Six Years of Clean Air.
Quitting smoking and quitting drinking were very different things for me. I never gave sobriety any real attempts until I was just done. Alcohol had so thoroughly defeated me that I was ready to quit or die. Which is where we – that is, people who drink like I drank – have to get to in order to attain sobriety. A place of complete surrender and abandon. There was no more doubt in my mind that I could not keep drinking. I was a walking dead man. And so, when it came time to let it all go, I was ready. It was hard, but I knew it was real from the start.
Smoking was not like that. I continued to smoke for about 18 months after I sobered up. I tried to quit in my alcohol rehab. I remember asking when I signed up to go, “Can I quit smoking at the same time?” I was delusional about who exactly would be doing the work. I thought they were going to fix me. Luckily I was rapidly disabused of that notion. I tried, I took Chantix. It didn’t take. And it didn’t need to. I was there to stop intoxicating myself. Cigarettes could wait.
I had quit a few years prior, while I still drank, for about a year. But being a drinker and a non-smoker didn’t work well for me. My self-destructive nature rears up regularly, and if I drink at the same time, I tend to say, “Fuck it.” Then I smoke a pack of cigarettes and feel dramatically depressed and creative and deep and sophisticated, as a defense mechanism against feeling useless and stupid and ugly and worthless. All of it is my diseased brain’s way of convincing me to give it access to the chemicals it loves.
So when I quit smoking, after I became a sober man, it was a different kind of work. I didn’t feel defeated by cigarettes. The “war” metaphor for addiction to alcohol doesn’t work for me. I didn’t battle my alcoholism. I was vanquished by it. Utterly. But I fought cigarettes. I fought like hell.
I had help. When it was time for me to quit, there were a couple of fits and starts. Finally, I did what I should have done long before and listened to my sister. She had quit using nicotine gum, and she told me that I needed to read the directions and use it as indicated. Fancy that. But in sobriety, we become people who are not ashamed or afraid to take direction. So I did that. I read the packaging and I took the medicine (well, poison) as directed.
That was August 17th, 2009. I tried to make that my quit date. But I also gave myself permission to fail, without failing. Meaning, I knew that if I needed a cigarette or two over the next few days to make it through, I would allow myself that. And so, driving home from work the afternoon of the 17th, I had my last cigarette. August 18th, 2009, until today, I’ve had no tobacco of any kind. I kept using the gum for about 4 weeks. I feel confident that I would not have succeeded without it.
I feel differently about my status as an ex-smoker than I do as an ex-drunk. Even though we take sobriety one day at a time, my ex-drinking status feels permanent and solidified in a way that I’m not sure my ex-smoking status ever will. I haven’t had a craving for alcohol since day 12 of sobriety. I have occasional cravings for cigarettes to this day. But I let them move through me and pass away.
My life as a non-smoker is a good one. Obviously, I can run now. Even if yesterday I quit after 2.2 miles in the 93 degF ECC heat. But I’m so much healthier than I was. And according to all the stats, I ought to be only half as likely to have a heart attack as a current-smoker. And my lung cancer risk is dropping steadily. I’ll never be what I might have been. But that’s true of all of us. What I am is here. Now. Sober. Clear lungs. Looking forward, living the life I make for myself, instead of imagining what I wish I were.