Monday, 18 January 2010

On Becoming a Non-Smoker

Stuart, the permaculturalist, phoned over the weekend and noted I hadn't posted recently, I explained it had much to do with my resolutions.

For those who have never smoked, and those who wish to stop, quitting the habit requires you having to play subtle psychological tricks with yourself, the first of which is never to admit the fact you have quit.

If you regard yourself as someone who has given up smoking, then life becomes a constant battle against starting again. You are someone who is sacrificing something. Instead it is necessary to think  of yourself as someone who does not smoke. Someone who does not smoke does not associate feelings of agitation with the lack of a cigarette between their fingers. They deal with the problem differently.

So, if you know someone who has stopped, never ever ask how it's going. Do not remind them they have quit smoking, that they are ex-smokers. Allow them, in their own time and if they so wish, to talk to you from a place that they define.

If they confess they have had a relapse, make no comment. Any comment, whether encouraging or consoling, is a form of judgment and is not needed unless actively sought. Nicotine is a serious drug, more addictive than any other according to a government advisor on drug misuse with whom I worked back in the eighties.

For those trying to kick the habit, you will know when the time comes to stop. It is a question of boxing yourself into a place where it becomes inevitable. And when you find that spot, you will find it simple to quit. Indeed, as Rebecca, who has also stopped [YEAH!], mentioned, the danger is you begin to believe, if it is that easy to stop, having the occasional cigarette won't matter. Believe me it will. Just remember the years it took you to reach the frame of mind where it became easy to stop.

I started smoking after a year free of the habit at four o'clock in the morning during an end-of-finals party here in Brighton. One fag wouldn't matter, I thought. It will only be the one. Ten years later I have finally managed to get back to where I was. At four o'clock in the morning I forgot I was a non-smoker and became someone who had stopped smoking.

Let me talk you through the process of what happens when you stop.

The first day is actually quite pleasant; least I found it so. You float around slightly abstracted like you have been administered a pre-op. Most of the physical effects you experience are as a result of your blood being cleared of carbon monoxide, which results in the capillaries opening up. So your fingers and toes feel warm, your eyes like they are letting in too much light, your appetite increases, and your chest feels as if it is over-dosing on oxygen - the reason why you give out great sighs every so often. [This may not be a correct medical analysis, but it is my explanation for the symptoms.]

Nicotine, one of the most poisonous and addictive of substances, causes cerebral changes - and not all for the bad.

According to the abstract of a report produced by  the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center:

'Nicotine acts on a novel nicotinic receptor complex, identified by the Columbia group, that is strategically located at the sites of communication between neurons in the brain. At very low concentrations, nicotine activates the receptor and causes the neuron to release more neurotransmitter. The result is a much stronger signal. The researchers believe that nicotine's ability to strengthen signals between neurons may account for the complex behavioral effects of nicotine such as increased alertness and improved short-term memory.' *

So sudden withdrawal of nicotine causes a certain amount of confusion, to put it mildly, with one's emotions and brain patterns.

It takes a couple of weeks of dithering, of not being able to sit still or concentrate on anything for longer then 3.472 seconds, before life calms down again. If you want to quit, be prepared for this and accept it - not as a consequence of giving up smoking, otherwise the only cure is to resort to smoking again - but in the same way you accept different cultural norms when abroad because you are, indeed, in another country.

In Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking, which I haven't read but Rebecca has, he talks of being clean of nicotine in a matter of days but of being sullied by custom and associated habit for weeks.

I offer a personal instance; at work we have a fifteen-minute break mid-way through each shift, during which I would join the smokers outside. As I have posted elsewhere, I enjoyed those moments of polluting the fresh air with smoke as smokers are a garrulous lot.

Now I find myself stuck.

I don't want to join the smokers a) because I am a non-smoker, and b) because, though most smokers want to quit, they dislike it when someone breaks ranks as it highlights their failure. As a result, albeit unconsciously, they will undermine the individual's resolution in the hopes he or she will return to the fold and so confirm their belief that quitting is impossible.

"Never mind, chum, you gave it a good go. Have a cigarette."

If you are a non-smoker it is better to avoid former mates who smoke, at least for a good period. It does mean you have to create new routines of behaviour, and new reward systems. I find peanuts work. Peanuts and chocolate. I am now a 100 grams-a-day peanut man rounded off with a bar of Toblerone. (And I am becoming rounded too.)

One of the most noticeable symptons for those around a former smoker is their apparent grumpiness.

As I understand this, it is because nicotine dampens portals to the oldest parts of the brain that govern elemental emotions; when suddenly free of this control your emotions pop like firecrackers. You recognise you are behaving like a child, getting wildly over-excited by the most trivial events or discussions, but there is little you can do to manage it. It takes time.

It takes exercise. Endorphin rushes are a good replacement therapy, as well as a less-fattening reward system than peanuts and chocolate. (Though not as tasty.)

*http://www.columbia.edu/cu/record/archives/vol21/vol21_iss4/record2104.14.html

8 comments:

Electric Monkey said...

Yeah, I've been there done that. Quitting was one of the hardest thing I did and still is two years later. There is always a time that I have to practice real self control in order not to give in to the craving. It's a tough battle out there!

JJ Beattie said...

Bloody marvellous DOT. (Am I allowed to say that?)

I found this post fascinating. Husband is a smoker (has been a non smoker and then a smoker again.) I've never smoked - apart from in a 'behind the bike shed' kind of way - butI found your descriptions really interesting.

Bernardine Kennedy said...

I quit 6 years ago after many many years as a hardened smoker and I used to say 'I'm not smoking at the moment'. I'd given up once before for 5 years so didn't want to be viewed as a total failure if I didn't succeed!
Not so much as a puff in six years but I'm still not complacent!

Lane said...

All so true.

I stopped in July and I still can't allow myself to think about it because I miss it so much.

It gets easier apparently:-)

Girl On The Run said...

xx

Girl On The Run said...

I take exception to the phrase 'former friends' but I forgive you x

DOT said...

Thanks JJ, and you are allowed to say it :))

Congratulations to you Bernadette and Lane, but I believe you are right to be cautious. Keep telling yourself you are a non-smoker.

Your turn next GOTR!

Jon M said...

Keep going! I had hypnotherapy and haven't smoked for about 12 years now. But I'd decided enough was enough!