How I Got Addicted to and Quit Using Nicotine

Today is my 53rd day without nicotine.

I started smoking when I was 15 years old. A buddy of mine stole some of his stepdad’s cigarettes. My friends and I stood behind the house that night while the adults slept upstairs and blew smoke into the air.

I was resistant to the idea of smoking at first. Our character development courses at school were very clear about the addictive nature of cigarettes. Watching my dad battle smoking, failing, and ultimately chewing snuff was a deterrent as well. He looked older than he should have. His teeth were yellow. He left half-filled spit bottles everywhere. I was familiar with the consequences.

I had refused for a long time, and my friends made all manner of argument to persuade me. The argument that ultimately convinced me appealed to my teenage narcissism.  They reasoned that I possessed exceptional will power, and that if anyone could quit smoking, it would be me. I wouldn’t get addicted by smoking just one anyway. I told myself that I did have will power. I could quit if I wanted to. Shouldn’t I experience all things in moderation?

After that night, I ingested some form of nicotine everyday for 13 years.

My friends picked up the habit too. They were all a year older. They could drive, and their parents all smoked. I went to one of their houses everyday after school. I had access, privacy, and an excuse for my clothes smelling. When I got my own car, I kept a pack of cigarettes hidden in the glove box. I often took the long way home so that I had enough time to finish my Camel light, chew some gum, and use some hand sanitizer. Getting my friends who worked at stores around town to sell me cigarettes wasn’t hard. There was never a time where I couldn’t buy tobacco, and I kept it so well hidden from my parents that they didn’t know I smoked until I was well into my twenties.

The habit increased by degrees from a cigarette or two a day to half a pack. I smoked through college. It helped me with the stress and sleeplessness that is characteristic of that time. I was carrying an 18 hour course load most semesters and working close to full time at Pittman’s Grocery Store. The only leisure time I had was following my Sunday morning shift. I thought that I needed nicotine to deal with my stress, and to an extent, I probably did. Smoking provided comfort, opportunity for quiet stillness, and ritual. While I was smoking, I didn’t do anything else. I enjoyed it for meditative (in addition to chemical) reasons.

But my apartment was above a garage, and I walked upstairs everyday after smoking in the car. And one nasty allergy season, I found myself so winded that I needed to rest after climbing to my apartment. I was twenty and struggling to walk two small flights of stairs. I realized I needed to make a change. With apprehension, I decided to quit smoking.

I chewed the gum for a while, but a pack cost as much as a carton of cigarettes. I couldn’t afford it, and my nicotine use spiked because of the convenience of the gum. I chewed piece after piece until I made myself sick. I tried the patch, but there was no ritual or oral element. The lozenges were the same as the gum, and they didn’t last as long. I tried cold turkey, and I made it 12 hours before stress broke me.

I couldn’t continue to smoke, but all the cessation methods I’d tried were expensive and made the addiction worse. I didn’t have the discipline to quit without help. I couldn’t smoke, and I couldn’t go without nicotine, so I went to the store and bought a can of snuff.

I packed my lip for a year, but the habit was too disgusting for me to continue. I quit smoking, but dip contained much more nicotine than cigarettes. My chest hurt when I woke up in the morning, and I had shakes of withdrawal so persistent that they disturbed my sleep. My girlfriend (now my wife) had moved in, and I was embarrassed to chew in front of her. She hated the spit bottles littered around the apartment, and she flinched every time she kissed me.

Portable nicotine vaporizers became popular at that time. They promised to deliver nicotine in harmless vapor. The effects on the respiratory system would be less drastic, and I wouldn’t have spit bottles littered around the house.

I went and bought one that day from a vape shop in Charlestown. I came back with a starter kit, and I threw away all of my snuff and bottles.

In the beginning, the vaporizer proved to be everything it promised. Those first weeks of vaping were wonderful. I felt no urge to smoke, and my sense of smell and taste returned. I noticed the smell of stale smoke on people as they passed by. I noticed the sour breath of people who had a chew in.

Though I had a new vice, it was certainly an improvement. I still had some lung soreness in the morning, but I felt like I had begun to heal.

And I vaped for several years. I was proud that I had quit smoking, even though I was still terribly addicted to nicotine. It seemed I had quit smoking without discomfort. I was too immature to know that there can be no sacrifice without pain. Vaping wasn’t a long term solution. I was still an addict.

I’m convinced that I would’ve never quit smoking without vaping, but vaping is insidious in its own way.

One of vaping’s primary appeals is its convenience. A battery heats metal coils and vaporizes a mixture of nicotine, flavoring, vegetable glycerine, and propylene glycol. The user inhales vapor and exhales simulated smoke. The vapor is mostly harmless, leaves no lingering odor, and the user gets nicotine.

But vaping’s convenience is its hidden danger. Chain vaping is easy to fall into, and the various flavorings mean infinite novelty.

Nicotine addicts are always restricted in some form. It’s difficult to chew snuff in polite company. Smoking has to be done outdoors. Doing either too much can cause nausea. There are physiological and societal restrictions that keep traditional nicotine addiction in check. Vaping lacks many of those restrictions.

I vaped continuously: before and after meals, in the car, first thing in the morning, right before bed, in the car, while watching television or playing video games.

All smokers have their triggers. Eating, driving, taking a break at work, spring days, and the taste of alcohol trigger intense nicotine cravings for me. But after a year of vaping, every activity became a trigger. I needed my vape to mow the grass or read a book. My nicotine consumption spiked.

Sometimes I would get terrible headaches and tremors, and even then I couldn’t stop myself for an hour. I powered through, and kept vaping because even in that physical misery, the cravings were too strong.

I did a lot of rationalizing. I told myself that I didn’t want to quit, that I couldn’t. I talked myself out of quitting more times than I can remember. I wish I could tell you that there was one singular event that convinced me kick the habit, but I can’t. None of those things happened, and I wouldn’t of quit even if they had.

I quit because of a book about never. I was struck by the concept; I considered it rarely. I was conditioned to think that all things should be enjoyed in moderation, and I was separated from a life of moderation by a lack of discipline.

I loved smoking and I thought that I should be able to on occasion. That was wrong thinking. I’m not capable of enjoying a cigarette periodically, and I had equated that inability with weakness. Committing to never smoking a cigarette ever again seemed closed minded, but it was what I needed.

Never became such a powerful idea that it was my mantra to combat cravings. I repeated the word to myself until the craving subsided. Now, after two months, I don’t think about vaping much.

The most difficult part of quitting the vaporizer wasn’t the nicotine cravings, it was relearning how to enjoy my favorite activities in the absence of nicotine. All of my hobbies were triggers, and they added to my stress because of the cravings. As a result I found my leisure activities shifting toward more communal and active experiences.

I watch movies my wife can’t stand. I am the only person in my house who plays video games. I’m the only reader in my house. I like solitary activities. But while I was in the first weeks of quitting my vaporizer, I sank all my time into family activities. We played board games, went on walks, and watched television. I exercised more and spent long afternoons cooking. My love for reading and video games has returned after two months, but I continue to spend a lot more time actively engaging with my family than I did before.

Now that I’m free of vaping, I realize that the habit was full of inconveniences. I was always running calculations in my head. Did I have enough liquid nicotine? Would my tank leak in my coat pocket? Was the cotton in my coil starting to burn? Was my spare battery charged? I had unconsciously based my daily routine around my vaporizer.

Quitting reclaimed valuable time and mental energy, that has been the most profound benefit. The change in my health wasn’t extreme. I didn’t cough up tar. I didn’t get quitter’s flu. I didn’t gain twenty pounds. My blood pressure stayed the same, and so did my pulse. I do feel better, but feeling is hardly a concrete measure.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re addicted to vaped nicotine, and you’re trying to figure out how to quit. Start with the reason why you are quitting. I didn’t quit for any particular health reason. I quit out of shame. I quit because of my wife’s pitying glances and my daughter waving vapor away from her face. I quit because I grew tired of the headaches and mood swings whenever I was unable to vape. Think really hard about your motivations. Picture them in your mind. Say them out loud, and then decide to never pick up a vaporizer again, mean it, and any time you feel a craving come to the forefront of your mind, just repeat the word never to yourself. I clenched my fist, ate fast food, drank lots of coffee, chewed gum, and took hot showers in those first days, and all of those things helped, but it was the power of never that ultimately saved me.

Finally, understand that you’ll fail. I smoked a hundred last cigarettes. You’ll construct an individualized strategy, but you have no way of knowing in advance what will work. Trial and error will get you there, but trial and error requires failure. A failure increases your understanding of your addiction. But don’t shrug your shoulders and assume failure is a foregone conclusion. Take some time to figure out why you failed. Learn how to plan against that shortcoming during your next attempt.

Conduct your experiments, planning and testing your methods until you find a way that works for you.

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