How to Stop Smoking with the Cigarette Whisperer

By Amy Dresner 12/16/16

You’re gonna stop smoking eventually. You can do it when you’re healthy or you can do it when you’re sick.

A woman's hands holding a cigarette.
His advice on quitting: don't resist urges to smoke.

Nothing is more humbling than writing a convincing passionate piece about quitting vaping, only to write ANOTHER piece, less than a year later, about quitting smoking. But here we are. On the upside, I wasn’t stupid enough to tattoo my “smober” date on my forearm.

Here’s the deal: when I get stressed out (which is a lot) or have big uncomfortable feelings (which happens even more), I go buy a pack of Parliament lights and binge smoke for a day or two till I feel too sick to continue.

It goes something like this:

Brain: Smoke a cigarette.
Me: It makes me feel like shit.
Brain: It will be different this time.
Me: No it won't.
Brain: I promise.
Me: Really? Okay.
(I smoke a cigarette and feel like garbage.)
Brain: Hahaha! You fall for this EVERY time. You're such an idiot. Unbelievable.

I was in the midst of one of my smoking binges when I was contacted out of the blue on Facebook by one “Rocky Rosen,” the self-proclaimed “Cigarette Whisperer.” It was a copy-and-paste job, reaching out to program people, explaining his services. However, I chose to take it as a sign from the “universe” that I was supposed to quit for good…because the bleeding gums, bad breath, pounding headaches and self-hatred weren’t enough.

Unfortunately, smoking (and coffee) are integral to sober culture. Many people start smoking in treatment as a way to bond with their fellow clients, decompress after groups or just because “Well, I’m not getting high anymore. I need ONE vice, right?” I was one of those people. My abusive on-off relationship with cigarettes was born at 25. Coming off meth and being treated for depression, I was in a dual diagnosis treatment center, living with a schizophrenic guy who was convinced he was the illegitimate son of Jimmy Page while sharing a room with a 300-pound crackhead who smoked Shermans and wore a sleep apnea mask…Can you really blame me?

Rocky claims to have helped all sorts of celebrities, Emmy-award winners, Forbes 500 businessmen, etc. He even had a recent appearance on The Doctors. But my question was: could he help me? Despite being an Olympic athlete of addictions, I had never considered myself a “real smoker.”

Rocky’s program is no joke. It’s a four-day intensive. Even though we are in the same city, due to scheduling issues, we chose to work together on the phone (which he does with people all over the world). Each night at 7:30 pm, he’d call me and we’d begin. Ahead of time, he’d email me a PowerPoint presentation to scroll through as we spoke for the next hour and a half. He’d also send notes to review after our session as well as the following day. “Ugh, this seems like a lot of work,” I thought…but then again so does lugging around an oxygen tank in 15 years while smoking through a stoma.

“I’m on call 24/7. Here for you,” he said.

“Oh so you’re like a sponsor or an expensive therapist or a co-dependent bestie?”

“I prefer to think of myself as an employee,” he corrected.

Here’s a little about Rocky. He quit smoking on June 17, 1987 and got sober August 11, 1987. But despite having almost 30 years off cigarettes, he still has that deep wet cough that only true hardcore smokers can claim. Rocky waited till he was three years off the smokes before he began working to help other smokers get free.

The first thing he told me was NOT to resist my urges to smoke. Are you fucking kidding? He did not want me to smoke less than normal or less than I wanted. So I really dove into the smoking…only for journalistic purposes and to see if this thing really worked, of course. He also wanted me to NEVER run out of cigarettes and to always carry them around. This scared the shit out of me. My previous experience has been that when I have a pack of cigarettes, I smoke them till they’re gone, like any good addict. But his theory is that when you don’t have any cigarettes, that’s when you obsess. If you know you can smoke at any time, you have the choice to smoke or not. I know, it sounds too easy.

Unlike how the AA program sees alcoholism as a three-fold disease (mental, physical and spiritual), Rocky says nicotine addiction is two-fold: mental and physical. However, physically, the vast majority of nicotine is gone within 24 hours (although it can take up to three days to clear from your bloodstream). But what isn’t gone within 24 hours or three days or fucking ever is the URGE to smoke.

Rocky’s program is not for the faint of heart. He’s spicy. He swears. And there are some gruesome images and some stats which haunted me. I guess that’s the point. I’ll share this gem with you: Take the number of people who die from fire, suicide, homicide, automobile accidents, plane crashes, train wrecks, drug and alcohol abuse, and AIDS, combined. Now add that to the number of Americans that died during World War II and you have roughly the annual number of people who die from smoking-related diseases. Pretty scary, huh?

According to Rocky, both founders of AA died of smoking-related causes. Bill W. died of emphysema and Dr. Bob died of colorectal cancer (as smoking promotes whatever cancer you’re genetically prone to). I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to die from an addiction it’s not going to be something as milquetoast as smoking.

“You’re gonna stop smoking eventually,“ he said. “You can do it when you’re healthy or you can do it when you’re sick.”

I’d always thought that nicotine was a harmless stimulant. It was all the chemicals that they put in the cigarettes that made them toxic, right? Wrong-o-rama. When you set fire to tobacco, a whole slew of nasty chemicals are released including cadmium, which is found in battery acid, and my beloved nicotine, which is a neurotoxin that is actually an insecticide. (Nicotine occurs naturally in the leaves of the tobacco plant to protect it from getting eaten by bugs. Mmmm.) So what this means is that all you righteous fuckers that smoke American Spirits can take off your ceremonial headdresses and calm the hell down. You’re poisoning yourselves too.

Rocky said a few things that really blew my hair back. The first was about smoking on a plane. The reality is you CAN smoke on a plane but you choose not to because you don’t want to face the consequences. So right there he proved to me that nicotine addiction was mental and showed me that I do, indeed, have a CHOICE.

The second night working together, I was instructed to slip two little notes into my cigarette pack. The front one read, “I’m nicotine addicted. I want to smoke. I can smoke. I don’t have to stop.” The back one listed all the benefits of not smoking: “looking better, feeling better, smelling better, saving money, worrying less about cancer,” etc. Every time BEFORE I smoked, I had to say both parts of this aloud. This exercise was about bringing consciousness to smoking or smoking consciously. I was also to put post-it notes around my house to remind myself to say my two-part mantra whenever I could. Eventually he moved me to a timer where I had to say it every 30 minutes and then the next day, every 15 minutes. It’s a pain in the ass, I’m not going to lie. But I think we can all agree, that you get out of something what you put into it. And how could I say Rocky’s program worked or didn’t if I didn’t do the whole thing religiously?

Rocky continued to be adamant about not suppressing my urges. “Make them bigger,” he encouraged. “Welcome them! Embrace them!” This sounds nuts but it’s not. Thought suppression does not work. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner proved it with his famous “don’t think of a white bear” experiment.

In short, “what you resist, persists.” The more you try NOT to think of something, the more your mind swings back around to see how well you’re doing NOT thinking about it…which of course entails thinking about it. Wegner also found that “exposure in a controlled way” was helpful to avoiding unwanted thoughts. This is exactly what Rocky was doing when he was encouraging me to regularly think about my urges and try to draw them up.

“The urge will go away whether you smoke or not,” Rocky told me. Ironically this was something I used to tell my sponsees. And he’s absolutely right. It’s temporary. But if you cave every time, you never get the experience of walking through the urge and seeing that it’s bearable. It will not be comfortable but it will not be the most uncomfortable thing in your life, either.

What I quickly found was that I was not afraid of my urges anymore. Wherein before, an “I have to smoke” feeling would send me screeching off to the gas station to buy a pack, the urge yanking me along on a choke chain. Now I felt no such fear or urgency. I could choose to smoke. I had cigarettes. I wasn’t trapped. I was choosing not to smoke. I could change my mind at any time. When you remove the element of defiance, you create the feeling of freedom. Like I could tell my boyfriend that he could fuck whoever he wanted. The result would make him not want to fuck anyone else. I mean, I’m not dumb enough to try that but in theory, it would work.

I really wanted to know WHY I smoked. Because it numbed me? Because I was self-destructive? Maybe it was just my go-to when I was stressed. Or maybe I had an oral fixation. But Rocky said it didn’t matter why I smoked and not to overthink it. “You smoke because you want to smoke. You smoke to make the urge to smoke, which feels uncomfortable, go away,” he said. And as any addict knows, trying to get rid of the discomfort and feel “normal” creates that horrible “hamster on a wheel” scenario that is active addiction.

In the end, something is hard only because it’s new. And accepting the urge to smoke while actually not smoking is no different. So Rocky emphasizes practice, practice, practice, which even in the deepest recesses of my lazy dark heart I know is the key to everything. I have a pack of cigarettes in my purse right now and incredibly, I have not had one since I officially smoked my last cigarette at his behest during the third session.

And it’s not that I haven’t wanted to. I have had urges. Bad ones. My boyfriend left his filthy tube socks on the floor (evidently the hamper seven inches away is too far). I’m trying to find an affordable apartment that’s bigger than a Honduran prison cell. I’m also convinced that the neighbors next door are trying out a new method of sound torture in the guise of building a guest house. 

(Deep breath.)

“I’m nicotine-addicted. I want to smoke. I can smoke. I don’t have to stop.”

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2012 and is the author of the forthcoming My Fair Junkie. She is also on Twitter.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.