Quitting Smoking: The Hardest Breakup Ever

Even when I was a teenager and thought smoking was cool, I knew at some point it wouldn’t be. My 16-year-old self would proclaim that “old people who smoke are gross. I won’t be smoking when I’m 30.” I hated that my parents smoked (in the house, no less), yet I could be found puffing away with my friends behind the library, in the woods, at parties.

I headed off to college, and my growing dependence followed me. Now I bought my own packs – no more sharing with my girlfriends — and I smoked every day. I had to admit I was a smoker; it was becoming part of my identity. Cigarettes became my steady companion: They helped me wake up in the morning and soothed me to sleep at night. If I had a drink in one hand, there was a cigarette in the other. I couldn’t think of anything that could complement a cup of coffee as well as a smoke.

Cigarettes and I entered into the closest relationship I’ve ever had. We took road trips together, relaxed after a nice meal, coped with bad news, grieved deaths. No matter what was happening, I could count on a pack of smokes to be waiting for me, ready to give me what I needed. At some point, I was pretty sure I couldn’t live without them.

By 2003, about 15 years after I started smoking, a pack of cigarettes in New York fetched far more than the dollar they’d cost in my youth – and smoking had been outlawed in bars. As my 30th birthday approached I remembered my teenage vow to quit by the time I got “old,” but I didn’t feel anywhere near ready for that. Maybe by 35.

Meanwhile (and yes, ironically) my career as a health reporter and editor was taking off. Several times a week I wrote tips and articles that advised readers to quit smoking (immediately), if they hadn’t already. No matter what the condition — diabetes, heart disease, even constipation — giving up cigarettes was one of the answers to relieving symptoms and improving overall health.

I moved to a bigger company and moved my smoking into the proverbial closet. I wouldn’t have a smoke with my morning coffee anymore, lest I walk into the office smelling like old tobacco. I no longer took smoke breaks at work. I stopped smoking in my car, too – so it wasn’t until I pulled up to my house past six every night that I could jump out of the car and finally light up. (And believe me, every nerve ending responded. I’d let out a deep, smoky sigh, and appreciate the moment I’d waited for all day.)

As I got closer to 35, the chorus of people hounding me to quit grew louder. The refrain came from all corners of my life. My mom, who’d quit when I left for college. My dad, who quit shortly after. My aunts, my best friend, even me — everyone wanted me to be an ex-smoker. Still, I just wasn’t ready. First of all, I lived with roommates who smoked, and there was no chance of quitting in that situation. And second, I had tried quitting and it was hard. I couldn’t go a day. I became an angry, mean, unreasonable person. In those moments the only thing that would soothe me was another smoke.

I moved into a new apartment and immediately outlawed smoking indoors. (I lived alone, so you can image how complicated enforcement got.) For a while I walked down two flights of stairs to street level to smoke. But soon enough I started thinking it was too cold, or too late, or too… far. I came up with a loophole in my own edict — I put an outward-facing fan in my window, dimmed the lights, and smoked with my face and cigarette next to the spinning blade in order push all that smoke out into the night. Technically, I wasn’t smoking inside.

And then I found myself on the cusp of 35. Both my grandmothers had died – 10 days apart – just before my 34th birthday; a year later I was still smoking, and on the precipice. I’d tried quitting in the spring and lasted less than a month. I was haunted by the knowledge that my Nana had died shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer, and my Grammy, a heavy smoker for many years, had died of a stroke. I knew that my fears about my own health were not just paranoia; they were actual, provable facts. I couldn’t watch those commercials about people losing fingers or toes or voice boxes due to smoking.

Two months after my 35th birthday I put a plan in motion. First I would detox from the additives in cigarettes, so I switched from my brand to American Spirits, which claim to be “100% Additive-Free.” It was hard. I wasn’t as satisfied — the drags were wimpy, the oomph was nonexistent. But I was on a path and I stuck to it.

Here’s where things got strange. I bought a fresh pack, smoked a cigarette, and went out to dinner with a friend. When I got home, I couldn’t find my brand-new pack of American Spirits (nearly $10 at this point). I dumped out my handbag. I searched my car. I searched around my car. No smokes. Defeated, I went to bed sulking.

The next day I bought another new pack – and the same thing happened. Not a religious person by nature, I still took this as a sign from on high that this was the moment I was supposed to quit smoking. So I did. Cold turkey.

It was horrible. I was in withdrawal. I was grumpy, mean, raging. I used the F-word nonstop. I ate cupcakes and ice cream and French fries with Ranch dressing without pause. I lay on my bed pantomiming the act of smoking, breathing deeply and blowing out as if releasing smoke. I felt sad, abandoned. The one thing I always turned to when I needed to be consoled, pacified or comforted was gone. I felt depressed and hopeless. And the worst part was that I hadn’t even been dumped – I had been the one who dumped my steady. I was alone, and it was my own choice.

I called ex-smokers and sought their counsel – they all assured me it got better. A friend told me that when she’d quit she used this phrase as her mantra: “Three days, three weeks, three months, three years.”

I hit three days and looked ahead to three weeks. I got there, and the misery subsided a bit. I looked ahead to three months. I got there, and my use of the F-word subsided. I looked ahead to a year (three was simply too much to contemplate). I got there, and my constant thinking about smoking subsided. Now I’m looking ahead to two years, pretty sure I can get there. My cupcake habit is being treated with a diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and much less sugar. I will eventually lose the weight I gained. Now I can say with conviction, “I used to smoke, but I quit.”

To be honest, I’ve tried a drag here and there since I quit. Frankly, it was disgusting. (I never thought I’d recoil from something I once love so much.) I’ve heard that you have to push through that initial nastiness before you can enjoy smoking again. I doubt I’ll start smoking again, though. Quitting was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’m trying to get involved in things that are easier.

Originally published on September 2010 on MarloThomas.com

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