Champix (a.k.a. Chantix) Helped Me Get Off My Butts

Chained Ashtray

This is the last actual ashtray I ever used. I picked it up at a truck stop a couple of years ago and was struck by the ironic symbolism of the chain encircling it, a commentary on how its owner is a slave to his/her addiction. I also bought it because it looks kind of funky and was ½-off.

WARNING: This post relates my most recent attempt at quitting smoking. Reading it will likely cause smokers to cringe, ex-smokers to break out in their own quitting-smoking narratives, and non-smokers to wonder what all the fuss is about.

This winter I stopped smoking.

Five little words but I already have two things to explain. The first thing is that unlike a lot of people who say they have “quit”, I prefer to use the word “stop” because I’ve gone through denying myself cigarettes for long periods of time before — sometimes for  years — only to go back to smoking, and I’ve done that more than once. Judging from my own personal past experience, “stopped” is a probably a more accurate description of my present status but if I ever upgrade my confidence that I’ll never ever become an “addicto smoker” again, I’ll let you know and proclaim that I have quit. I know avoiding the standard word “quit” sounds non-committal and weasely but, frankly, I feel that I’m just being cautiously realistic.

The other thing I guess you should know is that what made this time different was that it was a process that took the entire winter to get through, as opposed to an event-style smoking cessation like “I quit smoking on the 15th of such-and-such month”. In the past I thought tapering off smoking was a process, but after this time I recognize that there was nothing preparatory about cutting back, and the first day that you consciously avoid smoking is a process-ending event. What really made this whole thing a true process was the prescription for Champix my doctor  me.

By the way, Champix is what it is called in most of the world but in the U.S. it is called Chantix. Science guys and gals call it by its proper names, varenicline or varenicline tartrate.

Side Effects

A NOT SO FUNNY WARNING: Champix has been associated with a lot of side effects, some of which can supposedly put you and others at risk of physical harm. If you are planning on using Champix to help you quit smoking, do not use this post as your sole source of information. Consult your doctor and read up on it from reliable sources. If you are going to read this post, please read it from start to finish or stop reading right now.

That’s right, Champix is not a free ride. There are a number of side effects associated with taking it. I personally know two people who stopped taking it after just a couple of days because they couldn’t tolerate the side effects they experienced, and because with Champix you slowly increase the dosage to full-throttle over about a week, they quit at one-quarter the full dosage.

I work with a woman whose husband quit taking it so I am the only one who I have personally heard of who rode it out to the end of the 12 week course (I did it in 14 weeks… I’ll explain later).

In this post I plan on talking mostly about my own subjective experiences while taking Champix. First I’ll go over the side effects and then afterwards I’ll go on to tell how it helped me stop smoking.

SPOILER ALERT: It worked for me.
Digestive Effects

The instruction sheet that comes with the pills says to take Champix with a meal. I generally have an iron stomach and nothing I put into it bothers me but I found that if I didn’t take it with a meal my stomach would get upset and I’d feel generally nauseous. Normally, I tend to eat only one meal a day and just grab a cookie or a slice of bread if I’m a bit hungry at other times. About once every week or two I’ll go a day without eating anything. Because taking Champix on an empty stomach caused me discomfort, sometimes I’d miss a half or even a full day’s worth of pills if I didn’t take a meal — that’s why my 12-week supply of pills lasted 14 weeks.

Champix made me both very flatulent and quite constipated, the latter being a novel and welcomed change of pace from what is normal for me. It also had a big effect on the odour of the fruits of my bathroom labours, if you know what I mean… it made it smell like someone else’s.

It also seemed to suppress my appetite but whether this was a direct effect of the drug or a secondary effect of some of the other effects I don’t know, but in spite of eating less than normal I managed to gain weight. Maybe I’m just getting old or maybe cigarettes increase one’s metabolism so “stopping” chubs you up, I don’t know.

I also noticed the same thing that happens every time I attempt quitting — my throat starts feeling raw. I guess that the absence of tobacco tar leaves my throat and lung bits exposed to the corrosive effects of oxygen. It might be psychosomatic because I went a couple of days without smoking during the period that you’re still allowed to smoke while on the pills and my throat was fine until I realized I hadn’t smoked in a while, and then my throat clenched up and started to burn.

Also my breath really began to stink but, like the throat burning thing, I don’t think it is Champix’s fault. For forty years my breath has been a variation on a single theme… it was either cigarette aroma, cigarette and coffee aroma, cigarette and beer scent, or in-need-of-that-first-cigarette-of-the-day-but-there’s-still-a-hint-of-the-last-one-I-had-last-night fragrance. Now that I haven’t smoked in a few months my breath sometime gets this, um… biological odour. Gross. My wife seems to like the bio-scent better, lending credence to the old adage that opposites attract.

No Taste, Heightened Smell.

Just about everything lost its taste to at least a small degree. Cigarettes were the first thing to change from tasting like they should to tasting like I was smoking ultra-mild cardamom. Then coffee (which I love) lost most of its flavour and tasted like it had been brewed from used grinds or something. Everything’s flavour flattened right out.

Oddly, I got really sensitive to a couple of smells — notably natural gas (the fuel for stoves and furnaces and not flatulence’s main ingredient) and skunk.

Skin Stuff

Fairly soon after I started on the full dosage I found that my skin sometimes burned, felt flushed, broke out in tiny, sore, water-filled pimples, and had creepy-crawly sensations. I think I read in the instructions that you’re supposed to tell your doctor about this right away if you experience this kind of thing so I did and he just looked at me with a “So what?” expression on his face. I went home and figured out that if I ate something and took a shower the skin effects (except the pimples which were more stubborn) would usually calm down and go away within an hour. Maybe they would have gone away without the food or shower — I don’t know.

Sleepless in Seattle (and everywhere else for that matter)

Probably the nastiest side effect was the sleep disturbances. When I was on the patch a few years ago I would sleep fairly normally except that just about every night I’d have these wildly vivid and long-lasting dreams which invariably involved me bumming cigarettes off others and then guiltily smoking them (normally I cannot remember my dreams). Just once during the first week taking Champix I had a ho-hum mildly vivid dream but the real problem was sleep deprivation.

I would go all week on just two or three hours sleep per day and while it did make me sluggish and disorganized, I was still able to function. My legs and especially my knees would hurt, my voice would go, and I’d get shaky, just like what normally happens when I’m without sleep. But instead of feeling drowsy and nodding off, I’d just go into a state of detachment. The really odd thing is that I could go for days very little real sleep. I guess these periods of conscious detachment was some mutant form of gelded sleep.

Mind Games

I began taking Champix having already heard claims that it was suspected in played a part in people committing suicide or killing others, so I was a bit concerned and instructed my wife and supervisor at work what steps to take in the event I went off the deep end and started acting aggressively.

I never did get outright violent but I did get very critical of others and, unfortunately, my wife was the “other” that was around me most. There were times when I found things she did no differently than any other time to be annoying, and I let her know it. The really odd thing was that this bitchiness would just slowly creep in and take over and only after a while I’d notice what I was feeling and saying. Even after recognizing what was going on, correcting my behaviour, and apologizing I just couldn’t shake the anger or irritation I was feeling. Luckily, my wife understood what was going on and just tried to keep out of my way or distract me into thinking about something else. Again, this bitchiness was most likely aggravated by lack of sleep but I’m no stranger to getting too little sleep so I have to chalk this one up to the Champix.

Conversely, the same drug that made me snap at my wife also put me in a near-constant state of “I couldn’t care less”, which sometimes blossomed into full-blown “I don’t give a shit” moods. This was annoying because, for example, I would end up eating TV dinners instead of actually cooking real food and then mildly regretting not having cooked, but I wasn’t getting the full taste of food so it ended up not really mattering. The worst part of this indifference to just about everything was that I missed a couple of bill deadlines by a couple of days. I usually I pay bills as soon as they come in. I hope my credit score didn’t take too much of a beating. I also fell behind in correspondence, blogging, and quite a few personal projects.

I’m pretty sure Champix tinkered with the shopping restraint lobe of my brain. I don’t think a week went by that I didn’t buy something that counted as “a luxury” in some way. My neighbourhood DVD retailer now knows me by name (and the last four digits of my credit card) but it wasn’t only stuff that I didn’t really need that scratched that itch — even buying stuff that I buy every once in a great while, like a giant Costco container of cumin to replace the now empty old one, would feel really, really satisfying. I wasn’t completely out of control… I managed to restrain myself from buying a huge telephoto lens and a laser light show projector for my house.

On the plus side, I think that this urge to buy and the couldn’t-care-less semi-trance drove me to complete 95% of a tedious and rather involved project I’ve been wanting to complete but dreading actually doing. Unfortunately the couldn’t-care-less attitude was reflected in the way I carried out the project and one out of three of the project’s objectives was not met. C’est la vie.

How Champix Helped Me Stop Smoking

In a word, it messed with my head. That’s how it helped me stop smoking, I’m not kidding. I don’t want you to take that in a bad way, which must be difficult for you to understand in light of the list of side effects and their descriptions I’ve provided, but just hear me out for a moment.

Champix did do all kinds of weird things to me but the most striking thing it did was take away everything about cigarettes that made me want to smoke them and the only possible way for that to happen, in my own personal case, would require some serious messing with my head.

1. Champix started off by whittling away at cigarettes’ flavour, first changing their taste to a weird ultra-light cardamom taste and then to none at all.

2. Then it neutralized the nicotine’s kick, the most important reward for smoking as far as I am concerned.

3. It also erased my urge to smoke, even in my dreams. I would simply forget to smoke. And when I did get the urge to smoke the craving was short-lived and the I-couldn’t-care-less attitude would often overpower the desire to get off my rump to go outdoors for a smoke.

4. It actually made it frustrating to smoke. After having smoked for four decades this was the first really overwhelming negative feeling (from the perspective of an addicto-smoker) I’ve had about smoking. Sure, it’s expensive and because you cannot smoke under a roof you do not own that is not some sort of public place you are often freezing or getting rained on when you do smoke but that, along with the coughing and people giving you dirty looks, is just part-and-parcel of the wonderful world of being a smoker. Champix made smoking frustrating in that I had a really deep association between the behaviour of smoking and the benefits of the smell, flavour, the sensation of the smoke, and the physiological effects it had on me, and then all these rewards were completely removed from the equation.

5. As a result of the frustration of being denied any reward for smoking, Champix made me feel that smoking was a completely useless activity. At the end of the time I was allowed to smoke while taking Champix, smoke had become tasteless to the point that I couldn’t even tell I was inhaling smoke. There was no craving to satisfy and I wasn’t getting any “nicotine rush” anyways. I’d stand there repeatedly bringing my hand to my face and there was no pay-off at all so I began to see myself doing this useless repetitive physical motion. The act of smoking was broken down to individual actions more basic than the complex smoking ritual. Champix allowed me to condense how I viewed myself smoking as the simple act of raising a hand to my mouth. It just seemed so robotic and idiotically pointless, like  some sort of motor tic or dancing. [I’ve never had the urge to dance and often looked upon others’ dancing as a courtship ritual, like when the male pigeons harass the females by incessantly strutting around in the springtime. Sure, there’s a big pay-off for the bull pigeon with the fancy moves but I’ve found being a good listener, having a sense of humour, and being able to cook has served me well in endearing myself to women.]

So even today, after having been off Champix for months, not only haven’t I smoked since March (I think, the date isn’t important to me but I have a funny feeling my wife has it written down somewhere) but it is taking next to zero effort not to smoke again. My cravings to smoke cannot really be described as cravings, they’re more like inklings or echos of cravings rather than actual desires. Whatever the word for it is, they last all of ten seconds, if that. I am truly amazed that a person such as I, a confirmed spineless multi-decade addicto-smoker with many failed attempts at stopping smoking under his belt, could have reverted to a state of tobacco indifference approaching the non-interest in tobacco I had in the days before I ever smoked. Second-hand smoke still does smell good, though.

I don’t want to lie to you, stopping smoking was no picnic but I have a really good feeling that it’s going to stick this time. I’ve never stopped smoking for this long without constantly having to exercise discipline. If you have tried everything and failed maybe you should speak to your doctor about Champix — it worked for a spineless life-long smoker like me so maybe it’ll work for you too. Good luck!

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About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

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