This is How I Stopped Drinking and Smoking

A Story of Recovery From Alcohol and Nicotine Addiction

whisky glass and burnt down cigarettes
It's possible to quit both smoking AND drinking. Stanley K Patz/Stockbyte/Getty Images

People often wonder if it is really possible to stop both drinking and smoking. Addictions, both that of nicotine and that of alcohol, are challenging. You have probably read information about how this is possible, but sometimes there is nothing as motivating and encouraging as hearing the story of someone who has successfully quit both of these addictions themselves.

What many people who have recovered have learned, is that the principles which help you recover from one addiction can be very helpful in recovering from the other. Though this is not at all surprising, we seldom hear stories about how well this works. Let's look at recovery from both drinking and smoking, some of the similarities and differences, and share a story of a woman who has been successful with both.

Awareness and Addressing the Addiction

As we look at the process of recovery from alcohol and nicotine addiction, from awareness to long-term recovery, we will look at the example of one woman called Maggie. At the time of her story, she was 22 years sober and one-year smoke-free. In addition to looking at the steps of recovery, the lessons we learn from those who are in recovery are invaluable.

People come to an awareness and then a desire to address their problem in different ways. Maggie's personal journey of recovery from alcohol addiction began when she joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

In his book, Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the co-founders, Bill, describes his drinking history and story. As Maggie heard Bill's story, she immediately identified with his feelings. She had suffered the same agony, remorse, helplessness, and desperation. While every alcoholic's drinking story is different, there are many commonalities as illustrated here.

And those commonalities help people realize that they are not alone, but rather part of a community of people in recovery.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Meetings

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

Like many alcoholics who discover Alcoholics Anonymous, Maggie entered her first meeting with a complete willingness to do whatever was required to stop drinking. And, like many others, Maggie felt an almost immediate and complete release from her obsession with alcohol. But release is not a cure. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, but the compulsion is often lifted with this kind of support.

Attending an alcoholics anonymous meeting, no matter how dramatic the initial impact, is not a one-time thing. Freedom from alcohol depends on a commitment to attend A.A. meetings, practice daily prayer (to your higher power whatever that may be) and meditation. Continuing to live by the principles spelled out in the books "Alcoholics Anonymous" and "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" is critical to lasting recovery.

Recovery often involves sponsoring newcomers as well, and sharing your recovery with others.

Recovery From Alcohol Addiction is a Continual Process

Recovery does not happen overnight. Despite Maggie's release from the compulsion to drink, she did experience denial for some time; a denial which she later understood to be rooted in fear. At the meetings, people hear many stories. Some people feel a sense of denial if they hear about others having relationships break up, or getting in trouble with the law over drinking. Not everyone who is an alcoholic will experience every consequence, but that does not make them "less" of an alcoholic.

You are either an alcoholic or not. At one meeting, Maggie heard another woman share that she had abused her children. She said to herself, "I never did that," ignoring the fact that she did not have children! While there are a spectrum of behaviors that may be related to alcoholism, an alcoholic is an alcoholic.

For many people, recovery is a time when they learn that alcohol abuse inflicted damage far worse than they had thought. For Maggie, she was a closet drinker so that her drinking had not had major effects on her public behavior. But the damage to her thinking, to her spirit, and to her personal relationships was deep. 

Recovery from alcohol addiction is a lifelong process. As Maggie noted, in her 22 years of active A.A. membership, whenever a person returned to the program after a "slip," the story was the same. People believe they can stop going to meetings. Or they neglect the spiritual program. Or they get a bit cocky and think they can have just one drink. The sober alcoholic knows that one drink is too much and one thousand drinks are not enough.

Recovery From Tobacco Addiction

As with alcohol addiction, what most people learn after several attempts to stop smoking is that quitting by willpower alone often proves fruitless.  Repeated relapses are common, and can lead a person to believe they are doomed to be a smoker.

Just as the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous entails admitting you are powerless on your own, those who realize that willpower alone is not sufficient to quit smoking are often more successful. But there are many tools beyond willpower that can help.

Some people find it helpful to engage the support of others. Maggie joined a support forum and found that she immediately identified with others facing their struggle to quit. Online resources are available for those who desire the option of quitting amidst a community of people who are likewise trying to kick the habit.

Quitting is Possible

Freedom from smoking is possible. One of the first steps for many people is overcoming the fear of quitting. Even if you haven't quit before, you've likely tried to cut down, or have at least tried waiting a few hours before running to the store to purchase more cigarettes. The stress from those experiences can add to your fear. But recovery is possible. It takes work, time, patience, and perseverance, but it is possible.

Using A.A. Principles to Quit Smoking

Many of the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous can be helpful with smoking cessation as well. 

A.A. recommends that each newcomer ask someone to be her sponsor. People who wish to quit smoking may wish to try this approach, and this is exactly what Maggie did. She found a smoking cessation mentor online (see the link to resources above) to help her look at what she needed to do to quit for good.

Another piece of advice from A.A. is to "get off the pity pot and get into the program." Maggie found this perspective helpful to kick her smoking habit as well. By focusing on an action plan, you can change your mental attitude and emotional connection with cigarettes, by reading, meditating, and sharing.

As with alcohol recovery, smoking cessation involves a psychic change. This psychic change is deeper than a mental change, and many claim it is a profound spiritual transformation which takes place by studying the 12 steps and living according to the teachings. The compulsion to drink or smoke may be lifted fairly quickly, but recovery is an on-going transformation to become your personal best.

About six months into her smoking cessation, Maggie realized that the psychic change necessary for recovery from alcoholism would have to permeate her nicotine addiction as well, if she were to attain freedom and lasting peace.

It takes time for knowledge about nicotine addiction to pass from head knowledge into an understanding. Maggie found that in time, the freedom she had won through sobriety, became hers with regard to smoking cessation as well.

Withdrawal From Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol withdrawal can be agonizing for some people for the first days. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are both physical and mental, and can include sweating, tremors (which can be violent), and frightening hallucinations (often visual, think: bugs crawling on your skin). Maggie agrees that her withdrawal from alcohol took her through indescribable physical and mental torture. She described it as a chemical hand grenade that had explosive effects on all of the neurotransmitters in her brain.

But despite her agony, it lasted for only a few days. As she was again able to eat and drink fluids, her strength returned. Exercise is helpful as people begin to feel better in a few weeks, but it may take several weeks before sleeping returns to normal.

Withdrawal From Nicotine Addiction

Withdrawal from nicotine is often physically less dramatic, but may come with intense symptoms of anxiety and a strong mental or emotional pressure to smoke. According to Maggie, if nicotine had affected fewer neurotransmitters in her brain than alcohol, it had still left deep, indelible changes.

The first week of smoking cessation is the toughest, but even with a total commitment to becoming smoke-free, you may struggle with cravings for many weeks.

People who have successfully quit the habit often talk about the  "icky threes" of quitting. These include:

  • 3 days. The worst period of physical withdrawal.
  • 3 weeks. The time when physical withdrawal is waning and the psychological withdrawal takes over.
  • 3 months. Sometimes referred to as "the blahs," at 3 months post quit-date some of the newness of quitting wears off, and some people wonder, "Is that all there is?" This is a common time for relapse to occur.

Maggie found that the cravings she experienced sometimes felt more like commands, and again felt the powerlessness that willpower is not enough. But she was able to use her will power in other ways. She used her willpower to choose to use smoking cessation aids, and she used her willpower to choose not to buy one last pack of cigarettes. It can be helpful to be aware of your triggers, those factors that are associated with your strongest cravings. For Maggie, it was evening (twilight triggers) but for others there will be different triggers.

How Recovery From Nicotine Can Differ From Alcohol Recovery

Recovery is challenging, whether it is from nicotine or alcohol, but Maggie's story illustrates a few important differences; differences that may be helpful to understand for recovering alcoholics who are trying to give up nicotine.

Nicotine addiction is often close at hand. Maggie, for example, found that after her first A.A. meeting, nothing, even the death of her husband, prompted her to want to begin drinking again. In contrast, she found that everything was a trigger for smoking; good times, tough times, and plain, ordinary times included. 

It can also be a challenge to quit smoking after giving up drinking. Addictive thinking may whisper that you have a right to at least one bad habit.

In addition, circumstances which prompt a person to quit drinking, often legal or relational, are less common with smoking. At least for a period of time, a person may convince themselves that if they are eating a healthy diet, they aren't damaging their body. Sometimes it's the mild shortness of breath or a nagging cough that ends up being a blessing, in that it raises concern.

Maggie found that she clung to the testimony of those who were smoke-free for her entire first year as a non-smoker. As time went on, her cravings softened, and lessened to periodic urges and then only fleeting thoughts. While she felt freed from the compulsion to drink on the day she joined A.A., it took her a full year of hard work to experience freedom from nicotine addiction. She found that it was most important not to entertain the smoking thoughts she experienced.

As far as the difference between alcohol recovery and nicotine recovery for Maggie, she believes that nicotine had conditioned her brain in a far more powerful way than alcohol. She believes that she will have to maintain more vigilance over her smoking quit than her alcohol quit. Perhaps this is the reason that some smoking cessation forums invite members to add "wings" to their signature only after remaining smoke-free for five years.

Freedom From Addiction, Vigilance, and Gratitude

The date that marks a persons last drink or last cigarette marks the end of years of slavery, and the beginning of an on-going journey of recovery.

While people achieve freedom from their addictions, an addict remains and addict. It is not okay to have one drink or one cigarette because it would return a person to the state of bondage known as addiction.

While Maggie had 22 years of sobriety, she found that her escape from nicotine addiction was a fragile freedom. Yet she believes that if she stays humble, maintains a peaceful vigilance, and tries to help others who desire to recover from nicotine addiction, she will remain a non-smoker. 

Wondering what she wishes others would know Maggie states, "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 Smoking Cessation. I am a miracle in the on-going process of a life that is joyous, free and full of gratitude."

Smoking Cessation in Alcoholics

If you are a recovering alcoholic and still smoking, don't fear. You may think that conquering two addictions is more than additive, but that's not the case. A 2006 study found that people with a history of alcoholism were just as likely to quit smoking as those who were not alcoholics, and sometimes are able to quit more easily.

Bottom Line on Recovery From Drinking and Smoking

This story of recovery from both alcohol and smoking addiction, shows how a similiar approach can work for both. The principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps can be helpful for those who desire to quit smoking as well as stay sober. Yet, there are some differences as well.

Smoking and alcohol addiction often go hand in hand, but it's reassuring that people with a history of alcoholism have no more difficulty quitting smoking than those who don't. In fact, just as Maggie noted that the tools she learned in Alcoholics Anonymous helped her quit smoking, studies suggest recovering alcoholics may require fewer interventions to successfully kick the smoking habit.

Sources:

Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/about-aa/the-12-steps-of-aa

Joly, B., Perriot, J., d’Athis, P. et al. Success Rates in Smoking Cessation: Psychological Preparation Plays a Critical Role and Interacts With Other Factors Such as Psychoactive Substances. PLoS One. 12(10:e0184800.