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At midnight tonight, I will have successfully made it 30 days without a cigarette. This has been the longest stretch in years; I’ve made it to 3 weeks before, but I usually decide to reward myself for an incredible show of strength and fortitude by having a cigarette. Counterintuitive? You bet, and yet this has been my way of dealing with smoking for the last 20 years. I exercise, I smoke. I eat well, I smoke. I abstain from drinking, I smoke. I pass my PhD thesis defense, I smoke. I get a boyfriend who smokes, I smoke. It wasn’t until I was in San Diego for a conference, in the middle of a 3 mile beach run, that a fellow scientist said, “You know what your problem is? You see it as reward for good behavior. You reward good behavior with bad behavior. Once you stop thinking it’s a reward, you’ll stop smoking.”

I downloaded an iPhone application to help me track my progress. I entered how many cigarettes I smoked per day (no more than 5), how long I’ve been smoking (since I was 14), when I have my first cigarette in the day (greater than 30 minutes after waking), why I want to quit (health!), and why I smoke in the first place (as an anxiolytic and a reward). The automatic notifications insured I checked in daily and, as I made mini strides, I was rewarded with badges of my accomplishments.Congrats, Melissa! You’ve stayed Cool and Calm by remaining smoke free during daylight hours! Melissa, way to go! You’ve are Committed to Quitting! Melissa, it’s so impressive you’ve become a Proven Champion and made it one week without smoking!

And then I’d smoke. I’d reset the application, because I couldn’t bear looking at the little red tick (or 5) that showed up on my progress screen. I had to restart! I needed an unblemished, unbroken line of perfection before I could honestly feel like I was, indeed, quitting. This went on for 3 months. The last time I reset the application, I made it 7 days in and then, 1 hour before making it the full week, had a cigarette. I dutifully and insanely recorded the smoke, then went to reset the application, because that is what a crazy person does.

Even crazy people, however, have moments of clarity. Perhaps this was a metaphor for all things in my life? My past relationships, my work schedule, my marriage? Wait a minute now…there’s a pattern here…if something wasn’t pristine and perfect I gave up, started over, moved on? Ever repeating the same mistakes, living in the extremes of crippling guilt or egoistic headiness. S**t. What if I just let the stains lie where they were created? Saw it less as a flaw and more as a teaching experience? Would I be this hard on a friend or my kid? Why was it so difficult to be nice to myself? I let the red tick stay.

30 smoke-free days have passed since that cigarette. Once in a while, I scroll back through the program to check on the red mark. It’s still there, but with every passing week, it falls farther and farther in the past, so much so I don’t have the energy to hold myself to it anymore. I also tied my quitting with a tangible goal – the half marathon in March – and with every mile I add to my running schedule (I’m up to 7.5 right now) I feel stronger and more resolute to stay clean.

For as long as I can remember, there’s been no worse enemy than myself. It’s cost me progress, peace of mind, personal contentment – who knows what else? To the degree that I’ve let perfection rule my life, it’s done its best to f**k me over with a smile and a handshake. I feel freer now; letting go of my need to control all things may be the clue to a less stressful way through this life. And if it only keeps me from killing myself, one cigarette at a time, then that’s pretty okay, too.

You can read more from Melissa Esterby here and here.

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