With this being National Non-Smoking Week, and today being Weedless Wednesday, which encourages a ‘one day at a time’ approach to quitting smoking, I am reminded of the intense battle I waged over the years trying to beat this filthy habit.
Back in 1975, smoking was the cool thing to do. TV and movie people did it, my parents did it, all my relatives had at least one or two smokers in the family, and my older and cooler cousins smoked whatever they could get their hands on.
My odyssey with smoking nicotine products began in earnest when I was ten-years-old. I fell victim to peer pressure and mimicked what I saw everyone around me was doing.
Our family had just moved from Winnipeg to a smaller community and on the day of our move, my older cousins, who were my caregivers that day, decided to take me to the elementary school to show me where I would be going in the fall.
While we were hanging around the front steps, some of their other friends came and joined us. Someone produced a cigar, lit it up and started to pass it around. When it came to me, I tried to say ‘No’ but then one of the older boys pointed out that if I didn’t incriminate myself and take a drag, then I would have to leave because they couldn’t trust that I would keep my mouth shut. So I pretended to take a puff but they all laughed and insisted that I take a longer puff and inhale. I did not want to lose the ‘cool kid clutch’ that I had found so I did what they said. I got very dizzy and felt sick but I was accepted by my peers, and I had a buzz. Thus, began my addiction.
Soon I was helping myself to a cigarette here and there, from my mother’s stash. I would offer to help roll her cigarettes on her antique Vogue roller so that I could make a few for myself on the sly. I became adept at re-using half smoked cigarettes and rolled them into something me and my friends could smoke. I had formed my own smoking clutch and we would smoke in the outhouse that used to stand behind our town’s church (until some careless smoker burned it to the ground).
We would smoke in small groups in the ditches by the yard at school; we would smoke hiding near the field combines and thrashers; we would smoke in the upper annex of my friend’s garage, in old cars, in makeshift forts and soon I had saved enough money to buy my first pack of cigarettes.
I smoked what my mother smoked – Cameo Menthols that I purchased for $1.10 using my babysitting money. In those days, any kid could go to the store and say they were buying cigarettes for someone else.
Soon I found another brand that really gave me a high nicotine buzz — an American cigarette called More that was even cheaper than Cameos at $0.90 per pack of 20. I only smoked those for a little while because they were so strong, I felt sick after two or three and the pack would sit and get dried out.
My grandfather came to visit and he smoked something that at first smelled like a dirty old mop to me and looked like a cigar, but not like the big ugly cigar that got me started down this polluted path of addiction. He had brought Colts Mild cigars to our house and I swiped one when he wasn’t looking and smoked it with a few of my smoking buddies. We all thought the ‘rum dipped and wine tipped’ cigar was the best for getting a really good nicotine buzz, and it tasted good. He also smoked a pipe now and then but for me that was not as attractive as holding a cigarette and seemed more for men than for women.
By the age of 13, I was getting cravings and could see that not only was I unable to support my own habit, but I was also definitely addicted.
The laws did not discourage me either; smoking was allowed on planes, trains, and all forms of public transportation. I remember how laughable the smoking section of the Greyhound bus was where smoking was only allowed in the back section of the bus. We all knew that the smoke we exhaled drifted all the way to the front.
Restaurants had a small non-smoking section and the larger area of the restaurant was reserved for smokers. Bars allowed smoking, bingo halls, socials, Church functions, baby showers, office buildings, malls, TV shows, movies, arenas, school teacher lounges, etc. Smokers in the 1980’s were the majority, non-smokers were the minority and they had to put up with smoke in public places.
At the age of 16, I came out as a full time smoker to my family and at school. By the time I turned 17, I was sick of the addiction and I tried to quit. I decided I didn’t want to smoke anymore so I quit for about two years. Another factor was that an older lady in our town was fitted with a voice box because she was such a heavy smoker she had lost her larynx to smoking. She freaked us all out at bingo one night when she lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke out of her voice box and dryly chuckled at us as we all cringed at the sight of it.
That was the first time I had quit and it seemed to be the easiest of them all. At 18 years old I had beat the addiction and was able to be around other smokers without losing my self-control. I thought I had it beat but nope, that ugly nicotine monster struck again after graduation when I was bored. I also convinced myself that it was a great way to lose weight because if you have a cigarette in your mouth, you aren’t eating, and when you did eat, the food didn’t taste as good.
By the age of 19, I tried quitting cold turkey but that only lasted for about 6 months. A friend of mine had died and I crumbled under the stress of that event. At 20 I tried easing myself off of cigarettes, and gradually cut down and that lasted for about three years.
I started smoking again after running into an old friend and we purchased some Colts Mild on a whim. I thought it was just a drunken mistake but that addiction dragon came back and it had to be fed! So I smoked Colts Mild for another four years and became notorious wherever I went.
By then I hated the taste of cigars, I hated the smell of cigarettes on my clothes and in my hair, I really hated the morning ritual of clearing out my lungs of the brown phlegm that would accumulate from the previous day’s smoking but most of all I hated the fact that if I was going out camping or to a party, part of my planning always included how many packs I would need to bring to get through the event. It made me sick to know I was spending so much on this filthy habit and more news stories were coming out about the health dangers to smokers.
During this time, I had tried several times to quit and jumped on every new trend that came around. I had read about laser therapy that seemed to have some success so I called and made an appointment and had great hopes.
I arrived at the studio that was offering the treatment and it was a woman with some weird looking machine and a dentist chair. She had me sit in the chair and asked me to remove my earrings. I did as she requested although I could not for the life of me figure out what my earrings had to do with quitting smoking. As I relaxed, she stated that the laser treatment was to be applied to my ear lobes, which upon reflection was a relief since at one point I thought she was going to point the laser right inside my ear.
So I paid my $25 and had the laser therapy and walked outside and had a cigarette lit within three blocks of driving away.
My next attempt to quit came through an ad in the local paper of a hypnotist who was coming to town to help people quit smoking. I purchased my $100 ticket to see him and rationalized the expense in comparison to the cost of smoking and the fact that the ticket was good for a lifetime.
Off I went and I thought it was working until the break, and I found myself outside with other smokers and one by one we all lit up. I went back in for the second half of the show but could not concentrate because of thinking of how disappointed I was in myself. I purchased a few cassettes to take home but realized that my habits had to change if I wanted to make this quitting a reality.
I started to force myself away from smoking when I thought I enjoyed it the most. I realized that I had to stop smoking when I was talking on the phone which was very hard since I worked in a call centre that allowed smoking at our desks. I refused to let myself smoke and drive. I made myself wait until an hour after meals to smoke, and I would not let myself get up in the night to smoke. I got to a point where every cigarette and cigar became a battle of wills.
By this time I was in my early 30’s and I was seeing someone who was a heavy smoker. He smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day and hated it as much as I hated smoking so we decided to try quitting together. We picked the month of August in the year 1999 to quit and we tried to set some realistic parameters about it. Neither of us wanted to try quitting on New Year’s Eve so we picked sometime in August to make a real try at it. I had tried setting an absolute date before and that didn’t work, so we came up with a new plan.
I started collecting all our cigar and cigarette butts from the time we made our decision until the date when we actually stopped. I put them all in an old coffee can and kept them under the kitchen sink for the day that we knew would come when we would have a hard craving. The butts in tin can would be one of our tools to have so that we could open the can and take a long look and smell of what this addiction meant. I also poured a full beer into this toxic can to make it extra pungent.
I went back to see the hypnotist using my lifetime tickets and I purchased more CD’s and I did not smoke for two hours after that session. I also started to do some research into dream therapy where you track your dreams in a journal and work on connecting with the dream state.
We both knew our addictions were very strong so we gave ourselves permissions to smoke anything in any amount until August when we would give it up for good. We went hog wild with smoking, I smoked my favorites – cigars and Mores, and he smoked mostly cigarettes. By July we were both having a tough time smoking because we had begun to make ourselves sick from smoking so much. We both had to force each other to smoke the last of our packs and we quit before the end of August.
We had to use the can of butts a few times and the CD’s from Romaine helped get us past the hard times at three months, at six months and then nine months later. We also used some of the gum that helps you to get past the craving. We created mantras for ourselves that we would repeat to each other: you are stronger than that cigarette, think how harder it will be if you give in to the craving, nothing worthwhile comes easy, and the best one, you can do this!
We broke up during this time but both of us were able to stay strong and stay away from nicotine products. It has been 15 years since I quit and because of my dream therapy work, I still have vivid dreams of smoking to the point of upon waking, I have to smell my breath and my fingers to ensure that I didn’t actually go to the store to buy a pack and then had a smoke.
I am so grateful for the laws that banned smoking in public places which came into effect in October 2004. This change in policy helped me stay a non-smoker because maintaing the habit was made so difficult for me, while non-smokers became the majority.
Those who have never smoked cannot understand why we started in the first place. Those who do smoke and are trying to quit need understanding if they fail, not condemnation because this addiction gets triggered by stress, worry, dieting issues, societal pressures and by the very fact that the chemicals in the product make you crave them at the same time that they slowly kill you.
I applaud anyone who tries to quit and I encourage them to try every trick out there. The only way to quit is to find a way that works for you. Now there are more products and resources that can help. The best gift you can give yourself is the freedom you gain from not having that monkey on your back.
When you decide to quit, do it for you and do it for good!