How I Quit Smoking With the Help of Cigarettes
The author in cigarettes-and-pop-culture immersion therapy.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Crystal Allen Photography
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I’ve hardly left my room in three days, and I’m beginning to smell the poison making its way out my pours. Both sweat and snot drip from my face like a leaky faucet as I manically perform one ab crunch after another, eyes half shut and breath heaving. Cigarettes are strategically placed around the room, some in packs like a collage of pop art, others scattered about individually like bleached finger bones. There is nowhere to look that doesn’t contain a cigarette.
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
It’s dark despite the noon hour, the only light coming from my video projector, playing an episode of Mad Men across one wall. Don Draper is savoring one beautiful cigarette after another. The pleasure centers of my brain light up like a teenage boy watching pornography.
“You are free to be a smoker,” says a firm British voice coming from my stereo.
“I am free to be a smoker,” I repeat, switching to pushups.
“You always have permission to smoke,” he adds.
“I always have permission to smoke,” I repeat, standing up and eating a palmful of peanut butter straight out of the jar.
I have not had a cigarette in three days.
According to smokefree.gov‘s “Tips to Take on Your Quit Day,” I should have removed all ashtrays, lighters and cigarettes from the house, told my friends and family I’m finally quitting, distracted myself from cigarettes as much as possible, and avoided other smokers at all costs.
For the last three days, I’ve been doing the exact opposite, stimulating my Pavlovian response systems relentlessly with the freshly opened packs of cigarettes. I tell my roommate to smoke near me without explaining why. Anything where smokers are omnipresent is on display. The LP of David Bowie’s Young Americans is propped on my desk, featuring a hazy image of the thin-white-duke smoking a fag. Below that I’ve made a Tiger Beat-style collage of the Libertines, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Rod Serling, and Keith Richards all nursing their cigarettes like chalk-stick pacifiers.
This is my own DIY version of immersion therapy, adapted from the book How to Quit Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good, by Gillian Riley, a British food writer. Despite the generic title, the book offers a counterintuitive approach to quitting. Don’t tell anyone you’ve quit. Welcome the inevitable cravings. Incessantly remind yourself that you’re always allowed to smoke if you want to.
Many experts think this immersion technique is nonsense when it comes to quitting smoking. The conventional wisdom is that you want to minimize the amount of cues you expose yourself to and the amount of things that are cues for you. Restricting smoking areas works partly because it limits cues: If you always smoke at work at your desk, your desk can be a cue. If smoking is not allowed, it can’t be.
Though with my approach I’m on a masochistic assault of cues, staring them down as often as possible, until actively not wanting a cigarette becomes as habitual as wanting one used to be. My assumption is that this psychological inundation will give me an edge over the 90% of smokers who fail at quitting.
“Feeling deprived of cigarettes means that you are not taking responsibility for your own actions,” writes Riley (or speaks, as I’m listening to the audio-book version). “In each of us, there remains the little child we once were, a record of the time when we really weren’t responsible for our actions. When you stop smoking by telling yourself ‘you are not allowed to smoke,’ the child in you becomes actively rebellious…Remember that stopping smoking is your choice, nobody is doing this to you.”