Earlier this week, I ran into a woman I hardly ever see at work.
She stood in line next to me with her hand resting on her side, just under her ribcage.
I could see the pain she felt in her face as she restrained a cough.
Come to find out, she’d been out sick for two weeks.
“First I had the flu, then bronchitis, pleurisy, and now a touch of pneumonia,” she replied between spasms when I asked if she had bronchitis.
My unasked question about whether or not she’d quit smoking was answered when I walked out of the office into a plume of one of her exhales.
I didn’t say anything until the next morning, when I found her in another hacking spell in the parking lot. Cigarette in hand.
“I had bronchitis every year,” I said to her, “for something like three or four years in a row.”
“Until you quit smoking?” she asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Have you ever thought about quitting?”
“Yes, I think about it all the time.”
“Now, I’m not one of thosepeople who are fanatical about everyone quitting just because I did.”
We both chuckled because we all know what those insufferable people are like.
“But what I will tell you is that I used to feel like I was going to hack up a lung every morning in the shower, and I had bronchitis at least once a year, until I quit smoking six years ago.”
“Wow,” she said, “six years. That’s good.”
“It’s so hard, addiction,” I said. “What worked for me was Chantix. I tried everything, hypnotism, the gum—which made me ill.”
“Did you try the patch?”
“Yep, that, too. And cold turkey.”
The first step to overcoming addiction is accepting that you have an addiction.
“It’s such a crazy thing, addiction. At one point I told myself I was making great progress because I was only smoking about one half to one cigarette a day. I refused to buy any because of the temptation, so you know what I was doing? I’d drive the ten miles from my house to check the butt container outside of my bank for half-finished cigarettes.”
My poison of choice was menthol lights. Filtered. My smokes had to be filtered.
I was a bit condescending that way. Unless I was rifling through the community’s castoff can.
Surprisingly, she didn’t flinch at my admission.
“I was so grossed out by the thought of putting someone else’s—a total stranger’s—germs to my lips, but it didn’t stop me from going there and puffing away… Wow…I’ve never told anyone about that.”
Truth is I never shared that story because I was embarrassed.
And I was mortified at the period when I would sneak onto my neighbor’s porch and rummage through their kitty-litter-butt-pail for those cancer sticks that had even one or two tokes left on them.
I had acknowledged many times—to myself and others—that I had a problem with smoking.
Yeah. That’s a no-brainer.
But I don’t think I’d ever really accepted it, internalized just how badly smoking was ruining my life.
There is a definite love/hate relationship with dependence.
Virginia Slim Menthol lights were my version of the American Express travel cheque.
And when I did leave home without that white and glittery green box? Or my lighter? Panic ensued.
I hated the smell of smoke. Loathed it.
I winded every time I slid into my car or walked into my house. Really.
And yet the only place off limits was upstairs. Where the bedrooms were.
As if smoke can’t climb stairs…
My children did as I did when I was growing up: They’d complain about the smell, the open windows in the middle of winter, how I was not only ruining my health, but theirs as well.
“It’s the only thing I’d change in my life,” I often said to them, “I just hope you learn what not to do by seeing what smoking has done to me,” I’d say with a lungful of nicotine.
I groaned twice a week when the cashier announced the total of my carton purchase.
I’d light up when my foot hit the parking lot and the frustration would float away from me.
We struggled to pay our bills, but I always had cigarette money.
The first time our family flew together, I cringed as I placed packs of matches into my children’s luggage because the airlines restricted the number of matchbooks in each bag.
The last flight I took as a smoker with Warren, I gambled with the fifteen minutes we had to spare by racing outside—cigarette, single match, boarding pass and identification in hand.
I was frantic about making it back through security in time.
And admittedly a bit smug when I returned, breathless, from my fix with a minute to spare.
Addiction held me hostage.
Like so many others, I tried quitting over and over.
I went to a hypnotist when I was pregnant with Spirited Son and quit for all the right, yet wrong, reasons.
I stood on my porch—an addict’s feeble attempt at being gallant—and sucked in some more suffering the very day I brought my newborn home from the hospital.
“You know that after twenty years of smoking you do irreparable damage to your body,” my doctor told me during an annual check-up.
And you think telling me that is going to help, how?
I left his office and added a quick succession of three or more cigarettes to the countless number I’d inhaled over the previous twenty-one-and-a-half years.
Over the next five years I repeated these patterns of behavior.
I lamented the money I was wasting, chastised myself for ruining my and my family’s health, and felt utterly reproached by my weakness.
Each time I lit up, those feelings left in a puff of smoke.
Until I could no longer deny the dark brown plugs of mucus I was finally able to hack up each morning, the ache in my ribs from the heaving, and the breathlessness I faced walking up the slightest incline or trying to keep up with my kids.
One of the best ways to kick a bad habit to the curb is to make a plan and prepare, prepare, prepare.
“There is a new drug in clinical trials that’s showing strong results,” my physician—still trying to persuade me to kick the habit—said three years later during another routine exam. “It should be on the market in a few years,” he replied to my question about the product’s availability.
I tucked that information away in the back of my mind for the next one-and-a-half years.
I had been smoking twenty-six-and-a-half years when he wrote me the prescription for Chantix.
I had a hysterectomy for scheduled for mid December and my goal was to have quit two months prior to that date.
On September 1st, 2006 I stumbled upon Warren’s affair.
As my life unraveled faster than one of those strings on a feed bag, I questioned if I could go ahead with my plans in the face of so much stress.
But a few weeks into the chaos, I chose to stick with my plan, determined I wasn’t going to let Warren’s actions derail me.
Whereas I usually throw away those pharmaceutical inserts, I sat down with those pages and pages of medical jargon/instructions and read every single word.
Personally, I liked the fact that I could smoke for two weeks while using the drug, a much easier weaning period.
By the middle of the second week, the drug was taking effect and smoking began to leave a negative taste in my mouth. Literally.
I had planned on cutting the numbers I smoked in half each day, but by the middle of the second week I found I had no desire to smoke even one of my allotment. So I quit.
One urge at a time, sugar free gum and water replaced cigarettes.
The water tip turned out to be one of my greatest assets.
Many months after I quit I was sharing with someone how I prepared to quit when it dawned on me: I had basically spent almost two years preparing myself to quit when Chantix came out.
What can I say? It takes some of us a lot longer to figure things out.
Recognition and rewards are important in continuing to build on your success.
I chose not to reward myself with shopping sprees or other material items. Why, after a month I quit tracking how many days it had been.
I didn’t want to make smoking the focus of quitting.
I did, however, take a weekend trip to NYC to take in a show. And I didn’t feel guilty about spending the money.
But for others, counting the days is crucial to long term success. I met a girl who set up an excel spreadsheet to do the counting for her.
“Three-hundred-twenty-three days smoke free,” she said one night.
I also don’t refer to myself as a non-smoker. I refer to myself as a recovering smoker.
Anytime I walk by someone freezing in the cold in answer to their addiction, or walk into a plume of smoke, this thought runs through my mind: I am so happy I don’t do that anymore.
That is my number one reward…
That and five years without bronchitis or any major upper respiratory infection…
How about you? Have you battled and overcome an addiction? Share your story here. You never know whose life you just might help save.
Congrats on shaking the monkey.
I’m an alcoholic coming up to 25 years sober. My blog posting from 2011: Alcoholism: I’ll drink to that!
Everyone in my family except my Dad and I smokes. My mother ended up dying of lung cancer. It’s been over 15 years now and not one of the other smokers in my family has quit. Barb Tarbox (and my mother): bigger warnings on cigarettes
I am in awe. Twenty-five years… Do you know how amazing that is, wb? I hope so.
When I left my old job, where I am pretty sure I was the only person who smoked, for my current one, I hesitated accepting the position because it seemed that I was one of the only ones who didn’t smoke.
And yet, I knew that I had to learn to live with my addiction, in the face of it, so to speak. That is when I adopted the, “I am so happy I don’t do that any more,” mentality. The positive energy served me so much better than becoming frustrated and irritated by the smokers. (Though I’m not so sure I could be as strong as you and light one up for someone else…)
I know a man who is on oxygen 24/7. He still smokes. I have often wondered what traits enable some to overcome addiction…is it one or more elements missing from those who spend a lifetime attached to their drug of choice? Is luck involved? Genetics? Attitude?
No matter, though, the one thing that is decisive: A person must truly want to kick the habit, they must accept that the habit is no longer serving them in the life they want to live, and then they must be willing to do the time…
I am sorry for your mother’s early death and for the years you missed out on. Even though you scratch your head (and jump up and down at times), love the rest of your family for who they are. Crazy as it is, pressure to quit only manifests itself in stronger ties to nicotine… They must come to it on their own. But you already know that…
Thanks for sharing.
Here’s to twenty-five more, wb! Cheers!!