As the cells that created me divided and grew, they were bathed in nicotine saturated amniotic fluid. My mom’s Obstetrician told her to “cut down,” on smoking and suggested trying to keep it at “10 or so cigarettes per day.” He probably he had a Camel filter-less hanging out of his mouth during the appointment or at least burning in the ash-tray somewhere in the office or examining room, after all it was the 1960’s.
As I child I was frequently guilty of taking my parents cigarettes and breaking them, soaking them in water, burning them in a fire and burying them under soggy coffee filters in the garbage. Over the course of my childhood, I got in a lot of trouble for this, even as the medical and social community supported my opinion and the logic behind my actions. In just a few short years, the Surgeon General cracked down on smoking, acknowledging the lethal effects. Smokers were urged to quit and it was deemed completely unacceptable and dangerous to smoke when pregnant, to smoke around children, TO SMOKE AT ALL!
I HATED IT WHEN MY PARENTS SMOKED! I knew cigarettes were expensive, carcinogenic sticks of death, so how in the holy HELL did I become a smoker myself?
Like any other impulsive and invincible teenager trying to act cool, I sparked up a cigarette one summer afternoon while standing on a rock in the middle of the DuPage River. I LOVED IT. I loathed the cloud of fog and stink that had always been part of my life, yet the toxic tentacles were also entwined with almost all my memories from my childhood, and so very many of those memories are precious and positive. It felt right to smoke another. And another.
I took to smoking like a duck to water. As the child of two smokers, this makes perfect sense. Genetics, environment, and stupidity provided the platform for my addiction. Almost overnight I went from being a nagging, destructor of cigarettes to a pack a day smoker. I was 15. I stopped and started smoking countless times over the next 15 years, unable to permanently overcome my addiction to nicotine.
At age 30, I chain smoked all the way to the drug store to pick up a pregnancy test, already knowing that I was growing a person inside. I smoked as I was urinating on a test strip. After it turned positive, I sat on the bathroom floor and I light up a cigarette. I smoked it slowly, watching the swirl of poison smolder, hoping I’d have the self-control to make it my last one. And it was the last one – until I light another one 10 months later.
Here is where I skip over YEARS of stories about more failed efforts to give up the cigs for good. I won’t bother going into detail about the feelings of guilt and shame, wasted money, wasted time and purposefully wasted LIFE. If you are a smoker, you know what I did, said, and tried. You know how it FEELS to be a slave to a substance, to blaze up regardless of bronchitis or what you consider “bitching” from people that love you and hate to see your slow descent into early disability or even death by your own hand.
If you don’t smoke, you have likely watched someone you love struggle with this legal but deadly addiction, possibly even stood by as it took their life. I’ve been both. The active smoker, the non-smoker and the re-formed smoker all struggle with the reality that the powerful grip of nicotine addiction is the source of so much pain in the lives of millions of people.
Pain….unnecessary pain. Nobody ever needs to smoke the first cigarette, yet thousands of people a day do. And the cycle continues. I’m writing about it today because I have friends trying to quit, two children who are at high risk of becoming addicted if they DO ever decide to go with the crowd or give in to simple curiosity. I’ve also watched my father and father in law die painful deaths from cancer as a result of their long term love/hate relationships with cigarettes. I write about it because cigarettes are killing my mother.
I quit smoking.
I write about it because sometimes I still want to smoke. If I can help one person by telling you how the hell I quit smoking, then this blog is worth writing. And writing it also gives me strength to say that I can be proud of being a quitter. This is a case where quitters do win.
Here is where I tell you how I finally let go of the habit that had me by the nuts on and off for 20 years. Two things that were so unbelievably simple replaced the need for cigarettes in my life. Well, really it's three things.
1-2) A very good friend said these words (give or take or substitute a few due to the fact that I didn’t record the conversation):
"I’m sick of everyone saying that it’s okay to fail. Why is it okay? It’s NOT okay with me that you are hurting yourself and I won’t allow you to think it is ok either! I don’t care how hard it is. You do all kinds of things in life that are hard all the time and succeed. I personally cannot tolerate the idea that you can’t do something or that anyone else tells you that you can’t. And you shouldn’t either."
FASCINATING! My friend, Katie, pulled me out of my pre-school pattern of thinking and did what nobody else had ever done for me. There was NO grey area. It was the most uncomplicated and reasonable thing I had ever heard or read when it came to addiction of any kind and as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (and former Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) I had heard and read a LOT.
She was right. Thing number one and two were to simply understand that I could quit if I wanted to and be willing to hold myself accountable for my own choices. That got me thinking this:
3) I realized that having a cigarette at any time after or during any intense emotion, be it positive or negative, my mind was reacting no different than a toddler’s would – acting entirely on impulse, unable to tolerate the powerful feelings that come with being human. I started seeing smoking a cigarette the same way I saw having a tantrum! I had to learn to tolerate and tackle discomfort be it mental, physical, spiritual or emotional. I had to let unpleasantness permeate every bit of me without trying to fight the pain. Being present and mindful and completely IN the moment, made me realize that I was really alive that very second. ALIVE. Good or bad, I was experiencing a moment in time NOW. Not the past or the future, but NOW. I could be the person that wanted to be if I chose to withstand the extreme reality of the moment, letting it penetrate my being. The moment could be MINE if I wanted that moment. The simplicity blew my mind. I could only quit smoking if I wanted to quit smoking every moment of the rest of my life. And I could. There was no reason present in ANY moment at ANY time that I could not decide to do whatever it took to stop smoking.
And so thing number three was simply being mindful. MINDFUL.
So I believed that I could quit, held myself accountable for my own feelings and behavior and became acutely aware and mindful of the moments in my life. Tick tock…….
After 15 years of failed efforts, I became a non-smoker. I did it with medication, therapy, and support from loved ones and you know what? IT WAS REALLY HARD IN THE BEGINNING. Being mindful of moments was brutal. I had to believe and hold myself accountable for the fact that what I once deemed intolerable WAS tolerable, but I would have to choose to tolerate it. Allowing those intense feelings took every single bit of my attention and care. At first the force of discomfort seemed to take forever to pass, but once I experienced the success of surviving it, it provided me with the strength to experience it. I will never smoke again. I say that with 100% confidence. I will never smoke again.
Now I realize that the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical power of addiction of ANY kind can’t simply be conquered by thinking it away, but being acutely mindful of the process IS truly straightforward. BE MINDFUL. BE PRESENT. BE VIGILANT. I didn’t quit so that I could live longer or so that I would have less risk of getting sick. A plane could crash into my house before I finish writing this OR I could be diagnosed with cancer in a few weeks when I get my annual boob squish. God knows I’ve done enough damage over the years I did smoke so it wouldn’t be a shock to me if I was diagnosed with a smoking related health problem (because those skinny little bastards do a ton of permanent damage).
I quit because I wanted to really live. I am thinking about typing this blog. I am living NOW. I am watching my fingers fly over the keyboard and listening to my dog snore, feeling her warm body against my thigh. I am right here, paying attention to this moment. This moment is mine and I deserve every bit of all of it knowing that there is NOTHING stopping me from having it except not staying in it. And in this moment, I am not smoking. I know that my kids are proud to have a mom who is a total quitter.
I quit. You can too. (You know who you are.)
And to my dear friend, Kathleen (Katie) Neil Wichman who holds me accountable - every moment with YOU is precious, even though we never seem to have enough moments together.