This post was originally published on October 9, 2015.
When I found myself chain smoking on top of an acute case of tonsillitis back in 2011, I knew I’d hit bottom with the smokes. I sat in a lopsided lawn chair on my porch reflecting on the $7 I just spent to make myself sicker. I figured my neighbors would be able to tell, by my pallid complexion, that I was smoking despite being seriously ill.
It was just too shameful, and I decided to quit right then and there, without any smoking cessation program or nicotine replacement therapy.
I figured using something like the patch would sort of invalidate my quitting effort, or not make it a done deal, and I wanted to be done with smoking! Forever! I’d also heard the patch could make you jittery and spike your heart rate. And since I didn’t have health insurance at the time, it wasn’t cheap either. $60 a box!
So I white-knuckled it and detoxed from the nicotine. Here’s what happened:
I vividly recall rolling around on the musty floor of my boyfriend’s dumpy studio in Koreatown, begging for a Six Dollar Burger from Carl’s Jr. After he drove me to get the burger, which was very nice of him since it was around 11pm and he had to go to work early the next morning, I begged him to stop at the 7-11 so I could buy a triple pack of Chocolate Chunk Cookies for 99 cents.
“Baby, you’re going to regret eating all of this junk food,” he said, and he was right. I don’t like gaining weight and at least three or four times a week he had to reassure me that I was not fat, but if I scarfed those cookies on top of the Six Dollar Burger, I’d definitely chub up.
“You don’t get to tell me anything about what I get to eat,” I said. “I quit smoking!”
“I know, baby, but that food isn’t healthy for you,” he said.
“Just…just stop talking.”
“Stop talking!” I whined.
Now I know that sounds bitchy, but understand it was Gustavo who badgered me to quit smoking, so by that point I thought he should be waiting on me hand and foot, and maybe even buying me diamonds, because I finally quit.
He may have been onto something, though, because it seemed I couldn’t get enough food. No matter what I ate, I didn’t feel satisfied, and whatever food I did eat had to be high in fat, calories, sugar, salt, preservatives and preferably MSG.
Since I typically try to eat healthy, and that includes a lot of kale, this was definitely out of character. Thankfully, the wacky eating only lasted a couple of weeks.
But once that stopped, I wasn’t fully lucid—I walked around in a constant fog and slept a lot. I slept for what felt like 19 hours a day. After the severe confusion and stupidity lifted, a low-level depression moved in. I wasn’t sad, but I just had no interest in anything and even walking to the kitchen to pour myself some coffee seemed truly insurmountable.
As a result of quitting cigarettes, most of the dopamine had been sucked right out of my brain.
Finally, I went to a shrink and got on some Wellbutrin, an antidepressant known to boost dopamine (and marketed to people trying to quit smoking as Zyban). This stuff turned my brain around in just a day and I took it for about five months.
But then, nearly four years later, I picked up the stupid filthy habit again and found myself hooked.
This last bout of smoking lasted three months and thankfully I got the motivation to quit without having to experience some insanely shaming event. This time, since I had medical insurance, I decided to take the patch while still doubting it would work.
I waited to feel the nicotine withdrawal after putting on the first 21 mg patch.
But shockingly, I didn’t experience any symptoms! I really couldn’t believe it. Aside from the psychological urge to smoke, which came every hour or so, I didn’t think about smoking.
When that urge hit, I used tools from my SMART Recovery book, and I swear that’s not product placement—it just really helped. Just reading that my urges would only last a hot minute and that after that I’d forget all about them helped tremendously.
I eventually had to taper down from the 21 mg patches to the 14 mg ones. I had to eat two huge bowls of chocolate ice cream that day, which I topped off with at least a half a cup of Hershey’s Chocolate syrup. I was also cranky and sort of weepy, but the next day I seemed to have leveled out and felt much better.
Then the day came when I had to drop down to 7 mg patches, and from there I went off the patch completely. Though I did have some symptoms of withdrawal at that point, they didn’t come close to the physical and mental agitation I experienced when I stopped smoking without nicotine replacement. I’d already withdrawn psychologically from smoking so the physical withdrawal was way easier to tolerate.
Still, I stuffed my face. The day after I got off the nicotine, I made a stop at an Armenian bakery in the middle of the day, which is something I just don’t do. Bakeries aren’t things I notice while I drive around Los Angeles, but that day Sarkis Pastry just called to me. I ordered a quarter-pound of shakar locum (sugar cookies) and ate them happily in the car while on the way to the Vitamin Shoppe to pick up some L-tyrosine and choline, amino acids that help increase dopamine levels.
On the way back from the Vitamin Shoppe, I noticed a sign that read “Donuts” and felt compelled to stop in there too. Before going in, I decided to order two plain glazed donuts, but when the lady behind the counter told me I could buy three for $2, I caved and proceeded to stuff all of them in my mouth after I got in my car.
(Yes, withdrawal from nicotine makes some of us stuff our faces, so if it’s happening to you, relax, it’ll pass.)
To be honest, I’m stunned I didn’t use the patch before. I know some people claim you can get addicted to nicotine replacement, but if you take it as prescribed it’s not too hard to get off the stuff. (I was fortunate to get them through a physician who mandated that I drop down to lower doses after two weeks.)
Sure, it’s noble to quit smoking without assistance. But having a low level of nicotine in your blood for six weeks or three months while you’re on the patch really pales in comparison to death by lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.