Feature

The key to quitting smoking? Stop trying so hard.

It's not about willpower. It's about recognizing that you're powerless.

Two months ago, I quit smoking.

I had been a pack-a-day smoker since college. And I had been trying to quit for about as long. Wish me luck.

When I got engaged, I figured, ok, now's the time to quit. When I got married, I thought, ok, now's the time to quit. When I took up my first job. When our daughter was born. Actually, especially when our daughter was born: If there's one thing I didn't want for her, it was to grow up watching her father set such an example.

And yet I kept smoking. I rationalized it by saying there was still time. I still had a few years before she'd form stable memories, so I could keep up the habit and she'd never know me as a smoker. I'll always remember the first time I got up from the living room couch and she piped up, "Daddy, are you going to smoke a cigarette?"

It's a nasty habit, but not for the reasons non-smokers might think. Non-smokers don't like the smell, but man, the smell of smoke is actually the most delicious thing. No, it's a nasty habit because it's a demon. A demon is a spirit who inhabits you, and takes ahold of the muscles and sinews of your mind, and twists and turns them to make you look more and more like him, and less and less like you.

Smoking is a nasty habit because, like all addictions, it turns you into a slave and a liar.

It's slavery if you can't enjoy a meal or drinks with friends without having to step outside several times. It's slavery to have to push away your toddler because you're hunched up against a window feeding your habit. It's slavery if you can't listen to the person you are talking to, or pay attention to the lecture or movie or concert you are attending, because you are counting down the seconds until you can get your fix.

Smoking turns you into a liar — to other people and to yourself. Don't trust the smoker's pride. Yes, anti-smoker prejudice in the West can sometimes reach ridiculous heights. It's insane that there are places in the U.S. where people will run screaming from the room if you smoke tobacco, but offer pot like it's orange juice. And don't get me started about Bloomberg.

But anyone who tells you they smoke purely because they enjoy it, and who is blase about the link between cigarettes and cancer, that person is lying — either to you, or to themselves (sometimes both). I know, because I've been that person.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying that I've finally been able to quit smoking for more than a couple of weeks, and that it is an enormous relief.

And the reason I was able to pull it off is the same reason I was never able to pull it off beforehand.

As the writer Eve Tushnet, a recovering alcoholic and a counselor, pointed out, it is well known that the best way to get an addict to relapse is to guilt them — to remind them of everything bad that will happen if they relapse. Theoretically, this makes no sense: Shouldn't a reminder of the bad consequences of addiction make us less likely to slip up? But in practice it's obvious why that should happen: The addiction is a crutch, and the guilt trip only makes us weaker, which makes us need the crutch more.

When I tried to quit smoking in the past, I made two mistakes. First, I guilt-tripped myself. Don't you want to avoid cancer? Don't you want to live longer for your wife? Don't you want to set a good example for your daughter?

Secondly, I thought that it was about willpower. I told myself that I would defeat tobacco, because even though the cigarette was strong, my will was stronger.

Everything became easier once I realized something obvious: Quitting smoking is selfish.

Quitting smoking is selfish! Everything I've said about being alienated from my friends, my daughter, my surroundings is true — and it sucks. So why not try not doing the thing that sucks, and start doing the thing that doesn't suck?

I thought that quitting smoking required huge amounts of willpower, and thus I'd never be able to quit. Instead, it's the exact other way around: I have zero willpower, and that's exactly what's required to quit. The hard thing to do is to smoke. It's hard to detach myself from whatever I'm doing, and from whoever I'm with. My body has been conditioned over the years to suppress those feelings, but if I pay attention to them, I realize that inhaling smoke makes me want to choke and throw up. Suppressing those feelings is hard. Waking up every morning with my mouth feeling like molasses and tasting like an ashtray is hard. Not being able to run up three flights of stairs in a rush is hard.

The key is to realize that quitting smoking is something selfish. A little bit indulgent, even. I get to do everything I used to do (and more! like sports! but that's another column) but without inhaling a murder stick. You're doing something that's good for you, and that's enough motivation. Doing it for other people is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

I don't know how close that attitude is to the Twelve Steps' recognition that you are powerless to help yourself and need to rely on a higher power. For me there was no "hitting bottom." Only a gradual realization that something had to be done.

But there is a delightful paradox in the idea that owning up to your powerlessness can help you achieve what seemed impossible. And it's a paradox that has deep resonance for this Christian writer. As the writer Helen Andrews remarked, while our society runs shrieking from the language of sin, it still listens to the language of addiction, even though they are closely related. In Christianity, after all, original sin is the ultimate addiction, one you need to admit your powerlessness over and rely on a higher power to defeat. And in Christianity, this paradox applies to God himself, who defeated the powers of sin and death precisely by becoming powerless himself, by dying the death of a slave on the cross.

Only once I admitted my own weakness was I able to accomplish a feat of strength that I had given up hope on.

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