher level. So, even if you eat the same amount you might put on some pounds. That was one of my excuses not to quit. But, I was overweight already and so could not claim to be afraid to lose my svelte figure. I didn’t bother to worry about weight the last time and that is probably, partially, why it was The Last Time. Maybe you can deal with two vices at the same time but I could not.
I’m surprised that nobody over at the tobacco industry has tried to market cigarettes as a diet aid. Marketing experts agree, many dieters will try anything. Fact is, it doesn’t work that well. My metabolism may have been higher but I was, most decidedly, not a stick figure.
The urge to smoke goes away in a few weeks.
I haven’t smoked in over three years and when the urge to smoke finally leaves me I’ll write you a letter. It is not at all strong but it is still there. After a week it was still overwhelming. After a month it was intermittent but barely manageable. After two months I still felt a surge of urge a few times a day but all the torture I had been through was not going to be wasted for that. After six months it was present but highly manageable. Now it is a kind of nostalgia. Like, “Ah yes, I remember when I was a fool”.
You will feel better right away.
You wish. Wrong – you will feel a lot worse right away. The itching urge to smoke is now a permanent part of your existence. It will get better but not soon. I was irritable to the point of rage, nervous to the point of frenzy. And if you thought the cough was going to disappear, well, that turns out not to be the case. My Doc told me it was the tissue in the throat trying to heal after years of abuse. The cough can go on for weeks or months after the last smoke.
It just ain’t fair, is it?
You won’t be able to tolerate even the smell of smoke.
It didn’t bother me at all. In fact it probably helped ease the craving just a bit as I discuss later. To this day, I don’t mind being around smoke or smokers as long as its not carried to extremes. The accepted behavior today seems to be to whine at high volume about how these inconsiderate smoking people are violating your delicate sensibilities. Some of these same whiners will sit around campfires breathing incompletely combusted pine tar and babble on about the wonderful wilderness experience they are having. Especially the ones from Colorado.
Things That Did Help
Some of these I have heard or read over the years and a few I stumbled onto by myself. All of them helped me to quit smoking that crucial last time.
Substitute cough drops for cigarettes.
This helped for two reasons. First it provided some kind of substitute activity for smoking. My theory goes like this: My addict-brain was telling me it wanted a smoke. I pulled a box from my pocket, take something out and put it into my mouth. My addict-brain says, “I know that’s not a cigarette but, hey – you tried, man!” Second, coughing really is a problem (see Myths About Quitting). I used menthol cough drops because I had smoked menthol cigarettes. Addict-brains are easily fooled.
Spend time in places where you can’t smoke.
These days, it is easy to find such places. It helps reduce the urge just a little when you know that smoking is prohibited and sometimes just a little is enough. Apparently, the addict-brain can follow orders. When the urge gets extreme try places where smoking is actually impossible –swimming pools, the shower, that sort of thing.
That’s right – return to those thrilling days of yore – the sixties. During one attempt to quit, I found a box of vanilla incense in my junk drawer that had to be twenty years old. I lit up a stick, just on a hunch. I guess that just the smell of smoke or the ionized particles or whatever the hell it is, is enough to ease the craving. This fits in with what I said about being around smoke while you try to quit. Apparently, it is not just the nicotine in passive cigarette smoke that eases the craving but smoke of any sort. I don’t have any scientific reason why it works I just know that it does. I suppose any scent will do. If you don’t have an incense burner (and I don’t know anyone who still does), use those old ashtrays, eh?
Eat or drink something
Try not to overdo it. This is not the vice we are concentrating on and it does help. I started eating lots of salad and drinking tomato juice, the spicy hot kind. In fact, hot sauce seems to help a lot. I started putting it on all my food. The ice cream was especially interesting. I guess the addict-brain will equate smoking with gastrointestinal abuse. It does leave the throat with the same sort of burning ache and makes your nose itch and your eyes water, just like smoking.
Listen, I am an easy-going couch potato type but after a week off the weed I was as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. The longer I sat still the worse it got. If I could manage to take a walk or pedal the cobwebs off the stationary bicycle or swim for a while, I felt one whole hell of a lot better. Swimming is especially good because it is most decidedly difficult to smoke whilst engaged in that activity. Also, while you swim you continuously gasp for breath. I suppose the addict-brain thinks, “Gasping for breath? He must be smoking again! Allright!”
I ain’t no doctor but I think that maybe a lot of heavy breathing stirs up some of the latent nicotine that has been deposited in the lungs over the decades. Disgusting, is it not? Its probably better to get that stuff moving and on its way out, anyway. Obscene phone callers probably have an easy time quitting.
Get back on the wagon
That last success was after dozens of false starts. Sometimes I couldn’t make it till noon. I could always find plenty of excuses to relapse. Here are a few.
I hit my thumb with a hammer.
My car broke down.
I can’t find my keys.
A guy at work really made me mad.
Somebody stole my newspaper.
The stock market closed down in heavy trading.
The Oilers blew a twenty point lead.
(That one had the advantage of frequency)
The Astros choked in the playoffs – again.
That stupid tire commercial is on again.
The pull tab broke off the last can of beer.
I hit my thumb with the hammer I was using to chisel open the last can of
I suppose that the one factor that made the difference between success and failure was an otherwise unremarkable incident after dinner one night. I was standing behind my chair, leaning on it. I had unconsciously crossed my right foot in front of my left with the heel up and the toe on the floor – like you would do to look at the sole of your shoe. I didn’t think about my posture, it was just a habit of resting my fallen arches. My father (the one with the oxygen hose) interrupted me and pointed to the chair on my left. There was my two year old son, standing behind his chair, leaning on it, with his right foot crossed in front of his left with the heel up and the toe on the floor. Like you would do to look at the sole of your shoe. He looked up at me with innocent, loving eyes.
This “family tradition” of smoking was almost a hundred years old. I had carried it for twenty of those years. This chain of misery ends here, now. I will not lead my son down the path to addiction.
Ex Siencia, Trivia
This was written about two decades ago. That two-year-old son is now twenty-four. My father died of Respiratory Arrest. He wanted to breathe, but could not. I find it hard to imagine a more horrible death.
I have not smoked since then. But, for a very long time, I still smoked in my dreams. When I found myself puffing on a Marlboro, I was very disappointed at first. But then I realized that I really don’t smoke anymore and concluded that it must be a dream. That was usually enough to wake me.
In five years, I will “catch up” to my father’s age when he died. At my current age, Dad was an oxygen-dependent near-invalid who had a hard time walking down the driveway to pick up the newspaper. I am currently an over-the-road trucker. On my breaks, I walk miles just to stretch my legs – and to collect material for my writing. Please see GoingWalkabout.blog . I am not bragging you understand – I just want to convey that your life will be much better without this crippling habit.
I can give you all these ideas, but I cannot do it for you. You probably do not need to hear the following, because you already know it:
Giving up tobacco will be the hardest thing you have ever done in your life.
It is, however, well worth the effort.