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How to quit smoking

I have smoked for over 10 years, but as of today it has been exactly one year since I had my last cigarette. Although I knew within a few days of quitting that I would never smoke again, we rely on temporal benchmarks to reassure us of the solidity of our resolutions and, so, I feel I can safely once again refer to myself as a non-smoker. It’s a good feeling. It’s been good for a year.

I wrote once before in a [post] about the meanings of smoke that I was then in the midst of an attempt to quit — using nicotine patches. That attempt failed. Within days of ceasing use of the patches I was back on the butts. I suppose the patches work for some but, for me, they simply shifted the source of nicotine from smoke to the patch and — even at the lowest available dose — once the patch was discontinued my body still needed a source of the 7mg or so of nicotine it expected daily. It occurred to me that the goal should not be nicotine replacement but nicotine reduction through slow titration — dose reduction — to a point where quitting would be relatively easy. Commercial products, produced at only a few dose levels would not do it.

I was smoking about a half pack of Camel Ultra-lights (approx. 0.4 mg nicotine per cigarette according to [this] FTC source) at the time I began the reduction project = 4 mg. of nicotine per day. Irony – my “normal” daily dose was already about half of what the lowest level of patch provided. No wonder I didn’t quit using the patch — it was actually making me more dependent on nicotine. My goal was to slowly reduce the number of cigarettes I smoked each day until I was down to just 3 or 4 per day — assuming that at a daily dose of only 1 to 2 mg. of nicotine, my dependency would be mostly psychological rather than physiological and easier to quit. I gave myself no time limit and did not rush the process, coaching myself that since it took me a long time to become a half-pack a day smoker it should take awhile to comfortably get back to being a 3 or 4 cigarette a day smoker.

It took a few months to get down to my target of 3 to 4 cigarettes a day (one for each of the major triggers: morning coffee and after meals). And, just as I was debating about how to actually go about quitting, Providence intervened: I got food poisoning from eating a bad hot dog last July 4th. I was sick as a dog for days and, of course, could not smoke at all. After the fourth day it dawned on me that I was completely free of nicotine dependence — since it only takes 4 days to completely get through nicotine withdrawal. Had there been any side effects of the final withdrawal (e.g., stomach cramps, constipation, headaches, etc.) they were completely masked by the far more severe symptoms of food poisoning. I realized I need never smoke another cigarette — I was free.

People have asked me if I found it difficult to quit smoking — and are surprised when I say “no”. The method I hit on — slow reduction of dose dependence and then just wait to get sick (hopefully nothing as dire as food poisoning) so you can get through withdrawal with any symptoms masked by the illness — was really pretty easy. Interestingly, I have also never experienced any cravings since I quit. There were a few behavioral triggers that made me think of smoking sometimes (the strongest: dealing with work stress, which I had adapted to by relying on smoke breaks that got me away from the office for a few blessed minutes…) but they were eventually extinguished.

The takeaway: nicotine is an addiction, but a fairly manageable one using standard dose titration methods and reliance on “masking symptoms” of any transient illness that can help you through the final 4-day withdrawal.

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