This is not the first time I’ve written an article like this but I pray it is the last.
I quit vaping cold turkey 30 days ago but who’s counting? I was ripping through 4 Juul pods every day and a half. I had some chest pain but I brushed that off. I had some headaches, dry mouth, sore throat but whatever, right? In terms of nicotine, 4 Juul pods is equivalent to 80 cigarettes. 80!!! That’s like 4 packs of cigarettes every 36 hours. Ummmm….no. This had to stop. I treated myself like a child. “You put the bead up your nose? Okay, no more beads. You blew it.”
People with mental illness smoke more than the general population. People in recovery smoke more than the general population. There’s a high comorbidity of mental illness and substance abuse. I’m not going to bore you with the stats. Nicotine is addictive and we like addictive stuff. The WHY of people in recovery smoking is not that hard to figure out.
I think I started smoking in my first rehab at 24 which is pretty common. Everybody smoked there. From then, it was an on and off relationship. I could go months or years but once something really stressful hit me like a break up or a parent’s illness, back to smokes I’d go. “Well, at least I’m not using,” was my usual rationalization. And as my smoking or vaping continued, my head would tell me “I need SOMETHING. I’m sober off everything else. It’s not fair!”
This last vaping relapse began in the fall of 2019 when my father got cancer. I felt I needed something to take the edge off. However, he recovered and I continued to vape. Why? Because I’m an addict. Because I like nicotine. Because I like stimulants. Because I like the ritual of putting something to my mouth. I think the stupid vape smoke is sexy. Does it really matter?
When Covid hit I thought to myself “Well vaping during a respiratory illness pandemic is super stupid” but then I found some article about people who smoked have lower rates of infection. Yay. Plus it’s a pandemic, I rationalized. I’m lonely and stressed and scared and it’s okay to vape. But here’s the real deal: we don’t know the long term effects of vaping. A respiratory therapist once told me that people who vape will end up with intractable pneumonia and this was pre-COVID. What we do know is that people who vape have higher levels of heavy metals in their urine. Maybe it’s safer than smoking but it’s not totally safe. I think we all that not vaping is the safest of all. Just recently Stanford came out with a study that young people who vaped were 5-7 times more likely to be infected by Covid. And I am not young! The country is so concerned with the preliminary findings from studies that lawmakers are urging the FDA to clear e-cigs from the market during the pandemic.
So here I am avoiding everybody, sheltering in place, wearing an N95 mask everywhere, donning latex gloves, spraying down my groceries with alcohol, washing my hands and using hand sanitizer like an OCD germaphobe, only to be vaping? It’s so classically alcoholic/addict it’s almost laughable. I’m the vegan who shoots heroin. Or the alcoholic who still takes their vitamins. Or the meth addict who only eats organic.
Looking at the bigger picture, what’s frightening is that Bill Wilson (founder of AA) Dr. Marie Nyswander (co-developer of methadone maintenance), Mrs. Marty Mann (founder of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, Senator Harold Hughes (founder of the Society of Americans in Recovery and sponsor of landmark alcoholism treatment legislation as well as some key players in the founding of Narcotics Anonymous ALL died of smoking-related disorders, namely emphysema, and cancer. Here’s the ugly bottom line, smoking is the major cause of death among people in recovery.
I didn’t survive shooting cocaine, smoking meth, 12 grand mal seizures, and multiple suicide attempts to die from the goddamn Juul. Also, it’s expensive as hell at $38/4 pack of pods. And once I found myself digging empty cartridges out of the trash to get that one last hit, I thought, “Well isn’t this fucking familiar?” Not to mention the frantic jonesing jaunts at 8 am to 7-11 because I ran out of Juul pods. This was my moment of clarity: I remember one morning, waking up and being excited to vape. Like that’s what I was waking up for? Jesus….Get a life, Amy.
I knew I couldn’t just titrate down. If I could I wouldn’t be vaping four fucking pods every day and a half. I would just have to bite the bullet. Sure I could do the patch but even with that eventually, I’d have that one uncomfortable week or two when I was off the patch completely. (I’ve done this many times before.) Because of my epilepsy, quitting smoking meds like Chantix wasn’t an option. Chantix works because unlike nicotine which fully activates the nicotine receptor, Chantix only partially activates the nicotine receptor. So when Chantix binds to the nicotine receptor you still get some dopamine but not a big pulse of dopamine and a crash like you normally would when/if smoking or vaping.
I posted all over social media that I was quitting so I would be accountable. I received an enormous amount of support and also some warnings: nicotine was harder to kick than booze or heroin. I also inspired some other people to quit. Terrific. Now I couldn’t pick up and let all those people down. I was a goddamn inspiration for not Juuling anymore.
When I went to the 7-11 to buy some yerba mate, the guy said, “That’s it?”, his hand drifting to the tobacco section. And I said, “Yes I quit.” And even though he was making a nice chunk of change off my addiction, he said, “Good for you. I hear it’s really hard to stop.” You’re telling me, brother…
The first three days I was bedbound with nausea and a pounding headache. Imagine getting skull-fucked with a Samurai sword. It wasn’t a migraine, but very close. I was ill. It’s happened every time I’ve quit vaping. I don’t know what’s in that stuff but the detox really sucks. It’s very different from quitting smoking where I just feel really really irritable. Once the physical part passed, I just cried continuously for the next few days. I wasn’t even depressed. I was just sad as hell. And then around day 11 the rage struck. And wow was that terrifying. From leaving very… umm… “spirited” messages for my unemployment caseworker to writing angry emails to my gynecologist on “MyChart” to arguing with people on Facebook who AGREED with me, I had just one gear and it was pure fury.
Some people say when you quit nicotine all the rage and feelings that you tamped down with smoking or vaping come back up. That seems a little woo woo to me. I know enough science to realize that I had just pulled out the dopamine rug from under myself. So I reached out, in tears of course, to my good old friend Dr. Howard Wetsman.
“For the most part, people with addiction don’t give up nicotine first. In fact, during early abstinence-based treatment, smoking or vaping usually increases to make up for the loss of outside dopamine stimulation from whatever was just stopped. Usually, nicotine is the last to go, but sometimes it’s overeating. Either way, when we face that last ‘drug’, with nothing else to support what is perhaps a genetic low dopamine tone, we are left with nothing. Withdrawal is a big deal, but in my experience, it is the symptoms of untreated low dopamine tone that are far worse and longer-lasting than the few days of withdrawal. Unfortunately, doctors don’t realize this, and the whole thing is called withdrawal. It isn’t, and it’s preventable. When you fully treat addiction, smoking goes away by itself.”
It truly felt like being newly sober again: raw, with nothing to hold onto, emotional, reactive. I knew I was crazy but there was nothing I could do about it. My brain was having a tantrum. And all the while a voice in my head whispered, “You don’t have to do this. You can go get a vape and this will all go away instantly.”
I just told myself it was NOT an option. It was not on the table. Feelings had an end. Urges would pass. Distract yourself. Exercise. Help somebody. All the stuff I tell people who are in their first days of sobriety. It was incredibly hard, I’m not gonna lie. In some ways, it was worse than getting clean and I don’t know why. Because the repercussions aren’t as severe and immediate? Because I’m not going to get arrested? Because it’s still sort of socially acceptable? Because it’s the last thing to go? You don’t even get high. It can be a little mood-altering but it’s certainly not mind-altering. You just have to do it to keep yourself from going into withdrawal. I was tired of being winded over a set of 10 squats. I was tired of being a slave to this thing. I guess I’m over the hump but do I miss it? Oh yes. I miss the glow of the green light in my bedroom as it charges. It was like my nightlight. I miss my pacifier. I miss the hand to the mouth ritual. I miss the lift. But now I have a new ritual, giving the finger to addiction.