Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Breaking the Habit

Years ago, I developed a habit, a ritual to be performed before leaving the house. Before I close the locked door behind me, I pat my right hip pocket, my right back pocket, and my left hip pocket in that order. This serves the function of ensuring that I am in possession of my house keys, my wallet, and my cell phone when I leave. I whisper the words to myself as I touch each pocket: keys, wallet, cell phone. This soothes the irrational fear that I will inevitably lock myself out of my house without any money, means of identification, or convenient way of calling for help.

Several years ago, approximately nine years, I walked out of a journalism class at ETSU angry and irritated and in some bizarre fit of pique decided that I needed a cigarette. I walked to the Citgo on the corner and purchased a pack of non-filtered Pall Malls just like my grandfather smoked. A pack of Pall Mall non-filters, and a lighter because as a non-smoker I had no reason to carry a lighter. This led to the eventual modification of the house-leaving ritual; moving the cell phone to what was often my left cargo pocket, the ritual became right hip pocket, right back pocket, left hip pocket, and left cargo pocket. Keys, wallet, smokes, phone.

Two weeks ago today the ritual was revised back to the original sequence for the first time in nearly a decade: right hip pocket, right back pocket, left hip pocket. Keys, wallet, phone. No smokes. Lord willing and the creek don't rise, it stays that way.

So how and why is a decade-long habit broken? I attended a Fourth of July party and in a drunken stupor managed to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in six hours. My stomach, notorious for its weakness, was angry about this for days. As I cluctched at my stomach on the train-ride home the following Tuesday, I made the decision to quit smoking. I'm approaching 30 and I just can't take that kind of beating anymore. I had been trying to cut back a few cigarettes here and there since I moved to Brooklyn, but I knew that just wasn't going to work. For every pack of cigarettes that I could make last two days, there was another that was gone between sunrise and sunset. Plus, cigarettes in NYC are eight dollars a pack at a minimum. So I had two smokes left in the cigarette case I carry with me and six in the pack left at home; I made the decision that I would finish the remainder of the pack and the end of the night on Tuesday, July 7th I would quit smoking.

Most smoking cessation guides suggest quitting on a Sunday or Monday, but this seems to me a truly terrible idea. Sunday is a day spent dreading Monday, creating a tension that a nicotine fit would amplify into murderous rage. Monday is fucking Monday and if you want to try to quit smoking on a Monday then you might also like to try base jumping without a parachute. Friday is out for the obvious reasons of partying or how ever you like to blow off steam at the end of the week and I can't imagine anyone short of an intense, self-hating sadist spending a perfectly good Saturday off trying to quit smoking. The only good thing about Tuesday is that it isn't Monday anymore and Thursday is nothing more than hopeful anticipation of Friday, so you can't quit on those days either. That leaves us with Wednesday. I figure if you can quit smoking and make it through "Hump Day" at the same time, you'll be all right.

Both the City and State of New York really want people to quit smoking. On top of the exhorbitant, punitative taxes on tobacco, they run occasional programs where they send you free patches. Not long after I moved to Brooklyn I took advantage of the wild free-money blue state liberalism of New York and requested a box of patches. The patches helped me through the first three days, which involved a lot of retraining. The cessation guide suggests, for example, that you should consider switching to hot tea or cocoa if you have trouble adjusting to having your morning coffee without a cigarette. I'm sure "taming the triggers" as it is called this is a fairly well tested method, but I'm of the opinion that you have to break the habits by forcing yourself to do everything without a cigarette that you previously did with a cigarette. Morning coffee, the walk from the subway to the office, before and after lunch, the walk from the office to the subway, after dinner, when I'm bored, playing guitar, playing video games, reading a book, surfing the web, before bed. The patch gives you the nicotine to allow you to rewire your brain to do all these things without a cigarette in your hand.

That first morning was sheer panic as soon as I woke up, knowing there would be no morning cigarette with my morning coffee or morning cigarette with my morning walk to the F-Train or any cigarette at any point. The first obstacle popped up as I realized that my Metrocard was nearly expired. I would have to walk to the booth at Avenue U to get a new one. The bodega at the corner of Avenue U by the entrance to the booth is where I've been buying my cigarettes and I'd rather not deal with the temptation right off the bat. Fortunately, just before I left the house, I noticed a singule-use card that I had from a drunken late-night incident on the A-Line a week prior, which meant that even if the card was out, I wouldn't have to pass by the bodega.

Taking lunch without a cigarette was the first truly different experience and the second test of willpower. It was nice to eat without having to rush so I could get that last smoke before the second half of the day, but I was five minutes getting back to the office which never happened when I smoked. Then I noticed it happened the next two days; I was five minutes late getting back from lunch. Apparently I tell time by cigarette.

After the first three days I decided to see how far I could make it on Saturday without a patch, leading to a three-day period where sleeping was a goddamned disaster. I went all day Saturday with little trouble, keeping myself busy by helping Jake set up a new addition to the music studio he's managing. I arrived home tired and expecting a good night's sleep, but the Nicotine Demon had other plans kicking withdrawl into high gear. After laying in bed for an hour or so I started to doze off before suddenly snapping awake. This cycle of almost falling asleep repeated for a few hours before I finally fell completely asleep only to wake up a few times throughout the night.

I decided to try another day without the patch on Sunday, which lead to a long day of depression that felt like falling off a cliff. Sunday night's sleep was disturbed by anxiety and panic attacks along with some burning stomach pain for good measure. I fought through it and found myself amused that the best symptoms nicotine withdrawl had to offer were issues I've previously experienced. Insomnia, stomach pain, anxiety and panic attacks, and depression? I've dealt with this shit before and in full Technicolor, not this TBS colorized version shit. What I'm saying is that the withdrawl wasn't easy, but it was surprisingly weak sauce. Both I and the withdrawal continued without the patch on Monday and I went five days without the patch before I finally slept well. It was twelve total days before a cigarette wasn't my first thought as soon as I woke up.

Now I'm at two weeks without a cigarette. My brain has finally readjusted to getting two lungfuls of oxygen all day long, which at the beginning was giving me levels of energy that I haven't experience since childhood. I haven't coughed up nearly as much lung crap as I expected, which is surprising given that I've smoked a pack a day for nearly a decade. Getting my olfactory senses back, I learned that New York City smells like hot garbage; as my taste buds heal, I learned that Red Bull tastes absolutely awful. It turns out that television isn't the only thing that benefits from dulled senses.


Nate said...

Without getting too gay over this monumentous decision you've made, I'm never one to say "good luck," because I believe it jinxes the recipient. So my "go break a leg" equivalent is "I hope it goes well."

I also must say, as a behavioral psychologist, you're certainly taking into account etiological triggers that most people overlook when changing behaviors, and you're definitely going about it the right way.

As long as you don't kick yourself in the ass too hard over any relapses that might occur, you should do really well with this.

Rev. Joshua said...

I read that last line and my brain translates this to mean "we can have a cigarette now."

My roommate and fellow Mad Scientician Buck just quit dipping last Monday, so he has some interesting perspectives on breaking the nicotine habit. His main issue is that there's a little voice in his head now, similar to the one that thinks we can now have a smoke, that keeps saying "dip? dip? dip now? dip? dip? dip now?"

Thanks for the good words and encouragement. It's good to know that my plan has some sound foundation in a scientific approach and isn't just some crazy shit I came up with.