Health, Wealth and Slavery

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If I look back at why I quit smoking just over four years ago, I would say that it was driven by the desire to break away from the slavery, even though an unforeseen health scare precipitated my action to quit.  Wealth, or expense if you prefer, didn’t even come into the picture.

When people first start smoking, health issues are the furthest things from their minds. The average young adult doesn’t think about what cigarettes are doing to their bodies. Wealth is just a matter of getting some money together to afford the next pack, buying some rolling tobacco, or scrounging a few here and there from friends. Slavery isn’t even a consideration. Addiction is something that happens to others.  Besides, smoking is legal, so how bad can it really be?

Roll on a few years, and people start realizing that they’re hooked. “OK, so it’s addictive, and I will stop in the near future” they say to themselves.  On the plus side, there are no signs of health issues.  No serious health issues, that is.  Everybody gets a cold, and some mild wheezing in winter is to be expected. The expense is bearable, just about. Slavery rears its ugly head, but so long as there is hope in quitting one day, it’s all still under the smoker’s control.

And yet a few more years later and the wheezing and coughing is still there, although more frequently. Some shortness of breath while doing simple tasks starts to appear. But, overall the health is still OK. Smoking is still affordable, even if we struggle a little. There is always a way to get the nicotine fix, because that is what it has become; a fix. The realization that we really are addicted to smoking starts to creep in. We attempt to stop, once, twice, maybe a few times, but somehow things don’t work out. Something always prevents us from quitting, so we start smoking again.

We get frustrated, but at least we’re not dying of some hideous illness, yet.  We’re worried about cancer and emphysema, but only when we actually take the time to think about it. Luckily, our overall well-being hasn’t really been impacted so far. We continue to smoke, despite knowing the worsening health risks. We know from experience that we can afford to smoke.  It’s the damned slavery that really starts hitting home. “I don’t enjoy being bound by these chains. I want out!”

My partner has often told me that health-wise, nothing is wrong until it is. As I have written about before, we don’t know what is going wrong inside our bodies until it manifests itself in the form of symptoms. That’s what happened to me. I woke up one morning with a deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) in my left leg and subsequently had to spend ten days in hospital.  I was convinced that it was self-induced from smoking, even if the doctor’s declined to comment on the correlation, other than telling me “It’s time you quit smoking.”

On the face of it, in my case health trumped slavery. I was absolutely sick of being tied down to smoking and all that it entailed, but the health ‘incident’ happened before I could take action against being a slave. Would I have kicked the habit if it hadn’t been for the DVT?  I don’t rightfully know because I wasn’t given the choice. All I know is that I’m glad that the health scare wasn’t cancer. Either way, I’m a happy non-smoker these days.

To conclude, I don’t believe that wealth (or expense) should ever be used as a primary reason to quit smoking, because people will always find a way to obtain cheap tobacco. Health and slavery, on the other hand, should always be high on the agenda of reasons to quit. In fact, I would venture to say that you should seriously consider fighting the slavery first, before any health issues tear you down.

Smokers Are Drug Addicts Too!

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Typically, people who want to give up smoking have good reasons to back their decision. It could be that smoking is becoming too expensive for you. It might be that you fear health complications, perceived or real. Perhaps a smoking relative or friend of yours recently contracted or died of cancer. If you are pregnant, you may want to avoid damaging the health of your unborn child. If you are a partner of a non-smoker, you may want to quit out of respect for them. Whatever the reasons you want to quit, and no matter how much you believe in them, you still have to go through the motions of actually quitting and staying quit. Easier said than done, but millions before you have succeeded and so can you!

My humble opinion is that reasons alone don’t constitute a quit plan.  Aside from knowing that you want to quit, you also need to know how to quit. There are lots of tools and techniques available to help with the basics, such as whether or not you want to use Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) or go for it ‘cold-turkey’, and resources which talk about practical matters such as how to avoid situations where you may be tempted to smoke, or how to manage your cravings.  However, I haven’t seen much in the way of resources that address the broader picture of how to address the psychological aspects of tobacco addiction in a practical a manner.

The fact is that although nicotine is a powerful substance, its immediate effects are fairly limited in time. The longer-term psychological effects of tobacco addiction are far more reaching. The more time that has passed since you started smoking, the more ingrained the habit has become. For many people, smoking is an integral part of their life. For some, it is a part of their identity; “I am a smoker.” they say.

Simply getting rid of the physical addiction to nicotine, holding on to a list of reasons to quit and hoping for the best doesn’t seem to me to be the most appropriate way to guarantee success. The individual who wants to quit also has to unlearn a lot of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have built up over time.

So, how do we get more people to quit and stay quit?  I believe the answer is through education, perhaps with more books focusing on what happens after the initial three-day nicotine depletion, and how to manage day-to-day after that.  This could be augmented by engaging more with qualified psychologists who have a clear understanding of substance abuse and how smokers can reintegrate into society as a non-smoker. Naturally, this is not necessary for every individual, but if there was a programmatic approach to ‘quit smoking’ counseling at an affordable price I’m sure the success rate could be much greater.

Create Your Own Eureka Moment!

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eureka moment * noun

the moment when you suddenly understand something important, have a great idea, or find the answer to a problem

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The best way to get started on quitting smoking is to clearly understand what it is you want to achieve, why and how.  It’s estimated that about 65% of smokers want to quit, but I wonder how many of them have had a eureka moment, a sudden understanding of what it is exactly they want to achieve and how they are going to follow through with a plan until the problem is solved.

Sadly, from my observations, people wanting to quit often translates into them thinking:

  • I wish I had never started
  • I shouldn’t be doing this because it’s bad for my health
  • Smoking is a dirty, smelly habit
  • It’s getting too expensive to continue
  • People keep nagging me to stop
  • If only I could cut down until I can stop completely
  • I’m afraid of dying of a smoking-related disease
  • I hate setting a bad habit for my children
  • … and the list of reasons goes on

These are all very noble reasons to want to quit, but none of them show a sense of urgency. The same arguments will be just as valid tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. So long as time passes and nothing changes, nothing much will change in the minds of these people who want to quit. Sure, they will still want to quit and they may feel a little guiltier as time goes by, but they’re perhaps not quite convinced enough to go through with quitting. Some of them will attempt to quit, but the effort proves too difficult because the rewards are a long time in the making and the benefits aren’t immediately tangible. Something is missing, and that I believe is the eureka moment.

In my humble opinion, that eureka moment comes when you realize that you don’t want to quit smoking for certain reasons, but that you want to quit in spite of those reasons. That is, the reasons are only a supporting argument toward your long-term goal of ridding yourself of nicotine / tobacco addiction. Your primary objective should be freeing yourself from being a slave to the cigarette.  All the rest is icing on the cake.

Quit Smoking: Will versus willpower

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I was having a brief email conversation with a fellow blogger about quitting smoking, and how I had kept a couple of packs of cigarettes in a kitchen cupboard for a long while when I first quit. I kept them there ‘just in case of emergency’, meaning that if I had a panic attack in the middle of the night, or a sudden and radical change of mind, I could saunter over to the kitchen in my pajamas and light up. My fellow blogger pointed out that keeping a ‘backup’ pack would not work for him, because he would likely end up smoking them. He also went on to say that I must have strong willpower to do such a thing. That got me thinking about why it is that having a backup (cigarettes close at hand) works for some and not for others when quitting.

My philosophy toward quitting is and has always been for people to do what is right for them as an individual. Contrary to what many experts, books, web sites, bloggers etc. do by presenting a single linear method of quitting, I prefer to explore and explain the various options, allow people to draw their own conclusions and for them to make their own plans. People’s experiences of smoking are an integral part of their lives, and therefore quitting is also a very personal experience. But, I digress. Suffice to say that I believe in people informing themselves, making their own choices and taking full responsibility for their decisions.

The real reason why I went for the backup solution is because I believe in the path of least resistance when it comes to problem solving. Some people would call this laziness, and they would be right. It was much easier to have the backup cigarettes close at hand than to have to get dressed and drive around in the middle of the night searching for a convenience store or garage where I could buy some. It was lazy, admittedly, but it was also smart. As a tobacco addict, I knew that if I did change my mind for whatever reason, having the cigarettes close at hand or having to go out and get them would have resulted in the same outcome; I would be back to smoking again. The fact that the backup was practically within arms reach didn’t make any difference to my will to quit smoking. I was fully aware at all times that I wanted to quit, and for the most part it didn’t require much willpower.

To try to explain the difference between will and willpower, I resorted to Yahoo! answers. After all, who needs a dictionary when you can rely on millions of individuals’ opinions all over the web. 😀 On 20th June 2008, a member called Alisterio stated that:

  • “Will” is more or less synonymous with “inclination” or “disposition”: your will to do something, like climb Everest, is your motivation.
  • “Willpower” can be translated more or less as “strength of character”. It’s more to do with how well you control your urges or how disciplined you are with yourself.

I like Alisterio’s definition, because it accurately describes how I felt about quitting smoking. I had the will, or motivation, to quit. I knew it was time and I knew that I wanted to succeed. I was also pretty convinced that I would succeed because I felt mentally prepared. I was fully resolved to not smoking another cigarette, ever. I had informed myself (mainly through a lot of self-reflection), I’d made my choice, and I was ready to take full responsibility for my decision.

At times, particularly in the beginning, I had some nicotine cravings like most people do. I managed to stave them off by keeping myself busy and allowing them to pass. I was fully aware of what was going on. My body and mind were telling me that I ‘needed’ to smoke. The urge to smoke was there, but the willingness was not. I guess you could call my ability to battle these urges ‘willpower’, but in reality it all seemed pretty pathetic to me. Even the fact that the backup cigarettes were nearby couldn’t break my resolve, my will to quit. Just thinking about them sitting there in the cupboard made me think:

“They are there for a good reason. Don’t mess up that reason.”

However you choose to quit, and no matter what you do to get rid of your nicotine addiction, the journey you take from start to finish is not important. What is important is reaching your goal.

Quit Smoking: Success Takes Time

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I’ve often dreamed about being able to play a musical instrument, but sadly at the age of 52 it is still just a dream and will likely remain so for the rest of my days. The problem with living my dream was that I had unrealistic expectations. I wanted to spend a minimum amount of time and effort learning about scales, notes, chords, harmonies and so forth in order to be able to quickly knock out some tunes. I knew that I couldn’t expect to become the next Mozart in five minutes, but what could be so hard about learning the basics, trying out some simple melodies and moving on from there? I was excited to give it a try, convinced I could make it happen.

At one point in my early thirties, I bought a fancy electronic keyboard with MIDI capabilities that I hooked up to my PC. Armed with a few ‘getting started’ books, some software, and colored stickies which I applied to the keys, I followed the instructions diligently and tapped away happily for several hours a day for a few weeks. But, after such a short time, the thrill of following the book was already starting to wear thin. I wasn’t even able to play the simplest tune without looking carefully at the color coding in the book and then hitting the corresponding keys. I had clearly misunderstood the level of effort required to learn to play the keyboard. Still I pursued, feeling less and less enthusiastic for a few more days until finally I decided that there was no point trying to do something that was clearly beyond my reach. The MIDI keyboard subsequently collected dust for a few years and was then sold off at a garage sale along with a bunch of other items that had outlived their use.

Obviously, learning to play the keyboard was not really beyond my reach. It was more a question of me not being prepared to put in the required effort. I could have practiced more, bought more books, learned from others who could already play, or taken lessons for example. The problem was that my expectations of the learning process were unreasonably high and my lack of patience far outweighed my desire to learn to play properly. I wanted results but I didn’t apply myself. Lesson learned.

I use this example to illustrate what often happens to people who quit smoking. At first there can be a sense of exhilaration at getting started, followed by a sense of joy at having managed to get through the first day, a few days or a few weeks without smoking. In the beginning the results of your tactical efforts are enough of a reward to keep going. You managed to avoid smoking with your morning coffee, going for a cigarette break at work, refusing a cigarette that someone spontaneously offered you, and generally managing to dodge all situations that put you in danger of lighting up. You pat yourself on the back every day for the first while, but then the novelty of having quit starts wearing off.

You start getting fed up with going through the same routine everyday. The process feels a lot tougher than you expected, and even though you have managed to stay quit for a while, it is still very hard work. The cravings are difficult to manage and you start thinking about the supposed benefits of quitting; you don’t feel significantly healthier; your breathing hasn’t improved and in fact you’re chest feels congested; you may feel tired or agitated from the mental effort; your bank account balance isn’t looking much better than a few weeks ago. Your mind is starting to ponder about the lack of perceived benefits of having quit and you start questioning when you can expect to see some concrete results. You feel disappointed that despite all your hard work, the only noticeable change you see is that you’re not smoking anymore. You expected it to be a whole lot simpler process. At that point, many people cave in.

The fact is that just like learning a skill (in my example, playing the keyboard), quitting smoking and staying quit is a gradual process. Expecting it to be easy and especially for it to show significant results early on is simply unrealistic. Even recognizing distinct stages of quitting, such as when you no longer have cravings or when you feel healthier is quite unlikely, especially after just a few weeks. I realize that this may seem like a rather bleak state of affairs, but I would rather be honest with everyone than to try to convince anyone otherwise. If you persist in your pursuit of quitting, and get beyond thinking about quitting, you will likely wake up one day realizing just how much things have changed since the days when you used to smoke.

From idea to execution, but where’s the plan?

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Anyone who has ever managed a project either at work or in private life (for example: booking a holiday, getting married, buying a car or a house…) will know that the better the planning, the more likely the successful outcome. Of course, some projects require more planning than others, but overall you would need to be very lucky to go straight from idea to execution and land a successful project without encountering some struggles in between. It is far more likely that you would end up with disappointing results or in the worst case, a complete failure.

Unfortunately, many people who attempt to quit smoking don’t think of quitting smoking as a project and they don’t plan sufficiently ahead, other than potentially choosing a form of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and thinking of a vague strategy to avoid smoking, especially in the first few days. Granted, some people may save the money they would have spent on cigarettes, but that comes as a side-effect of quitting rather than being an integral part of the project. I can’t blame anyone for this lack of planning because there is no concrete tangible result to aim for, other than being able to say that you no longer do something that you used to do, or that you feel healthier, or wealthier, but at what point? Also, there is no real end to the project, because it is presumably a situation for life. In other words, quitting smoking appears to lack some of the key elements of most projects, and it is more about undoing than doing. But, I would still argue that quitting smoking should be considered as a project and planned as such.

The detail of that planning is far too long to go into in a short post such as this, and is explored in much more detail in my upcoming book, but in a nutshell it comes down to this:

1) Understand what drives you to smoke.

2) Explore why you want to quit.

3) Learn what to expect from others who have quit before you.

5) Learn about and understand the nature of cravings (physical, psychological) and how to combat them.

4) Discuss your quit smoking plans with people who can support you.

5) Decide which method of quitting to use (cold turkey, NRT, acupuncture, Chantix/Champix etc.)

6) Determine if medical supervision could be beneficial.

6) Build a plan of how to keep yourself busy in the first few days, weeks, months instead of smoking.

7) Decide when you want to quit.

8) Quit.

9) Take personal responsibility for your quit.

10) Regularly reward yourself for your achievement (it doesn’t have to be monetary).

Behind each of these steps are several sub-steps and sometimes side-steps. The 10 steps above are a simple outline, but I would like to point out that the actual quitting only occurs in step 8, well after the initial planning. In other words, the project planning takes a significant amount of consideration before the actual quitting process starts. It is not a question of going from an idea (I want to quit) to execution (quitting), but instead following a real project strategy:  idea -> planning -> execution.

Above I said that there is no tangible result to aim for, nor a real end to the project, the reason being that it is impossible to know up front at what point a person feels they have succeeded. Everyone measures their success according to their own individual criteria. In my humble opinion, however, I would say that positive results and the end of the project coincide when an individual feels proud of their achievement and feels confident that they won’t ever smoke again.