I started smoking when I was 15. I was always one of those kids who wanted to grow up fast, and smoking made me feel grown up. I hung around with my trouble-making, pot-smoking friends, sitting in front of the Taco Bell after school smoking and being total idiots. Back then, cigarettes were still relatively inexpensive. I remember buying a pack of generics for $2, and for an extra twenty-five cents we could get Marlboros. They hadn’t yet put high taxes in place and a lot of gas stations and liquor stores would still sell cigarettes to underage kids, so it wasn’t that hard to get them.
My mother HATED that I smoked, which, frankly, was probably reason enough for me to keep doing it at that point. I was such a little asshole.
I smoked all through high school, and I remember getting to college and being so stoked that I could finally buy cartons of cigarettes. I started smoking a lot my first year in college. Like, up-to-two-packs-a-day a lot. That eventually evened out, but from the time I was 18 until I was about 27 or 28, I was smoking at least half a pack a day, and more if I went out drinking or partying. Which, let’s be honest, I did a lot. I loved smoking. It felt glamorous, it felt cool, it made me feel a little edgy.
I know there were times in that period when I thought about quitting, but I never really wanted to. I knew I should. I knew it was a gross habit. My mom still hated it. But it was just too daunting to try to quit all at once.
It probably took me about five or six years to quit smoking. I did it bit by bit, breaking connections and habits one by one. First, I stopped smoking a cigarette with my morning coffee. It was a fairly simple thing, just cutting that one cigarette out a day. Then I stopped smoking at work. I don’t really remember why I stopped smoking at work, and yes, I would very occasionally still go out on the street and have a cigarette if I was having a stressful day, but for the most part, by the time I was 27 I didn’t usually smoke my first cigarette of the day until 5 in the evening at the earliest.
Eventually, by the time I turned 30, I really only smoked when I went out drinking. Which, ok, honestly was still kind of often. At least a few times a week. And then I tended to smoke A LOT. But when I turned 30 I moved across the country by myself to a small town where I didn’t really know anyone, and I stopped going out so much.
By the time I was 32, I was only smoking once every two weeks or so. I had, over time, broken all the daily habits of being a regular smoker. It took me another year to finally decide to quit altogether, and by the time that happened, it wasn’t that hard at all. It was just about breaking that one, final connection, between drinking and smoking, which was actually a connection between socializing and smoking. And when I did quit, it happened really organically. I didn’t set a date or have a plan. I just decided I was done.
I don’t think my Phase-Out approach is a very typical way to quit, but it worked for me, and I think it’s a pretty good technique. Because instead of trying to break a really big habit, one that might have lots of connections in your life, you can focus on breaking one smaller habit at a time, until eventually, all the emotional and physical connections to smoking are gone. If you’ve tried to quit smoking without success in the past, maybe a more gradual approach would work for you. Try to identify the times that you smoke, and connections you have: Do you love to have a cigarette with your coffee, or after dinner? Do you smoke when you talk to your sister on the phone? Do you have to have one on your drive home from work? If you can identify some specific times or places or situations that are connected to smoking for you, you can start to break those connections one by one. That way, it doesn’t have to feel like a big, drastic life change. It feels smaller and more manageable.
Since I “officially” quit smoking, I have smoked probably about 3 or 4 times, it’s true. In almost all of those instances, I was, ahem, perhaps a bit tipsy. But none of those instances made me feel like I was in danger of starting again, because it just wasn’t a part of my life anymore. I feel like a non-smoker. And it feels pretty good. My mom is pretty happy about it, too.