Another Way To Scratch The Itch
How I finally quit nicotine after a decade and a half of addiction.
We've all had a habit we can't kick.
I'm no stranger to vices, but the hardest for me to let go of was—no surprise—smoking. Quitting took dozens of tries. It was a painful journey, but I'm grateful for the experience because it taught me a valuable principle. Since then, this same principle has enabled me to lose weight, reduce my alcohol intake, and more.
Before I tell you the principle, let me explain how I arrived there.
I was only eleven when a very bad babysitter let me try one of her cigarettes. It was my first proper head rush and thus rose immediately to the top of my list of favorite things.
For the next few months, I'd bum a couple cigarettes whenever she babysat me. Afterward, I'd journal at length about how cool it had been to smoke, how I couldn't wait to do it again, and how this new habit was helping me become the person I'd always wanted to be—troubling stuff to read back today.
Of course, my parents eventually fired her, and I lost my supplier. Like that, my relationship with nicotine went dormant for several years.
Near the end of high school, it became pretty straightforward to obtain cigarettes through friends, and soon after that I could just buy them myself. With my access restored, cigarettes became an occasional indulgence and one of my primary sources of joy.
I'd have a few here or there, then go weeks or months without smoking. Honestly, the relationship felt relatively healthy. For those first few years, I reveled in my ability to consume nicotine in moderation, enjoying the upside of the drug without being exposed to any of the downsides everyone else seemed to focus on.
It probably would have been fine if I had just had a cigarette or two per month. But of course, that interval shortened—from once a month to once a week to once a day, and so on. Strangely, this transition happened gradually enough that I never really noticed my usage becoming more frequent. And all the while, I continued to brag to anyone who would listen about how great nicotine was and how it was actually super easy not to get hooked.
When I was 20, I caught mono, giving me a terrible cough that lasted weeks. Even still, I couldn't let go of my daily smoke break. For the first time, I realized I might have a bit of a problem on my hands.
Months later, I came across a recommendation for Alan Carr's Easy Way, a book that millions of smokers have used to quit. That day, I canceled all my plans and read the entire book in one sitting.
In a few hundred pages, the author systematically talked me out of every excuse I had ever used to rationalize smoking. By the end, I felt there was no choice but to quit cold turkey.
To my amazement, it worked, and I enjoyed a year or so nicotine-free until I stupidly picked the habit back up during a trip to France. In defiance of Alan Carr's advice, I made an exception. "If there's ever a time to let myself have a cigarette, it's at a nightclub in Paris."
Here's the best way I can describe the sensation of smoking that cigarette. It was as if my past addiction was a dark, abandoned apartment complex in my mind. Then, when I took my first puff, every light in that apartment complex turned on at once. With a single mistake, my addiction was back in full swing. You hear about alcoholics and drug addicts relapsing and completely falling off the wagon. Now I knew what that felt like from the inside.
The cycle restarted, this time continuing for years. Quit, start, quit, start up again. Sometimes, I'd symbolically throw out my "last pack of cigarettes" with full knowledge that I was going to buy another in a moment of weakness the next day. Occasionally I'd succeed for a week or two, but ultimately every attempt turned temporary.
One day I was scrolling Hacker News when I saw an article about a new e-cigarette called the Juul. I had owned an e-cigarette before but eventually threw it away since it was never as satisfying as smoking. However, apparently, the Juul mimicked the experience of smoking much more closely than earlier e-cigarettes—enough that it had quickly become the most popular vape in the country.
I was intrigued but skeptical. Was ingesting nicotine through a vape any better for you than smoking a cigarette? I dug into the research and was shocked that experts generally agreed that vaping was far safer than smoking in almost every dimension. Potentially as much as 95% safer (although a glance at the Wikipedia page on e-cigarette safety makes it clear there's still plenty we don't know).
Of course, vaping isn't good for you, but the studies so far suggest it's a hell of a lot better for you than smoking, and I knew I wasn't ready to quit nicotine entirely. So, feeling optimistic, I ordered a Juul and refreshed the FedEx tracking information about every 30 seconds until it arrived.
On the evening it was out for delivery, I sat on the stoop of my apartment for over an hour waiting for the delivery person to come. The moment it arrived, I tore open the box, only to find that the thing needed to be charged for like 30 minutes before it could be used. I plugged it in and waited a bit longer.
Before I say this next part, it's important to emphasize that if you aren't already addicted to nicotine, you should never consume it under any circumstances.
However, as someone who was already wildly addicted to cigarettes, vaping was a godsend. As soon as I took that first inhale, I could tell it perfectly scratched the itch. I threw out my last pack of cigarettes—for real this time—and within a few days, began to notice a wide array of benefits:
My breathing wasn't as labored. Finally, I could go on a hike or work out at the gym without feeling like I would die.
It was much cheaper than cigarettes.
If I got a craving, I could take a couple of puffs rather than commit to an entire cigarette’s worth of nicotine.
The smell was pleasant and mild, so I didn't have to walk around embarrassed about reeking of cigarettes all the time.
In fact, for the first time in my life, cigarettes smelled awful to me. I had never understood why people thought they smelled so terrible before!
It was a huge relief to indulge in nicotine without all the obvious downsides. And, to my surprise, the new habit stuck. I only touched cigarettes a handful of times after that, often putting them out after a few puffs, grossed out.
From this experience, I learned the principle I promised you earlier: that it's easier to swap out a bad habit for a less-harmful habit than it is to quit entirely. I call this “finding another way to scratch the itch.”
I got another chance to exercise this principle a year and a half later when I finally decided to quit vaping. The Juul was wonderful in some ways, but even though my lungs felt better, I began to see additional downsides over time.
I hadn’t felt hunger in years.
I was tense and uptight all the time.
I was consuming a lot more nicotine than I had as a smoker because I could puff the vape as much as I wanted without any immediate physical consequences. In fact, my nicotine consumption had grown to that of a two-pack-a-day smoker—and sometimes even more than that!
I awoke every morning with a throat so dry that sometimes my day would kick off with several minutes of intense gagging.
I was constantly distracted whenever I was indoors, wasting a lot of mental cycles seeking out opportunities to step outside and vape.
And, of course, the long-term health consequences started to worry me. "Safer than cigarettes" does not mean "safe."
All those reasons aside, my biggest motivation to quit came when I realized that my addiction was holding me back emotionally. It deteriorated my self-image. I saw myself as weak...because I was. Without the help of this external substance, I couldn't feel okay.
A healthy mind should feel comfy, like home. My mind, however, felt like a dark and scary cave, with nicotine as my only protection against the unknown monsters lurking in the shadows.
I had lost the ability to sit and bear witness to even the mildest discomfort or negative emotion. Now I decided it was time to learn how to exist and be okay without this emotional crutch.
So on August 25, 2019, I quit e-cigarettes cold turkey and...suffered immensely. My appetite returned with such force that I stuffed myself until I threw up. My focus was utterly scattered—as if each thought was being cut off mid-sentence by another. I had to take three days off of work in a row. The headaches, nausea, and complete inability to focus were intense but, for the most part, faded within a week or two.
The real difficulty was that I was besieged by constant cravings for the next year and a half. Ex-smokers always make it sound like the desire to smoke fades naturally after a while. Yet, for whatever reason, I could not stop thinking about nicotine, and it was not improving over time.
Deep grooves of my old habit remained in my mind. Dozens of times per day, temptations would hijack my inner monologue and begin to whisper. You're doing X. Remember how you used to vape when you did X? Ooooooh wouldn't that be nice to get a nicotine buzz again right now?
I was still as psychologically addicted to nicotine as ever. Sure, I no longer gave in to the desire to vape, but my only strategy for dealing with it was to grit my teeth, ball my fists, and fight it off with pure force of will. Every day was exhausting.
After 18 months without relief, I went on a meditation retreat and had an important realization.
My cravings would never go away if I kept trying to push them away.
They weren’t the sinister whisperings of a devil on my shoulder. They were cries for help from some valid human need inside me that was going unmet—the need to self-soothe.
I started smoking at such a young age that I never learned how to self-soothe without nicotine. So it actually made some sense that now, a year and a half after quitting, I was still craving it. I had no other ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed.
From this realization came an idea: if I could find new ways to relax when I felt cravings, I could probably reduce my perceived psychological need for nicotine and maybe turn down the volume on the cravings over time.
One day, I saw an ad for the Ripple, a nicotine-free vape device with the same basic shape as a Juul, which lets you vape essential oils. Perfect. I bought four of them.
Getting this device gave me enormous relief. Now when I had a craving, I didn't have to fight it. Instead, I could "Yes, and..." the desire with a few puffs of the Ripple, which was close enough to a Juul to scratch the itch. Sure, nicotine-free vapes probably aren't that healthy, but I was now vaping less in a month than I used to in a day. I was happy to tolerate a smidge of increased risk in exchange for a quieter mind.
Incredibly, finding an alternative way to satisfy my cravings almost entirely eliminated the desire to indulge in the habit at all. Decoupling the physical act of vaping from the dopamine rush of nicotine ingestion somehow retrained my mind to mostly stop thinking about e-cigarettes. It's like my brain learned that e-cigarettes would no longer provide the reward of a nicotine high, so they became less attractive.
(I've learned since that this kind of decoupling is a powerful tool for breaking addictions. For example, several medications help alcoholics quit drinking by blocking the release of endorphins when consuming alcohol, gradually breaking the mind’s connection between drinking and pleasure.)
I used to feel cravings many times per day. Now they only came once or twice per month, and then I'd puff this fake vape for a few minutes, and they would disappear.
Sometimes you find another way to scratch the itch, and the itch goes away forever.
I've since applied this principle to my residual nicotine compulsions one more time, trading my nicotine-free e-cigarette for something called a Füm, a hollow wooden tube loaded with "cores" of essential oils. You breathe through this tube and inhale mildly scented air, satisfying the oral fixation and receiving a slight olfactory payoff without burning or vaporizing anything. The Füm is probably the healthiest possible cigarette alternative—it’s basically just aromatherapy. These days, I use it once in a blue moon when a little distant whisper of a craving creeps in. Generally, that's enough to put smoking and vaping out of my mind for another couple of months.
It's been almost five years since I quit smoking cigarettes and almost three and a half years since I've vaped nicotine.
To be honest, I feel basically the same physically as I did when I was vaping, except that it’s nice to feel hungry again and to drift awake without immediately gagging.
However, the psychological and emotional benefits have been significant and tangible.
I’m better at relaxing. Makes sense, given that I’m not pumping myself full of stimulants anymore.
More importantly, removing the emotional crutch of nicotine has enabled me to learn how to walk on my own two feet. In the past, nicotine presented itself as a universal solution to all ailments, whether I was stressed, anxious, or depressed. Now I have to find other ways to self-soothe and deal with negative emotions, like taking walks, doing yoga, winding down with video games, or even—gasp—accepting what I’m feeling instead of burying it.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Leaving behind an addiction doesn’t make your problems go away. If anything, it brings them to the surface.
I’m still depressed a lot of the time. I still have a lot to learn about healthy emotional management. But because I found another way to scratch the itch, I'm free of my addiction and on the path to learning to feel at home in my own mind.
Next time on the Not-so-Daily Drew…
I’ve applied this principle of “finding another way to scratch the itch” to several other bad habits to great success. In next week’s issue, I’ll share a few examples.
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Your story is so inspiring, Andrew! And it's so useful, not just to those trying to quit smoking, but to those who are trying to quit other bad habits, too.
I once smoked a cigarette during a bout of insomnia and played a piece at the piano better than I had before, and perhaps ever since. I’ve only smoked a handful of cigarettes, but the intellectual stimulus is what I found most intoxicating about them. They are powerful little devils.