The Year of Living Safely

I forgot to say that yesterday marked a year since I quit smoking :D

First off, quitting smoking is real easy. You just do not smoke any cigarettes. Staying quit is easy too - just apply the same technique. That’s not the difficult bit.

The really difficult bit is deciding to quit in the first place. Sometimes the ‘chief executive’ part of our brain has a discipline problem with his staff. It is easy to convince yourself to do something you already want to do; for example, take the day off work and go to the beach. Much harder to work against your existing inclinations; for example, not to have that seventh bowl of ice-cream.

The strange thing is that all smokers want to give up, without exception. Non-smokers will find this hard to believe. No matter how much you claim to love smoking, if you could wake up tomorrow morning and be magically free forever of the desire to smoke, everyone would take that deal. So why don’t we quit?

The answer lies in the curious nature of addiction. If you have never been addicted to anything, it is hard to imagine what it is like. Most people probably imagine that it is like being thirsty - you experience an intense desire for the drug, accompanied by symptoms of physical distress which are only relieved by the drug. That is true as far as it goes, but addiction also digs its pernicious tendrils right into the volitional centres of the brain. It makes you do things you do not want to do.

It is actually rather spooky once you realise what is going on. Nicotine (for example) is controlling your decisions. It is no different than if some evil alien implanted a chip in your brain and started influencing your behaviour by radio control. If you find this hard to believe, ask yourself this question: Have you ever decided not to have a cigarette, and then found yourself smoking one anyway? Have you ever done something embarrassing or inconvenient to get a nicotine fix? (for example, begging strangers in the street for cigarettes, or walking miles to find an open newsagents).

Why do we do that? It is because of fear. We are afraid to be without the drug. Rationally, we know that we’ll be just fine. No one died of not having cigarettes, no matter how much she wanted one. If you are in a situation where you know absolutely that there is no chance of getting cigarettes, anxiety disappears, and in fact you suffer no ill effects. It is as though the nicotine ‘gives up’ and saves its effort for another day. But up to that point we will do almost anything in our power to get the drug.

If the prospect of going without nicotine for an evening fills us with anxiety, how much more frightening is the prospect of a whole life without it? Exactly. When I was still smoking, even thinking about giving up made me nervous and edgy, and start reaching for cigarettes.

The fear of withdrawal is at least partly grounded in reality: if you go without nicotine for a couple of hours, you start to feel quite odd. You feel a little light-headed, as though something is expanding inside your brain, and even slightly intoxicated, but not in a good way. These feelings get progressively worse the longer you go on, so it seems logical to assume that they would simply go on getting worse until they become unbearably unpleasant.

In fact that does not happen. Withdrawal reaches a plateau quite quickly and does not get any worse; for four or five days you feel a bit weird and out of sorts, slightly divorced from reality as though experiencing the world through clear plastic. Your sleep patterns go haywire, and all sorts of strange and powerful emotions come to the surface, and generally you feel as if you’ve been experimented on by aliens. But by the morning of the fifth or sixth day, you wake up feeling just fine, and even a little euphoric. Curiously, there is no desire to smoke at all. The world seems fresh and clean, colours brighter, tastes richer, like your first day out of hospital after a long illness.

In the closing scenes of Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer taunts Harrison Ford: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”

I just got tired of living in fear. I didn’t want some drug controlling my life any more. I am not a smoker. I am a free man!

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