WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz is no wimp. He not only braves live air multiple times a day as the station’s midday anchor, he also performs around the country as a circus whip-master, and even recently attempted to break the Guinness world record for whip strokes per minute.
But Jack has yet to defeat the most insidious physical and psychological challenge many of us ever face: his smoking habit.
He has plenty of company: Almost 1 in 5 Americans smoke, the CDC says. He writes here about some of the unexpected obstacles involved, in hopes of helping other would-be quitters and their supporters. And he’ll document his fight periodically this year. Please stay tuned. — Carey
I’m about to try again. This weekend will mark my fourth attempt to quit smoking over the last 10 weeks or so. At age 27, I’ve been smoking for a little more than seven years, with multiple attempts to quit every year since three months after I started. When they tell you that nicotine is as addictive as heroin, they’re not kidding.
I’m at the point where I’ve started and stopped so many times that I know what I’m getting into, but every time, I seem to notice a new symptom or side effect of nicotine withdrawal. Almost always, I’m surprised. We hear about cigarette cravings, irritability and other symptoms of withdrawal — but the process of quitting also carries with it some other, lesser known symptoms.
1. The Mental Fog
By far my least favorite side effect, and one that I find the hardest to explain. You know that feeling you have right after you wake up? Half present, half in another world? This is your brain — not on drugs. I’ve described it as similar to going a day without coffee — except worse. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) Or being in a state of constantly having just had two beers. You can’t focus, you can’t sit still, you can’t formulate any thoughts that last in your brain for more than 30 seconds.
Except for how much you want a cigarette.
2. The Smell
This is one that sneaks up on you. Most people know that smoking dulls your sense of taste and smell, but it’s such a gradual process when you start smoking that you don’t notice it. For me, it rarely takes more than 36 hours to get those senses back strongly — and never in a good way.
The first time I really noticed it was last winter, when after a day of not smoking I drank a soda and nearly spat it out. I never knew it was that sweet.
The smell aspect hit me when I tried to quit on a hot, humid day in July. Long story short, we all need to wear more deodorant. Also brush our teeth more. Also, cities just smell awful in general. Also, yes, I recognize the irony of a smoker complaining about bad smells. You notice just how bad cigarettes smell, too.
3. The Constant Hunger
Many smokers will tell you that one of the first things they do after eating is smoke a cigarette. It’s a ritual. It marks the end of the meal and signifies that you’re ready to get back to doing other things. Nicotine is also an appetite suppressant.
Once you take those two things away, you suddenly find yourself hungry. All. The. Time. It’s not a biting hunger. You know you’re not dying of hunger, but you’re always just a bit peckish. You say, “Yeah, I could have another apple,” or, “A sandwich sounds really good right now,” usually right after you finish a massive steak and potatoes dinner.
4. Nicotine Replacement Therapy Will Mess You Up
I’ve stopped using things like nicotine gum or lozenges in more recent quitting attempts — and not because they don’t work. If anything, they work too much.
The first time I decided to chew nicotine gum, I bought a pack of the 4-milligram variety. For reference, most cigarettes have about 1 milligram of nicotine in them. In essence, chewing one piece of gum was like smoking four cigarettes at once. When I tried it, I was so happy not to be craving a cigarette that I didn’t notice that I was starting to feel lightheaded — then sick — then really sick.
They say the first time you have a cigarette you get sick to your stomach. I never had that experience when I started. I assume that must be what it’s like.
5. Your Emotions Go Haywire
Everyone knows that people who quit smoking generally get a short temper during the quitting process. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.
During one of my quitting attempts, my emotions went on a 20-minute loop — seven minutes of being angry, seven minutes of pure joy because this is the time I’m going to quit smoking, and seven minutes of being on the verge of tears because, well, this is the time I’m going to quit smoking.
It’s like every feeling gets ramped up to 11 on a scale of 10. That car cut you off in traffic? Lay on the horn! Car slow to move at a green light? Lay on the horn! Car’s only going the speed limit? …You get the idea.
There are two ways to make all of this stop. The first is to get through it and hold on until the symptoms subside and you are no longer a smoker. Or, you can walk a block down the street and buy a pack of cigarettes and feel normal immediately. The challenge is picking the former and not the latter.
Readers, words of wisdom for Jack? Please share.