“I’m going to succeed this time, I can feel it!”
—Amy*, first day of quitting
“I can’t believe it’s been three days. Feeling motivated.”
—Clint, two days quit
“This is hard. But if I fail, I’ll just have to start all over again.”
—Debbie, seven days quit
“This is so hard.”
—Debbie, eight days quit
“I came back to say that sometimes, I still get cravings. Even now. And to offer encouragement: You can do it. You do NOT need to smoke that cigarette.”
—Mark, 1,239 days quit
1,239 days is nearly three and a half years. Mark quit smoking cigarettes almost three and a half years ago, and still, he occasionally thinks to himself, “I could go for a smoke.” His success is encouraging, his surviving desire is depressing. He doesn’t go for a cigarette is the point, but thinking about his momentary desire is daunting.
Well, it is for some people. I’m an ex-smoker too, so it’s not daunting as much as it is the “ahhhh, yes,” of recognition.” But for me, it’s only been 349 days. I cannot say if, when I think to myself, “I could go for a smoke,” that desire is more or less intense than Mark’s, but I can say that when it comes, even still, it is overwhelming. It is daunting, if short-lived. Intense and unwelcome. I want, momentarily, to collapse and die. To cry for my mother. To scream in the face of a smiling child. I envision shredding every book in my house with my teeth, and yet I do nothing externally. I don’t move. I blink my eyes, I move on. It’s nothing: This kind of pain is invisible, even to your roommates, your spouse. It’s so fleeting that it becomes, crumb by little crumb, day by day, bearable.
The internet is overflowing with tiny subsets of people seemingly doing good things among themselves. Solving cold cases. Losing weight. Building custom keyboards. But we mostly hear (rightfully so) about the more base, horrific “communities” of people trolling and tearing one another down, bullying each other to tears or worse. We don’t often think of that more supportive current, washing helpful, empowering messages over one another. “You can do it, I know that you can, I believe in you,” writes Mark to a complete stranger on a private quit-smoking forum of which he has been a member for over four years. The person he writes to, Debbie, has only been quit for seven days. It’s the middle of the night, she is in the shit, she’s alone, she feels cornered, and the “support group internet” is there for her. Who is to say if this helps her in the long term; in the short term it certainly appears to.
Though there is evidence to suggest that group addiction therapy (AA or whatever) works for lots of people, there isn’t much specifically on anonymous, internet-forum support groups. Regardless, this kind of internet, be it for diet, exercise, drugs, or alcohol, is a wholly different place than the one that most of us are accustomed to. Have you ever teared up for the minor but still epic struggle of a 62-year-old man reduced to typing 500-word journal entries on the internet for all who sign up to see, simply because he’s 45 hours deep into an attempt to quit smoking? These forums are here to prop people up, to want, unequivocally, for their success and well-being. Clashes of personality and arguments, though they happen, are oddly pretty rare. If you want to restore your faith in humanity, don’t go to BuzzFeed: Go to an online quit-smoking support group.
If you want to restore your faith in humanity, don’t go to BuzzFeed: Go to an online quit-smoking support group.
Most people who join a quitter’s forum and then quit smoking likely move on pretty quickly. It is a transitory phase of life, and once you’ve quit you try to focus on living. But most of the time, people need to come back again… and again. The numbers on this are stark: According to the American Cancer Society, though 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit, just 7 percent of people are able to do so on their first try; most people have to try two or three or four times before succeeding. For people who don’t quit smoking, about 67 percent end up dying of smoking-related causes. Cancer. Emphysema. COPD. Heart disease.
Reading the forums of quitting smoking, I’m tempted to say that no one is more alive than a quitter on their first day. They threw out their lighters and their cigarettes. They bought the gum or the patches. They woke up feeling good, making positive changes. Like Renton in Trainspotting, they’re choosing life. It’s completely beside the point that none of the real work has started yet, that the quitter hasn’t realized, like a first-time mother, just how long a single waking day can be. They don’t yet know how little chance of success there actually is.
“I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to take the first step,” Jamie wrote on a first-day forum. “I am feeling better than I ever thought that I would.” I want to hug Jamie, to tell her that it will get better, but the truth is, quitting smoking is most akin to someone close to you dying, and I don’t mean to make less of the dead person. Internally, these experiences are almost indistinguishable. The mourning, day in, day out. “What’s the point of getting up?” we might wonder, despite having families we love and careers we want to pursue. This tiny change can obscure everything, trapping us in that hazy, dizzy headache that seems could only now be cleared by smoking, but we can’t. It’s unsolvable. I stopped wondering when the irritation would go away some time ago. Just like you accept the dead person is gone and make peace with it but never stop missing them.
There are, of course, many upsides. After only two weeks, they say, your “energy levels” go up, and that is no fucking joke. Sometimes, post a 15-hour work day, in the earliest weeks of my journey, I’d suddenly think to myself, “I could clean the garage, maybe? Redo my filing system? No?” I felt like Kool-Aid-Manning through the walls I had so much energy bursting from inside of me. That tapered off a bit, but I have found overall that I need less sleep. I do get sick less often. Though these words might lead one to believe otherwise, I am, externally, less irritable overall. I do not feel random depression. I’m not always in search of an unnameable something that is inevitably outside, regardless of the weather. And the odds of my success are getting better every day.
In a 2002 study, the Boston University School of Dentistry found that between 60 and 90 (NINETY) percent of quitters relapsed within the first year. But, they also found that, of those who made it beyond that first year, only 15 percent would go on to relapse in the second. It does, apparently, get easier.
The smell of smoke doesn’t have any effect on me anymore. I don’t mind it, but I don’t walk toward it like an extra on the set of The Walking Dead anymore, either. “I want a reason to smoke again,” writes Charity on a forum, and I empathize, I really do, because I’ve been there, but I’m not there anymore. I don’t want the reasons anymore. I still want to smoke sometimes, but I’ve lost the will to fight the fact that I’ve quit. I’m no longer at war with my own decisions. And I’ve graduated from the quit-smoking forums. I took what I needed and moved on to the “Is it cancer?” ones. I can’t stay here anymore: I’m getting beyond that first year. And I’m never logging in again.
These forums that I read religiously, I believe, eventually helped me to stop smoking. I didn’t ever post in them, I simply was an avid lurker, reading about the noble struggles of others. I learned to look for the people who disappeared, to wonder if they’d failed or maybe didn’t need the forum anymore. I followed their stories like they were the arcs of novels. I gained strength in reading the vulnerability of others, and those forums are there for you, too, left behind by the quitters like an old discarded diary. It’s not voyeurism that drives us to read these but a deep need to imagine our own success by reading about the success of others. To make the goal seem attainable, when at home, it feels inescapably, intolerably unrealistic. Reading about Mark’s well-being, his success over the course of months and years, it was some small part of my equation for success. And I won't forget that, even long after I have lost my forum passwords, which I’ve been using since 2006.
* All of the names and some of the wording of quotes have been slightly changed to protect the privacy of people who are posting to private forums.