Should I Quit Smoking Cigarettes when I Get Clean and Sober?
A significant percentage of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are also addicted to cigarettes.
It is a peculiar situation because nicotine is obviously a drug as well.
But it is not the same. And I did a lot of thinking about this because I happen to be an ex-smoker myself who is in recovery.
For example, if you ask a cigarette smoker if they get any sort of stress relief from smoking, they will tell you that they absolutely do. If you ask them if they smoke more during a crisis or when they are emotionally upset, they will tell you that they absolutely do. No question about it.
So the cigarette smoker is not only using a drug, but they admit that they use it more frequently in order to self medicate when they get stressed out. This sounds exactly like a full blown drug addiction, does it not?
We all know and realize this about cigarettes, I believe, but at the same time….smoking is different.
It is not the same as drug and alcohol addiction. And the reason it is not the same is because of the consequences.
There are at least two major ways that the consequences of smoking differentiate it from “real” addiction:
1) The negative consequences of smoking are massively delayed. You can smoke for years and years without no ill effects. This is in stark contrast to the alcoholic or drug addict who is experiencing negative consequences right now, and those consequences can quickly escalate or spiral out of control. With smoking you can still experience some consequences (such as shortness of breath, etc.) but they are not as immediate. They are not as in-your-face. And therefore it is much less threatening.
2) Cigarette smoking is addictive, but for some reason it does not actually connect with drug and alcohol addiction. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that if an alcoholic starts experimenting with, say, cocaine, this will lead him back to the booze. Using one drug causes him to go back to his drug of choice. Or a crack addict who takes a drink of liquor–they will relapse and go back to smoking crack. But the alcoholic or drug addict who casually picks up cigarettes does not “relapse” back to their drug of choice. In other words, the nicotine addiction does NOT reactivate their primary addiction to alcohol or other addictive drugs.
Why is this?
To be honest I do not know. But I did a great deal of thinking about it and even experimenting with it over the years in my recovery. Nicotine is a drug, and you can be addicted to it. No doubt about that. But it is not like other drugs, nor is it like alcohol, because if you relapse on cigarettes it does not throw you into a massive tailspin where you go back to your drug of choice.
On the other hand, take any recovering alcoholic and give them a mood altering addictive drug such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc. They will relapse back to their drug of choice. They will start drinking again. Those drugs “reactivate” the primary addiction. For whatever reason, nicotine does not.
This is not good or bad. But I think it is an important observation as we will see in a moment. And I think if you are a smoker in recovery you can use that information to your benefit.
Short answer: Yes, you should quit smoking cigarettes in recovery
The short answer is “yes,” you should quit smoking cigarettes in recovery.
We all know this. Of course we know this. Everyone knows that you should stop smoking. This is not news.
But there are reasons for this beyond the obvious.
You may be secretly clinging to the belief that if you hang on to your smoking habit that you are better equipped to deal with stress and chaos than someone who does not smoke.
This is false.
I have been a smoker for over ten years of my life, then I quit and have been off of them for over 7 years now.
What happens is this:
The cigarette smoker generally smokes all day, every day. They smoke when they are bored, and they smoke when they get stressed out. They are almost always smoking.
Because of this, they come to rely on the cigarette to relieve stress. Or at least, they think that they are relieving stress.
But really if you take a closer look at nicotine addiction, it is more complicated than that.
When you smoke a cigarette, you are not actually “relieving” stress. Instead, you are medicating nicotine withdrawal.
You see, your body gets used to having a certain level of nicotine in it throughout the day. When your “tank is topped off” with nicotine you feel normal. But then the nicotine in your bloodstream starts to drop, and your body is not used to that, so it starts to go into withdrawal.
Lucky for the big tobacco companies, this happens within about an hour. So roughly every 60 minutes your body starts to scream out for more nicotine. And one of the withdrawal symptoms that your body goes through is to create stress and anxiety. You actually get nervous and anxious simply as a result of nicotine withdrawal, and only after about an hour after your last cigarette.
And your mind learns to anticipate this anxiety. This is why smokers light up pretty consistently throughout the day. They have to keep “feeding” their internal nicotine supply. They have to keep topping off their nicotine levels in order to feel normal.
Are they getting high? Are they getting a buzz? Are they getting pleasure? Not really. All they are doing is avoiding withdrawal. Their brain knows that withdrawal symptoms are coming quickly if they do not top off their nicotine tank, so they smoke. And they claim that they are “relieving stress.” But in reality they are just feeding a pointless addiction.
If you really step back and start to see how pointless smoking is, it can help motivate you to quit. It did for me anyway. At one point I looked down at a cigarette that I was smoking and thought “why am I doing this? What is the point, really?”
And when you realize that you are not actually relieving any stress or helping yourself to cope, you can see that it is really, truly pointless.
Absolutely, you should quit smoking.
Let’s move on to the benefits of quitting, some of which are unique to the recovering alcoholic or drug addict.
Reason number one: You will be healthier and happier without smoking
This benefit is not unique to recovering alcoholics but it still needs to be stated.
And it is obvious to everyone who has a pulse. You will be healthier if you quit smoking. Duh. We all know this. Nothing new here.
But in recovery you will likely realize this health on a whole new level, and you will appreciate it as an extension of your sobriety.
In other words, you will feel good about yourself when you quit smoking because it helps to extend your decision to quit alcohol and other drugs. It is another step towards greater health in your life. It is a natural step for someone in recovery to take.
Recovery is all about making changes. You get clean and sober so that you can live a healthier life, so that you can escape the negative impact of addiction. Obviously your nicotine addiction is much the same. I once read a statistic (not sure how accurate this is today) that the number one killer of recovering alcoholics is lung cancer. Just take a look at the people standing outside of an AA meeting either before or after, and see how many of them are smoking. In my experience there are usually several smokers in the group. When I first got sober it seemed like everyone in recovery was a smoker. Maybe that is perceptual or maybe it is reality. But it sure seems like a lot of people in early recovery have this monkey on their back.
Statistically you should be motivated to quit smoking. I believe at one time I researched it and the mortality figures stated an average of 15 years off the end of your life if you continue to smoke. So the average smoker can gain roughly 15 more years of healthy living if they quit smoking today. Do the math on that after you decide what one precious day of your life is worth to you. You cannot really put a price on 15 years of extra life if you are in recovery.
Another twist to this idea is that if you are in very early recovery from addiction, you may not value that theoretical 15 years of extra life right now. If you just got sober yesterday then you are probably still pretty miserable. Extra life may not appeal to you right now.
But as you start to recover and build a new life, you will likely become much more happy and content. When this happens, the value of those 15 extra years will become much higher. And if you are truly happy then the value of those years becomes infinite. If you have not done so yet then you will definitely be motivated to quit smoking once you reach that level of happiness. You will want to quit simply to preserve your life and your happiness.
Reason number two: Relapse insurance
Remember when I said above that a relapse on nicotine does not “send an alcoholic back to the bottle?”
The two addictions are not correlated that closely. So if a recovering alcoholic is also an ex-smoker, and they relapse on nicotine, this does NOT cause them to start drinking immediately.
This is an important distinction because it has implications for relapse prevention.
In other words, take two individuals who are recovering alcoholics. They are both sober, and they also both smoke cigarettes.
One of them quits smoking. The other continues to smoke.
Then they both encounter a huge life event that is incredibly stressful for them. The ex-smoker decides it is all too much so he relapses on cigarettes but stays off the booze. The other guy is still smoking, so he has nothing “extra” to try to help him to cope with the new stress in his life.
Hence, quitting smoking gives you an extra layer of protection in your recovery. If you quit smoking and you also quit drinking, then you have a “buffer” in terms of relapse when dealing with triggers and urges. Instead of flying off the handle and drinking, you will instead fly off the handle and smoke. And the consequences of doing so are much less than if you had a “full relapse” and started drinking again.
This is insurance.
If you are an alcoholic who also smokes, you should eventually quit both things. That way you will have an extra layer of protection when it comes to the possibility of relapse. In other words, if you do happen to relapse, it will be on cigarettes first rather than on alcohol. And if you relapse on alcohol that is about ten times worse than if you relapse on cigarettes (for example, relapsing on alcohol would include a return to smoking anyway, as well as additional negative consequences).
So you should quit smoking because it functions as relapse insurance. You will be less likely to drink if you had quit smoking in the past at some point, because you will have the option of picking up smoking again before you throw everything away and take a drink.
Kind of a weird argument but it definitely is real. You have more security in your recovery if you have quit smoking and drinking, rather than if you are still a smoker in sobriety. A certain percentage of alcoholics will relapse and if you quit smoking then this increases your overall chances of staying sober.
Reason number three: Cost of smoking in terms of life energy
I used to smoke a little over a pack of cigarettes each day.
I was astounded to find out how much time that was.
“Time?” you might ask. “What does smoking cigarettes have to do with time?”
I am talking about the amount of minutes in your life that you are actually engaged in the act of smoking.
There is also the amount of time that your brain is obsessing over when your next cigarette will be. Like if you are at a wedding or a funeral or a movie or a theater and you can not smoke for several hours in a row. Your brain will go berserk during that time and obsessively plan out the next cigarette break. Your mind will constantly look for hidden opportunities where you might be able to sneak a quick cigarette. All of this mental energy is time wasted, in my opinion, and it is part of the real cost of smoking.
I read a statistic once that talked about how much time a smoker spends in the act of smoking each year. I did not believe it so I got out a calculator and did the math myself.
Basically, if you smoke about 30 cigarettes per day (what I was smoking) then you waste approximately a full month out of each year of your life, simply engaged in the act of smoking.
So forget about the monetary cost for a moment. Forget about the fact that buying cigarettes every day is like lighting your hard earned money on fire. Realize that you are burning up your time and mental energy as well. To the extent that a pack and a half a day smoker is wasting a full month out of each year.
Just think what you could do with all of that time if you were not a smoker. Just think how that could transform your life, your relationships, your productivity. Smokers often feel like they have to hustle at work in order to keep up. This is because they do have to hustle; they waste all sorts of time standing outside smoking! It is easy to be productive when you don’t have that ball and chain tugging at you every day.
If you convert your time and your money into life energy, you will see that smoking is a huge net negative for you. Not only does it cost money but it also costs you your time. And not only do you waste a ton of time engaged in the act of smoking, you also waste all sorts of mental energy on the obsession and compulsion to smoke.
Just by quitting you can regain all of that. Aside from the obvious health impact, this is the biggest benefit that you get from quitting that can be very difficult to fully express in words. You save money, you save time, and you save mental energy. Add all of that up over the course of a single year and you are getting back at least a full 1/12 of your life. If you convert the money spent on cigarettes into life energy and the work that you have to do in order to buy the smokes, then it is probably more like 2 months of your life. In other words, a smoker could quit smoking, save the money, and take an extra 4 weeks off of work each year. At least.
Reason number four: You deserve happiness and freedom, so why not go all the way?
If you got clean and sober then you are right on the edge of total freedom. This is especially true if you continue to smoke.
Why not go all the way and give yourself the gift of total and complete freedom now? The only way to do so is to make the commitment to yourself and quit smoking.
Part of this process is in realizing that you deserve to be happy and free. Do not feel like you have to punish yourself by continuing to smoke. Do not tell yourself that you deserve to be miserable or stuck with nicotine addiction. This is not true. Everyone deserves to be free from this addiction.
You have important work to do in recovery. Smoking gets in the way of this work. It slows you down. It robs you of at least 1 to 2 months of your life each year, just in terms of time, money, and mental energy. Not to mention the fact that it will likely kill you about 15 years before your time.
“Healed people heal people.” This is part of your mission and goal in recovery. You got sober for a reason. I am pretty sure that the reason was not to die of lung cancer.
Use the opportunity and gift of recovery to change the world. Use the opportunity to make a positive impact on others. This is the point of recovery and it is also the greatest gift that it gives you. But you cannot enjoy this gift of recovery if you are sick, or dead (due to smoking).
You owe it to yourself to claim total freedom in recovery. If you are continuing to smoke then you still have a source of unhappiness. You still have a ball and chain that is holding you back from experiencing total freedom.
Have you quit smoking in your recovery? Are you still trying to? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!