One Way to Quit Smoking

It isn't pleasant, but it works

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In the words of the old joke, it's easy to quit smoking. I've done it a hundred times.

How easy is it really? From my perspective, easy as pie. The first time I tried to quit, it worked. Here's how:

For years, I had smoked. Not just social smoking or occasional smoking. I was a real smoker. Two packs a day.

But then in 1984 I decided I had to quit. What was once a pleasurable pastime had become a hard-bitten habit.

So I signed up for a "stop smoking" course. The course effectively combined elements of group therapy, behavior modification and torture techniques.

Step one was exploring the mechanism of smoking and identifying our individual smoking patterns. Some people smoked only during the day, some only during the evening and others only when socializing. I, on the other hand, smoked one cigarette every 20 minutes from the time I woke up to the moment I turned off the bed lamp.

Step two was to measure the carbon monoxide level of our blood to underscore the deadly nature of our habit. I was the class leader with a CO reading higher than the instructors had ever seen before.

Step three was a challenge.

We were to engage in a little aversion therapy by smoking twice as much for three days. For me, that meant four packs or 100 cigarettes a day. A high goal, yes, but not beyond my smoking capabilities, I thought.

On day one, the CO fade I usually experienced by mid-afternoon showed up mid-morning. By mid-afternoon, I was so spaced out I had to lie down for half an hour. Of course, all that meant was that I had to smoke faster to meet my quota. By day's end, my tongue was on fire and my head was in a fog.

By day two, I was turning green. My body was so full of poisons that I could barely function at work. But I carried on and made it to my Thursday evening session. As I walked in the door, it was clear to the instructors that I was not doing well.

We each had our CO level monitored again, this time to show us how much higher it was after two days of double smoking. In my case, the needle went off the chart. At that point, I told my instructors that I could not carry on for a third day. I had to stop now.

So I was allowed to proceed immediately to step four: rapid smoking.

For the next three days, upon awakening and before eating, I was to smoke three cigarettes rapidly back to back. That meant inhaling every few seconds until I had finished three entire cigarettes.

After that first morning of kamikaze smoking, I was sure that I was going to be sick. Our instructors had warned us to perform this new task in the bathroom, just in case.

I now knew why, although, by some small miracle, I avoided throwing up. It might have been better if I had gotten sick. At least that might have diminished somewhat the nausea that I carried with me the rest of the morning.

Luckily, I also carried a reminder of that feeling and, like Pavlov's dog, quickly associated it with the act of smoking.

As with step three, I lasted only two days. After a second morning of rapid smoking over the toilet, I could not bear a third. Since my next group meeting was three days away, I boldly decided to throw away my remaining cigarettes and stop completely.

And, lo and behold, it took. I didn't smoke that day or the next day or the next. At the next few meetings, I proudly and amazingly heralded my unbelievable achievement. At the end of the course, we all vowed to reunite in three months to see how we were doing. To the amazement of the instructors, I proudly showed up with a clean record.

That's not to say I had won the battle. For years after, I still had to fight a rearguard action. Sometimes I would cheat and have two or three cigarettes a day until I would finally rapid smoke one to wean myself again.

On a couple of occasions, I even went back to smoking a pack a day for a week or so. But, as always, my Clockwork Orange training eventually clicked in and I would rapid smoke myself back to sobriety.

Today, of course, smokers have a wide array of more humane smoking cessation methods. Hypnosis, acupuncture, nicotine gum and the patch are all civilized alternatives to harsh behavior modification. After many years of mostly smoke-free living, I eventually quit for good. I don't know when that final turning point happened.

Do I wish that I had those options to choose from when I decided to quit? Maybe, although without my Pavlovian training, chances are I might still be smoking. Plus, I'd likely have a two-pack-a-day gum or patch habit as well.

All I know is that I haven't had a cigarette for years and I can't imagine ever having one again. Especially when I'd have to smoke it in 60 seconds.

David Martin writes for the Ottawa Citizen.

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