On May 13, 2019, I quit nicotine completely.
I had been compulsively vaping (using an electronic cigarette) for about four years. I was intermittently smoking cigarettes, using nicotine gum, and trying to find any way to quit altogether.
I read scores of articles about how to quit. Some encouraged nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) like gum, patches, or lozenges, while others swore by total abstinence and quitting cold turkey.
The anxiety that was wrapped around the possibility of quitting was paralyzing. I would talk myself out of it day by day, swearing that I would do it eventually.
As the days passed, the anxiety didn’t lessen. As the weeks passed, my will to quit did not grow stronger. As the years passed, my self-efficacy slowly drained. Then, one day, with seemingly no catalyst or precipitating event, the decision was as clear as day.
It was time.
Granted, it did not feel like the right time. I had 100 reasons why it was absolutely not the right time. For whatever reason, which I will try to deconstruct step by step, it worked.
It’s been 43 days without nicotine and I haven’t looked back.
1. Don’t set a specific quit date
I have been telling myself for years that I will quit on a specific day. This “plan” gave me the illusion of control and helped me to feel better about knowing the ball was in my court. I would vape or smoke even more in the days leading up to this date, so by the time it was the day to quit, I had psyched myself out and developed an even stronger nicotine addiction.
It will never feel like a "right time" to quit.
The right time is now.
I had planned to quit Juuling (a popular electronic cigarette) as soon as I finished my last pack of Juul pods (the cartridge with the nicotine in it). I’m not sure where the idea came from, it just came. I had a plan all weekend to quit once I was completely out of nicotine. The remainder of my nicotine would last until that Tuesday. On Sunday evening, much to my dismay, my significant other asked for a Juul pod. I hesitated but agreed. I was out of pods earlier than expected, which was the best thing that could happen to me.
I woke up on Monday morning, left all of my nicotine devices at his house, and went to work with nothing to fall back on. I asked the universe for willingness and strength. I didn't look back.
Planning does not work.
It will never feel like the right time.
Make an impulsive decision and stick with it.
2. Oral substitutes
Sunflower seeds saved my life.
I chewed sunflower seeds nonstop for that first week. It was such a helpful tool to keep my mouth and hands fixated on something other than my electronic cigarette. After about a week, I had to get emergency wisdom tooth surgery, so I wasn't able to chew sunflower seeds anymore. Before that, though, they kept me from falling back on the physical habit of reaching for a cigarette or a vape.
I also kept a pack of Mentos in the car. This was helpful as well because I loved smoking in my car, so the strong association during those first few days needed to be broken with something else.
I got to work in an anxious frenzy. I had been told by friends who quit vaping or smoking in the past that the first week is the worst. I knew what I was in for, but the mental anguish was very strong. I decided to write down my thoughts because they were careening through my mind like a freight train which had been derailed.
Journaling helped me to get out of my head and see in black and white how rapid my thoughts and cravings were changing. One minute I felt like I couldn't go another second, the next minute I knew I would be fine. I did this for the first few days, and it helped me to feel more confident in my ability to sit through the debilitating nature of a craving. I knew it would be short-lived. I had proof.
Here are some of my ramblings:
Today is day one. I woke up at 7:30 A.M. and it’s 11:33 A.M. It’s only been four hours without nicotine (plus the seven-plus hours of sleep), but it’s hell. I’m not sure if it’s the physical craving for nicotine or the strong associations.
I’ve been listening to a “Master Class” on the app “Calm” about breaking bad habits. It educates the listener on feedback loops, ignited by an initial trigger, a behavior, and then the response.
The issue with vaping is that I did it literally everywhere. I vaped all day every day, in my car, in my house, while reading, while watching TV, while out with friends, during 12-step meetings, before and after 12-step meetings, etc.
Today is day one. Hour four. The association is strong—I reach for my vape every few seconds. I’ve been chewing sunflower seeds, drinking lots of coffee and water, and even taking deep breaths with a pen (like, an ink pen—there’s no vape in there).
Deep breaths help. Reminding myself that I “get to enjoy this moment without vaping” helps, too. A website encouraged the vape-quitter to remind themselves that they aren’t giving anything up, they’re gaining a whole lot. They get to enjoy their lives now, without being a slave to nicotine.
Oh, nicotine, how I love you and miss you and need you and hate you.
The physical withdrawal really isn’t that bad. I have a dull headache but I usually do in the mornings. My chest is a little tight, but it’s the mental obsession that’s really the kicker.
- It’s 12:48 P.M. and I just ate lunch and returned to my office. I feel borderline homicidal. I feel depressed and deflated and empty and angry and annoyed and frustrated and EVERYTHING is pissing me off.
- It’s 1:34 P.M. and I did a workshop with my patients which began to help. Then I walked around in the rain (dramatic) and got gum from another staff member then talked to a patient about Brene Brown which was helpful too. I don’t feel as homicidal right now.
- It’s 2:11 P.M. now and it has been pretty easy while being distracted with gum and Game of Thrones Youtube and Instagram clips. I have a pretty bad headache in my temples which comes and goes in this throbbing way and I’m super irritable and restless.
- It’s 3:40 P.M. and my head hurts so badly. A coworker did a good job of keeping me distracted and we talked about Game of Thrones and I tried to do a puzzle.
- It’s 4:06 P.M. and I feel hopeful and OK!!!!
- It’s day five and I’m fine!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
4. Prayer or intention-setting
This was a lifesaver for me. You don’t have to be religious or spiritual to acknowledge the benefits of intention setting. That is how I see prayer. When I ask the universe to help me with anything, I’m consciously setting an intention to be mindful of whatever it is and cultivate it. I cannot stress this enough: pray for strength. Set intentions for willingness. Ask the universe or whatever it is you believe in for help. The act of asking for help is invaluable. There is a reason why, in the 12 steps, the first step is, “admitting we were powerless.” If I’m powerless over something, that means I need a power greater than me to help. This power can be a fellowship of friends, it can be an intangible and abstract notion of God or the universe, or anything outside of you. When I try to quit on my own, I talk myself back into vaping or smoking. Every single time. Level your pride and ego and ask for help.
5. Get a helpful app
If you have a smartphone, which you probably do, you have access to millions of apps. I love daily readers (specifically, “The Language of Letting Go” by Melody Beattie), which also come in app-form, as well as meditation apps (my favorite is called “Calm"). When I looked up smoking cessation apps, the one that caught my eye was called “Smoke Free.” This app shows me what’s happening to my body after I quit, how quickly I’m recovering, how long it takes for the nicotine to leave my body (so I know what’s mental and what’s physical), as well as the exact amount of money I’m saving by not smoking. It gave me so much motivation once those initial cravings subsided!
6. Change the narrative
As I love to point out, the story we create for ourselves becomes our reality. This means that I need to tell myself (and others) that I am not a smoker. I am not a vaper. This is not who I am. This is something I did, but I am detaching from that narrative now. Most people relapse on cigarettes or any nicotine device after the cravings have subsided and they feel better. This is the insidious nature of addiction (and it happens with other substances, too)—we relapse when things are going well. We tell ourselves that we are fine now, and we can smoke “just one.” We need to remind ourselves, “Not enough puff no matter what.”
I was once told that every time I pick up a cigarette or a vape, I'm inadvertently acting out in self-destructive behavior. I disagreed at the time, stating that I have no reason to self-sabotage. I was reminded that if even a core part of me believes that I'm not worthy of health and happiness, I will continuously act out in ways that validate this belief.
For me, smoking and vaping go against everything I believe in. I believe in self-love, in body-love, in appreciation of health, of others, and of the environment. So why was I smoking?
Every time I picked up a cigarette or a vape, I would shame myself.
"I'm not strong enough."
"I'm a smoker."
"This is just how I am."
But none of this is true. I am strong. I am capable of growth and change. I am not a smoker. I am not a vaper. I am not this behavior. I can change.
So change the narrative.
And remember ...
For me, the “really bad” anxiety, frustration, anger, and cravings only lasted four days. I was vaping almost constantly, with a very high level of nicotine. After four days, the cravings went away.
It has been 43 days and I only know this because of the “Smoke Free” app. I no longer count the minutes, hours, and days. I no longer want to smoke. I have a newfound freedom—I am no longer a slave to nicotine. I am free today.
You can be, too.