[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]
Dear Andrew W.K.,
I want to quit smoking. I’ve smoked off and on for the past ten years, and my smoking got really heavy over the past two years, sometimes almost three packs a day. It’s gotten so bad that for the first time I’ve decided I want to quit 100 percent. In the past, I tried to “cut back” or “taper off,” but that would only be for a day or maybe two, and then pretty soon I’d end up resuming my smoking again full-on, only to then have it increase even more because it seemed I was powerless in reducing it. I’ve tried various methods, including patches, and they didn’t really work. I don’t know if you smoke now or ever smoked, but I thought maybe you might have some advice here.
All Smoked Out
Dear All Smoked Out,
I’ve smoked. I really wanted to be a smoker. For some reason, I wanted to see what the world of smoking was all about, so I put genuine effort into getting hooked. It eventually worked, and I smoked for several years. It felt like some sort of rite of passage, a genuine life experience that I was getting under my belt. It certainly bonded me with other smokers, and I was able to understand and have much more compassion for addicts that I hadn’t understood before.
After a few years of being a light smoker, I decided I should probably just stop smoking entirely. It never really occurred to me that smoking was bad for me. It always felt good, but I had started to notice that the good feelings and head-rushes I used to get from smoking had dissipated and were replaced by new feelings of exhaustion and hollowness. It was like I could actually feel the cigarette draining the life out of me each time I inhaled, and rather than feel exhilarated and pleasurably dizzy, I felt this deep wave of fatigue and anxiety. It would take me five or ten minutes to bounce back and feel relatively normal again.
My smoking friends told me not to take those tired and sick feelings too seriously. They said, “You just work through those bad feelings by smoking more, and eventually they go away.”
I threw away all the cigarettes I had and was determined to resist the urge to ask others to give me smokes. This worked for a while. I felt waves of temptation wash over me when I would see cigarette logos, advertising, and especially empty boxes littered on the street. I would kick the boxes open to see if there happened to be one inside. There never was, until one day I kicked at a box of Newport 100s and, to my amazement, there was one perfectly intact, beautiful, long cigarette still remaining in the corner of the pack.
I figured this was too good to pass up. It was a free pass. I immediately bought a Bic lighter and smoked the Newport. It was great and the whole experience of finding it was exciting and put me in a great mood. It felt like I had won a special game. I went back into the shop where I bought the lighter and decided to purchase a whole brand new pack of Newports. I smoked three as I walked home. But by the time I got to my door, the good feelings had worn off and I realized I hadn’t quit smoking at all. So now what?
It felt stupid to throw away this new, crisp, almost full pack of Newports, but I realized that if I didn’t toss them, I’d smoke them all and be smoking every day again. There was a very vague realization, way back in some blocked-out and faraway part of my mind, that I was hooked more deeply than I had thought and had begun to play small games with myself revolving around trying to find ways to smoke. I wasn’t fully aware of how those games would evolve. But they did.
In only a few days, I found myself back to kicking at empty cigarette boxes on the sidewalk. I longingly remembered the thrill of discovering that one surprise cigarette inside that discarded pack. I was sure if I found one like that again, it would be a well-deserved little treat — just one smoke and that would be it. Maybe that’s how I could smoke from now on: only smoke when I’m lucky enough to find one in a pack on the ground. It seemed like a great and very fun plan. Last time, my only mistake had been buying that whole pack after just getting that one freebie off the ground. Next time, I would only have the one found cigarette and never buy a pack again in my life.
A few days later, as I was walking along and looking for cigarette boxes to kick, I noticed a perfectly good unsmoked cigarette lying in a crack on the sidewalk. I fished it out, examined it a bit, and determined that it was as clean and new as the one that I had discovered in the Newport box. It must’ve accidentally fallen out of someone’s pack as they fumbled with it. This was almost as fun as finding a cigarette still in the box, so I smoked it and felt pretty happy with myself. I didn’t immediately go and buy a new pack, and just left it at that. But by the next day, I was eyeing the ground more than ever, hoping to find more not-empty packs or accidentally unsmoked cigarettes.
My eyes darted across the pavement, and I could feel my standards lowering — only new cigarettes had become found cigarettes in packs on the ground. Suddenly I saw an almost unsmoked cigarette that was sort of bent and sitting by the corner of a building, like someone had gone out to have a really quick two-puff smoke break and then hastily stubbed it out. This was almost as good as finding a completely unsmoked cigarette. Who was I to complain?
I broke off the little smoked end and snapped off the filter (where you could still see the previous smoker’s lipstick stains), and smoked it right there. It was strong without the filter, but I felt it was still pretty good. It had a harsher taste because it had been partially smoked, but I still felt like it was basically a new cigarette. I felt thrifty and resourceful. Never did I dream that in only a couple weeks’ time, this little game of scavenging cigarettes would evolve into me collecting any and all cigarette butts off the sidewalk, putting them in my pocket, and then re-rolling them at home into “new” cigarettes. All I cared about was that I wasn’t buying new packs of cigarettes. In my distorted mind, that meant I wasn’t a full-blown smoker. Meanwhile, the few people who were aware of my sidewalk butt hunting were completely disgusted and confused. It never occurred to me how warped my thinking had become.
This went on for many months, and eventually led to me just buying regular cigarettes again, rolling tobacco, and becoming a heavier smoker than I ever had been before. When I decided to quit again after seven years of steady smoking, it was extremely challenging, probably one of the hardest things I had faced up till then. I did it cold-turkey and didn’t use any method other than distraction. I don’t think willpower would’ve worked for me. I had to distract myself with life.
So every time I would feel the urge to smoke, I would do something else instead that I needed to do anyway. The craving would be very strong, but eventually the activity would take over and the craving would pass and I would get something done in the meantime. It killed two birds with one stone. Sometimes I would feel the urge to smoke, so I’d complete a bunch of simple tasks in a row, like going to get the mail, taking out the trash, running some errands, and returning some phone calls. Other times, I would have to come up with tasks to do, especially when I was traveling. If I was at the airport and felt like smoking, instead of going outside into the drop-off area where everyone was having their last-minute smokes, I would force myself to check in and go through security, just so it would be that much harder to go back out to smoke. This had the added side effect of helping me be much more on time for my flights.
Other times, I would clean up huge parts of my house that had grown disorganized, or answer a bunch of letters, or anything else I had been putting off. I realized that whenever I had been smoking, I was just sitting or standing around, not doing anything. I had wasted so much time, and I had so much that always needed to get done.
But the most effective thing I ever found to do when I had the urge to smoke was to exercise. It didn’t really matter what kind of exercise it was: I air-drummed, danced, did jumping jacks, push-ups, weights, stationary bikes, even just lifted my luggage at the airport over and over — anything other than smoking. The benefit was again twofold, but with an added element. Unlike the other tasks like house chores and work, I noticed that the more I exercised, the less I physically felt like smoking. The cravings were tangibly reduced. It really felt like oil and water; smoking and exercise just didn’t mix. The greatest part was, it felt like I was truly turning something bad into something good. All the smoking was clearly damaging my body, and now I could take that exact craving and use it to motivate myself to get better. I had always been into exercise as a way to make my mind feel better, but I had never seen how it could reduce these kinds of negative cravings, too.
I can only tell you what worked for me. I absolutely understand people who haven’t had an easy time when it comes to quitting smoking. At times, the craving was so intense and brutal that it felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. But the craving will pass. It is different for everyone, but it is always possible. And I also don’t think it’s bad to smoke if someone wants to. I have a good friend who smokes, and he just feels that it’s an important part of what he’s meant to do in life. Who am I to say otherwise?
But if you do want to stop, there are clearly lots of options out there for quitting. Fortunately, it all comes down to one simple thing: Just don’t smoke. Do something else instead. Do something good for yourself when you feel the urge to smoke. This is a technique that can be applied to many challenging areas of life. When you have a bad feeling creeping in, use it as a direct stimulation to do something good in place of it. It starts a new kind of habit and a new kind of addiction: getting addicted to becoming the kind of person you really want to be. Don’t give up.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.