I was recently talking with a good friend of mine in recovery about quitting smoking as being part of my long term recovery plan.
This sparked some tension, and my friend–being a smoker herself–opposed the idea as being invalid. “What does smoking cigarettes have to do with long term recovery?” she asked defensively.
So we talked about it for a bit and explored some ideas, but never really drew any satisfying conclusions on the topic. So I thought I would address the ideas further here and see if I couldn’t bring some more light to the issue:
1) I have nothing against smokers. Quitting smoking has been a big part of my recovery, but that might not be true for everyone.
2) Part of me wants to just say: “All smokers in recovery should eventually quit.” (After all, most studies done recently prove that quitting smoking increases the chance of maintaining sobriety).
But I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. I smoked for many years in early recovery, and I’m not so sure I would have stuck it out in the beginning without the “crutch” of cigarettes. Also, I’m not sure about using the word “should” in this case…smoking is bad for you of course, but it is not in the same destructive league as drugs and alcohol. This brings us to our next point:
Are cigarettes still a form of “using?” Is smoking a coping mechanism in the same way that other drugs and alcohol were for us?
Essentially, no. Here is my take on it, based on my direct experience with smoking:
Cigarettes are not “mood and mind altering” in the same way as alcohol and other drugs are. When you smoke a cigarette, you are not re-activating your addict mind, causing you to suddenly crave liquor or Crack Cocaine or whatever your drug of choice might be. That doesn’t happen. Smoking a cigarette doesn’t lead you to risky, dangerous, or unpredictable behavior.
Drugs and alcohol, unlike cigarettes, actually medicate our feelings. For example, if you take a random person who has just had a bad day at work, and have them drink a large bottle of liquor (or smoke a large quantity of drugs), then that emotional state of anger and frustration is completely erased. It has been medicated by either booze or drugs. With enough quantity, the person can become completely oblivious to their emotional state from earlier in the day. This is what it means to medicate our emotions. We used drugs and alcohol so that we didn’t have to feel.
Nicotine and cigarettes do not have this capability. So if someone says that a recovering addict or alcoholic is “still using a drug (Nicotine) to self-medicate with,” then that statement is not entirely accurate. They are not really medicating their emotions because cigarettes do not have the same power or capability as alcohol or other drugs.
But isn’t smoking still used as a coping mechanism by some people?
Yes and no. Most of the “coping” aspect of smoking is illusory. Allow me to explain:
A smoker is essentially trapped in a perpetual game of withdrawal. About an hour or so after smoking a cigarette, withdrawal symptoms start to set in. The smoker will continue to get more and more uncomfortable until they go get that next injection of Nicotine. When the finally do smoke that next cigarette, they experience a calming effect, because they are topping off their “Nicotine tank” and are once again avoiding withdrawal for a bit more time.
But notice that the calming effect from smoking is based entirely on avoiding withdrawal symptoms. The cigarette isn’t actually soothing or calming anyone, instead it merely stops the onset of those nasty withdrawal symptoms. So the smoker feels like the cigarette helps them to “cope,” when in fact the cigarette is only helping them to cope with their withdrawal from cigarettes. That’s it.
The smoker only thinks that it is a coping mechanism for real problems in their life. In fact they are only “coping” with withdrawal from Nicotine.
Anyone out there thinking of quitting?
Consider one more fact:
Tobacco related illnesses are the number one killer of recovering addicts and alcoholics.
So is quitting smoking necessary for a successful recovery? No. But it just might be the key to a long and happy life. By the numbers, smokers die an average of 10 years before their time.