Five years ago today, I quit smoking. Sort of. Don’t congratulate me because I can’t really celebrate anything here. There have been times that I’ve been drinking beer with friends and lit up one or two or more. There have been times I’ve bought a pack … and then another … And then I’d cut myself off for months or longer … and then I’d give in again. So no, I can’t say that I haven’t smoked in five years.

Nicotine is a nasty addiction and one of the most dangerous drugs out there. Like the other most dangerous drug, alcohol, it’s legal. Which makes breaking the addiction even harder.

Most people who have never smoked don’t understand the addiction and how hard it is to fight. And for those of us struggling through it day in and day out, we just can’t find a way to explain what it’s like. There seems to be no comparison. Nothing we say can give the feeling justice.

Maybe you’re one of those who have a loved one who smokes and don’t understand why it’s so difficult for them to quit. Maybe you’re a smoker, current or former, who’s tried to find the right way to describe what it’s like but can never do it right.

As I’ve been thinking about this milestone that I should be celebrating but can’t, I think I finally found a way to describe the addiction and what it’s like without a fix. Maybe it’ll help you understand or it’s something you can share with others so they can understand you better.

At first, I was thinking that quitting smoking is like wearing a new bra that fits tighter than your old, broken-in ones and you can’t wait to take it off at night. But it’s more than that. I think putting out that last cigarette and deciding to quit is more like strapping on a corset women used to wear to cinch their waists into the size of a wine bottle.

Each passing day, hour, sometimes minute of not smoking is like mama pulling the strings a little tighter until, ironically, you feel like you can’t breathe. You’re strapped into this contraption (commitment) that squeezes and contorts you into something that looks (and smells) beautiful but you still hate it.

But, in this case anyway, the corset is healthy. You know in your mind that wearing it is for your own good. That you’ll live longer, feel better, look healthier. So you keep it on, day and night. Eventually you get used to it. After a while, you even might forget you have it on. The desire to yank it off diminishes and you think, “I’m doing this! Look how beautiful and sexy and healthy I am. I’m a corset-hottie! Er, non-smoker!”

Then you’re drinking a cup of coffee or having a beer with friends one day – something you’ve been doing since wearing your corset – and all of a sudden it just feels wrong. Corset and coffee don’t go together! You can’t drink a beer with this thing on! You remember that you’re wearing it again. And it suddenly becomes the only thing you can think about, so obviously uncomfortable you can’t stand it a minute longer. So you think, I’ll just loosen it up a little – just smoke one for old time’s sake. It’s not like I’m taking it completely off.

And then something in life happens as it always does. Stress yanks those strings tighter and tighter until you think you’re going to burst through the damn thing. All you can think about is breaking out of the prison that it is. Yanking it off. Throwing it to the ground and burning it. Because then you, the real you, the one you’ve been strangling and trying to pretend doesn’t exist, can finally hang out. Can finally breathe.

You walk by someone smoking and inhale deeply, actually enjoying the smell even as that corset pulls tighter. You envy how smokers can live their lives free and openly and not be jammed into something that doesn’t fit – that just isn’t them, isn’t true to life – while you’re cinched into something that you’re not, just so you can look good for others.

And you can’t stop thinking about it, hating it, and you’re dwelling, stewing, going crazy until you start pulling your hair out because you’ve been cooped up in this thing for so long, pretending that you’re something you’re not because deep down in your heart and soul you’re a smoker and you want to smoke and you want to welcome that old friend back into your life because it’s there no matter what, not judging you as you show your true self but accepting you for who you are and you need just one, just one, just one.

So you light it up. Just one. And the corset loosens. Your body sags with the relief of it. You can breathe! That one feels so good, you must have another. And another. And next thing you know, the corset falls to the floor and you’re released from its hold. You can finally be you again! You can just let it all hang out, as ugly as it is but at least it’s you and you don’t have to pretend anymore because you’re free! Free, free, free!

But you’re really not. Eventually you realize it. The addiction is the real prison. The nicotine is the true ball and chain. Because you’re always thinking about it and planning around it and even saying no to exciting experiences because you’re afraid you won’t be able to smoke, which will stress you out so it won’t be fun anyway and it’s just better if you stay home. Where you can be yourself. With the only friend you’ll have one of these days because you’ve put it before all others.

So before that happens, you know you must put that corset on again and this time not take it off. Ever. Because it’s better to be a fake you than a dead you. Or is it?

Perhaps there comes a time when you don’t feel the corset anymore. When that smoker part of you has been squeezed out until it exists no longer and eventually the corset falls away and you don’t even notice that you’re the real you again, just not the smoker you. I don’t know.

I’ve been smoking on and off since I was 17 years old. I grew up with smokers, none whom have quit permanently. I’ve quit for years at a time, but I always feel that corset. Still to this day. Perhaps I always will.

In the meantime, I struggle with it and hope that my family and friends will finally understand and still be there for me. Not give up on me. Still love me for who I am, smoker or non. I truly want to be a non-smoker. I should be celebrating five years of being so. But I’m not. I never will be until I truly feel it in my heart and soul. Until then, I’m wearing that corset, and there’s always a chance I’ll fling it off before it ever falls away naturally. For all of you ex-smokers who have discarded the corset permanently, I applaud you. You are my heroes!

Can you relate at all? Can you see this in your loved ones fighting their addictions? Perhaps it’s not smoking for you, but something else that is your corset in life. Can anyone tell me if it finally disappears for good?