In the summer of 1999 I was a 14-year-old goth girl with baggy pants and a weird hairdo when I smoked my first cigarette. My friend Lisa and I would walk to the mall and bum cigarettes from smoking strangers in the food court. We’d collect a mishmash of different brand cigarettes and share them. Back then, I remember little tin ashtrays on every table.
Lisa stopped smoking shortly after that. I didn’t. I remember waiting hours in the rain outside of convenience stores asking adult strangers to “pull a pack for me” until someone finally felt sorry enough for me to do it. I remember my mom telling me how disappointed she was in me between drags on her own cigarette. Smoking became part of my life; part of my identity. My uncle Bob paid me a pack of cigarettes and a beer when I was 15 in exchange for a portrait I drew for him. It was the first time I sold my art. My mom started giving me packs of cigarettes instead of my allowance every week.
Life as a smoker was stressful. In high school people either wanted part of your cigarette (“I call dibs!”) or their parents wouldn’t let them hang out with you. For antisocial me, smoking was a way to talk to people. I can’t count the number of times that sharing a cigarette with a boy I had a crush on made it into my diary. Life was lived through the clouds of smoke that followed me everywhere.
One of the first things I did on my 18th birthday was go buy my very own cigarettes. I worked at a call center at the time, and met many of the friends I still have today in the “smoker’s shack”. Adulthood introduced me to paying bills. Cigarettes were a normal part of my budget. When I moved into my own place with my smoker boyfriend, my addiction increased with the new found freedom of smoking indoors under my own rules
I wasn’t ashamed of my addiction. Like most smokers, I found every excuse in the book for why I didn’t want to quit smoking. I defended it. I told everyone it helped my stress levels. I told everyone I would never quit because I enjoyed it. I waxed poetic and romanticized my addiction. I was passionate about it.
For me, the decision to quit happened out of the blue and all at once. I had realized I wasn’t really in control of my addiction, or even of my own mind. I kept telling myself that I needed them to reduce stress, even though I knew deep down the stress came from the addiction and needing a cigarette. I started to research cigarette addiction. I read books, and different methods for quitting. At this point, I recognized that I was at the mercy of the cigarette. I read Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, and something clicked in my brain. I became smarter than my addiction was strong. Logically, it all made so much sense.
I set a date in the future. I thought my birthday would be a good date: I was going to give myself the gift of better health on that day. As the date approached, I found myself looking forward to it rather than dreading it. I was looking at my cigarettes in a new light. I realized all the excuses I was making for my habit were really the addiction trying to justify itself and not me, so I didn’t really feel like any part of me was going to be “lost” when I quit. I started to recognize the cycle of addiction, and as soon as I understood what was happening in my body, the rest seemed kind of easy.
I should note that there was a lot of prep work. I was determined to be successful. I broke up with the boyfriend I had at the time as he had no desire to quit and I knew that I’d fail if I stayed. I stopped hanging around with my smoker friends. I moved to another part of the city. I essentially transplanted myself so that the habitual part of my addiction wouldn’t be as strong.
The night before my birthday, at 11:55 PM, I had my last cigarette in a 7-eleven parking lot after 10 years as a smoker. Then, I crushed every last smoke that remained in my pack. In a lot of ways, that was the hardest part, having to overcome that mental hurdle and say “I’m officially done.”. But now would begin the physical withdrawal.
The next three days were tough, there’s really no getting around it. But because of the book, I felt like I knew what to expect, so nothing really came as a surprise. I was irritable, fidgety, and felt miserable. But I kept remembering that most nicotine is out of your system within 3 days, so I just kept thinking about the end of day 3 as being the finish line. It was hard as hell, but I got there. Then, I reminded myself that the first 2 weeks can determine the success of quitting. I shifted my view to the end of that two weeks being the finish line. I thought to myself, if you can make it two weeks, you can make it forever. At the end of the two weeks, I felt like I’d kicked it for good.
From that point forward, I kept remembering something that Allen stresses a lot in his book: “Never take another puff”. I repeated it like a mantra in my head every time I had a craving. Never take another puff, Wendy. Never take another puff. I convinced myself that if I took a single puff, I’d be hooked again and my efforts would have been for nothing. That probably wasn’t far from the truth.
To this day, I haven’t taken a single puff since that day in the 7-eleven parking lot. It’s been almost 7 years. When I think back to the person I was when I was addicted, it’s incredible how much has changed. I am more in control of my life now. I have better self esteem. I don’t have to run outside in the freezing cold Canadian winter or unsuccessfully shelter a lighter from the wind just to get that next fix. Nicotine no longer steals my money or controls my life. I am free.