Photo by Jazzmin Nilsson
For 18 years I was a light-yet-stubbornly-addicted smoker. Perhaps my habit was a result of growing up with a Dutch mum who handed me wisdom like: “Thijs, you’re 11 now. It’s time for you to learn how to roll smokes for your mummy.” There were periods where I’d just smoke one cigarette a day, and there were times when a pack wouldn’t see me through. But quitting – really quitting – was something I found I was able to manage for a week at most.
I was also a terribly annoying smoker. The kind that tries to quit for years by not buying his own packs, thus becoming the friend everyone avoids at parties (sorry, guys). I would smoke during school, but not during work. Like I said – light smoker, ridiculously addicted.
Earlier this year, I reached a few conclusions that seem completely obvious, but are still the kind of truths that addicts love to ignore:
– Smoking is a boring, useless addiction. The only joy in smoking is giving in to the addiction.
– There is only one moment in billions of years of history that I’m alive. What a waste to shorten that blip of time with something so boring.
– Going outside to smoke with friends can be fun, but if we all went for shots of apple juice instead, I’d be just as content. Smoking is more like a random compulsive activity than actually experiencing something.
Those thoughts started running through my head earlier this year and went on for about a month. In the end, it was almost like something actually broke inside of me. I realised that smoking another cigarette now filled me with self-hate, and that realisation came during a weekend binge on LSD.
It's always fun, LSD. Slightly out of fashion since the 1960s, but I have always regarded it as a milder version of taking mushrooms – albeit lasting a few hours more. The fear and panic surrounding it always seemed excessive to me, but of course everyone who takes it has a different experience.
As I was gazing up at the stars during that trippy night in spring, my best friend and I were talking about life and the three smokers' truths I mentioned above. I realised I had carried them with me for a while now, without ever making a disciplined decision.
I can’t describe it in any other way than feeling as if a switch was flipped inside me. Suddenly, I realised how ridiculous smoking was – why was I doing something that made me feel miserable? Of course I was completely spaced out, but the psychedelic helped me zoom out and break through my own frozen ideas about not being able to quit. I didn’t think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I really need to quit soon.” The only thought I had was: "I don’t want to do this any more."
"Sounds like a familiar story," says clinical psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen. Together with his wife Teri S Krebs, Johansen has been conducting research into psychedelics and alcohol addiction as part of a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School. "We've heard of addictions to alcohol, heroin and tobacco that were broken with help from psychedelics. The reason seems to be that substances like LSD can provide a moment of clarity that can help you see your existence as a whole and get a long-term perspective into certain personal issues.”
Research into the medical application of substances like LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) are still in their very early phases. The 1950s and 1960s are remembered as a golden age of scientific research into psychedelics, but that doesn't mean it wasn't problematic. As well as some trials not being big enough to give conclusive evidence, leading to doubts about the efficacy of the drug, the patent on LSD expired and made clinical research almost impossible. On top of that, the drug became illegal in the mid-1960s and has never fully recovered from the cultural backlash that ensued.
Research efforts have expanded in the last few years, but it's still pretty small-scale. "There are three clinical research projects in the United States right now, and several more are being prepared," says Johansen.
To my surprise, right after I published this story on VICE in the Netherlands, the results of the world’s first research into smoking and psychedelics came out. Out of 15 heavy smokers that took part in the study, 12 remained smoke-free after six months of psychotherapy aided with psilocybin.
Krebs and Johansen found the same in their analysis of randomized controlled trials of LSD for alcoholism.“Those who had taken a full dose of LSD," Krebs says, "were twice as likely to decrease their alcohol consumption or remain abstinent, as compared with subjects who took a low dose of LSD or a placebo.”
I count myself as a success story, too. In the days that followed my LSD trip I could feel my body craving nicotine, but there was nothing in my mind telling me to give into that feeling. I treated it like little more than a mosquito bite: Just wait till it's over and it won’t bother you again.
About two months later, Argentina kicked Holland out of the World Cup. If there was ever a moment to start smoking again, that was it. I wanted to take the test and see how I was doing. And – how cliché – it was terrible. I grabbed my friend’s cigarette, took a drag and couldn’t imagine there was ever a moment that I had enjoyed smoking. It tasted like a night at a bar that went on for too long.
According to Johansen (and myself), people shouldn't think they can just drop acid once and expect that it will solve any ill or addiction they have. It just happened that I had an experience with psychedelics, during which I tried to figure out why I had been smoking for such a long time, and I'm generally the type of person who enjoys psychoanalysing myself.
“It's hard work to quit after years of alcoholism or smoking," says Johansen. "Our opinion is that patients will need to have several doses of psychedelics in combination with treatment. It is no magic tool, but it can act as a catalyst for epiphanies and can make you ask questions like, ‘If not now, when?’”
I don't think I would have ever been able to quit smoking without that tab. I'd tried giving up in the past, but my lack of self-discipline always stood in the way. Sensitivity to addiction runs in the family. Some people say drug use is something that shouldn’t be promoted, but I’m still waiting for the person who will explain to me why I should be ashamed for my experience. I’m extremely happy that I’m done with smoking. And who knows? Maybe my next dose of acid will finally send me to the gym.
More on quitting: