What I learnt about cravings when I quit smoking

I quit smoking in November 2021, after a ten-year stint. I was a pack-a-day’er of the shag variant, and I smoked like my life depended on it. It would be first thing in the morning and then on the hour throughout the day, usually at the 50-min mark. I started smoking at 16, and I did it with every intention of becoming addicted. I wanted to be a smoker, however annoyingly ignorant that sounds. I was born in 1995, and while many of us drank that heroin-chic Kool-Aid, I gulped it down and asked for refills.

But of course, I would rue the day I ever thought smoking cigarettes gave me an edge. What once felt like a rebellious act eventually turned into feeling like I was in an abusive relationship with myself. So, after years of hammering away at my self-esteem, my lungs and my teeth, I finally gave in and gave up.

Cigarettes weaken your capacity to yearn
Everyone knows withdrawal is difficult, but the ways in which it was difficult blew me away. Yes, I was very depressed and constantly annoyed. I was, in general, acting like a toddler whose pacifier had been taken away. But, once the smoke cleared (so to speak), I began to realise that what I had thought was so impossible about giving up cigarettes is, in fact, just that which is impossible about finding relief.

Specifically, my response to every emotion and sensation within my body for ten years had been ‘smoke’. But then, I was faced again with that constant feeling of an itch I couldn’t scratch. I began to realise that everyone is craving something all the time. To be human is, to a Lacanian analyst anyway, to be in a state of yearning. But cigarettes offered me the illusion of a solution to that yearning.

Why would you smoke?
While many psychological studies describe motives like peer pressure, lack of education about risk, and various underlying mental health issues as reasons a person might pick up smoking, there are few critical studies on the subject. However, we can arrive at a point of departure using Lacanian psychoanalysis.

The Lacanian concept of desire
Jacques Lacan – a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist from the 20th century – argued that desire is at the core of our identity. By that, he meant a Hegelian type of desire, one that implies a continuous force. In its most reduced form, his theory goes:

Babies exist in a state of ‘primary narcissism’. This is a Freudian concept that means the baby can only perceive herself and everything around her as created by her. Because of this, she experiences herself as the most magnificent thing (a concept known as the ego-ideal). But she is also terrifyingly dependent on her primacy caregiver, who, in this case, we will refer to as her mother. So, she feels safe in the presence of her mother and terrified in her absence. Due to her state of primary narcissism, her perception of her mother’s absence, in a non-verbal manner, goes something like:

“Why would she leave when I am so perfect? There must be something out there that is more perfect than me. I must find that thing. If I can become it, my mother will always be with me. Then, I will be safe.”

Over the years, we mould ourselves into that which we perceived ourselves to be lacking – that which our mother left us for. But,in reality, she left her baby to open the door, take a call or go to the bathroom. There was never a beyond-perfection person or place.

In everyday life, this ‘feels’ like that strange sense of disappointment you cannot place whenever you achieve a goal or a dream. That silent itch of ‘I thought there would be more than this’. To cope with that feeling, we then turn our attention to the next best thing. We focus on other goals we can achieve, thinking maybe we’d find it there. Hence, we end up in a constant state of craving.

…And how does this relate to smoking?
As far as I can see, the cigarette localises desire. We don’t need to think about where else we could try to find that relief. Even deeper still, they comfort us with the idea that relief is attainable and cravings can be extinguished. Because of that, we feel an illusionary sense of control over our lives.

All of this to say, if you want to quit smoking and feel as trapped as I did, lean into the idea that you will always be craving something. The cigarette is just a distraction. And, if nothing else, it adds far more suffering than any ambiguous dissatisfaction can.

Written by Molly Fitz