Four years of being a non-smoker

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Tags: personal

I was planning to write a post about smoking ever since I quit in 2020. Originally I wanted to write a first anniversary post, but something more urgent kept turning up and now it's four years... now the time to write it finally has come. In short, I think it was a really good decision, and I do not struggle with any cravings now, even though the process was very tough for me.

There are people around me who took up smoking recently, and I want to warn them how miserable their lives may end up if they keep doing it. There are also long-term smokers who clearly would rather be non-smokers but aren’t quitting, and I want to tell them that it’s worth a try.

There are also non-smokers who are concerned about their smoker friends but don’t really know how to talk to them about that and may cause more harm than good. I hope that a first-hand perspective of someone who was on both sides can help.

Long story short: I smoked for twelve years (I started at 17) and then I quit when I was 31. I was heavily addicted to nicotine and made multiple misguided attempts to quit before I succeeded.

I’m not going to claim that my experience is universally applicable — I’m no Allen Carr (more on him later). I still think it can help people understand the problem and solutions better.

So, first of all, I was addicted — I was dependent on nicotine as the characters of “Trainspotting”. As vape cartridge packaging says now, “nicotine is a highly addictive substance”. The biggest problem is that it’s not merely addictive in the sense that people like its effects and want to experience then again — it’s also capable of causing physical dependence.

One can be addicted to any experience that feels pleasant and/or rewarding, whether it’s induced by a substance or an activity. But not all substances are alike. Some just draw people to their positive effects but the addiction is purely psychological: their users may be upset that they can’t get the positive effect when they don’t have the substance, but aren’t feeling physically bad.

Many cause tolerance: the user needs more of it to experience the same effect. Nicotine certainly dose. But some substances — most notably nicotine, cocaine, alcohol, and opioids — can also cause cause dependence and make the user feel physically ill without the substance.

One curious thing is that the subjective effect and dependence liability don’t correlate. It’s possible to become dependent on many prescription drugs that don’t cause any pleasant effects at all (benzodiazepines are notorious for that).

Nicotine is a peculiar substance in that regard. Its positive effects are modest, but its dependence liability is very high.

The mechanism of dependence is that most processes in living organisms are controlled by receptor-ligand interactions. A receptor is a proteine molecule in a cell that can selectively bind with certain small(ish) molecules — ligands.

When a ligand binds with a receptor, it sets off a cascade of reactions: for example,

Our bodies normally self-regulate: they release ligands in response to something (e.g., hunger, tiredness, pathogens, injuries…) and stop releasing them when the problem is resolved.

But some substances can mimic natural ligands and bind with receptors. With an external substance it’s possible to achieve a greater effect than it would be possible naturally, since theres’s no feedback loop.

But the body will still try to keep itself regulated and require larger amounts of the ligand to saturate the receptors and trigger reaction cascades. That means that when the fake ligand is no longer supplied externally, the amount that the body produces naturally will not be enough to keep it functioning properly — the user will experience a withdrawal syndrome.

That’s the part that non-smokers often get wrong, simply because they don’t have any personal experience with it.

Suppose you are “addicted” to chocolate — you love its taste and sometimes start craving it. You may even turn to it in response to negative events. But if you resist the desire to obtain and eat it, the craving usually subsides within minutes or hours, it just takes a little bit of willpower.

For many smokers, it’s very different. They don’t just miss the positive effects of nicotine. If they resist the urge to smoke, they start feeling progressively worse and will need many days worth of willpower to get through it before their start feeling better.

If you are a recent smoker, it means that your life may change soon, in a way that you will not like.

Some people are less genetically predisposed and their addiction remains mostly psychological. Others can end up heavily dependent and I was one of them.

I really don’t recommend being dependent. In the morning, I usually wanted to smoke more than I wanted to eat. I would often skip breakfast, but never skipped a cigarette. If I couldn’t afford a decent brand, I’d smoke the cheapest stuff available, even if it was absolutely disgusting.

I hated smoking outside in freezing cold weather, and I equally hated the smell of tobacco smoke on my clothes, and the fact that it annoyed non-smokers. When I had a bad gastritis, I quit drinking for a long time because even a small amount of alcohol could make me sick, but I didn’t quite smoking even though it also made me feel terrible — I chose to inhale smoke despite nausea and stomach aches it gave me rather than suffer from nicotine withdrawal because withdrawal was worse.

All while some non-smokers kept suggesting that I should read Allen Carr’s book and stop being so weak-willed.

Ironically, it was Allen Carr’s book that kept me from quitting for a long time. Many non-smokers recommended it to me. I read it. On every page, it insisted that I didn’t need smoking and wouldn’t miss it if I stopped. From my experience it was obviously false, so I assumed that it was only useful for the few lucky people who weren’t dependent on nicotine, if those people existed at all. And for people who were dependent there wasn’t much hope.

Now I know those people do exist, although I’m not sure how many habitual smokers are dependent and how many aren’t. But Allen Carr and friends deny the reality of physical dependence, and that is profoundly unhelpful.

It not only denies the lived experiences of smokers and makes them less likely to trust anything people say about quitting, but also doesn’t give them useful strategies.

One example is that for psychological, behavioral additions, a slip is not a big deal. It may even be expected that people will slip before they learn to manage their cravings for chocolate, or video games, or whatever.

With subtances, a slip is very dangerous because it largely resets the withdrawal and forces the user to start the recovery from scratch. The only helpful advice for a person with substance dependence is to stop using it, let the withdrawal syndrome run its course until it subdides, whatever it takes.

And the way not to get addicted again is also just to never use the substance again, and it’s often simpler than it seems when you are still addicted.

There is a popular saying that “there are no former addicts”. It’s a sad reality that a lot of addicts get back to using the substance. I witnessed that myself, with different substances, and especially with nicotine — many friends and acquaintainces who quit smoking restarted within weeks or months.

My biggest fear was that I would have to struggle with cravings the rest of my life, because I assumed that was what life was like for those who restarted after quitting.

The reality is different. There are indeed no “former addicts” in the sense that if someone was once physically dependent on a substance, it does leave certain permanent changes in their brain.

That phenomenon is still poorly understood but well-documented: if addicts stop using a substance and then start using it again, even after a long time, they don’t go through the same process as new users. Instead, they often quickly become addicted again and start using the same doses as they used before the recovery or even higher.

I’ve heard from heroin users that it often takes them just a few days to get back to their old dosage. I’ve also seen pack-a-day smokers get back to that pack a day quickly if they started again after quitting, and many people who had an alcohol abuse problem returned to drinking heavily in front of my eyes if they tried to drink in moderation after recovery.

That’s the thing about “former addicts”: if you were once addicted to something, there is no moderate use for you anymore. Either you abstain from the substance completely, or you risk getting addicted very quickly again.

What I got wrong is that I assumed that those people started using again because of irresistible cravings. In reality, many of them start because they assume that they are no longer addicts and can use it in moderation again, and they have good memories of using it and want to experience it again.

The problem is that being a non-addicted smoker is actually rather fun. Stimulating effects of nicotine feel nice. Good tobacco also smells and tastes good, and there’s a large variety of flavors and blends, especially when it comes to pipe tobaccos.

It’s also a part of a daily routine, and a powerful tool for socializing and making connections with people, since smokers gather in smoking areas and it provides easy conversation starters (“do you have a lighter?” and similar).

I have lots of positive memories that involve smoking. Sharing a pipe with two visual artists: my pipe, her tobacco, and one freeloader who joined without contributing anything. Smoking together with my mother on her balcony on slow summer afternoons. Smoking outdoors with my then-girlfriend, looking at the city skyline in the distance. Some connections I made that started with “do you have a spare cigarette?”. Those moments would certainly be better without an addictive substance, but I cannot change the past.

But when my smoking habit developed into an addition a couple of years after I started, I certainly wished I was not addicted. The need to smoke at least every couple of hours just not to suffer from withdrawal is highly inconvenient, to say the least. High-stress situations made me smoke more (apparently, stress reaction speeds up nicotine elimintation, in addition to the psychological desire to perform the usual ritual to calm the nerves). High-stress situations where I couldn’t take a smoke break were really difficult to cope with.

The need to spend money on cigarettes was also annoying. When I was broke, I often had to choose between spending money on food or on nicotine and chose nicotine, because it felt like a more pressing need. It also increased the stress of being broke because not having enough money for cigarettes meant risking very unpleasant withdrawal.

I made multiple attempts to smoke less, but quickly realized that it wasn’t a viable approach: if I went below the maintenance dose, withdrawal would start getting progressively worse. So, for years I just accepted that I was an addict. The financial aspect, thankfully, stopped being a problem, so it was mostly an inconvenience.

Then a few things happened. First, in the place where I lived, all tobacco quality started dropping rapidly and soon even rather expensive brands tasted bad. Trying to find something I could smoke without disgust was quite a chore. Second, I was feeling the negative effect on my health — in your early twenties you can get away with pretty much anything, but closer to 30 I couldn’t deny that smoking was harmful.

Third, certain someone who had a lot of influence on me absolutely hated the smell of tobacco on people and she was very outspoken about it. I really didn’t want to upset her. As silly as it sounds, I finally quit smoking because she told me to. I certainly wanted to end an addiction that was highly inconvenient and didn’t bring me any joy, but without her it might have taken a lot longer to make the decisive attempt. That was in 2020, amidst COVID-19 lockdowns and stuff, but that fact had relatively little influence on my quitting process.

My very first attempt was to just stop smoking and see what exactly happens. I found that really difficult because I had neither the nicotine nor the ritual, so I decided to try separating the psychological and the physical parts and went for pharmaceutical nicotine.

Nicotine gum never worked for me. It releases its nicotine slowly, and for me that couldn’t provide the feeling of being nicotine-satiated. I also didn’t like the taste of vapes, especially the free-base nicotine variety. Nicotine spray worked much better for me due to its fast absorption time.

Without withdrawal symptoms, I could deal with getting rid of the habit. No smoking breaks, not using the act of smoking as a focus time or a calming ritual — that was itself tough at first. But I liked not smelling of tobacco smoke and not annoying anyone with that (especially the person who prompted me to quit).

But trying to cut down on spray usage caused the same problems as trying to quit smoking abruptly. The leaflet says that you should gradually reduce its usage. I don’t know anyone who did that successfully. I know people who switched to spray as a “metadone of smoking” — a less harmful way to consume nicotine without dealing with the addiction.

But all people who actually quit also used it as a temporary measure to reduce the problem to pure physical dependence. The only practical way to stop being dependent on nicotine is to stop using it and go through withdrawal to the end, just like with alcohol or opioids.

My decision to start going through withdrawal was spontaneous. I discovered that my bottle of spray was empty when I wanted to get my bedtime nicotine fix and I didn’t feel like trying to find a late pharmacy to buy another bottle, so I went to bed without it and decided that I could get it later if I wanted to. And then I started the day without smoking, living smoker’s nightmare. By a funny coincidence, that happened on July the 4th — the American independence day.

The bad thing is that withdrawal is no joke. I hope some people have an easier time, but I spent two weeks in a barely functional state. In the first three days it was getting worse: I almost couldn’t focus on my work, could barely sleep, and had intense hunger pangs. The good thing is that it gets better.

Since it was summer, I spent a lot of time outdoors, walking in the woods to distract myself. After three days, the symptoms started to subside. I wrote a computer magazine article after one week — it was still difficult, but not impossible (that kind of writing requires a lot of concentration for me).

A month later I was largely back to normal, although I still experienced blood sugar crashes during exercise for some time. What is it like to be a non-smoker: you wake up and you don’t feel a need to take nicotine to function.

I certainly don’t miss being an addict. I hang out with smokers a lot, not least because it’s usually quieter in smoking areas than inside pubs… I guess second-hand smoke does nothing to increase cancer risks for me, compared to 12 years of “first-hand” smoking, and it doesn’t annoy me too much.

In those four years, I smoked twice. In both cases I took single drags from friends because I thought the tobacco they smoked smelled nice. On both occasions I found that on fresh taste buds, smoke tastes way too strong to be enjoyable, and I certainly would start coughing if I inhaled it. It was a pretty stupid idea, but a single drag didn’t get me instantly addicted. I certainly don’t want to test how exactly many cigarettes it takes to get addicted again, though.

Neither do I feel any need to do it — by now, my time as a smoker is a distant memory for me. If you are smoking, it can become a distant memory for you as well. It’s not easy, but I think it’s worth it.