Reviewed by Jeannine Burgdorf
I Quit Everything: How One Woman’s Addiction to Quitting Helped Her Confront Bad Habits and Embrace Midlife
by Freda Love Smith
September 2023, ISBN-13: 978-1572841758, Paperback
Humans have been trialing and erroring their way through existence for millennia in the face of extreme changes in conditions like droughts, floods, war, or extended periods of sickness (see recent: plague). Freda Love Smith takes our recent collective trials with Covid as the perfect opportunity to experiment with optimal living. She is explicit that I Quit Everything: How One Woman’s Addiction to Quitting Helped Her Confront Bad Habits and Embrace Midlife is a book of essays, not an instruction manual. In fact, she calls it an “anti-self-help book.” I found it a thoughtful, but still lighthearted, examination of quitting; no A/B testing required.
Smith’s approach to better living is through renunciation. In 2021, feeling that her Covid weight, menopausal sluggishness, and midlife-onset insomnia could be improved by tweaking a few lifestyle choices, she sets off on an eight-month plan to eliminate alcohol, sugar, caffeine, cannabis, and social media. Also in the midst of grieving her best friend Faith and her mother-in-law who both died during the pandemic, Smith wants to stop living on autopilot and take stock of what’s left, as one does in times of loss.
Opening with abstaining from alcohol, Smith recounts early influences who overused alcohol, citing her favorite film The Bad News Bears as normalizing drinking to the point that she aspires to be a loveable drunk before she even takes her first chugs. As a teenager in high school she liked drinking because it opened up a darker side of herself who was more willing to take risks. In her twenties, she went to rehab for drinking after a night in the ER, but learned a version of moderate drinking as she got older. In her middle aged experiment with sobriety she takes a five month break, ultimately declaring it will be a stint of “temporary sobriety.”
Next, Smith takes a break from sugar and goes back to the text she studied at the Kashi Institute, a macrobiotic community where she learned that sugar is poison from the book Sugar Blues by William Duffy. Her self-awareness is self-deprecating; these essays are full of humorous quips to remind the reader, as well as everyone she talks to over the course of these months, that she is abstaining from sugar and they should give it a try to. “I was…a self-righteous and preachy prig, but I didn’t know it.”
Starting with a somewhat clinical explanation that cannabinoids are receptors that exist in her brain, she considers the idea that the cannabis gummies “correct a deficiency in my brain.” The clinical name is endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome. Eating gummies was just a thing that felt good so she kept doing it: “As with alcohol and sugar, my cannabis consumption had become habitual; I wasn’t making a daily conscious decision to get high.” Smith’s day-to-day habits had become numbing. What we do today may not impact our long-term health or well-being, but what we do for years can have a cumulative effect. Smith worries that using cannabis for so long was shrinking her hippocampus, citing some studies that suggest cognitive function can be recovered after thirty days of abstaining from cannabis. After a five month hiatus, she returns to using cannabis, welcoming the way it could balance her out when used occasionally.
Citing that ten percent of the world is caffeine-free on a daily basis, she calls it an “easy addiction” due to it availability. The stronger focus and energy it provides also makes work more tolerable for the masses: caffeine makes capitalism work. It took six months for Smith to be free of the symptoms of caffeine withdraw. Once she is able to think again and, free of headaches, nausea, and brain fog for so long, she vows she will never use the stuff again.
Smith feels an emotional release soon after her kicking her four cup of black tea a day habit. Remorse at stealing money from a girl’s purse and lying about it, snapping at her son, cheating on her boyfriend with his brother. Intense emotions come at the lowest moments of her life in conjunction with this particular chemical cleansing. Like accounts she’d heard of people in rehab but it be happened when she was giving up caffeine, “Of all the things I quit in this quitting experiment, caffeine was the hardest. It’s the only drug to which I was truly madly, deeply addicted.”
The easiest autopilot habit to kick was social media. She’d reach for it as a quick distraction from something she didn’t want to do or to fill in a gap of time before she had to do something else—exactly the way most of us use it. She never really felt much of a high on social media. She stops using it easily and doesn’t miss it.
Near the middle of the book, Smith concludes her elimination experiment. Changing her habits has helped her regain her equilibrium, but the shift is not as drastic as she envisioned. Life looks the same as it did pre-pandemic but clearly something in her inner experience has changed. She has gotten older, wiser, things are different on the outside—she used the last eight months to go further into her knowledge of her motivations, reactions, habits, and intentions—but she still feels dissatisfied. Having achieved all she can in motherhood—her sons now responsible, self-sufficient adults—Smith sees the conclusion of her mother role and identity. After ten years in a desk job for Northwestern University, she reflects on how remote work afforded her flexibility and solitude that improved her creative life—and she wants more of it so she hands in her resignation. And faced with the recovery from back surgery, she quits her career as a rock drummer, a part of her life since she was a teenager in Bloomington, Indiana. Quitting is an ongoing life task, especially in the middle of big life stages like middle age.
Smith’s humor and cultural references (movies, books, songs) make reading these short essays a joy. If the work of personal growth happens by a process of elimination we would all do well to map out our purge plans now—not for the results, but for the stories.
About the reviewer: Jeannine Burgdorf is a writer and storyteller on stage in Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in The Signal House Edition, New Reader Magazine, Orange Quarterly, and the anthology Writer Shed Stories Volume 2. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Quail Bell, the Chicago Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Masters Review, Necessary Fiction and The Coachella Review