This is How I Stopped Drinking and Smoking

Maggie's Story

whisky glass and burnt down cigarettes
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I'd like to introduce you to Maggie, a remarkable woman who has successfully defeated two addictions -- one to alcohol and one to nicotine. At 22 years sober and one year smoke-free, she shares her thoughts on recovery from both addictions in this poignant account.

Congratulations, Maggie. Addiction is a tough teacher, but the lessons that can be learned are invaluable. 

From Maggie:

My Drinking History/Recovery

My personal journey of recovery from alcoholism began when I joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

One of A.A.’s co-founders described his drinking history and his feelings in his book, Alcoholics Anonymous. When I read his chapter, “Bill’s Story,” I immediately identified with the author’s feelings and understood that, while every alcoholic’s drinking story is different, each one of us suffered the same agony of remorse, helplessness and desperation.

Alcoholics Anonymous does not examine the nature or physical and mental effects of alcohol. The A.A. program focuses on living by a group of spiritual principles (the 12 Steps) which lead the recovering alcoholic to a life that is happily and usefully whole.

Like many alcoholics, from the day I came to my first A.A. meeting and had complete willingness to do whatever was required to stop drinking, I experienced an immediate and complete release from this obsession. Release is not a cure. I remain an alcoholic, but the compulsion has been lifted.

I know that this freedom depends on my commitment to attend A.A. meetings, practice daily prayer and meditation, sponsor newcomers and continue to live by the principles spelled out in the books Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Despite release from the compulsion to drink, I initially had some denial which I later understood to be rooted in fear.

At one meeting when a woman shared that she abused her children, I said to myself, “I never did that,” ignoring the fact that I did not have children!

I slowly learned that alcohol abuse inflicted far worse damage to my thinking, to my spirit and to personal relationships than it did to my public behavior (I was a closet drinker).

In my 22 years of active membership in A.A., whenever a person returns to the program after a “slip,” the story is always the same: I stopped going to meetings, I neglected my spiritual program, I got cocky and thought I could have just one drink.

The sober alcoholic knows that one drink is too much and one thousand drinks are not enough.

My Smoking History/Recovery

My attempts to stop smoking by using willpower alone proved fruitless. Repeated relapses after a few weeks and once after seven months smoke-free reinforced the belief that I was a doomed smoker.

When I found the About.com Smoking Cessation website and joined its support forum, I immediately identified with other newcomers and their struggles to quit smoking.

Few new people on the forum reported that immediately upon joining this support group they experienced release from the desire to smoke.

Those who had become non-smokers shared their initial struggle and assured me that freedom from nicotine addiction was possible but that it would come only through work, time, patience and perseverance.

Just as I followed the advice of sober people in A.A., I committed to follow suggestions offered on the smoking cessation forum where I learned the meaning of N.O.P.E..

Alcoholics Anonymous recommends that each newcomer ask someone to be her/his sponsor. Since having a sponsor was a key factor in my recovery from alcoholism, I quickly found a quit buddy on the smoking cessation forum. I called her my quit mentor because I needed someone to teach me personally what I had to do to build a permanent quit.

In A.A. I was told to get off the “pity pot” and get into the program. This perspective helped me with my smoking quit  as well.  It kept me focused on an action plan that would change my mental attitude and my emotional connection with cigarettes: read, meditate and share.

A physician who worked with the founders of A.A. studied several alcoholics and noted that, unless the alcoholic “can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery” (Alcoholics Anonymous, xxix).

This psychic change is deeper than a mental change. It is a profound spiritual transformation which takes place by studying the 12 Steps and by living according to their teachings. If the compulsion was lifted immediately, this psychic change took time and is, I believe, an on-going transformation, a slow gentle process of striving to become my personal best.

About six months into smoking cessation, I realized that the “psychic change” necessary for recovery from alcoholism would have to permeate my nicotine addiction and effect a new soul change if I were to attain a new freedom and lasting peace.

I knew that knowledge about nicotine had to pass from my head into my spirit. It was awesome to discover that, while my sobriety had won me a deep freedom, there was a new freedom for which I subconsciously yearned and which I found after I quit smoking.

Withdrawal From Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol was like a chemical hand grenade that had explosive effects on all of the neurotransmitters in my brain. My withdrawal from alcohol took me through indescribable physical and mental torture: sweating, violent trembling and horrid hallucinations.

This agony continued for a few days. It took a few more days before I could eat or swallow a teaspoon of water without vomiting.  When I was able to eat and drink fluids, my strength returned. Exercise helped and I began to feel well in a few weeks. It took several more weeks before I could sleep well.

Withdrawal From Nicotine Addiction

While my withdrawal from nicotine was physically less dramatic, I experienced intense symptoms of anxiety and an unrelenting mental/emotional pressure to smoke.  If nicotine affected fewer neurotransmitters in my brain, it left a deeper indelible mark.

Despite making it through the “hell week” of smoking cessation and despite my total commitment to do the work to become smoke-free, I struggled with cravings for weeks.

I read that cravings are not commands, but my cravings seized me like commands and I felt almost powerless over them. I realize that the willpower method of dealing with any addiction yields few results but, in my experience, I had to use willpower to choose to use the smoking cessation aids suggested on the forum. And I had to use willpower to choose not to buy one more last pack of cigarettes when my strongest cravings came in the evening -- my twilight triggers.

Nothing, including the death of my husband, major surgery and other hardships, has ever prompted me to think of drinking. Everything, good times as well as tough times and plain ordinary times, were triggers for smoking. I believe that this is true because nicotine has permanently wired my brain and embedded addictive patterns in my thinking.

For years, my addictive thinking whispered that since I had stopped drinking I really had a right to at least one bad habit. Nicotine had so warped my brain that I told myself that, because I had no major medical problems, was swimming one mile several times a week without huffing and puffing and had maintained a healthy diet, smoking was not damaging my body.

I ignored the warning signs of a nasty cough and occasional phlegm. I consider it a gift of grace that deep in my spirit underneath this junkie thinking there was an angst about being addicted to nicotine. It was this gnawing discomfort that prompted me to search for a smoking cessation group on the Internet.

During the entire first year of my nicotine quit, I clung to the testimony of those who were smoke-free. The cravings softened and became periodic urges, which in turn simmered down to fleeting thoughts. Most importantly, I learned not to entertain the smoking thoughts. While I was freed from the compulsion to drink on the day I joined A.A., it took a full year of hard work to experience freedom from nicotine addiction.

In my experience, nicotine conditioned my brain in a far more powerful way than alcohol. Even if I feel free from slavery to nicotine, I still have occasional smoking thoughts. Because of the mental nature of nicotine addiction and the permanent patterns it etched in my brain, I believe I will have to maintain a great vigilance over my smoking quit.

It is a wise tradition on the smoking cessation forum to invite members to add “wings” to their signature only when they have five years smoke-free.

I have a quit date for my last drink and another for my last cigarette. Those dates mark the end of years of slavery and the beginning of my on-going spiritual journey of recovery.

Freedom, Vigilance and Gratitude

This is my simple truth: I have achieved freedom from slavery to my addictions,  but I remain an addict. I can never have one drink or one cigarette because it would take only one to fuel my addictions and send me back to a state of bondage.

 I am certain that I will never drink again. That certainty is not cocky — it is contingent upon fidelity to my A.A. commitment.

I recognize that, with a one-year nicotine quit, I have a fragile freedom. I am confident that, if I “keep it green,” stay humble, pray, maintain a peaceful vigilance and try to help others who desire to recover from nicotine addiction, I will remain a non-smoker.

Even though I worked hard to reach freedom, I have a sense that I am a miracle of God’s grace which came to me through the work of those who founded places of recovery like Alcoholics Anonymous and About.com Smoking Cessation. I am a miracle in the on-going process of a life that is joyous, free and full of gratitude.

~Maggie

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