Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Non-Smoking Section Please

I quit smoking about three months ago. I wasn't the typical smoker. Most smokers start the habit as teenagers or young adults. I was almost 30 when I started. I'd always hated cigarettes and couldn't stand even sitting near the smoking section in a restaurant. I came from a staunchly non-smoking family; neither of my parents smoked. People are 4 times more likely to smoke if they come from a home where parents light up. But, regardless of statistics, I became a smoker.

In about 2001, I was going through a divorce. Most of my friends at the time smoked, including, I was to find out, my husband. I knew he'd smoked socially but I had no idea he'd been hiding a habit from me for years. There are no recreational smokers; at least, not for long. If you light up on a regular basis and you inhale, you're a smoker. I thought I could beat the nicotine. I thought I waited just long enough between times that I wouldn't get addicted. I was wrong and if you're a smoker, you know exactly what I mean. My smoking friends tried to warn me but I told myself I could stop anytime. I just didn't want to. But when I decided I was done with cigarettes, it wouldn't be any big deal.

Ironically, even though I had started smoking on a regular basis, I still didn't like cigarettes. But the habit spoke to the stress I was under. I felt calmed. I had something to do with my hands. I fidget. When I'm bored or nervous, I bite my nails, shred napkins, click pens and fiddle with whatever is handy. I've always been conscious of this habit as one that annoys other people and tells them more about me than I'd like them to know. So when I started smoking and it gave me something to do with my hands... it was love. Not to mention the physical act of smoking, I could fidget with my lighter too! Smoking becomes a ritual. Most smokers have their favorite brand of lighter. Some will only use Bics or Zippos, most "pack" their smokes. Everyone has a different way of ashing their cigarettes and disposing of the empty packs. You get strangely attached to all the accessories;  lighters, ashtrays, your favorite brand of smokes.

Slowly, steadily, the rituals of smoking became a part of my daily life- first smoke in the morning, stopping at the gas station or the party store to buy a new pack, fumbling for a lighter, driving with the car window cracked in the winter, a drink and a cigarette, Sunday morning breakfasts with friends in the smoking section. And with my new addiction came a new diagnosis. The cough that wouldn't go away wasn't bronchitis, it was full-blown asthma. And those of you who have never smoked are shaking their heads and wondering why I didn't quit then. Good question. But nicotine, she is a harsh mistress. So to my smoking accessories, I now added two different inhalers. More rituals, more things to hold in my hands and turn over and over, cap and uncap and recap and over and over. More money to spend on prescriptions and doctors visits.

I tried to quit several times. I did, in fact (mostly) quit for a surgery. Eight weeks without a cigarette and all I could think of was starting again, which I did, as soon as I was able.  For all the drawbacks, I didn't want to quit. I loved smoking. I hated it and I loved it. I used the patch, it made my skin itch. I got a rash and sore spots. It lasted a few weeks and I was smoking again. I tried the gum. It tasted awful and didn't do anything but make my mouth feel numb. I never even quit with it. I tried cold turkey a couple times which didn't last long. I tried Wellbutrin and I didn't even get to the point of quitting.

And then I heard about this new miracle drug called Chantix. Which I think I got three prescriptions for from my doctor before he finally asked me why I was misplacing them and not getting them filled. There just never seemed to be a right time to quit. I was always stressed about something and I figured I needed complete calm in my life before I could tackle being nicotine-free. Yeah, right. All of you who have achieved perfect calm, with the absence of all stress, raise your hands. That's what I thought. I was also freaked out by the prospect of the vivid dreams that are often a side effect of Chantix. But I finally started taking it and it worked. I quit. No bad side effects. I felt great too. I was, however, still living with a smoker at the time and from time to time I would sneak a smoke and before you know it, I was back at the bottom of the slippery slope of nicotine addiction.

Fast forward about a year and a half. I have another Chantix prescription. I live alone now and no one smokes in my house (including me). As of May 2010, you can no longer smoke in restaurants or bars anywhere in Michigan. The cigarettes which were $3.18  a pack when I started smoking about ten years earlier have now almost doubled in price. Although I like having a smoke out on my porch on a nice summer evening, I'm not looking forward to another long, cold winter spent shivering outside. I cough a lot and my throat is sore most of the time. I've been suffering terrible bouts of acid reflux, so bad that stomach acid burns my esophagus and I have to go to the doctor several times to have my throat numbed and then sleep almost upright. I start taking my Chantix again and this time it sticks. I want to quit. I am tired of having to stop and buy smokes all the time or go out just before bed to make sure I have one for morning; the panic on the way to work in the mornings when I think I've forgotten a lighter. I hate how I start feeling nervous and fidgety when I'm somewhere I can't smoke. I know people notice it. I hate having to excuse myself from groups to go out and stand in the rain, puffing. I can't stand this anymore, I feel like a prisoner and I want to quit. I want to quit bad.

The Chantix worked its magic again. I didn't finish more than a few weeks worth. I quit in the first week. I used some homeopathic lozenges. I don't know if they helped but I think they did. I didn't sneak any smokes this time. I could be around smokers and not be seriously tempted for the most part. Although there were some trying times that I may have slipped up if people had let me. The nicotine withdrawal doesn't last long. A week at most and that's probably an overestimate. It's the habit part that is hard- the hand to mouth gesture. The loss of all the little rituals. Driving is hard, I always had a cigarette while driving. After meals and on the phone I have a nagging sense that something is missing. Sometimes the urge just sneaks up on me. It's usually gone within a few minutes.

When I was painting my bedroom, about a month after I'd had my last cigarette, I kept having very frequent cravings. At first I couldn't figure out why. Then I realized that what I really wanted was a break. Smoking becomes the way smokers take their breaks. Downtime becomes about the cigarette, smoking becomes synonymous with relaxation. After I quit, I noticed that I had a hard time remembering to take breaks. I had to relearn to listen to my body. To realize that although I don't have the excuse of needing a cigarette, I still need a break sometimes. Once I figured that out, the rest of the painting went well and the cravings went away.

I'm three months in now. I've experienced some pretty significant "life" stress. I'm still a non-smoker. I'm committed. After I quit and started being able to think clearly again (it takes a while!) the first thing I noticed was that I still smelled like perfume at the end of the day. I thought that was kind of nice. I was tired all the time for a while. But my mouth wasn't terribly dry all day long. And then I started noticing my sense of smell getting sharper. Laying in bed one morning I couldn't figure out why I kept smelling cinnamon until I spied, several feet away, a half full mug of Yogi Indian Spice Tea. That was a fairly pleasant experience but let me tell you that having your sense of smell all of a sudden get sharper isn't always a great thing!

Food still tastes pretty much the same to me but then I never really noticed diminished taste. Figures, the one side effect of smoking I could have used. I breathe better than I used to; my asthma has barely kicked in all winter. I still have a sore throat since my sinuses are still draining a lot of what I can only assume are unspeakable toxins and poisons down the back of my throat. But the nagging, itchy cough caused by the cilia trying to clear everything out of my lungs is gone, or at least greatly diminished. My ears are less plugged and my skin looks better and is less dry. I stay warmer so I assume my circulation has improved. And I feel calmer. I no longer feel the need to leave restaurants as soon as humanly possible and I can spend time talking to friends and family instead of being distracted by the need to fuel my nicotine addiction.

I know this process isn't over. That it will take years for my body to repair much of the damage. I know I will have to be constantly vigilant in order not to be swayed into thinking that one cigarette is ok. But I feel up to it this time. I didn't quit just because I felt like I should. I quit because I wanted to. And just like with any addiction, to succeed, the desire for change has to remain strong. It will no doubt at times be a wild ride but I've fastened my seat belt and this time I'm ready.


  1. It sounds like a really simplistic statement, but I know I said it to you at least once... "You really have to want to quit" Now you know what I mean don't you ? :-) Congratulations!!!

  2. Thanks. I never wanted to before. I still miss it sometimes. :)