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This Is Why It's Vital You're Successful the First Time You Quit Smoking

06/10/2014 08:31 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:07 EDT
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FILE - This combination photo made from file images provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows two of nine cigarette warning labels from the FDA. A judge on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 blocked the federal requirement that would have begun forcing U.S. tobacco companies to put large graphic images on their cigarette packages later this year to show the dangers of smoking and encouraging smokers to quit lighting up. (AP Photo/U.S. Food and Drug Administration, File)

Ignore the colleague who would have you drink a glass of water or eat a carrot every time you long for the plumes of purple smoke, dancing above your shoulder like the nymphs of Dionysus. Pretend that the neighbor who says that you will notice your health improving within hours of quitting is a figment of some vile and cruel imagination. Assume that the bag boy at your local cooperative is asylum-bound when he suggests meditation to quell the tidal anxiety that would lay waste to a better man. Prepare instead for the cracked, dusty pink light bulb of a realization that your body sees, smells, tastes, hears, feels all and has not forgotten any of it. In short, take what will come to you on the chin: you deserve every ounce of pain.

The average nicotine craving lasts between three to five minutes, according to people whose life goal is to quantify nicotine cravings and, initially, the urge is dull and innocent, even playful. You bat each one away with a haughty chuckle. But then the interval between each craving shortens until the need for the last cigarette and the desire for the next cigarette are running concurrently through your lungs and heart and what could once be dealt with becomes apocalyptic. You have fooled your body into believing that it requires the nicotine, much as it requires oxygen, food, water and the only cure for this period of hellish, primal want is time; only its hands will lift this moronic veil, woven tightly by years of abuse.

As the clock hands tick and the calendar pages flutter you will be given a choice: stop the ears with gum (patches, e-cigarettes, etc.) or be lashed to the mast. I suspect that the former is the sensible choice but I chose to listen to the Siren Song -- ignorance is not bliss, it is boring -- which meant I came to on the second day with an empty bottle of Canadian Club in my arms, small red holes in my thigh from having stabbed myself with a pen to relieve the pain and glimmers of broken glass on the floor from punching through a window. Your exact experience will of course vary from my own and I will spare you the more sordid details as I could not bear to have you think less of me than you no doubt already do.

You will be hoping that here I tell you about the resplendent morning after: dappled in sunlight, birdsong and the smell of freshly baked bread; finally cured of the affliction. My sincerest apologies but I cannot in good conscience lie to you. If the first day was one of violence then on the second begins the despair. When I wrote some hundred and fifty words ago that I 'came to' I somewhat undersold the abruptness of my awakening; more accurately I was pulled upwards into consciousness by the inability to breathe in more than a token amount of air: a volume not quite as invigorating as the body expects. Your lungs, having noticed the lack of new toxins, decide to clear out the old rubbish. How very vernal of them, n'est-ce pas? The cilia lining your lobes begin to raise after years of lying under fields of snowy ash and they brush away the tarry mucus that your lungs have been oozing, pushing the sludge up through your trachea and into your throat. I promise you that it tastes as unearthly as it sounds and it feels twice as bad.

I cannot sufficiently stress the importance of timing when giving cigarettes the long salute. Take time off work. Avoid friends whose voices you find grating. Meditate if you think it will help -- and be sure to apologize to the poor bagboy. Do whatever is required: quod est necessarium est licitum, because the process of recovery will not kill you (even if in the moment you will not believe me, so great is the strain on your mind and body) but failure might. So again stop your ears, once more lash yourself to the mast. In my instance a few fingers of the amber elixir and a hot shower sufficed to bring me through the consecutive, interlocking spasms of rancid panic, though it still hurt to breathe, like not enough skin struggling to cover an expanding chest; RX: Trashy television and rest (and another ample dose of the restorative powers of CC).

The physical distress lasts some four days, but what comes next is the great metaphysical joke of withdrawal: the creeping fear that your body is tricking you into smoking and forgetting about it. Fugue states, hallucination, intermittent and specific anterograde amnesia; you research it all. Perhaps your body is more sinister, more cunning than you had considered. It seems clear to you now that your body needs the nicotine and it too does what it must. What could be more reasonable, more natural a course of action for the body in distress?

Alert to this threat, I asked those dear to me if they had seen me smoke a cigarette and they laughed. They had seen me cower, they bore witness to my madness and melodrama; they did not see me smoke a cigarette and, for a time, the fear blew by like a clean, clear breeze, only to return a few days later to wisp away again noiselessly.

Rest assured that the metaphysical travails, like the physical, eventually become like a sort of subtext to your daily endeavours, mostly lost to the background noise of life save for the occasional snatch of familiar melody. The pain and terror that seem, for those first few days, like everything -- seen, smelled, tasted, heard, felt -- will be replaced by a longing similar to the kind one feels towards an old paramour. It is even possible that you will be capable of returning to the warm arms of the infrequent cigarette at some distant speck in the future without drowning again in the compulsion (I know of a few who have). I know that I myself am not ready to reconnect with the old flame just yet, and I remember well enough the cataclysmic violence of the first few days to be certain that I would not want to attempt quitting cigarettes for a second time.

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