I smoked my first cigarette when I was 12 years old. My friend and I stole his mom’s pack out of a cupboard late at night and smoked them in his backyard. They were disgusting, but I was fixated on being rebellious and cool — a dynamic that led me to smoke on and off for the next seven years.

By the time I got to college, I was a full-time smoker. By the time I graduated, I was up to a pack a day. By my 24th birthday, I had “quit” a number of times… one month here, three weeks there. Sometimes I’d get sucked back into it slowly while other times I just bought a pack and picked up where I left off. But in the winter of 2008, I was broke, unhealthy, and ready to quit. Perhaps the realization that I had spent half of my life as a smoker inspired me on some level. But regardless of its source, my decision to quit had been made.

…And I did what every smoker does: sneak a cigarette in here and there with an, “Oh, I’ll quit tomorrow,” thrown in for good measure. My girlfriend at the time, a fellow chain-smoker, chuckled at my failure while admiring my effort. But underneath, she and my friends doubted my success.

The problem with most smokers is that they quit for a week to a few months, convince themselves that they’ve kicked the habit, and use that as a rationalization to have one again. I suffered this fate numerous times over the six-year smoking phase. I now get why Alcoholics Anonymous treats alcoholism like a disease and encourages lifelong memberships: once you’re addicted to something, you’re always susceptible to it. So I understood that to successfully stop, one needed an almost religious-like fervor against smoking. There’s no such thing as a non-smoker who smokes every now and then. You either smoke or you don’t. And if you don’t, that means you never, under any circumstance, have a cigarette.

This is why I used a cold turkey approach to quitting. Many people believe in cutting back, but that never lasted longer than a few days for me. That is simply a way to rationalize quitting without actually quitting. Besides, I’d rather feel the full pain of craving all at once than dragged out slowly over time. If I limit myself to five a day, why not use that same willpower to limit myself to none? After all, it’s much easier to justify the sixth cigarette of the day than the first. I have heard that nicotine gum, patches or pills can be very useful in this regard, though I did not use them myself.

Beyond the approach one adopts however, the key to quit smoking is wanting to quit smoking. I can assure you, this is much trickier than it sounds. Many people say, “I want to quit, just not yet,” or, “I want to quit, but my job is too stressful right now,” or “I want to quit, but I’m going to wait until I move into my new apartment.”

This is bullshit. This is the result of nicotine creating deep physical and psychological cravings in your subconscious, subsequently triggering your conscious mind to concoct ridiculous bullshit to justify and feed the cravings. And of course you buy into it. You’re a slave to it, in fact. The nicotine whispers, “You had a hard day at work, you deserve a cigarette,” and you listen submissively time and time again, for you are now its bitch.

I realized I was nicotine’s bitch during a bout with insomnia at 3AM. I had work later that morning but was dying for a cigarette. The nearest store was a 15-minute walk away through a snowstorm at -10 degrees. So you know what I did? I fucking got up, walked 15 minutes each way in the snowstorm, smoked one lousy fucking cigarette, only to fall sleep and feel like shit at my job the next day and use that shitty feeling as an excuse to smoke more cigarettes and feel even shittier. I remember thinking during my snowy trek, “This is utterly insane. I wouldn’t even do this if I were starving. What the fuck am I doing?”

Cigarettes in an ashtray

But I didn’t trek through the snow that night. The nicotine did. Despite my intentions to quit over the years and to stay in bed that night, the nicotine convinced me otherwise.

How does one fight this psychological foe? With psychology, of course. So I implemented three mental techniques to help me on my journey.

First, I made a resolution: if my addiction makes me lie to myself to keep smoking, my conscious mind can lie to myself to stop smoking. So I started lying to myself to absolutely abhor cigarettes. Irrespective of rationality, I began blaming everything wrong in my life on smoking. Tired today? It’s because I smoke. Feeling depressed? It’s because I smoke. Getting sick again? It’s because I smoke. Unproductive? It’s because I smoke. Moody and angry with friends? It’s because I smoke. Stock market crash? It’s because I smoke. I anchored everything negative in my life to cigarettes.

Second, I built a rational case against smoking by writing down what smoking cost me in real terms and looked at it every day when I had a craving.

  • $125+ a month (despite being broke).
  • One hour a day.
  • Poorer running and biking abilities (I enjoy both of these).
  • Frequently sick (I used to never get sick).
  • Lethargy.
  • Repelling those around me (including some of my friends).

I constantly hammered this into my head, both the rational and irrational cases against smoking, and became a zealot. Nicotine may have brainwashed me to smoke, but I brainwashed myself into hating it.

Third, I made a promise that if I ever smoked again, I would do it by myself. In other words, I would not start smoking again due to a friend or my girlfriend smoking near me. I harnessed the power of two potent emotions to help my cause: (1) Pride; I had told my friends I was quitting and did not want to face the embarrassment of starting up again in front of them, and (2) Sympathy; I did not want any of my friends to feel like they peer pressured me into starting again. If I relapsed, I wanted it to be my fault, on my terms. Then something amazing happened after the first week: I began resenting that my friends smoked around me. This disgusted me even more and strengthened my resolve to stay smoke-free.

Old smoker with a cigarette in hand

Anyone who has tried to quit knows that cravings usually only occur when thinking about smoking or seeing someone else smoking, either on TV or in person. When you’re alone and distracted, you often forget that you want to smoke. By promising that I’d only start up again by myself, I rarely had to fight legitimate cravings. I’d go hours at work without thinking about smoking, and when I did, I never had a pack near me in order to minimize the urges.

My ultimate tipping point however, was getting sick for the third time in three months. I blew a psychological fuse and cried, “That’s it. It’s the fucking cigarettes. These things are fucking poison and ruining my life.” I wanted to tear up every cigarette in a 10-mile radius, burn down every tobacco plantation, and piss on the Marlboro man’s face while laughing maniacally as I stomped his pack of Red 100s. I had my last cigarette on March 4th, 2008.

The cravings were, of course, unbearable at times. Those first weeks required tremendous willpower, the equivalent of putting a steak in front of a homeless man and telling him not to eat it. The second week was especially difficult but I was fired-up. There was an emotional power behind my decision that has never left, as cigarettes disgust me to this day. Thankfully, the third week was easier as the cravings slowly dissipated in frequency and strength. By the fourth week, I’d often go entire days without a craving. And then it was all downhill from there.

As a final word of advice, remember that quitting is mostly a mind game. It’s only as big of a deal or as difficult as you make it. The physical effects and withdrawal symptoms aren’t any worse than those of a common cold. The struggle is mental. And if you decide that the struggle is monumental, then it will feel monumental. Conversely, if you decide it’s just a temporary roadblock in your life that you must take a few weeks to overcome, then it will be.