Five years ago today, I quit smoking.
Half a decade ago, I was in a bad spot in life. A relationship I had been in for the last four years was coming undone. My health was failing, necessitating frequent trips to a medical specialist. I was in chronic pain. To deal with the stress, I found myself drinking and smoking cigarettes more and more often. Which only made my health worse.
The thing about cigarettes is that they slowly grind you down. You don’t feel that you’re getting weaker. If anything, you feel more confident, like you’re wagging a finger at Thanatos himself. “The classy way to commit suicide.” Indeed.
Nicotine is highly addictive, but it’s the psychological hook that really keeps you puffing away. When your life is going wrong you need merely reach for your pack and lighter to send a clear message to the cosmos: I’m capable of screwing up my life plenty on my own, thank you. When you’ve lost control of every other aspect of your life, tobacco offers you a new dimension of control.
There is nothing exceptional about the bad spot I found myself in. Millions are in a similar spot. Everything was wrong. I knew it was wrong. But I wasn’t willing to risk everything I knew to fix it. That situation had continued for years.
Until I quit.
Quitting smoking was the first domino in a sequence that would tear down a lot of the rotting drywall of my life. I precisely remember standing on the porch of my apartment building on July 3rd, watching a torrential summer storm drip down the eaves of the house next door. I remember putting the cigarette carton in the trash, along with my lighters, and taking the bag out to the alley so I wouldn’t be tempted to rummage through the trash.
I didn’t quit by switching to nicotine supplements. I didn’t use any kind of program or process. I didn’t even tell anyone I was quitting. I believed then as I do now that a major life change must be undertaken in private, where the internal shame can be dealt with without a crutch. All too often our culture prescribes technical and medical solutions to what is ultimately a matter of the heart.
I don’t know that I actually formed the thought “I am going to quit smoking” in my mind. My process was to just say I’m not going to do this anymore. It was a conscious choice and a promise made to myself. That sentiment reached far beyond a single bad habit. It reflected a desire to stop living in a way that was quite clearly dysfunctional, to become a better person.
A few days later I stepped into a martial arts gym in Chicago and began the slow process that has made me the person you see today. From that day forth, instead of smoking and drinking every night, I boxed or lifted weights.
When I started training that summer, I couldn’t even do ten pushups. I had never worked out beyond jogging around the block. I couldn’t squat 100 pounds. Learning how to fight was so beyond the realm of possibility that I would have sneered at the suggestion a year earlier.
Quitting can be a powerful force. It is the acknowledgement that the path you have found yourself on is no longer heading toward your final destination. Most problems in life can be resolved by better communication. But once in a while, you have to hit the brakes and do a full-on U-turn.
After the U-turn, the slate is clean, and anything can happen.