This week, our friend Hadeer El Mahdawy shares a literal detox experience: giving up smoking.
I’ve always admired the name the editor of this weekly guide chose for it: Detox. While this guide aims to help readers break free of the work week’s burdens, I am currently on a literal detox: attempting to help my body break free of 14 years’ worth of toxins. I’ve had a long, long friendship with cigarettes, and today it’s been slightly more than a month since I’ve decided to quit. This is by no means an anti-smoking manifesto, nor is it a call for other smokers to follow suit and abandon their cigarettes; I’ve always hated it when people preached to me about the harms of smoking and what it did to one’s body. I am merely sharing the experience of how I quit smoking in 30 days: no guidance, no advice. I’m not a big fan of advice in all cases, I neither like to give it nor receive it — newsflash: we’re all pretty clueless when it comes to life; none of us has enough insight or experience to tell others what to do.
In mid-November, days before I turned 35, I woke up one morning and suddenly decided to quit smoking. It was the first time in my life that I genuinely felt like I wanted to stop, because the truth of the matter is, I love smoking. I’ve always admired women who smoke; in my adolescent years I considered them symbols of a kick-ass brand of femininity; their smoking implied a certain hidden power, a lack of regard for what others thought, and could sometimes even be considered a very small act of resistance against what women have always been told they shouldn’t do because it was “wrong” or “inappropriate” or “crass.”
In any case, I decided to quit, with the hope that I would continue to be kick-ass even in the absence of cigarettes. And to further commit myself, I announced my resolution to friends and family, so there’d be no turning back. I also started to keep a journal, particularly during the first ten days — we all need a bit of encouragement, after all.
On the first day, I managed to do what I always do best: distract myself. I probably watched multiple episodes of three different TV shows that day, and made myself something to drink every five minutes. There were a few moments where I almost lit a cigarette: with my morning coffee, after lunch, with my evening coffee. It was hard, especially that I hadn’t thrown out my pack of tobacco; I’d merely shoved it inside a drawer where I couldn’t see it, and knowing it was there yet staying away from it throughout the day was incredibly challenging.
On my second smoke-free day, I was so bored I called every single family member and friend I could think of and spent the entire day chatting about everything and nothing. It was the kind of boredom that stemmed from a gaping hole within, as though I’d lost someone dear to me. Quitting smoking is a new test of my ability to do without — to function in the absence of the things and people that I love. It is, after all, the end of one of the longest friendships of my life.
The third day was a little harsh. It was the first day of the new work week: back to the grind after a somewhat relaxing weekend. I was exceedingly nervous and therefore, of course, craving the comfort of cigarettes. I’d look at the pack of tobacco as though I was ready to devour it — if that pack were a man, I would have probably murdered him that day.
On the fourth day I went out for dinner with some friends, and instinctively picked a table in the restaurant’s smoking area. I wasn’t bothered by the smoke that filled the place, nor did the smoke coming out of my friends’ cigarettes affect me. I was relieved, because I’m already limiting social activities to certain people in my life, and the fact that I could still have fun while people around me smoked meant I wouldn’t have to further isolate myself from friends who were smokers.
The fifth, sixth and seventh days were relatively calm, and after the first week had passed I was feeling pretty encouraged to go on.
Throughout this past month, as I struggled with withdrawal from my longtime habit, I also started to rediscover my senses of taste and smell. I could finally experience the actual flavor and aroma of coffee, free of smoke. Suddenly I could smell so much more than I did before, when the smell of smoke pretty much covered everything. It was a bit unsettling at first, particularly because I’d consistently imagine that I could smell something burning, and would keep sniffing around the house to find out what it was.
Contrary to most experiences, my mood was at its worst in the second week rather than the first. I was more like a fire-breathing dragon, so I spent a lot of time on my own in an attempt to avoid flare-ups. I buried myself in work and binge-watched TV, and by the end of that week I had succeeded in performing every activity that I’d previously always smoked during, without lighting a single cigarette.
I stopped journaling after the first two weeks, because I wanted to stop thinking about smoking altogether. Right now a full day could pass without me even remembering that I was once a smoker. Some friends suggested that I use an app that counts the days I’ve gone without smoking, calculating the number of cigarettes I haven’t smoked, the money I’ve saved, and the days added to my life span now that I’ve quit. I never downloaded it, though. When it comes to radical decisions like this one, I usually prefer to take things lightly, without reminding myself every moment of how far I’ve come; I find that makes things easier sometimes. There is no need to constantly monitor my “accomplishments;” it is better to deal with it all as a daily reality, one that doesn’t merit much attention.
It occurs to me now that perhaps the summer was a better time to quit; long chilly nights beg for the warmth of a cigarette, and the smoke keeps those damn winter mosquitos away. Or perhaps I should have waited until the pandemic was over; cigarettes provided much-needed company in this prolonged state of obligatory loneliness — they helped me deal with anger and frustration, and were there during certain moments of my day when nobody else could be. But these are mere reflections that come to me at the peak of my bouts of longing for the old days, and thankfully those are becoming less frequent. My hair, on the other hand, is a lot happier because the stubborn smell of smoke doesn’t cling to it anymore, and my clothes, too, smell fresher, and no longer have to endure those inevitable cigarette burns. I am feeling much lighter, and I am filled with love: a sweeping sense of love toward myself that is long overdue. For what is freeing one’s body of toxins and guiding it back toward a healthier state if not an act of self-love?
Whether or not you decide to try and kick the habit yourself, dear smoker/reader, we encourage any and all forms of striving towards a healthier relationship with oneself (and/or one’s body): an attempt at peace — or, at least, a truce — amidst this turbulent life we live.
Until next time, stay safe.