This week I am inspired to write following another intensely personal experience that happened to me the weekend before last. I was in London, attending Allen Carr’s workshop “Easyway To Stop Smoking”. Yes, I am ashamed to admit that for most of my adult life I have been an on-off smoker. I have had countless long periods of non-smoking (six months, eighteen months… two years was the longest) and I have never classed myself as a ‘proper’ smoker as I rarely exceeded ten a day. But I had been fooling myself. Because the fact is, as I learned last week, that I was an addict and I had been hooked right from the very start.
During the course of the workshop, I came to the conclusion that addiction to cigarettes bears a striking resemblance to being hooked by a sociopath. The cravings. The misguided love for something that is actually causing harm. And the slow but certain promise of serious disease or disorder. The similarities kept on coming, and I’d like to explain myself in more detail. But first of all, how did I find my way to an Easyway clinic in the first place?
Well, my last period of freedom from the dreaded weed only ended this year. I had been free for many months until I picked it up again at the end of April. I had just broken up with someone I’d cared for and, knowing how much he hates smoking, my immediate act of defiance when we finished was to smoke a cigarette – quite a few in quick succession actually.
“Pah!” I smirked, lighting the first cigarette and inhaling deeply. “That’ll show you!” I added, throwing my head back and noisily exhaling a plume of smoke for extra effect. Hmmm… but of course it didn’t “show him” anything at all. Quite the contrary in fact. Blissfully unaware of my metamorphosis in to an archetypal “Rebel Without A Clue” there I was thinking I was getting at my newly appointed ex, when in actual fact, the only person I was damaging was myself. Doh!
It was only as my smoking habit gradually increased over the next few months – intensified through a new friendship with a ‘proper’ smoker who gets through two or three packets a day (a feat which, thank goodness, I have never achieved – nowhere near!) that I finally decided to do something about it once and for all. Spurred on by encouragement from my sister, who successfully kicked her 40-a-day habit six years ago using the same method, I found myself on Saturday morning in a circle of 17 people (16 women, one man) all desperately keen to join the growing band of happy non-smokers.
It was interesting for me to be a delegate for a change, since in my professional capacity I am always the trainer or workshop leader. So as I relaxed in to the reclining chair, I opened my ears and mind, and prepared myself to soak up everything our therapist, Rob, had to say. Right from the first few minutes he made absolute perfect sense – and the more he explained, the more I understood. Giving us a series of new perspectives on why people become hooked on nicotine, it suddenly struck me that the cigarette works in much the same way as the sociopath. I immediately sat upright in my chair and started paying even more attention to what was being said.
Rob explained that fear is the only thing that keeps people hooked on nicotine. “Smokers” he said, himself free for nine years from a 60-a-day habit, “will think of the cigarette as their friend. They consider it a crutch, something that gives them confidence when they need it. Something that relieves tension – or boredom – and either relaxes or gives energy to the smoker, depending on their need and the situation.”
I noticed how we were all nodding along with everything he said. Each one of us could identify with a situation where we had used a cigarette to give us exactly the response he was describing. Rob had also been there seen it and got the T-shirt, so he knew what he was talking about – oh yes, we were all in this together!
But then he invited us to consider something that came as a bit of a surprise. He pointed out something that, in hindsight, is blatantly obvious – but to which we had all been totally blind.
“How come” he asked “smokers can experience a burst of energy or confidence, an immediate soothing of stress, the relief from boredom, and a sense of relaxation – all from the same drug?”
Hmmm…. The room was silent as brows furrowed and chins were rubbed. He was right. It was impossible. The nicotine wasn’t doing any of this – how could it? How could one drug alone achieve so many varied and contradicting sensations? Simple – it can’t. So it had to be something else.
It’s All In The Mind
Rob then went on to explain how the tobacco companies’ only aim is to get people hooked – and that is exactly what the nicotine drug does. It is so effective that it can create a physical need right from the first time you try a cigarette. Yes, the physical desire can be created almost immediately, but it’s the mental control and manipulation that keeps people stuck in the cycle of being an addict. The subtle advertising messages and subliminal promotion of tobacco, many of which people will already have identified with before they taste their first cigarette, makes us think that we’re free, confident, full of choice and happy. In actual fact it couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re caught in a trap. We’re fearful of living without our packet of ‘little friends’. We’re totally hooked because we’ve been duped by deliberately deceptive influences – and we didn’t notice it happening in the first place. Even worse, none of us in the room had any idea that it was still going on, even up to the very moment when Rob explained the truth!
That was my “ah-ha” moment. Because it was at that point that everything tumbled in to place and, while our therapist continued talking about nicotine addiction, I could see so clearly how the same process happens when we are conned by a sociopath.
In the case of cigarettes, we are lulled in to the idea that they are somehow sophisticated. They make us cool, grown-up, or part of the in-crowd. Think of some of the publicity shots of early Hollywood stars. Think of the way they exuded style and glamour – and I’ll bet you’ll also be able to recall images of them with a cigarette, cigar or pipe. Sensual, heavy-lidded eyes beguiling our senses, while wispy plumes of white smoke weave their way through the background. Subconsciously we fall for the con that the cigarette is cool – and because of that we ignore the dangers. Rob called it brainwashing.
How does that relate to the sociopath? Well, in my particular case, I believed in fairy tales and magic. I fell for the whole idea of a knight in shining armor and of living happily ever after. I don’t believe there’s necessarily anything wrong in that. But I do believe that the sociopath hijacks these romantic notions, twisting their nature and turning them in to weapons of destruction that are used against us to beat us down and bleed us dry. Tobacco companies deliberately set up seductive subliminal messages to promote the coolness of cigarettes so that people ignore the dangers. Sociopaths deliberately play on the inherent good nature and desire for happy endings that are nurtured by most people. Like the cigarette, sociopaths mask their intentions by tapping in to some of our most deeply held beliefs and values – often from childhood.
Now, OK, I know that it was my own choice and many would say my own fault for getting hooked on cigarettes. It wasn’t easy you know…when I first started in my late teens, it took a whole heap of determination to push through my natural instinct to gag on the choking fumes! Yes, it took focus, dedication and months of practice to perfect the art of smoking – and for years afterwards I felt stupid, guilty and disgusted with myself for allowing myself to get hooked in the first place. But there was something about the way Rob described the malevolent nature of nicotine as a drug, coupled with the years of deliberate and sophisticated misrepresentation that there is something cool and hip about smoking, that suddenly caused my guilt-trip guy-ropes to snap free and release me from their grip.
It was exactly the same feeling I had when I finally understood that the person I had called my soul mate for ten years was nothing but a cold, heartless sociopath who had deliberately conned me. Exactly the same as the nicotine (and more to the point the tobacco companies who promote the drug), his only intention had been to get me hooked. To have me believe that he was my friend – the only person who truly understood me. To make me feel that with him I could feel safe, special, loved and protected. That he could give me confidence and energy, as well as make me feel relaxed and at ease. In short, to believe that my life was not, and could never be, complete without him. Bingo! Exactly the same methods used by the tobacco companies! Methods that allow the cigarette to masquerade as an enhancer, an enabler, a friend – rather than the killer we all know it to be.
Rob went on to explain that when we have the first cigarette, our energy goes down because it’s so horrid and alien to our body. But then we get a boost from the drug (and from the sense it’s naughty, rebellious, the beginning of sophistication – or whatever other thought processes we might have adopted) and we associate that boost with the cigarette. Then, as the nicotine leaves our body, we start going down again until the next cigarette gives us the next boost. But the thing is, we can never ever get back to the ‘normal’ feeling we had before we took our first puff – the nicotine denies us that sensation. All we can ever do is to get ‘nearly there’ and become more and more dependent on the rush that we get from the cigarette. Over time, the cigarette wears us down – but it’s so slow that we don’t notice the steady decline in our energy. The graying of our skin. The unhealthy changes to our appetite. The increasing feelings of emptiness and isolation. The steady lowering of self-esteem. But we still cling to it because we think it’s our friend. We believe that the only thing giving us a boost is the cigarette, whereas in actual fact it’s the very thing that is killing us!
Of course I don’t know how many of you are or have ever been smokers. I would guess it’s not many, since America has been much quicker and more efficient than Europe in catching on to the dangers of smoking! So it may be that there are only a few of you who identify with process Rob described as an addiction to cigarettes – but I have a sneaky suspicion that there are many of you who recognize those same symptoms from your experiences of being in an abusive relationship?
If It Can Work For Smokers…
For me, it has been hugely helpful to see the cigarette as a sociopath. To realize that far from it being a crutch, it was causing me more damage than I could possibly imagine – on more levels than I had previously understood. The funny thing is, although I’ve ‘given up’ before, I had never before fully comprehended the severity of the trap I was in. Now that I do, I know for certain that I am now a 100% confirmed happy non-smoker, just like the countless thousands of other people who have been through Allen Carr’s process.
And it got me thinking. I know how hard it can be to maintain the no contact rule with a sociopathic ex. I understand that the temptation, the pull, can be so very strong that we are often in danger of giving in – just like me when I said to myself “just one cigarette – one can’t hurt!” even though my conscious mind knew the dangers. Surely it’s the same with the sociopath when we are tempted to give in, saying to ourselves “Just one phone call” “Just one cup of coffee” “Just five minutes”… isn’t it?
So I’m now wondering whether it might be possible to create a process, similar to the workshop I’ve just attended, where people like us can learn how to break free from abusive relationships for good. Where we can learn to reclaim our lives and feel good about ourselves. A workshop that follows such a well-researched, carefully designed robust process that can guarantee delegates get their freedom back, right there and then, or your money back.
Well, the Easyway process is already successful in helping people kick tobacco, alcohol, drug abuse and eating disorders…. Complete with full money back guarantees. So you know what? I have a deliciously niggling feeling that with enough research and determination, it just might be possible to develop a similar process for people like us.
Hmmmm…. Now that’s given me food for thought….