12 years ago today…

2013 November 19

wow. i just realized it was 12 years ago today (november 19th, 2001) that i smoked my last cigarette.

it seems like a lifetime ago.

12 years and a week ago, i sat in my doctor's office, looking at an x-ray of my chest. the lower third of both of my lungs was black. dead. gone. my doctor was telling me that if i continued to smoke, that the black parts of my lungs would continue to expand, until even being on oxygen 24/7 wouldn't be enough to keep me alive, because there would be more dead lung tissue than live, and once i crossed that threshold, i would slowly suffocate to death.

i didn't want to die like that.

when i got home from the doctor's office, the first thing i did was google the word "emphysema" - because that was the thing that he said was going to kill me, and i didn't even know what it was. maybe you're not sure what it is, either, so here's a definition from the mayo clinic web site:

===== definition =====

"emphysema occurs when the air sacs in your lungs are gradually destroyed, making you progressively more short of breath. emphysema is one of several diseases known collectively as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd). smoking is the leading cause of emphysema.

"as it worsens, emphysema turns the spherical air sacs — clustered like bunches of grapes — into large, irregular pockets with gaping holes in their inner walls. this reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream.

"emphysema also slowly destroys the elastic fibers that hold open the small airways leading to the air sacs. this allows these airways to collapse when you breathe out, so the air in your lungs can't escape. treatment may slow the progression of emphysema, but it can't reverse the damage."

===== /definition =====

one of the other sites that i visited that day was the american lung association site. while i was there, i noticed a link to their "freedom from smoking online" program. i clicked through, joined the program, and quit for the last time a week later.

12 years ago today.

if you'd asked me 12 years ago today if i’d still be quit 12 years later, i would have seriously doubted it. you see, i’d tried to quit countless times over the previous 20 years, and i’d always ended up going back to smoking sooner or later.

but, as it turned out, this time was different. this time, i finally realized some things that made all the difference in the world to how i approached quitting:

first of all, i realized that i was an addict.

before this quit, i thought of my smoking as just a bad habit. in fact, i used to joke that it was my only bad habit left (i’d given up drinking and recreational drug use a long time before i finally quit smoking this last time).

but i was kidding myself.

it wasn't a habit that made me stand outside in the rain and the snow and the heat of the summer to get my fix.

it wasn't a habit that made me smoke another one when i was still choking from the last one.

it wasn't a habit that made me continue to smoke even after i couldn't sleep in my bed any more because my lungs were so full of junk that i couldn't breathe when i laid on my back.

it was an addiction.

once i admitted to myself that i was an addict, i got focused on how to deal with my addiction. i realized two super important things:

first, i realized that, no matter how long you go without feeding an addiction, if you feed the addiction just one time, you'll have to feed it compulsively again before long. i knew this from observing other addicts (not just smokers, either; but alcoholics who took that first drink, heroin addicts who took that first shot, and cocaine addicts who did that first line), and i knew it from my own personal experience:

back in the early 80s, i went through a program called smokenders. it was a very good program; i quit successfully, and stayed clean for almost 3 years. then i smoked "just one" and was back to smoking a pack a day within a couple of days. in fact, every quit i ever started came to an end because i smoked "just one" cigarette.

on the basis of my own experience, and my observations of other people's experiences, i realized that addiction is permanent, and that no matter how long you abstain from feeding your addiction, if you feed it just one time, you'll be back to feeding it full time in short order. i knew that i couldn't afford to do that any more, and so i set about training myself to choose not to feed my addiction any longer.

for the first 16 months or so of this quit, i did four things every single day to train myself to make the right choice every time it presented itself to me:

first thing in the morning, i would get up, look myself in the eye in my bedroom mirror and recite my "mantra." i’d tell myself:

"i am a nicotine addict. i cannot afford to feed that addiction. not even one time. so, today, i choose not to smoke."

then, while i was waiting for my coffee to brew, i would sit down at my desk and write in my quit journal. it always started with an expanded version of the mantra:

"i am a nicotine addict.

"i cannot afford to feed that addiction. not even one time.


"today, i choose life!

"today, i choose health!

"today, i choose strength!

"today, i choose self-control!

"today, i choose freedom!

"today, i choose not to smoke!"

then, during the day, whenever i had the urge to smoke, i would recite my mantra again and choose not to smoke again.

finally, right before i went to bed every night, i would pat myself on the back for having lived up to my choice not to smoke that day.

does that seem like a lot of effort to you? that i would do all this stuff every single day for more than 500 days in a row?

assuming it took me 10 minutes a day to do what i did for the first 16 months of this quit, that would amount to a little more than 3 days' time in total.

would you trade 3 days of effort for 12 years of freedom?

i would.

i smoked for 35 years, off and on (mostly "on"), and i quit countless times before this quit (12 years ago today and still going strong), but i always went back to smoking sooner or later (sometimes it was the next day, sometimes it lasted a week or a month, once it lasted almost 3 years).

until this time.

12 years ago today, i started making different choices. and i practiced them over and over, until they became second nature to me.

12 years later, i’m still free.

you can do this, too. all it takes is time and repeated conscious choice.

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