Secrets of a serial addict: How I got hooked on quitting, over and over again

First, I quit alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. But other things kept taking their place

Published December 30, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Broken Cigarette (Getty Images/Javier Zayas Photography)
Broken Cigarette (Getty Images/Javier Zayas Photography)

When I finally stopped smoking, toking and drinking after 27 years, I expected immense praise for my hard-won achievement. But many people I knew flung criticism instead.

“You’re too intense now,” said my mother in Michigan.

“I liked you better before,” admitted my cousin, who’d complained whenever I’d lit up but was now annoyed I couldn’t go bar hopping with her. Did she only want me to ax the bad habits we didn’t share?

“You’re no fun anymore,” carped a college buddy I’d once partied with. Did he prefer me stoned and half-conscious? 

Even a mentor said, “You’ve lost your spark.” Did he miss the deep, crazy conversations we had while chain-smoking and guzzling cocktails? I was hurt he found me more fascinating when I was using.

The muscular personal trainer I’d splurged on for a few sessions saw me sweating from nicotine withdrawal and said, “You look horrible. If it’s so painful, why don’t you just smoke?”

“I hired you to help get me over my two-pack-a-day fix,” I replied, startled. “It’s an impulse disorder. I need to learn to ‘suffer well.”

Those were the words of Dr. Woolverton, the substance specialist I saw weekly. Though I’d paid for two more sessions, the doctor suggested I cut my losses. So I quit the trainer too.

“Why all the negative reactions?” I asked in therapy, stunned and confused by the backlash.

Did he miss the deep, crazy conversations we had while chain-smoking and guzzling cocktails? I was hurt he found me more fascinating when I was using.

“Your sobriety holds up a mirror to everyone’s excesses. It could be seen as threatening,” he explained. “Especially for those who don’t want to — or can’t — stop.”

But maybe there was another reason. What if I sounded like a moralizing, self-righteous prig? Was it time to give up people-pleasing, too? 

Anxious, overweight and friendless at 13, tobacco and pot relieved my social awkwardness and miraculously suppressed my appetite. I was nervous to start college early, so I became popular as the fun girl who threw wild soirees. (Well, wild for Michigan.) We shared smokes, booze (my drink was vodka and Tab), a water bong, magic mushrooms and the occasional Xanax. I relished the role of bohemian poet, sure I needed to be wacked out to write. I clung to those crutches for decades.

It wasn’t so cute at 41 — more like pathetic and depressing. While I was too prissy to try LSD, heroin or Oxy, I loved blow since it kept me from eating for three days. Before I put my entire bank account up my nose, I committed to a year of one-on-one talk therapy with Dr. Woolverton. But each time I cut out a substance, a new fetish surfaced. A psycho-pharmacologist thought I had Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity and prescribed Adderall. It made me feel like a speed freak, so I threw those pills away. One dose of Wellbutrin almost gave me a seizure.

With no one-size-fits-all balm, we tried an idiosyncratic, all-out behavioral strategy to avoid the “substance shuffle” common with addicts. Eating the icing off a dozen cupcakes caused a sleepless sugar rush, and my jeans refused to zip. A stick of Juicy Fruit gum to quell my nicotine cravings turned into ten packs a day until a nutritionist pushed me toward sugarless — and then the sorbitol made me sick. After losing two fillings, my dentist insisted I quit gum altogether. In a state of chaotic agitation, I ricocheted from the caffeine in endless daily cans of Diet Coke to hundreds of cinnamon sticks to being unable to sleep without Tylenol cough syrup.

“You have such a compulsive personality, you could get hooked on carrot sticks,” Dr. Woolverton said. He delineated the difference between an innocuous ritual versus an obsessive dependency: Stop doing it for two weeks, and if it hurts, you’re getting addicted.

As the nicotine patch stemmed my cigarette cravings, my recovery required retraining my brain to stop reaching for anything to obliterate difficult emotions. To do that, I journaled, recording the complicated feelings I could no longer inhale, imbibe or eat away. I repeated mantras incessantly, like “Lead the least secretive life you can” and “The only way to change is to change. Understanding follows.”

"You have such a compulsive personality, you could get hooked on carrot sticks."

When a colleague called me “a walking Oprah episode,” I thought of toning it down. But then I learned the buff former personal trainer who’d asked, “Why don’t you just smoke?” died of a heart attack in his 40s. Another client of his revealed he’d been on steroids. I was shocked. I’d been so myopically involved in my own recovery, I’d missed signs he was doping. Was my temperance triggering? His death reminded me how dangerous substances could be, with deadly opioid overdoses increasing catastrophically over the last few years.

Without intervention, addictions don’t get smaller; they grow more out of control until they explode, Dr. Woolverton insisted. He advised me to put as many obstacles between myself and my substances as possible. But how?

To stay clean, I had to be boring — and vigilant. As everyone was either part of the problem or part of the solution, it was easier for me to remove people, rituals or entire food groups than be moderate. To avoid gaining weight, ruining my throat and teeth, I nixed gum, diet soda, bars and late meals at restaurants. My friend Karen called to ask me, “Want to go out and get some water?” (We wound up taking a long walk.)

I was now hooked on unhooking.

Catching a glimpse of Marlboros in the purse of a new housekeeper I was trying out made me want to bum one. How could I ask her to leave them home?

“Tell her you need to have a cigarette-free apartment, so you’d appreciate it if she left the pack downstairs with your doorman,” my doctor said. 

“That would make me sound like a control freak,” I lamented.

“You are a control freak,” he said. “Would you rather risk your sobriety than politely ask someone you might hire to help you out with a minor request?”

When I did, she replied, “Sure, no problem. I’m trying to kick it too.”

To stay clean, I had to be boring — and vigilant.

At least some acquaintances understood my need to be self-protective. Others were miffed by my rudeness. I left pals behind at readings and quickly crossed streets if I smelled a hint of weed to avoid a contact buzz, confusing companions and walking buddies. I offended an acolyte who caught me pawning off the dessert basket she brought me to a neighbor, and insulted a coworker who’d gifted me holiday champagne by saying, “Don’t you know I don’t drink?”

Without my old self-soothing methods, my nerves frayed and my patience was nonexistent. But I allowed my discomfort to surface and to play itself out, telling its own story. Nights and weekends I let myself cry, scrawling purple poetry into my journal, playing Bob Dylan bootlegs lamenting that everybody must not get stoned.

Since addicts depend on substances, not people, I attempted to rely on more humans. Yet I couldn’t handle AA groups where everyone smoked butts outside, guzzled soda and coffee and ate donuts. Instead, I avoided crowds, leaning on a few “core pillars” I trusted, like my therapist, my cousin Molly (also in recovery) and my long-suffering husband. For the first 12 months of my addiction therapy, he’d travel with me, petting my head to calm me, calling himself my “support animal.” Watching a TV show every night, he'd hold me for an hour without speaking, soothing my angst, though one evening he whispered, “The pillars are tired.”

I felt guilty for being so draining, difficult, twitchy, sweaty and claustrophobic in small spaces. At my teaching job, I fought for classrooms with windows and heating and cooling I could regulate, which alienated my bosses. In theaters, airplanes and performance spaces, I needled my companions by demanding specific aisle seats for legroom and faster escape. Everything simple was now a struggle. I’d become the Diva of Deprivation. “Life is easier when you’re anesthetizing yourself,” Dr. Woolverton opined.

My desire to please everyone was becoming toxic, so I quit that too. I skipped superficial New Year fests and literary galas filled with semi-strangers, lest I be tempted by quaffs, canapés or cannabis. I channeled those hours at home into writing and teaching instead. My frenzy and brain fog lifted and I found I could concentrate with a laser-focused intensity. I’d never be non-addictive, but as compulsions go, workaholism seemed comparatively benign, especially with regulation. I’d be at my desk at 9 a.m., then come up for air in time for class or dinner with my husband. Within nine months, something miraculous happened: My marriage, career and a few close friendships flourished.

Turned out the chemicals hadn’t liberated my creativity; they’d held it hostage. After decades of rejections, I sold several books in a row — a few chronicling my recovery — and tripled my income and energy level. Feeling intense empathy toward my students, I increased my class load and felt honored to win teaching awards. I added hours of volunteering and upped charity donations. I was so sure I’d aced clean living. And I let my guard down.

Everything simple was now a struggle. I’d become the Diva of Deprivation.

Seventeen years later, the pandemic hit. As I binge-watched TV, I munched nightly on bowls of popcorn, convincing myself it was a good, natural, snack: gluten free, whole grain, high fiber. One day when the grocery ran out of my brand (Bob’s Red Mill Whole Kernel White Popping Corn) I ran to 12 stores, unable to find it anywhere. I sweated out the 24 hours it took to arrive from Amazon. The popcorn had morphed into another obsession I couldn’t live without. A harmless one, I’d thought, before I saw I’d gained 25 pounds. I was unwittingly shuffling substances again. I knew what to do: Give up my favorite snack. It was hard for a few days, then I felt better and dropped the weight.

“You’re never recovered; you’ll always be in recovery,” Dr. Woolverton warned.

I might have to keep quitting things forever. It won’t win me any popularity contests, but having a smaller circle of VIPs who understand me is a deeper and warmer experience than placating a crowd. Dylan sang that just when you’ve lost everything you find there’s a little more to lose. After 20 years without smoking, toking or drinking, I’d add: And to be gained. By giving up toxic habits, I’ve made room for something more beautiful to take their place.

By Susan Shapiro

Writing professor Susan Shapiro is the bestselling author/coauthor of “Unhooked,” “Lighting Up,” and most recently "American Shield." She’s working on a new essay collection about sex, love and addiction.

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