I have an addictive personality. When I discover something that brings me pleasure, I tend to go all in. Sports, studies, hobbies.
I also know that there are some things that bring me pleasure that aren’t good for me, or risk serious harm. Junk food, alcohol, drugs, BASE jumping.
Thus the constant dance of life is between following the reptilian brain impulses to pursue things that bring me immediate gratification and the awareness that I’m indulging in self-destructive behavior that is not conducive to my longterm wellbeing or survival. I wrestle with what feels good and what I know is good for me.
I smoked my first cigarette at about 12 years old, a Virginia Slim. We had stolen one from my grandma, who had packs and lighters laying on every table of her house, ready to light up wherever she sat. Her ranch house had thick blue shag carpet that absorbed the cloud hanging forever in her house and preserved the smell of ashtray for years. She wouldn’t notice one missing from her multiple cartons on hand. We snuck out into the bush, puffed and coughed clumsily, thinking ourselves quite cool and mature. We doused ourselves in too much cologne to cover up the evidence.
The rebellious habit continued and worsened over the years, and I became a pretty regular smoker by the age of 15. I ran with a crew of misfits and troublemakers, and smoking cigarettes and being too cool for school was one of our calling cards.
The problem was that I was also a very physically active teen, playing soccer and snowboarding, and smoking was obviously not conducive to excelling at either of these pursuits. I also smelled like shit, and others (especially my mother) would call me out on the filthy habit, adding to my sense of guilt around it. What had started as a seemingly cool way for a young kid to stand out from the crowd had in fact become an addiction that no one envied. I was increasingly less proud of the habit, didn’t enjoy repelling girls by stinking like an ashtray, and could feel the physical impact on the other cardio-demanding hobbies I enjoyed. More than anything, I didn’t like the feeling of being a fiend about it, always craving the next hit. I didn’t like bumming smokes off other kids, and was even more ashamed of finding half-smoked “refried” cigarettes in public ashtrays or sidewalk cracks to light up like a junkie with no other options.
Around my senior year of high school I began a long string of attempts to kick the habit.
It was comprehensive. I tried nicotine patches, Nicorette gum, chewing sunflower seeds, breathing essential oils, taking herbal supplements, chanting daily mantras, snapping my wrist with a rubber band every time I craved a smoke. Each attempt would last no more than a couple weeks, days, or sometimes hours before caving to buy another pack.
I felt really defeated, and more than anything, I was pissed that a substance had taken control of me, hijacked my thinking and diminished my sense of willpower. I was determined not to remain a slave forever.
Interestingly, it was during my freshman year of college that I found the solution. I had moved to Durango, Colorado, a scenic mountain town where the college campus rested on a mesa that overlooked hundreds of rugged peaks in the distance. I moved to not only get out of suburbia, but also to pursue the fruits of mountain living. I continued playing soccer on an intermural team, and began mountain biking, hiking, backcountry snowboarding and rock climbing. I was loving the outdoor pursuits, but hated feeling my lungs burn every time I’d try to climb a hill on my bike or hike for a backcountry snowboard jump. My dirty habit was now really interfering with the things that brought me the most joy.
So, I began using reverse psychology.
Having exhausted all other options in my toolbox (most of which were just replacing one habit with a less harmful one), I decided that what I needed to do was get under the hood and go to work on my brain. By 19 years old, I had begun to learn a little bit about neuroplasticity and the ability to begin rewiring our brains through new intentional habits, triggers and anchors.
Thus, instead of trying to make short-lived pacts with myself, set a goal or find a replacement, I simply created a very strong negative association with the filthy habit of smoking, and reinforced it with demanding cardiovascular exercise. Staying very present to the damaging health impact of smoking, I would consciously force myself to think about lighting up during the times when it was least opportune or enticing. In the middle of a full field sprint playing soccer, I’d imagine stopping dead in my tracks to spark up a Marlboro Red 100, and be repulsed at the thought as my heart pounded and lungs burned. Climbing up an endless 3,000 vertical foot single track on my mountain bike while coughing and hacking phlegm every 200 feet, I’d visualize pulling over to chain smoke 3 filterless Camel Wides back to back to back. The thought made me want to puke. Plodding for hours up a 14,000 foot peak, I had plenty of time to ruminate on the insane prospect of pausing to burn through half a pouch of hand-rolled tobacco, sure to exacerbate the effects of gasping for already thin mountain air. When returning from a long ride or full day in the high country, I’d have no desire to take a puff. I continued this psychological torture experiment for weeks until I had so deeply anchored the experience of smoking with physical pain that I no longer felt the urge, even after a meal or when driving or at parties or all the other places and activities that I’d previously associated with smoking as a joyful habit.
Sometimes, the aversion to pain can be a much more powerful force for change than the pursuit of pleasure.
If you have a habit or addiction that has gripped you for a long time that you know isn’t serving who you really are, perhaps its time to reframe your perspective about it. Instead of just looking for healthier alternatives for a replacement fix, get really clear on the negative impact it is having on your life (health, relationships, money, energy, self-esteem, mood, quality of life, etc.), and stay present to it whenever you notice the damaging physical, social and financial effects. Instead of worrying about what it is going to cost you to change, ask yourself, “What is it costing me already by not making a change?” If you get honest with yourself, you may discover that there’s too much at stake to justify continuing something that simply does you no good. Its easier said than done, but I promise you, a more fulfilling life awaits you on the other side of that choice.
Best of luck.