When I was 14, I remember the first time I ever had a drag from a cigarette. It wasn’t for another seven or eight years that I became a regularl smoker. Back then my friend and I wanted to try it. Both our parents were smokers so we figured why not. It was probably the worst experience of my life. That first drag felt like I was going to choke to death. Being young and naïve didn’t stop us; we got used to it and continued to smoke more.
I remember being caught twice by my mother, not actually smoking, but once from smelling like I did, and the second time from a packet of cigarettes in my room. By some miracle, I was able to talk my way out of it both times. This experience really only lasted a few months. It was more about trying it than actually taking it up.
For several years after this, I didn’t picked up a cigarette, until at the prime age of 21 or22. I recall one of my workmates being a smoker who would always leave his packet in full view. I was tempted again, and secretly took one of his cigarettes to give it a go. I really didn’t know if I was going to enjoy it or not and to my surprise, I did. Unknowingly, this was the start of a smoker’s life for me.
From here a packet of 25 cigarettes would last me about 2 weeks. I didn’t tell anyone I was smoking and I was again found out by my mother. She discovered an open packet in my bedroom (bless parents for sneaking in to kids rooms back then). This time, I played it so cool, and came up with the most amazing story, that not even she could question it. But there was always a little doubt in her mind because of the times she caught me out when I was 14.
I continued to smoke using ever better ways to disguise it. But over the course of a year I was smoking more and more each day. Eventually I was going through a packet in two to three days.
By the time I moved out of home and my life changed, I stopped hiding it. I was now officially a smoker averaging 15 cigarettes a day.
It became a habit, routine. I would wake up in the morning and have a cigarette, then more on the way to work in the car. I would smoke again in the morning with the other smokers over a coffee and so on. It was such a habit that there were things in my day that I didn’t do without a cigarette. It became second nature. My live-in partner at the time was also a smoker, so there was never any guilt or desire to stop. I, like many smokers believed the following mantra:
Smoking is fun. Smoking is social, Smoking is a reward. Smoking gives me a form of pleasure. Smoking is a distraction. Smoking helps me relax. Smoking clears my mind and helps me think. Smoking brings back memories and stories and lets me share with like-minded friends and strangers. Smoking defines who I am.
After being diagnosed with HIV in 2008, I asked my doctor if I needed to stop smoking. He said not for now, but there will be a lot of changes that I would need to make in the coming years. So I continued my smoking routine, some days more than others. There was a time that I would go through 30-40 cigarettes in a day. These were days that were fuelled by other substances and vices, which also started to take over my life. Thankfully, in the last four years, all these vices have stopped, but my smoking continued.
At the start of 2011, I actually wanted to quit smoking, but I didn’t, only because I still enjoyed smoking. I made some progress though by reducing the amount I was smoking. Thankfully by the end of 2011, I had quit cigarettes and no longer wanted anything to do with them.
So how did I quit smoking?
It was far easier for me than I anticipated. (Editor’s note: me too!) Before I quit, I went through the process of changing my mind set by realising that smoking was a, ‘want’, and not a need. I was never really one of those people who needed a cigarette, it was a habit. In fact I often went without smoking for a day and not even think about it ‘til the following day. Keep in mind that often these days were out of my normal routine days with plenty of other distractions.
Next stage was to start changing some of my routines. I would pick just one time a day where I would purposely not have a cigarette, always a different time though, so as not to build a substituted routine.
Then after a few weeks of this, I moved to the next stage. I decided to not pick a, “I will quit smoking on this day”, date, but decided that on a particular day of no major significance, I would not have a cigarette, just for that day. I gave myself permission to slip up; it would be far easier than fighting the guilt of failing!
After about 2-3 weeks of doing this I finally decided that I was going to try for a second day in a row, and just go to the third and fourth. This time I had some bigger cravings, but steered away from the things that would allow me to smoke. By the third day, I didn’t think about not having a cigarette and just let the day be (I didn’t have one on that day). I started to change my routines that influenced my smoking. For instance on the first day I left home for work later, which meant I didn’t have time to think about smoking because I rushing to get to work. I also took different breaks on that day from the smoking group to the temptation.
I continued doing this for a week, and by the end of the first week, I was already noticing changes in my skin, taste, and even my tiredness. Once I got over the initial hurdles, the positive responses my body was having were starting to show. No patches, no gum, just me, or as some would say ‘cold turkey’.
Believe it or not, once you start feeling these changes, you actually don’t want to go back.
Yes there is a chemical dependency for smokers, but with small changes, this doesn’t have to be a reason any longer. I didn’t do any program; I just made minor changes over several months.
The first few days came and went, although there were many times I wanted a cigarette, I chose not to have one.
Often people say that when you stop smoking you start gaining weight. With a slow and steady process this is not always true. I actually found myself getting fitter and eating better. I was enjoying the taste of good food. I wasn’t getting out of breath from a brisk walk; I had more energy which was being used in a positive way in my life.
By the end of 2011, I was no longer smoking. I didn’t make a big song and dance about it either. Many of my friends would ask how I was going without smoking, and I simply would say that I no longer thought of it.
Now I was ready for the final BIG TEST. A big night out on the town with drinking buddies. Could I actually see the night through without smoking? Well yes, I did. I even had friends who were smoking and at no stage felt the desire for a cigarette. It also helped that no one tried to tempt me in to having one either. They knew I had quit, and respected that. I challenged myself to see it through.
This worked for me, and I have to say that it has been a great process. It wasn’t difficult at all. I dealt with the small cravings in little stages. There was never a huge withdrawal or mood swings. I never intended to quit, and I believe this helped, because it allowed me to quit at my own pace.
Different methods suit different people. You need to choose the method that best suits you and starts you on the journey of quitting. Remember, to quit smoking is not an event, it’s a journey.
There are so many different ways to start your journey. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt, and in some cases using more than one method works. Here are a few examples;
- Cold turkey
- Cut down to quit
- Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)
- Prescribed medications
- Online supports
- Professional advice and support
Quitting smoking is about maintaining it over time. But if you slip up, that’s okay too. Just start the journey again. Slip ups are not ideal, but they can actually help you in the long term. Remember you are not alone if you slip up!
If you slip up, you are NOT A FAILURE! You are learning what works for you in your circumstances. If you slip up during your journey, use it as a learning experience. It's normal to make errors while trying to master any skills in life. The trick is to make changes to what actually made you slip up. Refine your routine or maybe add some checks in place to avoid the same from happening again.
A theme with learning most skills is that they take practice and persistence.
So hopefully you are able to use some of my methods in quitting smoking. It’s kind of funny that after I quit smoking and read some articles on how to quit, that I was actually on the right path for me.
I hope that I have been able to encourage you also to take the steps you need to better health, and longevity. As people living with HIV we need to make changes that help our bodies and immune systems fight the virus and continue to live LONG and HAPPY lives.