So I’ve been meaning to say a little more about quitting smoking. I don’t want to make it all sound melodramatic, but I think it might just be anyway.

I know a few people who have quit smoking, or are trying to quit at the moment. It seems like there’s quite a lot of us. I suspect it might be those annual 10% price rises the NZ government has promised us (and actually come through on), coupled with the time of year; everyone knows what New Years does to your sense of self. The acute awareness of another year’s passage, coupled with your own unsettling cognizance of your own mortality. There’s a period of time around Christmas/New Year’s where I think most smokers have an almost extra-sensory perception of what smoking is doing to them.

No? Just me? Well I’ll come clean. I spent vast weeks of December and January secretly convinced I was getting (or already had) tongue cancer. Every smoker has their pet-fear of the wide selection of cancerous delectables, and mine, the one that really got to me, was mouth cancer. Specifically tongue cancer, but hey, it all results in the same jaw removal right? Ugh. Terrifying.

It is said that all smokers deal with cognitive dissonance on a daily basis. Cognitive dissonance is when we believe contradictory things simultaneously, or behave in a way contrary to our belief systems. I’m sure you can figure out how confusing that can be. That’s why smokers, for the most part, either do not think about smoking at all if they can help it (for myself, that was especially when I was actually doing it), or convince themselves (and everyone else) that it’s awesome.

Look smokers, disagree with me if you want, but I truly believe the only real pleasure we get out of smoking is getting our fix of sweet sweet nicotine. Nicotine, which by the way, I’ve found out in the three weeks since I’ve quit, is up to seven times more addictive than either cocaine or heroine (I think we’re talking psychologically rather than physically here). No kidding. That’s some serious shit. I used to always like the quote from Iggy Pop — something along the lines of, he found smoking much more difficult to give up than heroine because at least when quit heroine he didn’t have to see people shoot up in the street.

But here’s the thing. No one’s under the illusion heroine is sexy are they? I’m sure as hell not. We’ve all seen Train Spotting or some such thing. Nothing sexy about that is there?

But smoking, on the other hand. We’re at a disadvantage here. Not only are there no unsavoury, unsexy, nasty, ugly physical withdrawal symptoms, there’s also an entire industry that has a vested interest in keeping us hooked. And making it look really sexy while we pay someone to kill us in one of the most drawn-out and expensive ways we could. (And I’m not talking about the cost of healthcare to the state. That cost is ameliorated by the huge taxes smokers pay. Actually the state is earning a lovely revenue from smokers’ addictions.) Don Draper, this is all your fault.

Smoking triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the reward drug. And if you know anything about psychology, you’ll know that positive reinforcement is a more powerful, persuasive and successful long-term motivator than negative reinforcement (such as the idea of ill-health, or the high cost).

So that’s where smokers sit. Every smoke is a powerful reinforcer of a pattern of behaviour that is self-perpetuating (because of the addiction) even without adding in that positive reinforcement. Because imagine, just imagine being able to give yourself a subtle little shot of good brain chemicals whenever you wanted! No wonder smokers’ first response to any sort of stress is smoking. It makes perfect sense.

The point is, if I can get there, that there was more to smoking than I was aware of. More than even all of things I’ve already mentioned, some of which might be news to you, other parts maybe you’ve known for ages. The point is this: smoking was a thing I did to stop thinking about life, to stop thinking about what I wanted, to enable myself to continue behaviours (not just the obvious) that weren’t working for me and to be okay with not pursuing things that I did care about.

In other words, every inhale of a cigarette was a way I could swallow all the disappointments of my life, all the terrible things I thought I deserved, every betrayal by every person whom I’d believed had loved me, every dream I wasn’t brave enough to follow and every adventure I’d hoped for that hadn’t eventuated because I was too afraid of failing and too convinced that everything that everyone said was true and all that mattered was an idea of success that meant making money and making every person I’d ever perceived as doing me wrong see that I was somehow better than them.

Wow. That was a mouthful. Am I the only one who has such a complicated relationship with an addiction? I doubt it. I suspect we’re all damaged people, every one, and all we want is a place to be accepted and feel loved. Well here’s a place to start. Start in your own head.

And as for me? Will I start smoking again? I hope not, although everything I know about the statistics and the psychology tells me it’s likely that I will. But I don’t think I can this time. I think maybe I’ve changed. I think maybe instead of channelling my energies into killing myself slowly, instead I might find something better and more worthy of my life. Because after twelve years of attempting to kill myself, maybe it’s better to just live.

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