The day my boss got me in trouble at work for subconsciously vaping inside, at my desk, was the day I knew I had a problem.
I should've been concerned a lot earlier. I should've been unnerved that vaping was the very first thing I did when I woke up and the very last thing I did before I went to sleep. It should've been a concern that I was getting puffed out walking around the block, or that I would snap at innocent people out of irritation whenever I'd run out of juice. I should've been horrified when I drove around in the middle of the night desperately looking for an open tobacco shop.
But it wasn't until I was getting called out so embarrassingly (yet totally deservingly) by my boss in front of senior colleagues, whom I really respected and admired, that I felt truly ashamed.
So, how did I end up developing a vaping addiction? Like a lot of young people, my first introduction to smoking was sneaking puffs off of friends at pubs and parties. I was what you'd call a "social smoker" — someone who only smokes when they're around other people who do. This was my only relationship with smoking and vaping for a long time — until one particularly stressful period in my life.
I was in a stressful job that made me unhappy, and at the same time, I was drowning in university work. Overall, my mental health was just all over the place. Teary, exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown one day, I walked into a tobacco shop for the first time and bought my very own vape. And what started as a vice whenever I got triggered by something or I felt anxiety start to creep in, quickly became a daily habit, and eventually, a full-blown nicotine addiction.
By the time I was subconsciously reaching for my vape in the office, my boyfriend was vaping too and his addiction rivalled mine. When we both started mirroring each other's behaviour when it came to inappropriate use or obsession over getting our next hit, we finally looked each other in the eye and said, "enough is enough". I remember him telling me he wanted us to grow old together, and if we kept this up, we might not get so lucky. Thus began my fifth, and successful, attempt at quitting. And this is how it happened.
Firstly, quitting with someone is a really great and undervalued hack. Both my partner and I are relatively competitive and proud people, sometimes to a fault, so the competition not to be the first one to cave was fierce. Amidst that competitive energy, there was also a sense of not wanting to let the other one down or to let any potential slip-ups inhibit the other's progress. We humans have a pretty terrible habit of not caring much about ourselves or our bodies, and young people in particular often possess an irrational sense of immortality — it's generally much easier to be worried about the health of someone you care about than to put a critical lens up to our own. So when you're quitting with, or for, someone you love and respect, the whole endeavour may not necessarily be easier, but it certainly means so much more.
I also quickly learnt that there's no good time to quit. There will always be a party where everyone is vaping and you'll always have a stressful day here and there — so if you wait for the "right time", you'll probably never find it. And if you ever find yourself saying, "I'll just finish this vape because I don't want to waste it", you'll almost definitely have talked yourself out of quitting by the time the vape runs dry, and you'll be off buying a new one before you know it. I learnt this the hard way and found myself doing this two or three times before I had any success with quitting.
Like I said, promising yourself "this is the last one" whilst continuing your use is almost never going to work — whether you restrict yourself from vaping altogether or you want to do it gradually, I highly recommend not owning one anymore. On my fifth and final try at quitting, I dumped the vape I was still using straight into a public bin and walked away. Sadly, we still haven't found a sustainable way to dispose of the batteries inside e-cigarettes and vapes, so my usual method was to store them in a drawer and wait for the world to find a way to deal with them. But for the sake of quitting and quitting for good, I had to make this one exception. As for my other empties, which were tempting as sometimes the remnants of a puff can still linger in them, I hit up an artist on Instagram who was recycling old vapes into works of art and dropped off the bag that afternoon.
For me, going cold turkey at the start was a must — and although you're probably going to have a really horrible three days to a week (I know I did), don't let this discomfort put you off! I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly my cravings stopped when I let the nicotine run out of my system. During this period, I allowed myself a lot of treats and simple pleasures I wouldn't usually indulge in as often: I went out for ice cream in the middle of the night, conducted some pretty hefty retail therapy and basically spoiled myself with every other naughty thing I could think of that wasn't vaping.
I also found myself taking a lot of ice-cold showers. Regulating your body temperature and resetting your nervous system with cold sensations is a well-established technique for managing anxiety and restoring a sense of calm to the body and mind — and it worked as a wonderful alternative to vaping whenever I found myself getting anxious and irritated.
Given that I'd leant on vaping particularly hard to distract myself from any difficult thoughts or negative emotions, having any kind of anxiety while quitting was really difficult to manage. Not only was I dealing with the panic and uneasiness of my mental health as it was, but I was also fighting withdrawal at the same time. During the fourth time I tried quitting, I had a really big fight with a friend, and all of a sudden, a vape was back in my hand.
But what I hadn't realised all this time was that my vaping wasn't actually helping my anxiety — if anything, the stimulus was exacerbating any underlying irritation and sensitivity I already had, and kept me in a vicious cycle. By continuing to emotionally connect a vape to a state of calm, I inevitably kept finding my way back to it. Quitting was as much a mental battle as it was a physical one, and I had to go through a process of unlearning a vape as a helpful thing, and fully realising just how harmful it was to all areas of my health. Seeing a psychologist regularly really helped me with this, and the more I got a grip on my mental health using other, healthier techniques, the less important the vape became to me.
I completely abstained from vaping for a good couple of months, and then after a while, begin a delicate and carefully monitored balance of allowing myself a go at someone else's vape very occasionally. By doing this, I actually reduced the feeling of temptation by not making it a forbidden thing, as we all know that when something is forbidden, it's that much more desirable. Having adjusted to a long block of abstinence also kept me from diving straight back into regular use, and after a while, something incredible happened to those brief, spontaneous hits — they started to taste and feel horrible.
When I say I almost cried when I realised I had started to dislike the taste and sensation of a vape, I'm not exaggerating. It was such a liberating and incredible feeling to know that I had beaten what once had controlled my day-to-day life, affected my relationships and ultimately endangered my health. I was finally in control, and better than that, there was no longer a shadow of a doubt in my mind that quitting vaping was one of the best things I'd ever done.
It would be a cliche to end my story on a note of "anyone can do it!", and leave it at that. Doing so would also negate the very serious and challenging elements of addiction as an illness. While these techniques might not work or be enough for everyone to master and vanquish their bad habits, they helped me get the better of something I never imagined I could do, showing me that whilst it may look different for everyone, it is possible — and so whatever it is that will work for you, just know that there's something out there, be it a method or treatment, that will help you overcome it too.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636). Support is available 24/7.