Friday, March 06, 2009

How to quit cold turkey…and succeed

I smoked two packs of menthols per day for 18 years. I quit sometime in 1985-86 and have not had either a cigarette or a craving for one since. For me, it wasn't that difficult.

The key, I ultimately discovered, is that you have to be ready to have to really, truly, not want to smoke. In my case, I woke up one morning and as I lit my first cig of the day, the thought "I don't want to do this anymore" crossed my mind. And I acted on it.

I think what some folks forget is that there is more than simply stopping the act of smoking involved in quitting. There are a host of little habits and personal quirks that go with it and those have to be handled as well. My habits and foibles included:

1) I carried my pack of cigs with me where ever I went, except, perhaps, to the loo.
2) There were ashtrays conveniently located throughout the house, as well as lighters and matches.
3) I detested stale cigs...if the pack had been open more than 24 hours, I wouldn't smoke them
4) I bought by the carton, so there was always more.
5) I am fundamentally lazy, so everything was easily accessible
6) I don't like heights
7) A sense of true desperation will actually take precedence over my laziness

I quit on trash day, so I could get rid of the stash of cigs, matches, lighters, etc. very permanently. I put it all in the bin, put the bin to the curb, and waited anxiously for the truck to arrive. I felt as if I couldn't really quit until the truck came and took it all away. While waiting for the truck I prepared.

Since I had friends and family who smoked (and taking into account my frugal nature) I didn’t want to throw away the ashtrays. So, I washed them thoroughly and put them into the cupboard above the refrigerator…I don’t like heights and the fact that I would need to scale a ladder to get them would make me reluctant to retrieve them for anything other than an honoured guest.

I am one of those people who can stay home for days on end, car sitting idly in the garage, with complete contentment. But take my car away and I suddenly get cabin fever. Just knowing the car is there if I think I need to get out is, by itself, proof against my getting antsy. Knowing this about myself, I held one pack of cigs back from the trash bin, just so my subconscious knew that if I got desperate, there was a pack of smokes in the house.

Banking on my laziness, I decided to make the smokes unpleasant…knowing me, in a moment of weakness, I’d go for the nearest pack rather than drive to the store for a fresh one, so I made the nearest pack unpalatable. First, I ripped off the cellophane wrapper and tore the top off. This would make them stale…and every day they would get worse. Then I wrapped the pack loosely in paper towelling secured by a rubber band. This would make me work to get to them, giving me time to reassert my desire to stop. I put at least four layers of loose paper towelling (loose enough to allow air in so the cigs could go stale but tight enough to make unwrapping a nuisance) around the pack, each with its own rubber band. Then I put the cigs in the cupboard above the refrigerator, behind the ashtrays (to make them as difficult as possible to access), then closed and locked the cupboard door. The key to the cupboard, which looked like a padlock key, was put on a key ring with all the padlock keys for the gates and garden sheds (so it was not easily identified) and hung on the peg where the outdoor keys were usually kept, making the key relatively inaccessible.

The idea here was to give myself an out so I felt that I could change my mind if I wanted to…there were cigs in the house and although I had ditched all the matches and lighters, I had a gas stove if it came down to that level of desperation. Knowing I had the freedom to change my mind…made it easier to stick to my resolve.

Next, I had to address my physical habits. Nature abhors a vacuum…you cannot break a habit but you can substitute a good habit for a bad one. Habit number 1 was carrying that pack of smokes with me everywhere: I bought giant packs of sugar-free gum and carried one of them around.

My second habit was mindlessly lighting up. I would not even be consciously aware until after I had taken two or three drags off the cig…and sometimes I would light up, only to discover I already had one burning. So, I would automatically reach for that cig pack only to find a pack of gum, which would trigger my awareness and then I could consciously decide if I wanted another piece of gum or not.

Now, I don’t like chewing gum, so switching to a chewing gum habit wasn’t a problem for me, since I quit the gum habit easily, once I was smoke free.

The battle was largely psychological, and my fundamental laziness is what saved me in the long run. In those first days when the physical craving came, I would mentally assess what I had to do to get a cigarette:

Did I want to get dressed in “outside” clothes, put on make up, put out the animals, and drive to the store for a pack of smokes? No, not when there is a pack here in the house.

Did I want to hunt up the key, climb up a ladder, move all those heavy ash trays, then unwrap half a dozen rubber bands and paper towels to get to the cigs in the house? Not really…especially that ladder bit.

OK, if I was that desperate to brave the ladder…think of how they will taste. Dry, sickeningly sweet, harsh…do I want to do all that work just to get a cig that will taste nasty?

By the time I had pondered all of this, the craving would have passed, assisted of course by a wad of chewing gum.

I treated that gum pack like a cigarette pack and in the beginning it was my constant companion. Within a couple of weeks I was leaving it places and when my left hand automatically reached out for it and found nothing, my consciousness was triggered. Did I really want a piece of gum? Not really…

I sold that house in 1990 and as I was packing to move, I had to clean out the cupboard above the refrigerator. I found the key and opened the doors and found a stack of big, heavy ashtrays that went into the “garage sale” bin. As I removed the last ashtray there, behind it, was a wad of yellowed paper towelling. It was not until my fingers touched the rotting rubber bands that I realized what it was…my “rescue” pack of cigarettes, dried out and long-since forgotten. They went directly into the bin and for the first time I realize I was truly smoke free.

You can quit cold turkey, too, but first and most importantly, you must want to quit…really, really want to. Once you have the desire, then it is a matter of analyzing yourself and your patterns and creating for yourself roadblocks to picking up a cig…roadblocks that work for you because they address your own habits and peculiarities. Maybe ladders don’t bother you, but you hate sticking your hands into small dark spaces where spiders might lurk…then that’s where you hide your rescue pack. Maybe you don’t need a rescue pack because you don’t get antsy when you don’t have a back up…or perhaps you need to remove them all from the house because stale cigs don’t gross you out the way they did me.

The key is a true desire to quit combined with setting up your environment to make it difficult for you to resume. Together, those set you up to succeed.

I’ve been smoke-free for nearly 25 years…you can be too.


  1. I receive your blog in my e-mail and always look forward to your posts, but this one I just had to comment on. As a smoker who has a quit date in mind and has cut down substantially, I often wonder if all the hoopla out there on how hard it is to quit is just that."Hoopla" I have heard your story before from others, where they just woke up one day and decided to quit and did. And did for good. I wonder sometimes if this "hoopla" is a set up for failure. I have often thought I am putting to much into this quit date, cutting down, etc. and that I should just quit. After reading your post I think perhaps you have the "right way/idea"

  2. I quit smoking, cold turkey, 33 years ago, when I found out I was pregnant with my first son. It wasn't hard don't see what's so hard about quitting. First, and foremost you have to want to quit.

    Congratulations on a job well done, you will breathe easier for it, and we will have you around a long time to look forward to your blog postings.

  3. What a great article, and one that I should really pay attention to.
    I haven't stopped yet, and I really should...maybe I will use your tips, as they sound very good and workable for me...nothing too hard.


  4. Found you blog off of yorkie talk. Thought I would stop by and say Hi!


  5. I am glad that I am not the only one who quit because of a bit of laziness.

    About 16 years ago I was driving home from work and discovered that I needed some cigarettes. Since I had no money I had to find an ATM. I drove past Tyger Valley and saw how busy it was and just carried on driving. That was the last day that I smoked. Cold turkey after almost twenty years of smoking.

    The kicker is that a few months later we found four or five packs of cigarettes in a cupboard.


  6. Good blog. Much good help here for the smoker who wants to quit. You are quite right. You MUST have the intention to quit. Intention is the parent of action.
    No technique will work if the intention is not there. The Count smoked a pipe for many years and just decided to walk away from it one day. I never smoked, nor wanted to again. That was 10 years ago. The intention was strong enough to overide the desire. The practice of these techniques will strengthen your intention and then you will simply walk away from the habit. Mybest. Count Sneaky


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