Of Beasts and Boats


   I consider cigarette smoking to be a beast with two heads. Those heads are
addiction and habit. For my purpose I define 'addiction' as a dependence on the chemical nicotine, and 'habit' as behavior involving cigarettes and the ways in which they are connected to daily life.

   The Addiction Part          As smokers, we arise in the morning, smoke the first cigarette of the day, and then spend the rest of that day's waking hours maintaining a consistent nicotine level in our body. How many we smoke within the course of the day to maintain that level is determined by the individual. There are many programs and methods for weaning ourselves from nicotine. Cold turkey, the patch, nicotine gum, and Zyban are but four of the more popular methods. Once the nicotine need/feed cycle has been broken, we no longer are driven by our addiction for we are no longer 'chemically' addicted. If that's the case, then why do those who quit smoking suffer the agony of urges and cravings? Even those that use nicotine replacement methods report having to deal with urges. This is where our 'habit' rears it's head.

   The Habit Part           Most of us have smoked for years. We've gotten angry and reached for a cigarette. We've answered the phone and reached for a cigarette. We've started, punctuated, and finished tasks by reaching for a cigarette. We've connected a cigarette to almost every event in our daily lives. And it's not just the tobacco/nicotine that is the connection. The procedure of reaching for a pack of cigarettes and removing one, of placing it between your lips and lighting it is a mechanical exercise of the most intricate muscle movements and complex choreography. Some of us repeated that procedure several hundred thousand times. All of us repeated it often enough that it was second nature. Every one of us could do it, not only with our eyes closed, but without thinking. WITHOUT THINKING? Whether the process of lighting a cigarette was nothing more than a pattern that involved no thought at all, or if it involved thought at some subconscious level is a question for debate. For me, the bottom line is that I lit a lot of cigarettes in response to events that really had nothing to do with a nicotine addiction. If anger made me uncomfortable, I lit a cigarette. If boredom made me uncomfortable, I lit a cigarette. For every event or emotion, for every situation or time, I had created a connection to a cigarette.

    The Nautical Part           My smoking patterns were born of 'change'. Change can be the process of swinging my legs out of bed and heading to the kitchen to plug in the kettle. Change can be the ringing of the phone, or the start of a task, or the completion of one. Change is a sudden shift in thoughts, maybe from concentration on one topic to the realization that it's lunch time. Change can be a shift in moods for any and every reason. Change in any of it's forms, from the most sudden to the most subtle, invariably turned my attention to a cigarette. The early stages of quitting are chaotic enough without us exaggerating the change and increasing the difficulty of the quit process.

    There are several ways to minimize 'rocking the boat':

    1 - A wildly fluctuating blood sugar level effects mood, the ability to think clearly, even the way we feel physically. Do yourself a favor and don't over do sugar consumption, either sweets or pasta. Get your sugar from fruits and eat light balanced meals. (Remember the 10 o'clock coffee and donut and then struggling to stay awake an hr later? Or what about that huge meal that makes you feel like you need a several hour nap? You don't have to subject yourself to this.) Improper nutrition and/or excessive junk food only sets you up for more stress which will be dealt with by eating more junk which will set you up for yet more stress and it just goes on and on. Not much different, actually, than the nicotine cycle you're trying to get away from. And while I'm on the subject of eating...... of all our normal behaviors, eating seems to be the most closely connected to smoking. The actual hand to mouth motion of eating is close to that of smoking. The feeling of 'fullness' from chewing and swallowing is very similar to what we experienced when we'd light up and inhale deeply. If smoking is a behavioral response to the everyday events of our lives, and we've allowed eating to replace a cigarette, then while we may not be smoking, we *are* perpetuating the very same behavioral responses that were our smoking habit. It would seem that encouraging an action that so closely mimics smoking would virtually guarantee that your urges to smoke will hang on tenaciously. Yet the general advice in most quit smoking venues is, "go ahead and eat to your heart's delight. Deal with the weight gain later...... Anything as long as we don't smoke". Personally, I think this is dangerous and misguided advice. Weight gain may seem like a secondary issue, but it's a problem that has been the undoing of many a quit. It's not uncommon to hear, "I've put on sooo much weight! I hate the way I look. Nothing fits anymore. I hate myself for getting so fat. I didn't have this problem when I smoked." This is generally where the "Deal with the weight gain later" advice leads. Unfortunately, as quitters, for most of us it's a few months and a few too many pounds later before it becomes clear to us that unbridled gluttony is NOT effective quit management. Another interesting little bit of info... most of us are in the 40+ age group. At this point in our lives excess pounds rarely come off easily. Alternatively ....... we might consider taking a first step toward taking control of what we eat by asking ourselves, each time we want to eat, are we 'mouth hungry or stomach hungry'. Depending on your answer, determine an appropriate response. If that's too confusing, then eat 3 balanced meals a day at regular intervals and determine ahead of time what 'snacks' are allowable(fruit/veggies). This way, when you get 'hungry', you'll only have to glance at the clock to know if it's time to eat or if you're just experiencing some other 'urge'. I've said these things before and, as often as not, the response that comes back is, "But I can't quit smoking AND control my eating at the same time." or, "I can't give up 'all' my vices." This is probably true if the quit is nothing more than a roll of the dice... or if we exercise no control and can only hope the quit will stick. But if we're actively taking back our lives, if we're reclaiming our bodies and souls, if we're adult enough to make the decision to quit smoking, then we can and should do whatever is necessary to succeed and that certainly includes taking responsibility for what we put in our mouths and why we put it there.

   2 - Be very very careful of alcohol in the early stages of a quit as it generally tampers with your state of mind. Maintaining a level headed perspective and control, particularly during the early stages of quitting, is difficult at the best of times and is never compatible with alcohol. You can always look back and say, "Oops, I'll know better next time.", or you can look to your own knowledge of the effects of alcohol and be adult enough to avoid it until your quit is established. I know this sounds like some adult admonishing a child. But, whose quit is it anyway?? If I don't own my own quit and take full responsibility for it, who will?

    3 - Almost all quitters start out on an emotional roller coaster. Do your best to avoid people and situations that you know ahead of time will crank up your stress levels. Some can't be avoided but many can be minimized or side stepped completely. Most of us got an amazing amount of mileage out of, "I just quit smoking. Get outta my face or I'll kill ya!" (or a variation on that). If you can adopt an "In the cosmic scope of things...." attitude toward at least some of the daily rubbish, you'll have taken a huge stride toward making your quit a bit smoother.