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My Stoptober diary, part four: 10 things I learned after giving up smoking for a month

November 1st, 2018 by Joe Lofts

Monday 29th October

I know what readers of my previous Stoptober diaries are thinking. Monday 29th? Why have you gone and skipped a week?

Now, before I invoke your collective ire, it’s worth explaining the current situation.

This article was originally intended to follow the same routine as the previous three accounts of my Stoptober journey: a day-by-day overview of the trials and tribulations of packing in cigarettes. However, having a nasty cold and flu for a solid week has put pay to any non-smoking shenanigans worth talking about.

You get the picture.

The situation is a double-edged sword, of sorts. While getting through a pack of tissues every couple of hours has rendered my digital diary somewhat desolate, it’s also proved a useful distraction in my attempts to give up smoking. So much so, in fact, that something monumental has literally just dawned on me: I made it through the 28 days of Stoptober.

Blimey.

What’s more, today is exactly a month since my last ciggie, which was the prelude to a truly awful hangover. In hindsight, that ash-smelling hangover was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’d had enough of the habit, and the fags had to go.

Now that I’ve given away the ending (or should I say beginning of my smoking cessation journey), I thought I’d try my hand at offering up some pearls of wisdom for the prospective non-smoker. Besides, I’m sure you’ve had enough of my banal tales of raiding biscuit tins.

Instead of documenting the daily grind, I’d like to share some insights I hope can be of use to others who want to give up smoking but feel as though they can’t. Here are ten things I learned while doing Stoptober.

1) The physical withdrawals don’t last that long

Many who prepare to give up smoking tend to place disproportionate attention on the immediate nicotine withdrawal symptoms after quitting, envisaging weeks upon weeks of painful coughing and spluttering. In actual fact, nicotine leaves your system within 48 to 72 hours of your last cigarette.

Almost counterintuitively, I actually found the quitting process tougher once the nicotine withdrawals had subsided. The first few days of quitting were something of a novelty, and the physical effects (along with the sympathy of others) offered a distraction from the emotional and psychological nitty gritty that I’d have to confront later on (which I address in number 8 of this list).

2) I’m quitting now because I actually want to quit

While this sounds glaringly obvious, many attempts to quit smoking are doomed from the start. This is because people tend to focus on fighting the negative urge to smoke rather than nurturing the positive urge to give up. Eventually, adopting the antagonistic approach can cause someone to relapse due to sheer mental exhaustion.

I’ve tried to quit many times before, and though I wanted to stop smoking due to the ill effects it has on the body, deep down I wasn’t ready to completely give up. Each time, I felt as though I was quitting for someone else, and this added to feelings of guilt and shame. All in all, there was an added pressure that nobody needs when trying to beat an addiction.

Before I made the decision to partake in this year’s Stoptober, I’d already made plenty of preparation. Every time I smoked, I would visualise the damage it was doing to my body. I don’t even think I finished the last cigarette I smoked—a sign that I was ready to quit, and this time for good.

3) “Just one cigarette” will never work

I kept repeating this mantra to myself whenever the withdrawal symptoms or urges to smoke became overwhelming—a last line of defence against the menacing cravings.

My previous attempts at quitting invariably failed because I’d become complacent and think one cigarette wouldn’t lead to another. In reality, by the time I processed the fact I’d just relapsed, I would already be in the corner shop buying another pack. Things would spiral out of control, and the next excuse would be “just one pack”.

Like any addiction, a smoking relapse can escalate quicker than you’d imagine. Psychologically, the feeling after smoking that first cigarette can be crushing. On Facebook support groups, I’ve read many comments by people whose Stoptober had fallen short and their overarching feeling was one of failure and helplessness.

There were a few times when I nearly gave in, which would have meant starting all over again from square one—all for the sake of a two-minute smoke. And believe me, the cigarette is never as satisfying as it seems beforehand.

4) My attitude to smoking has changed quite quickly

This one took me by surprise. After making it through a couple of social occasions without smoking, I noticed my feelings towards the habit gradually change. Now, whenever I see someone with a cigarette, my response (nine times out of ten at least) is one of repulsion rather than yearning.

I put this down to two factors. Firstly, getting used to the smell of smoking as a non-smoker experiences it comes as a quite a shock. After one night out during week three, I remember getting home and feeling disgusted by how my clothes smelled—and that was just from my friends smoking nearby. This sensation took me back to a time before I smoked; being a spotty adolescent who would never have imagined that he’d end up smoking for a decade. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it.

Secondly, using visualisation techniques has really helped me change how I view smoking. Whenever I have an urge to smoke, I remind myself of what it does to the body—from a build up of tar in the lungs to the risk of causing a number of grisly illnesses. Putting these images in my mind as I toked on a ciggie certainly took precedence over the “benefits” of smoking. What good is looking cool if you have emphysema?

5) Social situations have a different dynamic

This is perhaps one of the most profound changes that I’ve noticed since giving up. As I touched upon during part one of my Stoptober diary, smoking always offered a crutch for my anxiety to lean on. It could provide an escape at a moment’s notice, a distraction from a difficult conversation, and, on a more basic level, it would give my hands something to do.

Now that my means of escape have been diminished, I’ve been pushed outside my comfort zone. Although jostling with my instincts to flee sometimes makes the anxiety worse in the short-term, afterwards I feel rewarded for having stuck it out. As a result, I also feel more present, and although it’s still very much a learning curve, I’ve noticed my patience improving too.

6) My senses are coming back to me

Before you give up smoking, this is something you’re told will happen by countless leaflets and medical professionals. As I imagine many current smokers are, I too was skeptical. After four weeks, though, I genuinely have noticed an improvement in both my sense of smell and taste.

Smell is something that you only truly appreciate once it’s gone, and ten years of smoking has substantially reduced my nose’s ability to detect scent. The fact that it’s slowly coming back has actually improved my day-to-day experience, which is certainly something I didn’t foresee.

7)  It’s made me more responsible about my overall health

Contrary to popular belief, successfully giving up smoking does not hinge on exerting copious amounts of willpower. As I addressed in number 2, too much willpower can be counterproductive.

Maintaining discipline, however, is key. One little slip up can undo all the progress, so keeping track of quitting has helped me consciously resist the urge to smoke. This daily scrutiny on self-discipline has had the positive effect of making me adopt a more proactive approach to other aspects of my health.

By approaching quitting from a quantitative standpoint—how many days smoke-free, number of cravings per day, etc.—it has also made me more conscious of how much I drink and how much unhealthy food I consume. Yes, I’m still prone to the occasional chocolate binge, but then again, who isn’t?

What’s more, going for a cigarette often stems from boredom. I’ve managed to find new ways to satiate the restlessness, and have started walking more, jogging and swimming.

8) I’m facing emotions I haven’t faced in a while

When I was a heavy smoker, the easiest way to diffuse difficult situations or emotions was to go and have a cigarette. All my angst could be directed into the habit, and the effects of the nicotine rush would quickly dispel much of the stress I was carrying. However, now that the protective layer of smoking has been removed, I have no option but to face these emotions head on.

By week three, my mood swings had started to increase in intensity. Though they didn’t increase my urge to smoke (I’d already gone beyond that point), they did have a noticeable impact on my mental health. Unresolved emotions came to the fore, and although they might be hard to navigate, I’m really thankful that I’m being made to deal with them before they spiral out of control.

In short, giving up smoking has helped declutter my head and pushed me to take more responsibility for my emotional health. It’s very much a learning curve, and, if anything, has become the primary motivation to continue with cessation from cigarettes.

9) I’m looking forward to the next month of not smoking

When you hit certain milestones in sport, it can give you impetus to keep going and surpass those achievements. Quitting smoking feels like a similar challenge, and the longer the challenge goes on, the longer I want to stick at it.

When I started Stoptober four weeks ago, I adopted a day-to-day mindset. At the time, setting my sights further afield would have added unnecessary pressure and I’d have likely buckled under the weight of expectation. As the cravings started to gradually disappear, my outlook gradually shifted to a week-to-week one. By the end of Stoptober, the timeframe has expanded, and I feel ready to conquer the next month smoke free.

10) I don’t know for certain that I’ll never smoke again

Because I don’t want to cloud my ongoing efforts with unfounded optimism, I’ve tried to set realistic aims. While thinking about the smoke-free days, weeks and months ahead, I’ve been dwelling on the following question: at what point does one become a non-smoker? The vague answer I came up with is something of a cliche, but I believe it rings true: quitting smoking is a journey, not an outcome.

The feeling that I’m on a journey is why I think it’s important to be wary of complacency. This doesn’t mean being overly vigilant; instead, it means being aware of my thoughts, feelings and emotions. Yes, there may be a day in the future where I feel a true sense of finality to my life as a smoker, but for now I think it’s sensible to view myself as occupying a transitional space: no longer a smoker, but not quite a non-smoker just yet.

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