Smoking Cessation

Critique and graphic by: Chris Talbot-Heindl

There is only one thing worse than quitting cigarettes (well besides the obvious, which is starting to smoke in the first place), and that, my well-intentioned friends, are people who have never had a smoking addiction that try to give you advice.

At best, the advice is meager and fleeting; at worse it is completely condescending. Which, I may come across as in this critique, as my emotional health has been a complete yo-yo during this process.

When I say addiction, I’m not talking about that one time you puffed to impress some friends in high school or college and coughed and maybe threw up a little in your hair – that obviously doesn’t count. But somehow, that’s the anecdote I get to hear most often. A nicotine addiction is so much more than that.

A lot of time, the advice and support you receive from a never-smoker are also very brief, meaning, concern quickly turns to frustration, quickly turns to anger about “why can’t you just let it go?”

I’ve been smoking for twelve years. On Monday morning, I purposely did not pack cigarettes when I left for work, thereby starting my non-smoking life. By Tuesday morning, I was a basket case.

For those of you who have not experienced this first hand, it’s kind of like having the flu, a headache, and an anxiety attack at the same time.

Here’s what’s happening in the body of someone who is quitting. First, their blood sugar plummets. This leads to headaches, inability to concentrate, dizziness, and the desire to eat, eat, eat. This is because your body has changed the way that it reads sugar levels. When you eat, it takes up to 20 minutes before sugar is released to the blood and brain. The nicotine in cigarettes causes the body to release its own stores of sugar in a matter of seconds. With twelve years of smoking, my body needs to relearn how to use the sugar it gets from my food rather than waiting for the nicotine to release it chemically from my food storage in my body.

Until my body can figure out how to use food correctly again, my brain is not receiving enough fuel to function normally.

Withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, anxiety, itchiness, insomnia, restlessness, muscle cramps, fatigue, cottonmouth, heart palpitations, drowsiness, dry/sore throat, poor concentration, tremors, constipation, digestive problems, irritability, hunger, dizziness, sensitivity, and thirst.

All of these symptoms are very real and very excruciating to someone who is trying to quit smoking.  Quitting smoking isn’t like quitting watching Montel Williams. It’s more than an unhealthy addiction; it’s an entire healing process. The brain and the body need to physically recuperate parts that have been dormant and re-sensitize receptors that nicotine has numbed.

For instance, the brain needs to learn how to process more than 200 neuro-chemicals that nicotine has been processing for the entire duration of your smoking life. During the last twelve years, my cigarettes have been processing my adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin just to name a few.

It will take my brain 10 days to two weeks to do this. And in the meantime, my body will be going ape shit.  My mood, stimulation, and anxiety will be uncontrollable. And when my brain decides to fix the receptors for anger, boy howdy, that’s going to be a fun one.

On top of the physical side effects of withdrawal, there are a myriad of psychological factors that I will have to overcome. None of these psychological factors respond to rational processing or reasoning. This means that no matter how many well-intentioned comments from friends about how terrible smoking is I receive; it won’t matter.

As the Quit Smoking Adviser website indicates, “You come out of a darkened room where you’ve been looking at pictures of ruined lungs, desperate for a cigarette. In fact, these tactics often make you want to smoke more…” because, as they explain, the information about how horrible it is “may make you ‘want’ to quit, on a rational level, but it doesn’t make the urge to smoke go away!”

So, I guess my point of all this is, be gentle with a quitter. Encouragement can be, “that’s great.” Keep talk about smoking to a minimum, and don’t get frustrated or angry with them if it isn’t going well. Quitting cold turkey has a 5% success rate.

Sadly on Tuesday, by noon, I found myself in the 95%. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up. I just need something other than “cold turkey” to kick the habit.

When you are faced with a friend quitting. Support them in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Don’t pressure them. And don’t be disappointed in them if they aren’t ready yet. Only 5% of smokers are able to quit with cold turkey, and only 10% with nicotine replacement therapy products. Just be proud that your friend has enough balls to try and be one of those very few.