By Nora Deligter, Vogue
Quitting smoking, according to me, is a matter of replacing one bad habit (that has brought me the greatest joy), with other, less joyful, habits. Unlike the dictionary’s definition—which speaks to permanently leaving (a place), if you were curious—mine is rooted in grueling process, not permanence, and experimentation, not expulsion. After turning 27, I decided to take quitting smoking more seriously by turning it into a series of light experiments in wellness. These experiments, like most trials in wellness, proved to be generally unsustainable and short-lived. But, through all the false promise, I found an unlikely ally in an of-the-moment, highly fibrous friend: celery.
This, according to Dr. Michelle Knapp, an addiction specialist at New York University College of Nursing (who was concerned I was smoking the celery before I reassured her I was not), is not all that surprising: finding a tool—oral or otherwise—to aid in the quest against addiction is “a matter of choosing where to put your energy.” Using celery, she says, is “a form of harm-reduction therapy.” She was, to put it bluntly, pumped about my fibrous choice: “It’s healthy, full of water, low-cal; I think it’s just wonderful.”
But first, a list of other less harmful, not necessarily therapeutic alternatives I have tried over the past couple of months.
Tea tree “therapy” toothpicks. Those who claim that a flavorless piece of slender wood works as a viable substitute for nicotine are lying. Not to mention the fact that in order to extract any taste whatsoever, you have to chew them into small and sword-like shards, which is just not how I’d like to go down. Dainty, insubstantial, and something like $5 a pack at my corner deli, I do not endorse this product that has proved neither therapeutic nor satisfying.
Trident cinnamon (and peppermint Extra) chewing gum. While not the most wellness-y, it’s also not the most carcinogen-y, so I will count it. But at a pack a day—the pieces lose their flavor really fast!—I started feeling less Gwen and more Sean Spicer (though to my credit, I’m not swallowing the pieces whole), and therefore have continued to look for other viable substitutes.
Dried fruit. Honestly, these treats deserve their own separate paean, but in brief: I’m big into any fruit that’s been dehydrated. Moving (or limping) across the mountainous terrain that is quitting—with its peaks and valleys, but mostly valleys—I’ve found refuge in figs, apricots, and medjool dates specifically. When I experience visceral moments of crushing longing, dried fruit has stood in for cravings that crop up after meals. Laura Silver, a nutritionist in New York City, noted that while using sugar as a stand-in for nicotine was normal, “there is a point when it gets a little too excessive.” I’ll eat a date (or four) to punctuate the end of my lunch or dinner or when I’m feeling stressed. According to Silver, this is “a healthy way to satisfy a sweet tooth, though eating a whole fruit would make you feel better and more full.” So while not wholly healthy, per se, dates are not loaded with aspartame either, and they stand in nicely when I’m looking for a sense of finality.
Exercise. Good old-fashioned cardio has become a form of replacement therapy for me. This, says Dr. Knapp, is effective because of the “feel-good endorphins that last all day,” as opposed to that “peak and trough that you get with nicotine.” If I know I’m going for a run after work, I won’t have a post-work cigarette. While it’s not really as much fun as it is hard, I find that exercise really helps in quelling cravings. Post-work exercise classes like pilates, however, have proven to be too tedious to cut the cravings.
But back to celery. I learned about the benefits of celery long before the crop was causing a West Coast crisis, when I noticed my boss going through two to three containers full of them each day. What I thought was just a strange, rabbit-like habit was actually his means to quit smoking. And it worked: He hadn’t had a cigarette in more than a decade. So I decided to try it myself, on vacation in England. With my entire family. Let me just say: while the U.K. is great for things like clotted cream and its current exchange rate, it is not known for its produce. And a family vacation is a bad—very bad—time to recommit to smoking cessation.
I stopped at local markets to see if they had the vegetable (they didn’t). At supermarket chains, I scoured the shelves (to no avail). It wasn’t until a trip to a Tesco inside of a gas station that I found a single plastic sleeve of dewy, wan celery sticks for 5 pounds. I jumped at the opportunity and bought the bag for a six-hour train ride ahead (again, with my entire family).
Something you might not have known about British celery is that it’s unwell; decidedly un-crunchy, uniquely fragrant (think burnt rubber), and dry, which I didn’t know celery could be. But it still did its job: I had the sound and activity of it to keep me company on my journey as we moved across the British countryside. It was substantial enough to satisfy me, tasty enough to distract me, and crunchy enough to thoroughly annoy my fellow passengers and family members. Celery, Dr. Knapp told me, was replacing a psychological need rather than a physiological one, highlighting that “there is very much a behavioral component to smoking.” So while I know celery will never replace cigarettes for me (holding a stalk between my pointer and middle fingers is a very sad simulacrum), I’ll tell you this: for a whole stressful six hours, I wasn’t thinking about cigarettes, but rather the total absurdity of my new habit.
Which is all to say that quitting, for me, is most definitely not a verb but a gerund—a slow process that I continue to struggle with and evolve. But in the name of Wellness, I will keep trying.