MIDNIGHT MUSINGS OF AN EX-SMOKER
Over the last 30 years, I have specialized in providing individual and group psychotherapy to clients who wanted to recover from alcohol and substance abuse, as well as helping their families. This is a specialty which I came by very honestly! As a member of the recovering community myself, it became a personal mission to help others through the recovery process. I know that when I was suffering from a nicotine addiction that stories from others who had fought the battle to stop smoking were probably the most inspiring motivators. For that reason, I would like to offer my own experience, strength and hope to anyone who is thinking about quitting smoking.
It was nearly ten years into my personal recovery when I had to face the fact that I was still a hostage to one of the most addictive substances on the planet – NICOTINE! I was so ashamed of my behavior and embarrassed that I had to go out between my sessions to have a nicotine fix! What kind of addiction specialist can’t get through the day without going outside for a smoke break! I didn’t even need all 7 minutes it takes to smoke a whole cigarette. Just a hit of nicotine to relieve the withdrawal and back into the office to help the next client! Unfortunately shame and embarrassment were not enough to fight the addiction.
I had been smoking cigarettes since I was about 8 years old. Even longer if you count second-hand smoking. Growing up, my house was always filled with smoke and you could actually see layers upon layers build up and swirl around the living room as the day went on. If you lay on the floor to watch the tv, you could actually stay under the bottom most layer! I grew up in Great Britain and it was a culture where smoking was commonplace. The high school actually had a smoking lounge for the juniors and seniors. Every restaurant, bar, office, bus, you name it, allowed smoking. Desks came with ashtrays. I smoked about 30 cigarettes a day, sometimes two at once. I often remember lighting up a cigarette only to find that I still had one going in the ash tray. It wasn’t just the cool kids that smoked – everyone smoked. People offered you cigarettes when you visited their house. You would get a really nice lighter for your Birthday gift. I vaguely remember warning signs and advertisements that smoking wasn’t good for your health, but they had little to no impact on me or anyone for that matter.
College years witnessed an increase to two packs of cigarettes a day. Even on a college budget they weren’t that expensive and scrounging a cigarette from a friend was part of any friendship agreement. I never worried about smoking cigarettes, I only worried about running out of them.
After college I moved to the West Coast of the United States. I was totally unprepared for the culture shock I was about to have in Los Angeles. The first difference I noticed was that people didn’t go to the pub at lunchtime to drink a couple of pints and smoke a half-dozen cigarettes. That, plus the knowledge of having to take my driving test again, almost sent me back to the U.K! The “Los Angleans” were obviously a slightly healthier bunch and the differences between smoking and drinking trends between the two countries became apparent. I actually had to go outside of a building to smoke a cigarette and restaurants started to ban smoking altogether. I moved to New Jersey in the early 90’s and it became harder and harder to “enjoy” smoking. The different restaurants and diners dropped adopted no smoking policies. Transportation services started to do away with “smoking” cabins or places to smoke. It was becoming more and more obvious that there was a new wave of public opinion about smoking. Instead of being the majority, we were now the outcast minority. With heightened awareness of the dangers of smoking and secondary smoke we were now pariahs.
It was around the mid 90’s that I was starting to think about stopping smoking. I was already in touch with the feelings of embarrassment as an addiction therapist and …. well ….. it just wasn’t cool anymore! I started to have to apologise about needing to go and smoke a cigarette. I would be told that I smelled smokey or that my breath was stinky. No matter what lengths I went to cover up my malodourous habit, people always knew that I had been smoking. The contemplation stage of considering quitting turned into active attempts to stop smoking.
Ironically, I never want help with anything! I figured that with enough determination I could become a non-smoker. I didn’t heed my own advice at all: there is no amount of self-knowledge, fear, or determination that will save an addict. Smoking is an addiction. It is an addiction to one of the most addictive substances that exists. It is as addictive as heroin! Self-reliance and white knuckling efforts were futile. I would have endless rituals of “this is my last cigarette.” I would dramatically crush a packet of cigarettes into the trash can only to try and tape them back together in the morning. Most days I would make it for a couple of hours before heading back to the store to buy the next “last packet.” I felt miserable. I felt defeated. I began to think that they would have to drill a hole in my coffin so that the cigarette could stick out. I had battled other addictions, why was this one so hard? However, here is a brutal admission. I never applied the Twelve Step Program of AA to my effort to stop smoking because …. I was scared it would work. That’s Insanity! There was a part of me that was so afraid to stop smoking and give up my best friend and what I thought was my most effective coping skill. I couldn’t imagine myself as a non-smoker. Cigarettes, I thought, were simply an extension of me. They were as much a part of my personality, I believed, as my caring nature, or my love of animals. I couldn’t tell the lie from the truth. I truly conceded to the lie that I could never go a day without a cigarette.
So how did I quit? I would like to say I used all the different programs, gums, patches, medication I could lay my hands on. The truth is I went cold-turkey. On February the 14th 1999 I found out I was pregnant and on February 14th 1999 I smoked my last cigarette.
Now getting pregnant is not a very viable program to treat nicotine addiction and sadly I know it isn’t always a sure-fire solution. But on February 15th I lay in bed all day afraid to move and suffering through one craving after the next. February,16th I came to work and everyone knew immediately that I must be pregnant because I wasn’t smoking! Each day got a little easier as my body reclaimed itself from the effects of nicotine withdrawal. However, I would NEVER recommend this technique to successfully quit smoking!
I remember thinking that as soon as I delivered the baby that I would have them push me out on a gurney into the hospital parking lot for a cigarette. Clearly there had been no psychic change of the long-lasting kind. But the idea of going through the whole process of quitting again for potential baby number two was somehow very sobering.
I didn’t go into the parking lot! I didn’t want to nurse a baby with a cigarette dripping out the side of my mouth. I actually wanted to stop. So, I called forth all the resources which had hitherto been at my fingertips and I called upon them with real force
I knew that nicotine withdrawal was no longer an issue. But I also knew that the minute I inhale the first puff of nicotine then all bets were off. Within seconds the neural pathways which had taken 9 months to untangle would connect up again and I would be at the mercy of an addictive substance.
Social support was key. Everyone around me knew that I wanted to stop for good. Friends and family gave me lots of attention for not smoking. Attention is something I also really enjoy!
Financially I had saved all the money I would have spent on cigarettes. I decided that I could use the money for whatever I wanted since it would have gone up in smoke anyway. Eight months into the pregnancy I bought tickets for really good seats at a Bruce Springsteen concert! (Fortunately, when the baby was born there was no damage to his hearing.) I continued to save the money for years after I stopped smoking and justified my splurging on all sorts of wonderful experiences.
I worked my 12 Step Program of AA applying the principles of the program to my nicotine addiction. They were extraordinarily effective. You can find more information about Nicotine Anonymous by following this link.
I used tools for relaxation and stress reduction to replace smoking with healthier coping skills.
I went to train as a QuitSmart® facilitator to learn more about how to fight nicotine dependence.
My partner and colleague Dr. Jeffrey Kahn was my biggest support and mentor. He used many of the skills and techniques from his QuitSmart® training and I became one of his biggest success stories!
I hope my story has offered you some ideas and encouragement to stop smoking. I never thought it was possible. I really thought smoking would always be a part of my life. If I can do it, I know you can too. I wish you all the success in your journey to breathing cleanly and living free of the grips of your Nicotine Addiction. Please share your story with me if you would like to. You never know, perhaps you can share how you made it through a year free of nicotine on next year’s website!