It was the summer of 1969. I was hiding in the bathroom in my parent’s home, (the house I grew up in) when I lit my first cigarette (it was a Marlborough). I probably did not inhale. I also remember exactly what I was thinking that day: “I don’t like it, I don’t get it, but there has to be something good to it or my mom would not be doing it”.
All the kids my age smoked back then because it was “cool”, but I was embarrassed to smoke in front of anyone, it felt awkward to me. But I continued to do it and not sure why, only that my role models did it. Of course back then, the dangers of smoking were not broadcast, and people could smoke wherever they wanted (on airplanes, buses, even in church!). That’s how addicted we all were.
As time went on, and I went off to college, I went from smoking 3 or 4 cigarettes a day to more than a pack. I slowly but surely developed an addiction. After an hour of studying I would have a cigarette to take a “break”. I had one with my coffee in the morning. I had one after dinner. I had one with a beer on a Friday night. I had one when I was anxious about an exam or mad at my boyfriend. I turned to smoking to make me feel better. What started out as a simple behavior I did because I wanted to be like my mom ended up being something I craved and needed to cope with life.
The next thing that happened changed my life. I was going to be moving into an apartment with my best friend and another girl who both were on the track team. The summer before the move into the apartment I would go stand there and watch them jogging around the track, while I would be puffing away and thinking “who would jog 2 miles? That’s what cars are for!” I could not understand how or why they would do that. Anyway, a few weeks later it dawned on me that I was the only smoker, and I would be the reason our apartment would stink. I did not want to be that person. I had tried to quit before (mostly because the price of a pack had gone up to 65 cents….I know, that was a LONG time ago!) Every attempt I had made previously failed, probably because my self-talk kind of went like this: “how long can I last? Oh well”.
This time, something was different. I remember that day clearly. Instead of saying “how long will I last?” I made a decision. “I am a non-smoker”. I cried and I never knew why I felt so overwhelmingly sad until years later when I was working in health promotion. I was trained by the American Cancer Society on teaching their class “Fresh Start” to help people quit smoking. I learned about the 3 parts of addiction:
- chemical addiction (nicotine)
- emotional addiction
The nicotine (chemical) addiction does not last that long, it is out of your system rather quickly (ten days? I am not sure, but just that this is not really the hard part!). The habit addiction is just like any other habit, it is repeated so often and associated with many triggers that we just automatically reach for a cigarette in certain situations. Pouring the coffee, seeing the beer, sitting down with friends (even after I quit, when I would go out with my friends and as they all reached into their purses to get a cigarette, my hand would be going into my purse automatically! and then I would laugh and realize what was going on. It doesn’t happen any more!) It takes a longer time to break a habit. Some say 21 days but after checking into the evidence for this, the reality is everyone is different. It can take a shorter time for some to get over it and longer for others. But eventually, it goes away. Starting a new, healthier habit to replace the old bad habit has been shown to help. For me, don’t laugh, but I took up jogging! I remember the first time I went out and slowly jogged a mile. It probably took me a half hour, but it did not matter, I felt so good. It ended up turning into another “habit” but this time, it was a good one and changed my life. To this day, I need to get outside and move to feel good (maybe not running, maybe sometimes jogging, mowing, gardening, biking or walking, but still, it is a good habit that helped me get over the unhealthy one). Unfortunately, we know that our brain connections for the bad habit remain there and that is why some people go right back to smoking (or another habit) if they slip up. Over time though, these connections get very weak and this is less likely to happen. Creating really strong healthy connections in our brains through repeating the new healthy habit over and over really does help (such as my need to move now is so ingrained, the connections in my brain are strong after all these years of repetition!)
Finally, the emotional addiction was the part I never knew until I learned to teach that class. It all made sense to me why I cried that day I decided to be a “non-smoker”. What I had been doing was using cigarettes and smoking as a “friend” who was always there, that I could turn to. It filled up the spaces in between the other stuff in my day. I was never alone! So when I made that decision, it felt like a death. I know it sounds ridiculous but for those of you who have gone through it, or maybe have given up something else in your life that was an addiction, you know what I mean. After that day, I had to learn to be alone in between those times. Over the years, I learned to LOVE being alone with my own thoughts to figure things out, create, dream, relax. Anything! anything but smoking. But it was not easy in the beginning.
So that is the story of my addiction. I have been thankful for this experience because it has helped me be more empathetic to the patients I have worked with who may have some very unhealthy habits and addictions with eating, dieting, over exercising, etc. It is not about willpower, it is not easy to change and it is much more complicated than anyone can imagine. But it is doable. Maybe you DO have to try 10 times before you succeed. Maybe you DO have to lose something that feels like a friend to you. Making that “choice” is the hard part. Substituting a positive and healthy behavior does help and may be the only way.
Now, off to my gardening!
PS Both of my parents have thankfully quit decades ago! In their 80’s and going strong, thankfully.