“All that alcohol ruins your liver,” said a co-worker I called "the Fun Police" at a holiday soiree.
During the years I partied, I rolled my eyes at prudes who made New Year’s resolutions to get healthier. They warned that smoking causes wrinkles and lung cancer, booze bloats your face, marijuana fries your brain, and too much candy destroys your teeth. I never listened, drinking, toking, smoking and sugar-rushing all through high school, college and my graduate studies.
Without quitting anything, I was able to get two degrees, marry, launch an exciting career. That seemed proof that my substance abuse wasn’t really a problem. But what was cute in my twenties wasn’t as adorable by my fourth decade. That’s when I had a full-blown midlife crisis, unhappy marriage, family issues, debt and debilitating job rejections. I needed help. “Your addictions are keeping you from getting everything you want in life,” said my substance abuse specialist.
I was surprised that he blamed my employment and relationship failures on my habits. He seemed sure that my inability to be close to my husband, complete a long project, be financially solvent or get what I most wanted were all insidious byproducts of being addicted. Hearing horror stories of what over-imbibing did to your body or reading that higher percentages of middle-aged white Americans were dying of overdoses, I rationalized that I wasn’t shooting heroin or popping Oxycodone. I cited studies showing that a glass a day of wine was healthy and marijuana wasn’t addictive. Nobody told me that daily use of benign substances (like alcohol and pot) could actually mar your mind, creating a direct barrier to success – in work and love. My specialist explained his theory, that addicts depended on substances, not people. Instead of allowing myself to feel pain, discomfort, depression or awkwardness, I was sucking in smoke, sipping booze or eating my frustration and sadness away. “Underlying every substance problem I’ve ever seen is a deep depression that feels unbearable. But it’s not,” he said.
Here’s how I stopped several damaging habits and what I recommend:
NEW YEAR’S IS ACTUALLY A BAD DAY TO QUIT: In case you've already blown your resolutions, no problem. Resolving in a fervor that everything will be different on a big national holiday when you’re away from work, school and your routine might be setting yourself up for disappointment. “Beware all excitement because it takes you out of yourself and you always have to go back to yourself,” my addiction specialist warned. Most people who try to quit anything on January 1 fail, perhaps because vague, general promises to yourself (like “I will lose weight”), without a solid plan already in effect, don’t work. When I was really ready to stop my 27-year smoking and drinking habits, I picked a more personal quitting date, Oct. 7, 2001, which stuck.
SEE AN EXPERT: I never even knew there were addiction specialists until I’d stumbled on a brilliant Ph.D. with that expertise. I also didn’t know that with a “substance abuse” diagnosis, my health insurance would cover three times as many sessions. (A coworker confirms this is also true with his Obamacare.) Google to find social workers, psychologists and psychiatric experts in your area. If you don’t have medical coverage, ask if they’ll use a sliding scale, since some practitioners will reduce their rate to as little as $20 a session. If you can’t afford that, there are free daily AA, NA and OA meetings (for alcoholics, narcotics abusers and overeaters) where you can find a sponsor, or online recovery groups where you don’t have to leave your house. If you hate meetings and therapy, ask a sober coworker or relative for advice. I’ve been happy to help other addicts who’ve approached me by listening and sharing my techniques. One student emailed me every day to tell me her progress.
DON’T JUST SWITCH ADDICTIONS: Since I’d smoked two packs a day and cigarettes were ridiculously expensive and banned almost everywhere, I decided to stop smoking first. Without realizing it, I immediately started drinking more. When my addiction specialist insisted I monitor my liquor intake, I turned to Blow Pop lollipops incessantly. “If you gain 20 pounds you’ll use this as a reason you can’t quit smoking,” he said. I switched to chewing on cinnamon sticks instead (which have zero calories), watched my diet and exercised. I miraculously lost 10 pounds while quitting. So that blew the “but I’ll gain weight” excuse. It’s fairly common for addicts to do the “substance shuffle.” But despite popular misconceptions, it’s entirely possible to drop weight while abstaining from cigarettes, drugs or alcohol, especially with an addiction expert to guide you.
TRY INNOVATIVE TACTICS: Everyone responds differently to cessation methods. Take time to figure out what works for you. To stop smoking, some people have success with hypnosis, acupuncture, laser therapy. Unfortunately, e-cigarettes are not a good solution because they simulate sucking in smoke and only perpetuate the need for nicotine. I personally needed an all-out assault. My multi-tiered approach involved seeing my specialist weekly, using the highest dose of the nicotine patch for six months and exercising daily. My favorite of my doctor’s mandates was making my husband watch TV or a movie with me every night for one hour, holding each other with no talking, which calmed all of my anxiety. After nine months, I was completely tobacco-free. Within a year, I’d quit alcohol and marijuana too. The more strategies you employ, the more likely you’ll win.
HANG OUT WITH PEOPLE YOU WANT TO BE: I found that the most successful people I knew were into clean living, while fellow partiers complained about the kind of problems I couldn’t solve. So I rearranged my social life. Instead of bars and parties, I went to readings and lectures (where nobody was eating, drinking or smoking). I asked colleagues I admired to take long walks with me, offering my company and bottles of Evian. My friend Karen began leaving me the message “Hey, let’s get together and grab some water.” It was nearly impossible to spend time with chain smokers, drug users or drinkers while getting sober and smoke-free myself. Similarly, studies show if the buddies you’re with constantly overeat, you will too. Being around slim exercisers kept me thinner and in shape.
DON’T APOLOGIZE FOR SETTING CLEAR BOUNDARIES: Put as many obstacles between yourself and your addictions as possible. For a while I couldn’t have any cigarettes, liquor, drugs or junk food in my home. If somebody needed to smoke or drink alcohol, I led them to my roof. When I first quit, I noticed a pack of Marlboros in the purse of my part-time assistant, which made me want one. I asked her to leave them with my doorman downstairs. She was annoyed. But I was paying her to help me with social media, not screw up my willpower. My comrades soon learned never to bring me bottles of booze or candy or I’d thank them but immediately give their gift away. I fought with my husband over junk food he kept in our kitchen. The solution: If he must have contraband in the house, he now keeps it in a separate little fridge in his den. I never see it and he doesn’t eat it in front of me.
DON’T EXPECT INSTANT HAPPINESS: I admit, I had nine months of withdrawal hell. In tough moments, I had to learn to journal, take a walk, call a friend, email my addiction doctor, meditate, do yoga – or sometimes just let myself cry, scream or stay in a bad mood for a few hours. Yes, I became a control freak who couldn’t go to restaurants, hang out in bars, and spontaneously party-hop like I used to. Yet the payoff was well worth it. I’ve been clean and smoke-free for 14 years now. While I’m no longer a people-pleaser rushing to every event I’m invited to, my marriage is warmer, my income has tripled, and I’ve published several books (a few on addiction.) I’ve been told I’m a much better, more empathetic teacher and have became closer to special relatives, friends and students. Here’s what I wish somebody would have told me sooner: When you give up a toxic substance, you create room for something better to take its place.