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Alex, 33, started smoking as a teenager, and it took him a few goes to kick the habit over a decade later. The Sydneysider shares what finally worked for him and why he’d recommend rallying friends and family to help quit.
I had my first cigarette when I was 17. I picked up the habit when I worked in hospitality, and everyone around me smoked. I continued the habit when I went travelling, and by the time I came back, it was a habit that, frankly, I really enjoyed at the time.
The main thing that prompted me to quit was that I had this shift where I went from enjoying cigarettes to feeling like I was smoking because I needed it to keep my mood normal throughout the day. I didn't like the control that it had over me.
I tried to quit three times before it finally stuck. It's really hard to quit smoking. The feeling is hard to describe, but it's almost like a tickling in the back of your brain that just won't go away. I found it debilitating. Not everyone does, but I found trying to go cold turkey nearly impossible. I tried and failed twice. It's a pretty common thing for guys, thinking they can just stick it out. I tried to force it, and I wasn't strong enough to quit or whatever, and after that, I felt really powerless.
Then I tried to do gum, but the gum made me feel super jittery, and it didn't really replace any of the things I got from smoking. The final time I quit a totally different way. I went to the doctor and just said, "Hey, I really want to quit smoking." He was really good. He prescribed me a medication that curbed the cravings a little bit. He was very insightful and explained what happens to the brain when you’re addicted to smoking, and he was also very encouraging, which razzed me up a bit.
But it was also about breaking habits — the habit of going outside on a work break to smoke, going out with my friends to have a smoke. I needed to find things to replace those things in my life that I was really used to. So I would just go and stand outside with my mates, without a cigarette, which sounds silly, but that was really important. I also had to get my friends and family onside. It really matters when you're being honest with everyone about what you're trying to do because then you’re on the hook with your peers. That was really powerful. I told them that I was quitting cigarettes and not to give me any.
It took me around a year to fully quit, and I was pretty determined. I think it probably would've taken a bit longer if the medication didn't work, and the medication definitely doesn't work for everyone. I was also just being persistent. The reality is that when you're quitting smoking, you learn a lot about yourself as well. You learn a lot about what your ticks are, the way that your brain works, and the awful feeling of relying on something to feel good.
The one thing I didn't understand in my early 20s was how much all the benefits of quitting would compound over time. Not just financial, I look back, and my health is better than it was in my early twenties. It's really hard to remember those eventual benefits when your brain is jonesing for a fix.
The process of quitting is not going to be cookie-cutter for anyone. I think everyone has to try a bunch of different strategies. It helps to think that you’re not just doing it for yourself, your family or your partner — if you are able to do it and you've got a bunch of mates who smoke, you have an effect on them as well. I noticed that. They stood up and took notice and went, "Oh, Alex can do it. Maybe I can do it as well." That's been a really positive thing.