Reflections on my quit anniversary and the new year

I had my last cigarette 7 years ago yesterday. Since that time, I've saved something like $25,000 in direct costs and have hopefully added years to my life. I don't write about this anniversary for praise or pats on the back, but instead to honor myself and explore my own feelings on the subject, which are complex.

Avoiding lung cancer and saving money are of course two of the biggest motivations most people cite for wanting to quit smoking. But what nonsmokers might not realize is that many smokers experience profound psychological stress about their addiction, which in my case was what ultimately motivated me enough to successfully quit for good. I wanted to write a bit about this experience.

Over the course of my life, I've heard countless people express their disdain for smokers, writing off nicotine addiction as a mere habit. These same people paint smokers with a broad brush, characterizing them as low-life, selfish people who could quit at any time if only they'd exhibit a little self control and motivation. I think this thought process is severely flawed and shows incredible ignorance. While some people can more easily quit than others, this is rare and fails to take into account epigenetic and environmental differences.

It's well documented that nicotine is highly addictive, and the human brain changes dramatically as a result of its continued use. For example, nicotine receptors increase over time and addicted smokers have billions (yes, billions) more nicotine receptors than non-smokers, making it increasingly difficult to quit the longer one smokes. Furthermore, this deep chemical addiction causes new neural pathways to form in the brain as a result behavioral associations, reinforcing the chemical addiction.

It's a fact that most smokers want to quit, but the vast majority are unsuccessful. For example, around 70% of U.S. smokers say they would like to quit, while 55% have actually attempted quitting in the last year but have failed. As a result of this intense desire to quit, it's not uncommon for smokers to live in denial of the bodily harm being caused by the simple act of inhaling and exhaling smoke hundreds of times per day. For me, this denial was a defense mechanism against the deep existential dread I would feel if allowed to dwell on the reality of my addiction.

Perhaps even more depressing is that smoking addiction in low-income populations perpetuates intergenerational poverty and poor mental health outcomes. This is because low-income smokers will prioritize smoking over getting higher order human needs and goals met, such as the human needs for safety, food, social belonging, love, and self-esteem, or life goals such as improving their economic situation. Although the bodily harm caused by smoking is much slower than hard drugs, its legality and availability at every corner store makes it virtually impossible to break free.

In my own case, the cognitive dissonance I experienced over 15 years of failed attempts to quit was intense and certainly took a mental and financial toll. Like other smokers, I desperately wanted to quit, not just to improve my health, but to improve my life. I felt that smoking was the major hurdle to reaching my goals and life potential, but I just couldn't get off the treadmill. At one point in my 20s, I was making around $6.50 per hour and was charging my cigarettes to a high interest credit card (25% APY) that ultimately had around $2,000 on it at its highest point ($3500 in today's dollars).

The life consequences beyond health impacts were real as well. Being a smoker severely limited my relationships, most notably my career and dating prospects, and I internalized that as both shame and resentment. Consequently, I went to great lengths to hide that I was a smoker, especially from those for whom I had great respect or romantic interest. I would wear nicotine patches before and during job interviews or dates, trying to keep the smell of smoke off of me, only to light up immediately afterword. I gained a reputation among friends and colleagues as being aloof and clandestine as I frequently absconded from work and social situations to sneak in a cigarette. It's all really silly to me now, but mostly it's just sad that it had such a hold on me.

Now that I've quit, I certainly enjoy no longer smelling like an ashtray and not having to hide parts of myself from coworkers and other people due to embarrassment. I no longer feel like a pariah. I don't lose my breath going up a few flights of stairs. I probably sleep better. I can certainly tell the vast improvement to my breathing. But there have also been negative consequences as a result of quitting, too.

Most notably, I have gained quite a bit of weight. I was always a healthy weight as a smoker but I gained 40 lbs after quitting, pushing me into the obese category. This has taken its toll on my self-esteem, energy, and motivation. I have also noticed changes in how people treat me as a result of my physical changes, which can be pretty sad thinking how superficial our world has become.

I'm proud of myself, but my next goal is to continue working on my mindset. In 2024, I want to work on self acceptance while making small but steady improvements in my physical health through achievable goals and habits. And for those on a similar journey, I wish you strength, health and wellness in the new year.

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Bryan @bryan