Jim’s first attempt to kick his Juul habit lasted two weeks. His second, a New Year’s Resolution that involved throwing away his vape, lasted about three months. But this time, Jim says, “all the recent vape news got me shook, so I took the plunge again.” The 27-year-old in Chicago doesn’t know if it’ll stick, but he hopes the third time is the charm.
He’s already kicked what’s known to be a much tougher habit. Two years and four months ago, he was able to free himself from a serious opioid addiction — after just a single attempt, too. “People don’t usually get it the first go-around, especially with opioids,” he says. “So I was lucky, and statistically, I’m a damn near anomaly.”
An anomaly, indeed. A 2016 study lists the relapse rate post-detox as high as 88 percent after 12 to 36 months. “Moral of the story: I’m one lucky motherfucker with an incredibly supportive family,” Jim tells me. “With the help of the recovery community, I now stay away from everything: weed, drink, drugs. I prefer not to risk a relapse.”
“However,” Jim laughs, “nicotine is another story.”
‘The best analogy is it’s like having the flu multiplied by 10.’
Back in 2017, Jim planned to escape a cool Chicago spring for the wine and warmth of Spain. It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. Unfortunately, it only lasted 36 hours. Unbeknownst to almost everyone in his life, Jim had developed an intense physical addiction to opioids.
“At my peak, I was consuming up to $100 a day worth of white-powder street heroin, most definitely cut with Fentanyl. About the equivalent to maybe 15 30-milligram Oxycodones, Percs, melts, etc.
“I can’t keep up with all the names,” he laughs, “but it was a lot. I never shot up. It was all going up my nose or being smoked off tinfoil through a pen tube like a proper dope fiend.”
He guesses he was good at concealing his habit. “But within 36 hours in a foreign country, I couldn’t get the drugs I needed to stay baseline,” he says. “I was in such bad shape I had to spill the beans to my girl.” She, in turn, called his family, who were also blindsided by the revelation, and Jim was flown home the next day, where they “picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at a detox center.”
Withdrawal was as bad as promised. “It was unlike anything I’d ever felt,” Jim says. “The best analogy is it’s like having the flu multiplied by 10 — a heavy headache, body aches, nausea, cold sweats, the whole deal.” The worst part, though, was the restlessness in his legs. “It’s still so ingrained in my mind,” he explains. “It was so painful. I couldn’t stop moving them. It was like having a perpetual Charley horse. So whack.”
Eventually, Jim was given Suboxone, a prescription medication used to lessen the effects of opioid withdrawal, and he was able to leave detox and continue with a 12-step program, in which he’s still heavily involved today.
‘Juuling would be the first thing I did in the morning and the last thing I did at night. I’d even wake up in the middle of the night and hit my Juul until I fell back asleep.’
But one addiction quickly followed another. “When I got to detox, I started smoking sober cigarettes, which then carried through treatment. I just wanted something to hold onto — part of my old self that would carry through and keep me edgy,” he admits.
As for vaping, everyone else in treatment imbibed that way, and so Jim started to as well. “I loved it. I could vape anywhere and anytime without being plagued by the stench of cigarettes,” he explains. “Plus, this was around 2017 when vaping was just starting to take off and get trendy, for lack of a better word.”
Juul — a much stronger alternative to the vape contraptions he’d been using — only made it that much worse. “It got bad quick,” Jim says, “and stayed bad for a while.”
For good reason, too: The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists nicotine “as addictive as heroin and cocaine.” But while nicotine quickly lights up the brain’s dopamine receptors, giving the user a jolt of feel-good feelings, the effects don’t last long. Thus, it doesn’t take long to get hooked. Within a month of buying his first Juul, in fact, Jim was taking hits “about every other minute or so.”
“I’m talking first thing in the morning, last thing at night,” he says. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and hit it until I fell back asleep. Literally like Steve-O with whip-its in that movie about his addiction.” The only places Jim wouldn’t vape were the gym, important work meetings or nice restaurants. “But even then I’d try to sneak hits,” he says. “So yeah, not good.”
“I can’t remember exactly how much I was spending, but probably $60 a week, give or take. A pod to a pod and a half a day. Of course, compared to my dope habit, this is nothing,” he continues. “Being soft with myself on certain things like junk food has been really important for my recovery. But with nicotine, it was just something I chose to ignore and allow myself.”
Beyond the price, he also rationalized that vaping was better for him physically than getting high. “Every other month, I get news that someone I know has overdosed and died from relapsing on drugs or alcohol,” he explains. “So nicotine has always felt like a secondary — or even a non-issue — compared to the other problems I’m fighting.”
‘Quitting Juul is far less about the withdrawal symptoms, and way more about the habit and lack of incentive to quit.’
So why quit at all? Jim says the CEO of Juul stepping down and telling people not to vape was the last straw. “I was like, ‘Oh fuck, what does he know that we don’t?’ I mean, I might be fucked already, the damage might be done, but after I saw that, I bought some nicotine gum and haven’t looked back.”
A month into this third attempt to quit Juuling, Jim is still going strong. He still compares his Juul habit to his heroin habit — for better or worse. “I’ve run through all the nicotine withdrawal symptoms,” he says. “Headaches, lack of appetite, irritability, lack of focus, general anxiety, slight depression, feeling hopeless. You know, typical privileged millennial problems, all definitely heightened by nicotine withdrawal. But these are a cakewalk compared to what I’ve been through.”
Still, he’s got a support group and therapy to help keep him from a drug relapse. “I actively work at staying away from opiates and alcohol via therapy and the 12-step program,” he says. “The same can’t be said for nicotine.” Worse yet, Juul advertisements and users are everywhere, which, Jim says, in some ways trumps the temptation of turning back to opiates.
Obviously, though — no matter the long-term health effects vaping might ultimately bring — the stakes are much lower than if he were to start using again. “Vaping is fun,” he tells me. “It feels very nice and the consequences are mostly unknown, which is the hard part. The unknown is impossible to rationalize and act on. [With] opioids, on the other hand, there are no question marks: That shit will ruin me in a heartbeat.”