GUS (Gave Up Smoking) is a community support diary for Kossacks in the midst of quitting smoking. Any supportive comments, suggestions or positive distractions are appreciated. If you are quitting or thinking of quitting, please -- join us! We kindly ask that politics be set aside.
One of the issues that pops up in GUS diaries over and over is the quitter's struggle to stay quit. We've had our share of diaries and tons of anecdotes addressing the challenges so many of us face when we're adjusting to being nonsmokers, and if I were to hazard a guess, the biggest trigger for most of us is also, unfortunately, pretty common: emotional stress, and learning how to cope with it.
"Not to expose your true feelings to an adult seems to be instinctive from the age of seven or eight onwards." - George Orwell
For many addicts (and I am mostly talking about nicotine addicts here, but your experiences with other substances may also follow this pattern), we use our substance(s) of choice as a substitute for addressing our emotional reactions to things head-on. It's a lot easier -- at least I always thought so! -- to stomp off and have an "angry smoke" or slink off and have a "sad smoke" than it is to stay and face whatever is causing that emotion in you. The act of smoking itself is treated as a soothing cure for whatever is ailing us, while the chemical reaction it causes in our brain helps to suppress the intensity of the emotion we're feeling.
In other words, we often smoke so we don't have to acknowledge and address our emotional reactions, and we also do it so we don't have to feel our feelings quite so intensely.
Because so many of us start smoking when we're adolescents, we don't just do ourselves physical damage, we also end up inadvertently stunting our own emotional growth. Because we learn to substitute smoking for the development of some of the more nuanced adult interpersonal skills, we are, in effect, "stuck" in adolescence, at least when it comes to our ability to manage our emotional reactions. We may understand them intellectually, and we may even recognize our own inability to handle specific types of interactions in a way that a younger person may not, but the upshot remains the same: our reactions to emotional stress are not what they would be if we didn't have nicotine in the picture.
So when the cigarettes are gone, and we can no longer hide behind the excuse of "needing a smoke" or count on the nicotine rush to smooth over the jagged edges of our emotional state, the result can leave us walking around feeling like a raw nerve. Not only can't we substitute smoking for feeling, we're left with feelings that seem to be writ large, in blinking neon letters: I CAN'T HANDLE THIS!! Which our addict brain helpfully translates as "I NEED A CIGARETTE!!"
Needless to say, this is not a good thing for people who have decided not to smoke anymore. What do you do with those impulses? What do you do with all those irritating, intrusive, don't-know-what-to-do-with-'em feelings?
"If you are carrying strong feelings about something that happened in your past, they may hinder your ability to live in the present." - Les Brown
Well, the simplest answer is also the most complex and challenging: we learn to deal with them. Easier said than done, of course, especially for those of us who would rather rationalize than react, or for those who prefer reason to emotion because sometimes, it's just easier to get through the day if you're not feeling so much.
My completely unscientific poll of GUS folks seems to show a larger-than-average number of introverts represented in the group (nationally, it's about a 50-50 split). Now, there's probably a bit of self-selection involved. There are a lot of introverts online; interaction by pixel is a little easier for some folks than the face-to-face variety, after all. But I think it also speaks to the type of person who may be predisposed to addiction.
After all, addicts frequently experience a co-occurring mental illness (most commonly some form of depression or anxiety); they may also have a history of trauma or exposure to trauma (domestic violence, bullying, physical or sexual assault), or have had an otherwise unsettled upbringing (for example, parents who struggled with mental illness or circumstances that led to prolonged economic instability). The vast majority of smokers also had adults in their lives who modeled smoking behaviors to them.
Yeah, lucky us...I'm not much of a believer in fate, but sometimes it sure feels like some of us were at least a little bit doomed to end up with a certain set of behaviors, doesn't it?
"You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings." - Pearl S. Buck
Still, it was -- and is -- up to us to decide what we want to do with all that. For some, smoking delayed the development of coping skills for a great many situations we experience as adults, including emotional interactions with other people and any number of stressful situations offered up in our family or work lives. It even creeps into our interests (just ask anyone who has done time in one of those huge, horrible meta threads whether they felt stressed-out and tense afterward). The world will offer up a million different situations that in previous times might've served as an excuse to smoke. It's up to all of us to figure out what to do now that's no longer an option.
It was no fun figuring out how to deal with disappointment, frustration, irritation, anger, confusion or sadness without the one-two punch of smoking (the ritual) and nicotine (the chemical). I made -- and still make -- a lot of mistakes. I get mad at myself. I disappoint myself. I still have plenty of what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-just-now? moments. I've weathered a few big stresses (getting laid off, a parent's illness) and countless little ones (stupid late bus! stupid guy on the phone! stupid deadline! stupid whatever-today's-little-irritation-might-be!) since I ditched the smokes. I'm not perfect and never will be; I just aim for "doing the best I can." Even those who never had to relearn this stuff as grown-ups mess up on occasion, right?
And, if I'm honest, I still deflect, suppress, ignore, or downplay my feelings. I wasn't one of those "let it all out and you'll feel better" people even before I was a smoker, so I'm probably never going to be one now that I've quit, either. But I am getting better at it, little by little. It doesn't hurt that I have a place like this to go when I need to vent or whine or do all that stuff that's a little bit harder to do in person now that I don't have smoking as an escape.
For those struggling with addiction (to any substance, not just nicotine) or who would like more information on substance treatment, prevention and recovery, there's lots of free information out there, especially at federal clearing-house sites like the one at SAMHSA. Wisely, they've put substance abuse and mental health treatment under the same umbrella...the overlap is so large that treating both issues is now the expectation, rather than the exception.
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Had some experience with the effects of smoking?
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