Friday, September 25, 2009

Kicking the Habit

 (This article was originally published in two parts on my journal at my weight-loss support site.)

I’m not even sure when it started. Up until I was nineteen or twenty, I was a “social smoker” at best, smoking only when I was drinking (which wasn’t often because I didn't have the money for it). And then my “Irish twin” sister (eleven months younger than me) was smoking; then my best friends were smoking as well.

And then, one morning, I was smoking in the kitchen when my father walked in. It wasn’t just that he was disappointed (a pack-a-day man himself, he would eventually die of complications from emphysema), it was also then that I’d realized I’d fallen into the habit without meaning to ... or wanting to.

Throughout the years, I’ve averaged anywhere from 1½ to 2½ packs a day, sometimes going through three-plus when chained to the computer in one of my creative frenzies or obsessed with a particular game. I can’t count the number of pictures that show me with a cigarette in my hand, or the times I’ve scrubbed nicotine stains off of my teeth and fingernails. My particular romance with cancer sticks has provoked both concern and contempt from coworkers, friends, relatives and even complete strangers: “I can hear the way you’re breathing,” I've been told by customers over the phone; “you need to quit smoking now!” I've begged, borrowed and bounced checks to get cigarettes; in one particularly shameful period when I was desperately poor, I relied on the shoplifting skills of a roommate for my tobacco fix.

To be honest, I’ve always been skeptical about how dangerous sleep apnea is supposed to be; part of me has wondered if the hype wasn’t created to sell C-PAP and M-PAP machines. I went in for two sleep studies which (naturally) confirmed the sleep apnea, then went in for one fitting. In the middle of the night during the fitting, I woke up and panicked, feeling like I was drowning in air. The next morning, I’d decided that it didn’t matter if sleep apnea did kill me—I would be damned if I wore one of those masks again!

But if not the air mask, then what? Sleep apnea is often connected with weight problems, I’d been told; lose enough weight and the problem would likely correct itself. However, enough intellectual honesty still exists in me to recognize that smoking was a heavy (no pun intended) contributing factor.

Moreover, the smoker’s hack, which had been with me for some time, was slowly getting worse, as was the persistent bronchitis that had turned into COPD. While being examined in an emergency room for a cracked rib—a story in itself—the ER doctor muttered, “Emphysema’s right around the corner.”

One of the reasons why I call my diet “The Lazy Man’s Diet” is because I designed it so as to lose weight without any other major changes in lifestyle. I know, however, that eventually I will have to work increased activity into my life. The point has been to create good eating habits and develop a healthy attitude towards food so that I could eventually make other lifestyle changes with less stress than if I were to try to do everything at once.

In setting my mini-goals, I felt that before I start any exercise programs or increased activities, I would have to quit smoking and give my lungs some time to repair themselves. So when I was in range of making my first stretch goal—280 by Sept. 1st—I started talking about making my next mini-goal 250 and smoke-free by January 1st.

No, wait ... let me be honest: I said, in no uncertain terms, that my next goal was 250 and smoke-free by New Year’s Day.

Now, the way that was phrased, you’d think I hadn’t planned to give it up as soon as I got under 280. I could have actually gone the next three months without smoking any less than before and still been true to the words of my goal (if not the spirit) ... a point that the Nicodemon continually makes whenever he tries to convince me that I can have just one more.

But no: When I stepped on the scale on Sept. 1st, and saw the magic number 279.8, I realized that I’d have to quit. I’d told too many people I was going to quit—people I couldn’t kill to keep the secret—so I was public committed to quit even if I didn’t want to.

Baloney. I wanted to quit ... I just wasn’t looking forward to it.

The mechanics of a successful quit seem to work differently from one person to another. For instance, both my older brother and my best friend quit basically because they didn’t want to leave the house to go buy another pack. Ted, my older brother, was exasperated that he’d have to turn around and go to the store just when he’d gotten home from work, and said, “Screw it! It’s not worth the hassle!” Whereas Larry ran out while watching The Deer Hunter; rather than leave in the middle of a movie, he said, “I wonder how long I can go without smoking?”

On previous quits, I’d broken down fairly early into the process, lasting only as long as two and a half days. (Oh, there was the time in college where I’d lasted almost the whole semester ... but I didn’t live with smokers at the time.) I’ve never been attracted to either the patch or gum; my doctors didn’t think Zyban was indicated for me, and Chantix didn’t work (in fact, despite the reports of how successful people have been with it, I haven’t met one who did succeed with it). So I usually have opted to go cold-turkey ... with all the withdrawal symptoms that go along with it.

The first week is the worst week. That’s where you have to find something to do with your hands or: 1) you'll go nuts, and 2) you'll blow up like a balloon with all the excess eating. (Also, the first week is the week you discover all the visual triggers that made you want to light up!) Dentyne Ice comes in 60-piece plastic tubs, and is 2½ calories a piece; on the down side, it has sorbitol, which has a laxative effect on many people. (I was counting on the laxative effect to counteract the constipation quitting sometimes causes people.)

Since lighting up is usually a subconscious signal to stop eating, it became really important that I follow one of my most important rules: NO SECONDS! When the plate is empty, stop eating! After 2½ weeks, I must report mixed success: I would stop eating ... only to binge later on in the night.

But more importantly than not eating seconds was the decision I made somewhere along the way that the quit took temporary precedence over the diet. I could accept putting back on 5 or 10 pounds, because I could take it back off again. On my weight-loss support site ( are any number of people who have had episodes of taking off the same five or ten pounds several times for various reasons. Knowing exactly why you want to lose weight helps you hold on to the motivation when you’re tempted to quit out of frustration and despair.

Day 6 is a Monday—always scheduled 1½ hours of overtime, early in and a little late out. Minutes before I sign off my phone for my last break, I make an internal decision to “slip”. As I walk down the stairs and out of the building towards the little section of the campus where smoking is allowed, I argue with myself—I know that if I have one, I will most likely buy a pack before I go home, and that will be the end of the quit. So I reach the smoker’s area—believe me, I have, in the past, had no shame about asking strangers for a cigarette; hell, that’s how smokers strike up acquaintances!—I stand there like an idiot for about five seconds, realizing just how bad this outdoor area smells—and I turn around and walk back to my office area, feeling not so much like a conqueror as a fool.

Every day, it gets easier. Right now, the Nicodemon is trying to convince me that I’ve overcome the habit, so I can have just one and go back to my quit. But he’s not as persistent or omnipresent as he was three weeks ago. I’m still trying to get dialed back into my diet; I’ve lowered my calorie target to 2000/day, and need to cut out some of the calories I’ve been taking in as part of a 2400/day regimen. However, I haven’t yet gotten back down to below 280.

That’s all right; I did it before, and I can do it again.

Sophocles reminds us, at the end of Oedipus Rex, that no man should be called fortunate until he's dead; that is, we suspend our judgments until all the data is in. Not knowing the future, and knowing myself, I can’t say yet that the quit is permanent. I thought so seventeen years ago, and not only slipped but fell. Like alcoholics and other drug abusers, it’s one day at a time.

I finally know what non-smokers do on their breaks at work. They do everything but smoke.