My First Year Cigarette-Free

What I’ve learned and experienced while quitting smoking.

Reaching a Milestone

Today marks a milestone in my life that I’m extremely proud of: the end of my first full year nicotine-free since I started smoking back in high school.

I’ve struggled to quit smoking for years. The first attempt that I remember making was when I was just out of college, around age 22. I went to a psychologist for help, and he recommended an entire array of treatments, ranging from nicotine patches to hypnosis. None of it did much good.

Since then, I’ve tried to quit at least once nearly every year, using every method I could find. Sometimes I’d manage to stop for a few months at a time, and other times I’d only last a few days or even hours.

There have even been times over the years when I temporarily gave up on quitting, and resigned myself to a life as a smoker. I thought that I was just a hopeless case.

Staying Motivated

Ultimately, I kept trying to quit despite all of my failures. My biggest motivation was having had several family members die of lung cancer over the years. It was a very strong reminder of the true cost of smoking cigarettes.

I knew that every year that I continued to smoke my risk of cancer would continue to climb. Having seen how awful cancer is, I wanted more than anything to avoid putting myself or my family through me getting it.

So, I kept trying to quit, and now I’ve finally made it a year. I’m 33 now, over a decade older than when I first started trying to quit smoking. After so much failure, quitting had started to feel impossible, but now I’ve proven to myself that it’s not.

Over the past few years, I’ve sometimes felt like I was just wasting my time by continually trying and failing to quit. I’m so glad that I ignored the voice in my head telling me to just give up. No matter how many times you fail in the past, there’s always still hope for the future.

Quitting Isn’t Easy

Quitting smoking has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Cigarettes aren’t the first bad habit I’ve kicked; I’ve written extensively about my journey getting sober. Surprisingly, I’ve found it harder to quit cigarettes than it was to quit drinking.

The biggest difference between the two habits is that drinking had a more immediate negative impact on my life. As a smoker, I was creating more potential damage in my life, but not causing as many immediate problems as alcohol.

I enjoyed smoking cigarettes, and I’m sure that if I started again today, I’d still enjoy it. In order to stay quit, I made sure to remember the long-term effects: cancer, heart problems, and an early, painful death.

There were some more immediate negative effects of smoking as well: it cost a lot of money, increased my anxiety, and interfered with exercise. Whenever I craved cigarettes, I tried to think of all the damage that they could do.

Even after a year, I still get cravings for cigarettes, but they’re far less frequent than they used to be. When I first quit, I don’t think I went a single hour without thinking about smoking. These days, I’ll go weeks at a time without craving a cigarette.

My hardest challenge came when I got laid off from work last month. My immediate thought was that having such a bad event happen gave me an excuse to go back to smoking guilt-free. As soon as I got the news, I was ready to grab my car keys and drive to the gas station.

Thankfully, I managed to resist. I told myself that if I went and bought a pack of cigarettes, it wouldn’t do anything to bring my job back. Instead, it would just give me another problem to deal with. I imagined how hard it would be looking for jobs and trying to quit smoking again, and I realized right away how ridiculous I was being for even considering buying a pack.

How Quitting Has Helped

Even though it’s been hard to quit, I’m still incredibly glad and proud that I did it. I’ve seen some major improvements in my life this year from having quit.

The most immediate was that I started to save a ton of money. I smoked a pack a day, which was costing me $5 to $6. (When I had lived in Chicago, I paid over double this.) In the year since I’ve quit smoking, I’ve saved well over a thousand dollars.

Quitting has also greatly improved my exercise capabilities. I’ve been a runner for years, but smoking has always kept me running fairly slowly. Since quitting, I’ve seen my speed skyrocket.

To me though, the most important impact of quitting smoking is that I’m giving myself a chance for a healthier future. I’ve already increased my risk of cancer and heart disease from smoking for so many years, but with each year that I remain nicotine-free, those risks go down.

Thirty years from now, I want to look back and be grateful for the decisions that I made — not to resent myself for them. By quitting smoking, I know that I’ve made the best possible choice for my future.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at ko-fi.com/benyaclark.

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