LSR #3: Laying off the Smokes (And Other Toxic Crutches)

Contrary to popular belief, addictions do not fuel artistic capability. Smoking, drinking, overeating, dieting, gambling and excessive spending can serve as a form of writers block, keeping us from trusting or accessing our full potential. At their worst, these toxic crutches can nuke our creativity and wellbeing for good.

Stephen King lost all pleasure in writing when his battle with alcoholism peaked. Karen Carpenter died from her addictive behaviors. (Imagine what more the musical world might contain had she healed and survived…) And although it seems glamourous it films, TV and photography, smoking—one of the most common crutches—can monopolize our time, energy and financial resources. It’s also responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Most smokers, when told to quit, want to know not why, but how, says the American Cancer Association. Most understand the financial burden the habit creates ($3,600.00 per year for pack-a-day smokers in the U.S.) and the associated health risks. But largely because quitting ain’t easy physically or emotionally, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women smoke on.

Like other dependencies, quitting smoking requires knowing why you smoke, a genuine desire to quit and a stronghold decision for change. And wouldn’t you know, many of the techniques useful for overcoming tobacco abuse work well for other toxic crutches.

Since many of you don’t smoke (GOOD FOR YOU!), I’ve decided to broaden the scope of this Lifesaving Resolution. The following are excerpts from Stealth Health‘s “Ways to Stop Smoking Cigarettes & Quit Smoking For Good. As you go through the list, replace the 😦 icon with a damaging habit of your own.

Make an honest list of all the things you like about :(. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and write them on one side; on the other side make a list of all the things you dislike, such as how it can interfere with your health, work, family, etc., suggests Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D., director of the Clinical Psychiatric Research Center at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Make another list of why quitting 😦 won’t be easy. Be thorough, even if the list gets long and discouraging. Here’s the important part: Next to each entry, list one or more options for overcoming that challenge. One item might be: “:( helps me deal with stress.” Your option might be: “Take five-minute walks instead.” The more you anticipate the challenges…and their solutions, the better your chance of success.

Prepare a list of things to do when a 😦 craving hits. Suggestions include: take a walk, drink a glass of water, kiss your partner, throw the ball for the dog, wash the car, clean out a cupboard, have sex, chew gum, wash your face, brush your teeth… Make copies of the list and keep one with you at all times. (**This won’t work for all toxic crutches. If you plan to give up cell phone use while driving, for example, sex won’t work—safely anyway. You could instead breath deeply, turn on the radio or clutch the steering wheel with both hands.)

See an acupuncturist. There’s some evidence that auricular acupuncture (i.e., needles in the ears) curbs cigarette cravings quite successfully, says Ather Ali, N.D., a naturopathic physician completing a National Institutes of Health-sponsored postdoctoral research fellowship at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut. (**Acupuncture may also help manage alcoholism, binge eating, depression, insomnia and stress.)

Think of difficult things you have done in the past. Ask people who know you well to remind you of challenges you have successfully overcome, says Dr. Lieberman. This will give you the necessary self-confidence to stick with your pledge not to :(.

To minimize cravings, change your routine. Sit in a different chair at breakfast or take a different route to work. If you usually 😦 after work, change that to a walk.

Tell your friends, coworkers, boss, partner, kids, etc., how you feel about situations instead of bottling up your emotions. If something makes you angry, express it instead of smothering it with :(. If you’re bored, admit to yourself that you’re bored and find something energetic to do instead.

If you relapse, just start again. You haven’t failed.


NOW FOR A SPECIAL TREAT… I’ve asked the talented Jan Harrell, PhD to share her insight on toxic crutches. With 30 years as a clinical psychologist under her belt, she’s a resource worth listening to with an attentive, open heart.

Jan and her husband, Alan

AM: From a psychological standpoint, why do most people rely on “toxic crutches,” such as cigarettes, alcohol and over eating or spending?

JH: All of us, while in large, capable adult bodies with well-developed intellectual left brains are aware, even if it isn’t something we consciously think about, of how vulnerable we each are, how little we can ultimately control. With great courage and determination, we step out into the world and try our best to create the lives we hope for, to find safety and fulfilment, all the while aware of that vulnerability.

Sometimes it makes itself known to us as the feelings of anxiety or depression, sometimes it takes the disguise of self-judgment or anger, but it is always a reflection of our deep awareness about how little control we can count on having. Those “toxic” crutches, whether substance abuse (food, cigarettes, alcohol, food) or addictive behaviors (gambling, spending, TV, video games) are places of refuge, where we can both comfort our feelings of being powerless and overwhelmed, and forget them for a while.

AM: How can a person who wishes to overcome a dependency cultivate desire and motivation (rather quitting because they feel they “should”)?

JH: When we truly understand what emotions and struggles underlie our non-logical behavior, rather than being in judgment or it, rather than trying to force ourselves with will-power and logic, we will be able to kindly and sympathetically, support our sense of vulnerability.

If we can accept that our “maladaptive” behaviors were the best that we were able to come up with, but that there are more loving ways to deal with the challenge of human existence with all the unavoidable vulnerability and lack of control, then we will be able to support ourselves in the same kind way we would guide a child who simply hasn’t learned, yet, how to navigate a difficult situation.

AM: What about for those who lack belief in themselves…feel incapable of giving up there crutch?

JH: Our desire to change and find emotional strength and freedom can be the lifeline we hold onto as we find the knowledge and tools we need to create the life we long for.

AM: How important is a support system? When is professional help necessary?

JH: Imagine Freud had been a teacher, not a doctor. People clearly liked to talk with him, so he probably would have offered classes on understanding human emotion. Instead of this being a question of “mental health” or “mental illness” we would all be thinking about emotional education, and what we feel and how we handle those feelings would simply be a course of study we all would take.

If we look at “professional help” as simply doing a one on one study of ourselves, life and how to handle it, there need be no shame or judgment. It would be no different than deciding to take a trip to France and wanting to learn the language so our trip would be a more rich experience. Just because we decide to travel to France doesn’t make us able to speak French! We aren’t “mentally ill” because we can’t naturally speak French! We all need to be fluent in the understanding and managing of our human emotion. If we aren’t, why wouldn’t we want to learn!

AM: (Isn’t she fabulous??? :)) Thanks again, Jan, for your time and wisdom.


What toxic crutches have you, or do you wish to, over come? Have they come between you and your passions? Are you able to view “maladaptive behaviors” as the best you can/could do?

Leave a comment


  1. as a former smoker, who’s quit many, many times, I had to get sick and tired of being sick and tired of smoking. the will to change had to be enormous. and I know I am a smoker who isn’t smoking. One drag and i’ll be back at it full time…after 7 years, that is what I did…now with 14 years, I won’t try it again. thanks for a great post

  2. Kourtney Heintz

     /  January 15, 2012

    August, this post resonated so much with me. I’ve never smoked, but I’ve battled with overeating. These are useful steps that I wil implement in my life.

    • So glad this resonates with you, Kourtney. Overeating is perhaps the most common of all crutches, and one that often goes un-revealed. If you ever need extra support, count me in! 😉

  3. All the best to those who have quit. I can imagine that it required a total lifestyle change!
    Great post!
    Ironically, I just finished writing a post about my stupid habits!

  4. You’ve done a thorough examination and explanation of the issues surrounding
    destructive behaviors and such. I used the Stephen King story from On Writing in one of my posts several months ago. It’s a very good example of someone coming to terms with a problem and responding appropriately.

    Thanks for sharing your research, analysis and recommended changes.

  5. Excellent post, August! You’ve selected a topic that really speaks to the masses and you executed your vision perfectly.

  6. Very educational post should be an eye opener for the ones off the wagon. Amongst all the toxic crutches, I find smoking as the most dangerous. It not only hurts the “player” but also harms the innocent “on-lookers” too. Meditation helps be maintain self-control for most part. At present Internet is the only toxic crutch I am on. But with some educational value built in especially pages like yours, I guess after all it’s not that bad either! 😉
    I like your craving curb list. Might use some as an excuse.
    Well, just a thought of needles in the ear will make me quit almost anything!

    • Excellent points, Yatin. Secondhand smoke is responsible for loads of illnesses, from asthma to chronic cough. It also hurts animals—innocent, often overlooked victims.

      And yes, the net can pose positive and negative dependencies… If the needles-in-ears imagery is effective for you, use it! 😉

  7. Excellent information that should (and will!) be passed on. As long as you don’t recommend giving up chocolate, I’m on board!

    • Give up chocolate? NEVER! I encourage its consumption to all who adore it and have trouble understanding those who don’t. 😉

      Thanks for passing this on!

  8. Powerful post! I love Dr. Harrell’s words “come up with more loving ways to deal with the challenge of human existense.” I tried an experiment as part of my new year’s resolution this year: I did a detox from every behavior (and food/drink) I would consider negative in my life to see which ones I relied on the heaviest to get me through the day. It was very eye opening (can you say carb addiction??) I feel so much more in control and at peace being aware of these things.

    • So glad you’ve come to a peaceful place, Shannon. Awareness is huge, right? In many cases, particularly regarding toxic lifestyle behaviors, it’s all we need.

  9. Excellent post! I know habits, especially chemical ones, are hard to break. There are so many tragic stories that one would think would be cautions to people not to continue, but it’s nearly impossible for some.

    Oh, poor Karen Carpenter! Every time I hear one of her songs I get sad. She was such a talent, and left her brother alone.

    • Indeed, MJ. Some of us have addictive personalities… (ME, for example. ;)) And chemical dependencies grab hold of our physical and emotional selves hard core regardless.

      I adore Karen Carpenter’s music and legacy and hear such sadness tucked between her words… Honoring her memory and learning from her hardship seems the most we can do.

  10. What an absolutely fantastic and supportive post! You outlined some amazing tips and tricks for giving up any crutch. It’s crucial to understand the psychology behind it in order to give it up.
    I smoked from 12 to 19 and then 22 to 29. Both times when I quit, I used the nicotine patch (which helped me control the cravings while I kicked the habitual part). Instrumental to quitting for me, if you can believe it, was having a pack of cigarettes on me at all times. I wanted to know…100%…that it was a CHOICE. I wasn’t quitting because I should or because I had to. I was quitting because I wanted to. I started out with “I choose to not smoke for this hour and if I change my mind, that’s absolutely ok!” That freedom to smoke gave me the freedom to quit. Weird psychology but it worked. LOL! I celebrated 7 years smoke free Jan 10, 2012.
    I’ve never looked back and am so much happier. Now, to focus on giving up healthy food (80% of the time) and cutting back on TV. 🙂
    GREAT post! Woot woot – love your LSR series!

    • LOL!! I mean Now to focus on giving up unhealthy food…LOL!!!

    • Such an inspiring story, Natalie! It reminds me of a friend of mine, whose family works in the tobacco industry. His dad let him smoke and drink as soon as he showed desire—at the age of 5. He hated the taste and feel so much of both that he never touched either again. While I don’t condone smoking among kid-lets, I see the power and benefits of personal freedom.

      CONGRATS on your smoke-free life! I’ve read that within 7 years, the lungs reach non-smoker health. WOOT WOOT is right! 😉

      Thanks so much for your fab support, Natalie! And good luck with cutting back on health food (KIDDING! Gotta love funny type-os…Have a huge collection of those myself!) You’re a rock star we can all learn from.

  11. What a fabulous post! I love your last line ~ just start again, you haven’t failed. I think it’s too easy to give yourself an out if you mess up. Oh, well, I blew that, might as well smoke the whole pack, that kind of mentality. Your questions and suggestions are intriguing. I don’t think I’ve ever asked myself why I like doing a particular toxic behavior, but when you get right down to it, there has to be a reason why I like it or I wouldn’t do it, right? I’m going to spend some time with this post today and get honest with myself. I have a feeling it’s going to be messy, but that’s always a good thing when detoxing.

    • So true, Tameri. We can be very black and white. We ate perfectly or bombed it. (“I overate one meal, may as well swap broccoli and whole grains for super-size McDs…”) Then the crutch can become a form of self-punishment, launching a vicious cycle.

      Asking ourselves “why” can be difficult, especially when not knowing and going on with our behaviors seems SO much easier. And you’re right: self awareness and admittance can feel messy. (Great point!) But in reality, all we’re doing is turning the light on in an already-messy room.

  12. My toxic crutch is Christmas chocolate. It fries my brain. So for the length of ROW80, I’ve sworn off of it. I guess I’ll need to do the same next Christmas, when the chocolate season hits again, huh, August?

    Great post! 🙂

  13. This is an important post, August, and one I’ll read again and again. Dr. Harrell snagged my attention with: “If we can accept that our “maladaptive” behaviors were the best that we were able to come up with, but that there are more loving ways to deal with the challenge of human existence with all the unavoidable vulnerability and lack of control, then we will be able to support ourselves in the same kind way we would guide a child who simply hasn’t learned, yet, how to navigate a difficult situation.”

  14. Hi August

    Great post. I love that you have practical steps to take to help beat a habit. I think the threat of acupuncture alone ought to be enough to stop me biting my nails!

    I hate cigarettes. I can understand people getting addicted, but the industry? TEN times more people will die from smoking this year than in car crashes. In the time it took for the italian ship to run around far more people died from smoking in the US. I don’t want to belittle anyone’s pain and suffering, but none of the smokers made the news. It’s the casual acceptance that gets me. What other industry is allowed to sell something that puts almost half a million people through a grotesque death every year?

    One of your greatest pieces of advice is “If you relapse, just start again. You haven’t failed.” Its easy to fall off the wagon and think “why bother?” But accepting that it will take perseverance is vital. Having a support group to talk to helps, too.

    I can vouch for the “change of routine” to help pry you away from alcohol. I moved to the US and found it almost easy to get off it. I missed my friends and still love going back to see them, but without the separation, even for a while, I would never have got it under control.

    Now all my remaining problems are my own fault!


  15. Educational and practical post, August. I quit smoking 15 yrs ago because I didn’t like the way I felt. As long as my husband didn’t smoke around me, I was okay and never went back to it. I consider myself sugar addicted because it is the absolutely worst craving I have and the hardest to kick. The more fruit I eat, the less I want sugar so, I have it under control but there are still times when I feel like caving and bingeing on it. I don’t allow myself to give in to a binge because that leads to all the old poor eating habits…and then, of course the pounds come back on. Vicious cycle.

  16. thanks for this post! of late I have been looking for such ideas and suggestions to quit smoking!

  1. My quit list! – Natalie Hartford

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