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breaking free: my journey without nicotine

I’ve always had the mindset: If you can start something, you can also stop it. That also applies to addiction, but I didn’t know that it would be so difficult to stop.

I’ve since learned that everything and anything can be an addiction if you’re not careful. It was smoking for me. Cigarettes, to be exact.

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It didn’t start off too crazy. Like every young adult who’s experienced nightlife, cigarettes are usually part of the experience. It's almost like a rite of passage into adulthood, girls and guys alike. I remember taking my first puff as a 19-year-old girl at a party, thinking, “Wow, this tastes so BAD.” as I choked on the smoke.

Gradually, I became a social smoker. I didn’t go out too often, but when I did I wouldn’t deny the occasional ciggy if offered. I’d considered it social etiquette of the sort. At that point, it definitely wasn’t an addiction and purchasing a box for myself was out of the question.

Regardless, it was still a seed planted. And a seed will take its roots if you continue to water it.

When the pandemic rolled around in 2020, I was in Melbourne at the time, and I was living alone in my apartment as a 22-year-old student. Ironically, the only thing certain about that year was the uncertainty.

The change of pace of what we knew life to be has shifted – people were exploring their hobbies more, cooking more, baking more. Life became slow. Intentional. We did not hesitate to check in with our loved ones more, and we said “I love you” every chance we got. I wholeheartedly enjoyed the slower-paced, mindful way of living; but at the same time, I was also living alone in lockdown and loneliness was a thorn by my side.

The strict lockdown went on for a couple of months. This meant no leaving the house. It was just me, myself, and I. Sure, there was technology and I made it a point to video call loved ones frequently, but nothing beats the power of human connection in the flesh. It was only time the stress of loneliness got to me.

It got harder to do things. From waking up in the morning to getting assignments done, it got hard to take care of me. Being caged in alone felt too much even for an introvert like myself. In my pre-pandemic days, I used to combat school stress with either going out for social meals and drinks, or I would head out for workout classes. My home was associated with rest or study. Fast forwarding to the pandemic, I had no way to relieve stress as I once knew. Home suddenly became an all-purpose destination, and I had a hard time emotionally adjusting to that.

It was then I started turning to cigarettes for stress relief. Whenever I felt a wave of future anxiety or the onslaught of school stress, a cigarette was what I reached for. Soon, it became a tool for emotional regulation. The pandemic was overall a stressful time – which meant a lot of cigarettes were smoked and heaps of tobacco were inhaled, leading to nicotine dependency.

Smoking became a vice, a coping mechanism, and an incentive tool -- all at the same time. There were days I couldn’t get anything done unless I smoked a cigarette in the morning. There were days I used cigarettes as a reward for completing tasks. And dinner wouldn’t be complete without an evening smoke. It was destroying me from the inside, but it was the only anchor I knew for my mental health at the time.

Studies have found that limiting to 5mg of nicotine per day keeps addiction at bay. A single cigarette stick contains 11.9 - 14.5mg of nicotine, yet I remember reaching for almost 8 sticks a day. On days when my stress ran higher than normal, it was almost half a pack. I was hesitant to label this an addiction, as smoking was considered relatively normal as opposed to snorting powder on a Tuesday afternoon. I was battling massive cognitive dissonance on a daily – I could physically feel my body deteriorating but mentally I just couldn't stop. Simply put, I was addicted.

This carried on for 2 years. It was like addiction had completely rewired my brain towards agency and self-control. I was so addicted, times when I was sick with the flu I experienced massive withdrawals, and I would reach for a cigarette immediately upon recovery. My lungs never got a chance to recover during those years.

My health took a turn for the worse, and I decided to be sober for good. I was also dealing with stigma from loved ones at the same time. My conservative mother had attributed smoking solely to “bad character”. It was hard for her to understand that I couldn’t “just stop” as much as I wanted to. She refused to understand that withdrawals could get so horrible to the point you’re unable to get anything done. We’ve had plenty of fights over this, all of which weren’t particularly helpful whilst on the road to recovery. After all, fights equal stress, which equals needing nicotine to regulate stress.

My recovery journey had many relapses. It definitely wasn’t a smooth one. If there was one thing I wished for throughout this entire ordeal, it would be a strong support system. Shame doesn’t do much good in driving out addiction, whether it comes from yourself or others. Compassion, on the other hand, goes a long way.

It’s 2023 now, and I’ve been nicotine-free for almost a year. It took a lot a lot of self-discipline, and even more self-compassion. I couldn’t have done it without the kind souls in my life handling me with grace and understanding. Many overlook the power of community in healing, myself included; and it is a beautiful reminder that connection is the core of our humanness.

Submitted by: Anonymous


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