I was at university and I had been smoking cigarettes for years. I was exercising most days and I had begun to notice that my level of fitness seemed to be capped by the smoking. My body and everything I owned smelled of cigarette smoke.
I detested smoking but I didn’t seem to be able to stop doing it. I began to notice that smoking was the number one thing I thought about. I was always planning when I would smoke my next cigarette and when I would smoke the one after that.
I remember one time lighting a cigarette while thinking about when I would smoke the cigarette after the next one. Then I placed the cigarette that I had just lit into an ashtray only to find another cigarette already burning there. This shocked me. I was so completely engrossed in my addiction that I was paying almost no attention to what was happening in my surroundings.
At the time, I was smoking about forty cigarettes per day, that’s two normal (large) packs, and the term “chain smoker” didn’t quite capture the level of my addiction. I had become a parallel smoker.
I had tried to quit many times and it had always been an enormous struggle. I had planned to cut down, to limit, and to gradually stop. It’s been said that the withdrawal experience of a nicotine addict is more challenging than that of a heroin addict. I experienced all the well-known withdrawal symptoms, including physical discomfort, obsessive thinking, shaking, and irritability. In each instance, I finally tricked myself into caving-in and returning to smoking. Each time I failed to quit I felt a little more shame. I, the smoker, couldn’t do it.
One day, I had had enough and I simply decided that I was not a smoker. Instead of trying to change, I simply decided that I was not someone who smoked. It was not that I was not a smoker anymore. I was simply not a smoker.
Whenever a smoking-related thought would pass through my mind, I let it be there in its fullness and noticed that it had no relevance to me because I was not a smoker. Because any thoughts related to smoking found no identity to hook into, to give them energy and to sustain them, they quickly dissipated.
I experienced absolutely no physical or mental withdrawal symptoms. I had no craving, no shaking, and no irritability. It has now been over two-and-a-half decades since I last smoked a cigarette and I have not once felt drawn to it.
A few times, I have smelled cigarette smoke and thought, “Mmm, that smells like roast beef,” but that thought also sometimes passes through my mind when I happen to get a whiff of my own farts. I would never consider intentionally breathing large amounts of smoke, or farts, into my lungs.
The trick to changing behavior is not to try to change the behavior. The trick is to be a person who behaves differently. The trick is to simply choose, wholeheartedly, to be a different person. Not to be a different person “from this day forth,” but to choose that you have always been a different person.
I was never a smoker. It’s truer to say that I was a non-smoker who smoked. It’s very clear to me now. For example, even when I smoked cigarettes, I despised doing it. I don’t know how I was able to put myself through that.
Thoughts and feelings occur and we stitch them into an identity, making sense of them in the context of who we think we are. Since the “me” is a blatant fabrication anyway, as long as there is a sense of a “me” it’s possible for it to be anything.