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  • John Staley

N is for Nicotine

Nicotine is alcohol's weird cousin often showing up to the party unexpectedly. For some of us it is the first thing we think of in the morning. Insidious in its ability to get its hooks in us it is definitely an addiction to be reckoned with in its own right. I once heard nicotine addiction described as a worm burrowing its way through your brain with smoking being the only thing to get it to stop. This is quite accurate.

I was an avid smoker for many years. I enjoyed the ritual around it --- slapping a fresh pack in the palm of my hand, unwrapping it like a little birthday present, pulling off the foil to reveal twenty fresh cigarettes each with the promise of a rush and relief at the same time. Zippos, cases and holders, I had them all and lost them all in some drunken night of this, that or the other. I loved smoking! The fire burning at my fingertips as smoke billowed up into the night sky outside some dive bar in the rain made me feel more like an outlaw than an outcast. It made me cool....right?

A lot has changed since then. I am not nearly as cool as I once but in early sobriety smoking was still very important to me. I would take long drives along the Northern California coast chain smoking for hours sometimes stopping to look at the ocean or walk along the bluffs. I had long since gotten an actual buzz from smoking but in those early days I was willing to cling to anything I thought might bring some pleasure or ease. I would take evening drives with a friend and we would just drive and smoke and talk. It was nice. It was during one of these drives that I started to have chest pains. There was a lot of pins and needles and tightness. There was no longer booze to dull this pain and the damage I was doing to my lungs.

October 1st, 2015 is my smoking free birthdate. It started as a bet. What I thought would have lasted a couple of weeks has been four and half years. That first month was extremely difficult. I am not sure I had any real system for quitting. I just tried to break the cravings into the smallest possible chunks. "Just don't smoke today" became "just don't smoke on the way home" which ultimately became "just don't smoke for this breathe". Again, it was not easy but it began to gain some momentum. I watched a lot of Alan Carr videos on You Tube and found The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg to be quite helpful. I was trying to figure out how my brain worked and if I could make it work for me.

At the time I quit smoking I was only three months sober and was not working any real program of recovery other than going to one meeting a week and eating as much sugar, salt and fat as I could get my hands on. Battling food addiction would come much later and still trips me up to this day. For the longest time I coveted second-hand smoke and missed cigarettes. As time passed I began to breathe better and smell better and feel better and one day I woke up and I was no longer a smoker. I believe that many smokers wished they weren't smokers. It was this shift in identity that lead to me quitting for good this time. Simply calling myself a non-smoker helped solidify the thought in my head. Over and over I would think, "I am a non-smoker." whenever I wanted a cigarette. Once again, this was not easy by any means but I am still smoke free today.

One of the pieces of conventional wisdom I got in recovery was to work on the alcohol problem first and leave the other addictions for later. This is good advice. Getting sober was an overhaul of my entire way of living. The other things did come in time. Smoking, overeating and not exercising all had to be tackled one by one. it was the only way I had a fighting chance at beating any of them.

These days I avoid smokers when I can. I move to the other side of street or make big circles around them. I do not judge these people and I make no show about it. I simply do not enjoy the smell anymore but I know how important a cigarette is to someone who needs one. I know how hard it is to quit. I know how powerful the cravings are and how maddening the brain worm can be.

Changing my life didn't happen overnight. It sounds cliched but it is true. I had to break it down into smaller and smaller pieces. There are real demons out there and if I tried to take them all on at once I would be outnumbered and surely defeated. Slowly tiny, daily battles were won and the power these things held over me began to dissipate and eventually were gone. I still struggle with sugar every single day but nicotine is a thing of the past now. I don't miss it because it simply isn't a part of who I am anymore. During the process I was kind to myself and without judgement I was able to let that habit go. It is hard but it is doable. I say smoke 'em if you need 'em. Sobriety from alcohol is paramount. The time and inclination to quit smoking will come when you want it. I know it is possible. I am so grateful to breathe a clean sigh of relief knowing I no longer have to smoke again.








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