Two weeks have past since I started quitting all addictions.
It was on the 9th of August that my journey into madness began. That day, a brilliantly bright and hot Tuesday, was the day I drank Coca Cola for the last time, the day I gave up sugar. It was he painful beginning of my journey to Addiction-Free-Land. It has been an arduous voyage indeed.
And it all began with the sugar, that sweet stuff that delights your tongue but pollutes your brain.
Dr Sally Norton says that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Scientists tested this by taking a poor, unsuspecting little mouse, putting it in a cage, stuffing it full of cocaine until it was addicted, and then stuffing it full of sugar until it was hooked on that too. Then, the scientists gave the mouse a choice of cocaine or sugar, and the mouse chose sugar.
What does this story prove—other than that we need to started treating mice better? It proves that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. So naturally, giving up sugar is not easy. That was my Tuesday.
Come Wednesday I was already experiencing the fun, Merry-Go-Round of sugar withdrawal symptoms. By Wednesday lunchtime I was twitching like a severed limb. I hadn’t had any sugar in my tea and the porridge for breakfast was woefully lacking in refined sugars. My stomach grumbled at me. “Burrrrr. Bloody porridge? Supposed to have brown sugar on porridge, not just milk.”
Soon, the grumbling of my stomach was joined by the grumbling of my head, which started to ache. Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of sugar withdrawal, and apparently it’s a symptom that sets in very quickly. I decided not to take paracetamol. Instead I told myself, “This headache was caused by years of unhealthy eating. Because my body gets thrown out of whack when it doesn’t get the unhealthy substances it’s accustomed to.”
Funny thing is, even though I had a headache and my stomach was trying to trick me into believing I was hungry, I felt great. I’d done something excellent for my health. And even through that headache and food cravings, I felt optimistic and ready for a new challenge. Giving up one thing had made me feel great. Time to give up something else.
I had my choices. I could have quit coffee, smoking, adult videos, or alcohol (actually, the alcohol would be easy as I barely drink anyway).
The logical choice is to quit smoking, right? Smoking cigarettes is the worst thing for your health. Quitting smoking would be the best thing I could do for myself.
I didn’t choose to quit smoking. I chose to quit coffee.
I knew that quitting smoking was the ultimate goal. I knew that if I failed to quit anything else, if I quit smoking that would be a miracle, a real accomplishment, and a major step towards a healthier life. But I also knew a little secret: Drinking coffee seriously makes you want a cigarette.
Most people, including your run-of-the-mill doctor, will tell you that coffee makes you want to smoke just because you associate the two together. You’ve grown accustomed to having a coffee followed by a cigarette, so whenever you have one your brain habitually wants the other.
Truth is deeper than that. Drinking a cup of coffee actually makes your brain significantly more receptive to dopamine. When you have a coffee and then a cigarette, you get many times the dopamine you get from a cigarette alone. In other words, coffee makes your smoking high that much higher. We’re talking the Everest of highs (at least for people who don’t do harder drugs, which I’ve personally never done).
Add to this the fact that caffeine makes nicotine leave your system faster than usual. This is why lots of people smoke more in the morning, because the caffeine depletes the nicotine so they need another fix. That nicotine depletion also makes you feel more anxious, again making you want to smoke more.
All this put together meant that if I wanted to quit smoking I needed to quit caffeine. So, Wednesday morning, I threw my coffee cup at the wall as hard as I could until it smashed into a million pieces. A waste of a cup. But it send a clear message telling me I wouldn’t drink coffee again.
This accelerated the Merry Go Round of side-effects. I already had a headache from giving up sugar. Now I had a headache, stomach ache, couldn’t take a dump (because constipation is one of the most common withdrawal symptoms of caffeine withdrawal), was very, very tired, and sleepy.
Good news is, having given up sugar and coffee I wasn’t experiencing the depression that many people talk about. I was in a good mood. A little irritable, yes. And when David called from India to tell me that my computer had a virus, I did tell him to go to hell. Sorry David. I was ratty. But I was not depressed. Actually, I felt motivated to give up all addictions. But I needed a break, or so I though.
Thursday I told myself I wouldn’t give up anything new. Coffee and sugar were enough for now. But Thursday morning I was so damned tired from sugar and caffeine withdrawal that I actually couldn’t be bothered to step outside to light up. And perhaps some part of my brain was waiting for that coffee (that would never come) before having a smoke, so the smoke never came either.
Four hours into Thursday it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t want a cigarette. I’d put so much work into being healthier that the idea of smoking at this point seemed bloody ridiculous. So I didn’t. I actually didn’t do anything. I sat on the couch all day watching the Olympics.
Obviously at times my brain said “Wow, I would love a cigarette right now”, but then some other part of my brain said, “I’m too lazy to go outside and have one.”
I’d love to tell you that it was my Herculean willpower that stopped me smoking that day, but it wasn’t, it was the fact that I straight up couldn’t be bothered to go out for a smoke. And so I didn’t. I sat on the couch all day. I was barely conscious, after all the withdrawals, but that actually made it easier not to smoke because my brain felt numb and every time I craved a cigarette I would just think, “What’s the point?” And the Olympics were so awesome on Thursday that I didn’t want to miss a second of it, so I stayed right there on the couch like a potato (this was the first time I’d watched TV in months as I quit watching TV months ago).
So by Friday morning I had given up sugar, coffee, and smoking. And though it seems weird, some part of my brain was now getting addicted to giving up addictions (oh, the irony). Sounds crazy. But actually, your brain releases dopamine when you continue a streak. So the dopamine I would get from a cigarette I was now getting from continuing my streak of giving things up. And that meant that my brain now wanted to find more things to quit. What would come next.
It was Friday, and my Facebook Messenger was blowing up with friends messaging me to ask me out that weekend. Most of the invites were to watch The Tragically Hip’s final show.
One problem: If I went out I would smoke. I knew that because it happened the last time I gave up. Drinking makes it oh so easy to give in to all sorts of temptations. If you go out drinking within a few months of quitting smoking, you’ll probably start up again. More than half of all smoking relapses occur after drinking.
I’d been successful in quitting smoking. Okay, it was one day at this point, but the first day of quitting is the hardest. I’d succeeded for one day. I wanted to protect my success That meant giving up alcohol.
Thankfully, giving up alcohol really is not that big of a problem for me. I’ve never drunk a lot. My father was an alcoholic. It killed him. And it put our family through hell and made my childhood very difficult. I knew I never wanted to develop an alcohol problem. So I’ve always drank just a few socially, and never any more than that (well, except for one time when I was sixteen when I passed out in a club and somehow ended up vomiting uphill, with gravity moving back toward my face—I’ll allow you to finish that mental image).
Smoking and drinking go hand in hand. If you want to give up one, give up the other.
You might think that’s only true when quitting smoking. Alcohol gets you intoxicated, you’re less conscious of what you’re doing, you end up having a smoke. But recent scientific research shows that most alcohol relapses occur when smoking, too. If you want to give up alcohol, you’d be wise not to smoke. Given that 80-95% of alcoholics also smoke, there’s a lot to mull-over there.
One addiction affects another. And that’s not just the case with cigarettes and alcohol. It’s the case with coffee and smoking, coffee and drinking, alcohol and smoking… it’s even the case with adult videos. Watching adult videos makes you want cigarettes and alcohol.
Why is it that one addiction affects the other? Because they are the same addiction.
Whether you’re addicted to smoking, drinking, adult videos, coffee, or most other addictions, you are in truth addicted to dopamine, the pleasure-reward neurochemical that gets you hooked. The reason alcohol, coffee and cigarettes are addictive is because they make your brain release dopamine, the pleasure chemical. So in fact, all these “different” addictions are actually the exact same thing: dopamine addiction.
Adult videos also release dopamine. Watch some steamy sex scenes and your brain will start releasing dopamine. Continue to do this and you’ll get addicted. And because this one addiction releases dopamine—which is the root cause of all your addictions—watching one sex scene will just as easily lead to having a cigarette as smoking a cigarette will.
That’s the real benefit of giving up all addictions. They’re the same thing. So if you give up just one addiction you’re still allowing yourself to get your unhealthy dopamine fix from elsewhere. That’s why people who quit smoking eat more—they’re not getting dopamine from smoking so they get it from sugar instead. And it’s also why you’re best off quitting all addictions at the same time (even if you have to gradually cut down to get there). Because once you overcome the real addiction, the dopamine addiction, you’re free for life. You’re not substituting one vice for another, you’re done, forever.
So now I’ve quit all my addictions, I am starting to feel much better. I’m breathing properly. I’m losing weight. My energy levels are becoming balanced. And I’m starting to feel happier (slowly. I’m still going through withdrawal right now).
But of course, I do miss my addictions. I could light up a smoke. I could go for a pint. I could just completely cave in and have a bottle of Irish Coffee while smoking. And if I did that I’d feel as high as a kite—
You know what, I’m going to stop right here before I cave in. I’m still working on willpower right now.
But which of my addictions do I miss the most? The funny thing is this. I miss them all equally, and somehow because I want all of them, I wont cave in to any of them. Because every time I crave a smoke I think “Ooooh, I could have candy instead”. And every time I want candy I think, “Would I rather have a beer?” And my brain is so tired from these withdrawals that I can’t actually be bothered to decide which one of these addictions I want most. So I just don’t have any of them.