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Strangers on the Internet Helped Me Stop Smoking

Sometimes, the internet is good

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

I was desperate to get off nicotine. E-cigarettes were weak appetizers for the “real” thing. Hypnosis was too woo-woo, Chantix sounded scarily pharmaceutical, and acupuncture involved needles, so no. I scoured the internet for a solution. The fix, for me, was in the search.

While looking for advice on how to quit smoking, I went to the first place you’d look for advice on how to do almost anything — Reddit. Joining r/stopsmoking is the most “Kumbaya” activity I’ve willingly participated in this year, which is ironic, as Reddit has a nasty reputation for incubating hateful communities, not helpful ones. This reputation is earned, but it’s eclipsed Reddit’s good side. Want to know which expensive lotion causes itchy welts? Reddit’s skin-care forum will advise. Want to know why armpit sweat smells worse than wrist sweat or how orange juice is economically viable? The “Explain Like I’m Five” forum has consistently well-sourced explanations. (I trust its explanatory journalism over Vox’s.) The “Shitty Robots” forum is an exquisite collection of shitty robots.

The stop-smoking forum is not an especially popular subreddit, with around 41,800 followers. (For comparison, “Shitty Robots” has over 162,000.) Yet I found it essential. During my first cranked-up, sharpish-pang-addled withdrawal days, I hated everything except potato-based carbs and old Keeping Up With the Kardashians episodes. I was a Cathy cartoon with Charlize Theron from Monster instead of Cathy. I could not leave the house, but I could browse Reddit. Members are greeted with a badge that functions as the digital equivalent of an AA chip, celebrating abstention. Checking the forum activated a positive-feedback loop that gave me a tiny layer of mental cushioning against despair.

The community’s key text is Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. Allen Carr died of lung cancer — not the most encouraging biography, although it does lend him an aura of authenticity. Before his death Carr had turned the Easyway method into a mini self-help empire, a Jenny Craig for smokers, complete with celebrity endorsements (Ellen DeGeneres is a fan), workplace programs for companies like Nestlé and Bank of America, and pricey subscription coaching. It smacks of charlatanism, and it’s enormously cheesy; it’s The Secret and the secret is “don’t put cigarettes in your mouth and light them.” It’s exactly the sort of thing I’d make fun of if I didn’t want to cry with gratitude that the original Easy Way book exists.

This forum can be helpful even for those who don’t want to use the Easyway or quit cold turkey; some people vape, some use Wellbutrin, some set quit dates far into the future and taper. I downloaded an app another user recommended; it tells me how much my circulation has improved and how much money I’ve saved.

The thing about the forum that helped me the most, though, is how boring it is. Most of the posts are simply people complaining or talking about their hopes and fears. Many of the posts are more alike than not, with the addict’s refrain: Why do I do this? I don’t want to stop doing this. Scrolling through what can feel like an endless feed of people all looking for answers to these same dismal questions was even more motivating than staring at frightful collages of smoker’s lungs. It is a testament to the banality of addiction, and I can’t recommend it enough.