I quit smoking for the third time nearly 18 days ago. I wrote back in January about starting smoking again. A BIG THANK YOU GOING OUT TO ALL MY WELL-WISHERS ON FACEBOOK – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE! Well, having built back a habit of close to a pack a day and a particular Saturday at a pack and a half, I decided that I had had enough, again. It has not been too terribly difficult, more of a habit than a deep-set addiction in my case. I haven’t experienced withdrawal, but have paid attention to various feelings and urges I have had in this period. I have also given thought to what causes addiction (cigarettes, drugs, sex, gambling…) and wanted to share that here. Now, some of this stuff might be patently obvious – I am no psychologist – but I hope that there will, nonetheless, be some good ideas hidden in here. I will conclude with what I hope will be some useful advice on quitting – at least things that seemed to help me.
It occurred to me that there are three root causes to addictions: congenital, unconscious death wish and (somewhat related) conscious self-destructive tendencies. I think that any one of these is particularly dangerous and two out of three can be very, very hard to kick.
The first cause seems to me to be hereditary – kids born to addicts are more likely to become addicts. This is relatively obvious when it comes to hardcore drugs like crystal meth or smack, but also is the case with tobacco. Recent studies such as this one have linked the fact of having parents that smoke up to 50% chances of nicotine addiction in children. There is probably a chemical imbalance that gets passed down in some cases and in others it is more behavioral or mimicry. Admittedly, I had stopped smoking the second time because I really didn’t want my kids to see me smoking and was ashamed of having started again for precisely that reason. In my case, both my parents always smoked and still smoke, so the tendency is clearly there. And in my case, the 50% number even holds because my sister has never smoked. In any case, not smoking when you have kids will probably decrease significantly the risk of them becoming smokers later. The same can probably be said for alcohol as well.
When heredity is not a primary cause, another one I thought about was a sort of unconscious death wish. I wrote about the abyss a few days ago. I got to thinking a bit more about the fact that perhaps death and that feeling of falling (David Foster Wallace in The Pale King actually speaks of the hole falling through us rather than the other way around) is both repulsive but attractive. We do not want to die, but are morbidly curious of what will happen once we do. That psychological tension perhaps creates a psychic void which then gets filled with addictive behavior. People want to fill in that void to not think about it and as it is very, very deep in the subconscious and nearly always present in the spirit, the coping becomes addiction. Here I am thinking about hard drugs in particular like heroin or crystal meth which are known to be incredibly dangerous but that serve to fill that abyss and make it seem less dangerous or lethal somehow. Now, I have never done either of those drugs so I might be completely wrong on that score.
Very closely related to (and perhaps a “real” psychologist would argue it to be the same as) the death magnet as a root cause of addiction, I think there is also a strong link to the need for self-destruction. Rather than it being focused on a fear/desire of death itself, here I am referring to issues where the addict has a high degree of self-loathing and so the addiction is an unconscious way of mutilating or endangering oneself. “I am not worthy of a happy/sane/normal life, therefore I will do dangerous things so that I get hurt and can say that I deserve it” is kind of the attitude I am thinking of. Now, this can also be very unconscious. I mean, we have been saying now for three to four decades about how dangerous smoking is, how inevitable lung cancer, heart problems, and a myriad of other issues can be indubitably tied back to smoking. And yet, people still smoke. I get the impression that in many cases, the smoker suffers from low self-esteem and somehow is trying to destroy him/herself by smoking. Perhaps it starts out more as a rebellious activity. Even then, rebellion is almost always inherently dangerous and occasionally signals a feeling of (unconscious) inferiority which fuels the violence of that rebellion. Gambling is another good example where the addict KNOWS that s/he will never get back his/her ante and yet continues to play, throwing away their own money, their families money, helplessly endangering the lives of him/herself and all those around them. I think this is because the gambler doesn’t fundamentally like his/her life and is losing it while playing.
Now, why did I start again? I think that there is quite a bit of the hereditary aspect that played, but also a little self-loathing after a particularly bad period at work when I started seriously questioning my value and worth to the company. More importantly, how did I quit? Well, first off, I worked on myself and my own self-esteem. I know what I am worth and what I am good at and once those doubts faded, I was able to stop the impulsive grabbing-for a-new-cigarette habit. Advertising my quitting on Facebook and asking for encouragement - as silly and ridiculous as that may seem – helped enormously because many folks I hadn’t even heard from in a long time, wrote me to help me quit. Keeping relatively busy is also important. I started running again and tried to get back into reading fiction and both of those have reduced my impulse to smoke. One friend suggested breathing as if I had a cigarette in my hand. That actually worked a few times. Mostly though, I have focused on reasons why I didn’t want to smoke anymore. First and foremost, I don’t want to be dependent on anyone or anything and that is incompatible with nicotine addition. I also don’t want to deal with the consequences in terms of degradation of my health. Lastly, I thought of not wanting to give that image of an authority figure that smokes to my kids. These things all provided a mental barrier to the “need” to grab a smoke. Now, this applies probably only to me, but I thought that in my case, the patch, the electronic cigarette, and number of other “quit smoking” gadgets and such were somehow enablers. The addict still gets the substance (nicotine) he is looking for but without the smoke. The thing is that I have seen SO many people relapse in those cases whereas the cold-turkey quitters like myself (and many on my blog) seem to be able to go the distance.
So what advice can be derived from all that? I think that one really has to WANT to quit and be clear on their reasons for doing so. Focus on those reasons especially when the transgressive urge comes on. Fill in the “void” with other activities – things you have perhaps dropped over time but that gave you immense pleasure in the past. Call or write a friend or loved one. Write a blog article. All of these activities keep you focused on quitting and moving forward in a positive way.
Please let me know in the comments if this is helpful (or merely redundant) advice.