Me with my daily cigarette intake before the experiment. Image by Mitch Pinney
As of this month I'll have been smoking for nine years. My experiences trying to ditch cigs—with Nicabate, Champix, and a few cold turkey attempts—have always ended with me feeling sick and giving up. For a long time it's seemed like I'm condemned to addiction.
That's because quitting is really hard. Although most smokers plan to quit, the numbers suggest few actually pull it off: One study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that while 77 percent of smokers intended to change their behavior, only 19 percent managed to quit for longer than a month.
After looking at my track record (basically just a history of me quitting quitting) I decided it was time to try something different. The internet offered me thousands of alternative solutions, but only four seemed even remotely plausible: the aversion method, acupuncture, natural remedies, and hypnotherapy.
So I tossed my last cigarette, told my dad I was quitting for good, and gave myself a month to try and make it stick. Every week I'd try a different alternative remedy until I found something that worked. Because something had to, right?
Week one: Making myself hate cigarettes by chain smoking
The idea behind aversion therapy is simple: Link a negative response to a habit you're trying to break and, in turn, you'll never want to do it again. Research has shown that aversion therapy's effectiveness is unreliable. However, the idea of chain smoking three cigarettes at a time, at least 25 smokes a day, sounded like it might just do the trick.
All I can say is that smoking this much fucking sucked. I'm aware that's the point of aversion therapy, but still, it was a disgusting and ineffective way to quit. By the end of the week, I genuinely felt poisoned—mind and body.
I couldn't concentrate or communicate. I smelled terrible and constantly felt sick. Cigarettes did became a chore, which should've meant success. But my cravings and triggers still existed, and the only technique I had to deal with them was smoking more.
My sense is that even if you were to try to aversion approach for longer than a week, you wouldn't actually quit. You'd just become a heavier smoker.
The verdict: 1/10
Week two: Distracting myself from cigarettes with needles
Acupuncture works on the belief that certain points of the body are related to certain feelings. So putting a needle in these spots should relieve some pressures and negative emotions. There's research to suggest it can even reduce your desire to smoke.
I booked in for three hour-long sessions of acupuncture with Renee Knott, specially designed to stop nicotine cravings. We started each one by measuring my pulse, before inserting needles in my ears, wrist, forehead, and feet—all, Renee told me, are major spots for addiction and stress. The session would finish with meditation and a massage.
For me, acupuncture felt effective because I was replacing cigarettes with an entirely new experience. It wasn't much about the actual needles, but rather the whole process of relaxing.
I found looking forward to my next session, or trying Renee's techniques that made me feel like I didn't need to smoke as much, especially for stress. Although I still smoked during this week, I felt guilty every time I did, and ended up cutting down from 15 to about five a day.
The verdict: 7/10
Week three: Trying to suppress my cravings by downing "natural remedies"
While it all might seem a bit airy-fairy, there's scientific evidence to suggest some herbs and oils operate in the same way as Nicabate, meaning they suppress your nicotine cravings and replace cigarettes with something less harmful.
Thai researchers have reported that drinking fresh lime juice can be nearly as effective as medication, while a US study found black pepper essential oil and passionflower tea can reduce nicotine cravings. St John's wort can help with stress and anxiety—a common side effect from quitting. And herbal cigarettes are just something you can smoke that aren't addictive.
Despite being hopeful, I found none of these stopped my cravings nearly as much as medication had in the past. Maybe getting teased by co-workers for sniffing black pepper oil put me off, but most likely it just doesn't work. Either way, realistically you should just get your medicine from a doctor.
Also herbal cigarettes taste like shit.
The verdict: 3/10
Week four: Trying to hypnotize myself out of a bad habit
Hypnotherapy was completely different to what I expected. Before my session with hypnotherapist Laura Masi, I went through a week-long "pre-therapy" which involved meditating for 20 minutes every day. I also had to write down every time I smoked and why. At the time, I remember feeling like this was going to be bullshit.
During the actual hypnosis session, Laura put me under and told me a bunch of nice things: I have the power to quit, I'm not a slave to my addiction, etc. She also made me verbalize why I smoke and what "parts of me" let that happen.
Essentially, hypnotherapy is just deep meditation with a very supportive friend encouraging you to quit. And this isn't a bad thing. I left the session feeling like I didn't need to smoke, and if I did have a naughty cig, I'd feel guilty. Admittedly, that's exactly what I did less than two hours later but, oddly enough, I never felt like hypnotherapy was a failure.
In my previous attempts to quit, relapsing felt inevitable. But after this I had this newfound sense of confidence. I recall Laura saying when I was under, "Whether you quit today, or in the future—you will quit." I'm aware it all sounds tacky, but that's where I see the real merit in hypnotherapy. Unlike other therapies, where you are reliant on a substance to quit, with hypnotherapy the responsibility is on you.
The verdict: 8/10
Quitting smoking is no mean feat, especially when you've been doing it for nearly half your life. It'd be easy to dismiss these therapies as failures, but I think that would be unfair. What I gained was a lesson in dedication.
The reality is you can quit in the way that works for you, but it's going to take more than lime juice or needles. You actually need the confidence to quit, and to keep trying if you fail. The reality is that right now I just don't want to quit enough. I'm aware that many wait their whole lives for a bolt of inspiration, only to find it in the form of an inoperable stage IV tumor. But that's the problem with smoking: it's just so comforting that the threat of cancer makes me want to calm down with a cig.
It's hard to say when I'll quit, but this has shown me that I can and someday will. My history might show otherwise, but I'm more prepared and confident than in the past. It's just going to take a few more tries.
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