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Dave Roepke, Published February 12 2009

Quitting easy, not lighting up again the real test

Quitting smoking isn’t the tough part. Not starting again is the real challenge.

Because cigarettes are silly addictive – bear traps in tube form – and because the habit demands the hour-by-hour vigilance of a prison suicide watch, I figured getting free of the physical addiction would be the principal problem.

Thoughts of quitting conjured up images of junkies in movies kicking heroin – lots of teeth-clenching and shivering, with enough sweating and moaning to fill a dozen porno flicks.

As a smoker for about a decade who hasn’t had even a single drag since the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 – that’s 22 days and two hours ago as of these keystrokes – I can attest that cutting that physiological cord wasn’t as awful as I’d anticipated.

Don’t get me wrong. That first week was so not fun.

My chest felt like it was simultaneously caving in and exploding. My entire being seemed bloated, like my limbs and head decided to unhitch from my body and float away to smokier pastures. The mix of gases in the air felt slightly off, like there was 10 percent too little oxygen. Every single thought – smoke! – was slowed to a crawl by – smoke! – an onslaught of – smoke! – constant mental interruptions – smoke! – that could not – smoke! – be tamed. (Smoke! Smoke!)

Yet at the end of the week the pressure under my ribs had disappeared, the waves of urge became somewhat bearable and the atmosphere returned to normal.

But those – smoke! – interrupting voices in my head? They’re not going anywhere. Not smoking is simply a matter of not lighting up. Being a non-smoker is something different and more difficult.

This is why, in response to the stress of not having a cigarette, this brilliant solution often bubbles up to my conscious mind: smoke! The inclination to turn to a cigarette when frazzled is so strong it is what I automatically lurch for when the lack of cigarettes is doing the frazzling.

Realizing that quitting smoking and being a non-smoker are two related but not synonymous tasks makes the whole undertaking feel less manageable. Can I really quit for good without being able to conceive of never having another cigarette? Do I have to frame it as one day at a time for the rest of my life like a recovering alcoholic? That just sounds draining.

I have the will to prevent myself from doing something, to split cold turkey from one of the most addictive vices available. But I have no idea how to convince myself that I no longer want to do something I really do cherish.

People ask me all the time how the quitting is going. I usually just shrug the questions off. But in truth, it gets better every day and worse every day. Better because the voices and itches do lessen in frequency. Worse because it’s another day with no cigarettes, and I’m still a smoker.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535 or droepke@forumcomm.com