A while ago an ex-colleague of mine posted on a social networking website a very sensitive piece of information that usually people prefer to keep private. This was a sad event in his life (a divorce) and all said and done; took courage to put it out there for everyone to see. It kind of felt like a soul-baring act to me and one that must have taken immense guts. That got me thinking.
The past few years of my life have been tumultuous to say the least. I have no doubt that there is much more to go, but given that I have finished almost half of my life; I sure hope the worst is over. I’ve been through a failed marriage, an alcohol addiction that brought me to the brink of ruin, a nicotine addiction that threatened my health visibly and to top that off, a stagnant (then it was pretty stagnant) career that had me frustrated all the more.
I have no claims on being some strong Guru with answers for my peers, nor do I lay claim to any deeply philosophical wisdom that I have gained through my experiences (such as they are). However, through a very misspent youth and a reckless adulthood; I have struck upon some actions that have helped me keep my sanity. This act which I mentioned above has spurred me to write this passage. Call it a confession, call it a white-paper on detoxification, call it what you want. If in some small way, I can help someone overcome addiction and cope with the withdrawal symptoms (yes, they are real); I shall go away a happy man.
Let me tackle each addiction separately.
Let me begin with how I got into the habit of smoking in the first place. I am sure we have all been there. Rebellious teens, sudden freedom in college; you know the drill. And when your parents say that something is off-limits, boy does it suddenly become cool! My peer group back in those days too left a lot to be desired (much like me). Bunch of odd misfits with tonnes of issues that actually needed counselling and guidance. And an expression of our rebellion seemed like that flaming stick in our hands.
At first, it was just curiosity coupled with the “coolness” that smoking was associated with. Pretty soon we graduated to a cigarette everyday (albeit we did not inhale). Then we moved on to properly inhaling the cigarette smoke. I remember the sickness and nausea that was initially caused. But sheer determination to make fools of ourselves forced us to continue through this phase to get finally get hooked. I graduated quickly from one cigarette a day to 5 and then 10. And then it kept constant. Never decreased. From the fag (pun intended) end of 1999 to 2010 (when I quit), I smoked a minimum of 10 cigarettes a day. Towards the end, I was smoking 15 a day on days that I did not drink. When I sat down to drink in the evenings after work, I was going through 15 a day before starting to drink and a pack-o-ten with alcohol. From Charminar to Gold Flake Regular and the more expensive Sobrano; I had tried it all.
By the time I decided to quit, I had acute bronchial cough pretty much all year round, lungs that felt like they were made of paper and the stamina of a lame duck. The journey of my nicotine detoxification was painful to the extreme. The reason I had decided to quit was pretty strange in itself. My marriage was pretty much on the rocks by the fag end of 2010. We had both decided to move on and things were pretty much in the doldrums personally. In the midst of all this, I undertook this activity with the morbid curiosity to check whether I could. I just wanted one thing to feel good about myself and I decided this was going to be it. In the midst of all the misfortune, I wanted to hold my head high and say I quit smoking. By this time, I was on the 15 a day routine. A smoke as soon as I woke up followed by an hourly smoke and one smoke right before I retired for the night. I had a packet constantly on me along with a lighter, a charred lower lip and a constant cough. I wheezed if I climbed even one flight of stairs and I indulged in no physical exertion to speak of. In summary, I was a wreck. A disaster waiting to happen.
I remember the first three days of my efforts with crystal-clear clarity. As if those 3 days have just gone by a week ago. They were perhaps the worst days of my life up to that point (that benchmark got broken pretty soon). I remember it so clearly. At the stroke of midnight on 26th November 2010, I stubbed out my last butt. It was a Gold Flake Lights. My last cigarette. I was at home. I put out the cigarette, culled the water from my makeshift ashtray into the toilet, flushed it out, threw away the matchbox and the empty packet of cigarettes into the trash bin. Then I locked myself into my room.
It was a Saturday. I took a leave on Monday and I did not come out of that room (other than for my ablutions) for 3 days. I ventured out on Monday evening . . . and rushed back in. Those 3 days were hell. More than 70 hours of withdrawal symptoms. As my habit was pretty advanced, the first pangs (or tallaf, as it is called) started as soon as I woke up. I quelled it. I brushed my teeth and got back to my room. And then began my fight with myself. After 10-odd hours, I got light-headed. I ignored it and read a book. I soon got frustrated with that and switched on the computer. I soon got frustrated with that and then turned to some music. And that kept happening.
By evening, my throat had an itch. An itch that only a cigarette could cure, or so I thought. But I persisted. I drank copious amounts of water. I watched movies back-to-back. On Tuesday I went back to work. This was quite courageous considering how close I was to quitting. For the rest of the week, my routine was pretty straight-forward. Go to office, sit at my desk, work, work and work; and then head home. No stops en route. I used a company cab just to ensure I could not stop en route. For that first week, I did not take any breaks which would require me to leave my desk. I would eat at home, reach office and leave without a backward glance after the day’s work was done. In the second week of my voluntary incarceration, I decided to venture to the cafeteria. I went down to have a cup of tea and rushed back up. And then slowly, my itch began to fade.
In the second week, I decided to attempt to go to the smoking zone and come back without smoking! I wired myself up for this for a couple of days. I thought about it, planned it, obsessed about it; till I thought I would sail by – and then I spectacularly failed! All my mental pictures of me walking in sanguine fashion to the smoking zone and chit-chatting were pipe dreams. I could smell the smoke as soon as I walked to the common area and that drove me wild! I needed a smoke. I needed it so bad! I still remember the desperation that seized me. It was almost unbearable. I held my breath to try and block out the smell, but I couldn’t very well stop breathing. Somehow, I made it there for ten minutes without smoking, and then I ran off. I just couldn’t take it anymore. If I had stayed there for even one more minute, I would have fallen off the wagon. Slowly, I regained my confidence that I had broken free. I had finally quit smoking!
So what did I learn from this grueling experience? That the mind is the key. If you want to, you can do anything as long as you apply your mind to it. From that point on, I attacked each activity I undertook like a methodical checklist, and I have been successful in many endeavors after that; which I would hitherto have been pretty scatter-brained about. It gave me confidence in myself. But most importantly, it restored my self-esteem and my pride. That I had battled this addiction, and I had won. And that pride helps me in my lows. That pride keeps me going when the chips are down. I keep reminding myself, if I can do this; I can do anything.
Once I quit nicotine, the battle may have been won, but the war was far from over. I was still in a mess. Personally and professionally, I was still in the doldrums. And the negation of one addiction was compensated in another – my alcohol intake shot up.
I had started drinking in college (in the year 2000). Again, through the same path that many moronic teenagers follow – peer pressure, drunken binges, late nights, and the works. By 2008, I was drinking 3 times a week (usually Fridays and the weekends). By 2009, though the frequency had remained constant, the amount of alcohol I would consume had gone up. By the end of 2009, I would consume 180 ml of whisky every time I sat down to drink. That’s still pretty reasonable. But once I quit nicotine, my compensation became alcohol.
I began to drink every day. Without fail. Come 1900 (that’s the time bars open in the city that I lived) and I would automatically take the direction of the nearest bar. It all began quite innocently. I would socialize more and gather friends who would drink. Each day would be a different friend. The problem was when the friends ran out. I knew I was stepping over a threshold, and I am sorry to say I failed that test. I began drinking alone. Pretty soon, I was drinking 240-300 ml of whisky in one sitting; and I was drinking every day. A typical Saturday’s drinking session would begin at 1100 IST at K-Lounge with 1 pitcher of beer and 3-4 tequilas followed with one more mug of beer for the road. By this time, it would be 1600 IST or thereabouts. I would walk out, while away the time till 1900 IST and sit down for my daily quota of whisky. I would polish off 240-300 ml of whisky and then head home with around 30 ml for the road tucked away in some pocket in a small bottle. I would reach home, have some food, lock myself in my room to finish this last remnant of the day’s alcohol intake and go to sleep.
Towards the beginning of 2012, I sanctimoniously decided to stay away from whisky and only drink Bacardi Breezers. That experiment upped the ante in my alcohol intake rather than control it. The Breezer experiment smashed and burned like a meteor from the sky. By the time I gave up the great Breezer experiment of 2012, I was drinking everything else along with 2-3 breezers mixed with 2 pegs of Bacardi rum.
And that’s when I decided that enough was enough. I saw my future flash before me. And I realized that I was going to end up harming myself on a long term basis. The woman I was dating at that time (now the woman I am engaged to marry) stood by me in this turbulent time. If at any point of time she felt I was going overboard, she did not nag me with that worry. She would just ask me if I felt comfortable drinking so much. She never, ever nagged; and that helped me quit much faster than if she had constantly reminded me that alcohol was a bad habit. I completely agree with the fact that your better half has to stand by you when you try to quit an addiction. And I am happy to say that mine was there in full measure. I can also confidently say the same thing about my parents. They retained the same rationality about the problem. I can only imagine the turmoil going through their minds as well. However, they dealt with the situation maturely and gave me space to think about my problems myself.
If you ask me to compare, I can definitively state that quitting alcohol was just as difficult as quitting nicotine. No more and no less. Fortunately or unfortunately. Problems began on the 4th day. It was a Thursday (22nd November 2012). I had already had a bad day coupled with a day-long training I was scheduled to be part of at work. Towards the end of the training, my withdrawal symptoms started to set in. Irritability, nervousness, shaky hands, sweaty palms, I shit you not.
I conferenced a couple of my friends and arranged to meet them at Pizza Hut on the way home. All through this, I was debating with myself on whether to call the whole thing off and just have a drink. I ploughed on nonetheless and reached Pizza Hut around 2045 IST. By this time, I had a weird buzzing in my ears and a sensation of ants crawling along my back. I ordered for a large pizza like a drowning man clutching at a floating barrel. I shoveled the food into my mouth and as my digestive juices kicked in, I could feel my craving subside. It was touch and go. That was the day I knew I would never touch alcohol again. I experienced the urge again on the 8th day, 9th day and the 13th day. But by then I had the confidence. And I knew I had won.
What have I learnt?
A few days ago, I tried to collect my thoughts on what I had learnt in my journey to becoming a teetotaler and an article sprang to my mind. It was written by some author/journo named Mark Manson and it made an instant connection with me. You can read the original article here –
Essentially, what Mark asks is, “For the happiness you want, what is the level of pain you are willing to sustain”. What it boils down to is that for the perfect physique, how many hours of working out am I willing to invest? For that successful career, how many long hours am I willing to put in? For that perfect backhand, how many hours of practice am I willing to put in.
What determines your success is “How much pain do you want to sustain?”
That has been my learning from my victory over alcoholism and nicotine. That I need to bear the pain of effort if I really want something badly enough. And if I really want something badly enough, I will bear and sustain the pain as long as is required to achieve my goal. A victory of mind over matter.
Photo by Thomas Leuthard