Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Great American Smoke-Out

December 23rd, 2005.  That's the day my life changed for the better.

I had pneumonia.  Influenza at first, but it degenerated.  It had been a miserable five days or so, but then I woke up and felt better.  I felt pretty good!  I sat up in bed, scooched off the end, and stood.  And then sat down again.  Hard.  What the hell?  Where was my AIR?

I caught my breath, then tried again.  I made it as far as the doorway when it became obvious that, unless I wanted to pass out or piss myself (or both), I needed to get down to the floor.  Fast.  It took me a few minutes to catch my breath, and it took over an hour for my then seven-year-old to wake up.  See, I didn't dare risk trying to make my way to the living room (and the phone).  Amazing, how 30 feet can seem marathon-length when you haven't got any air.

When my boy woke up, I had him bring me the phone.  I called my husband, asked him to come home.  I needed to go to the clinic.  My boy brought my clothes and, on the hall floor, I slowly changed into street garb.  Gasping all the while.

Getting to the car (with hubby's help) was tough.  It involved sitting.  Twice.  Same with getting into the clinic.  When they checked my blood oxygen, it was hanging at a miserable 85%.  That's not good.  In fact, it's "not good" enough that they wanted to hospitalize me.  At that point, some of the stupidest words I've ever uttered came out of my mouth.

"It's the day before Christmas Eve, and my son is seven years old.  No way I'm spending Christmas in the hospital."

Again, I absolutely cop to just how stupid that was.  I plead . . . pneumonia.

So they hauled me back, panting and gasping all the way, into an examination room.  They said they would mega-dose me, and if I wasn't showing improvement in 24 hours, I absolutely HAD to go to the hospital.  I agreed, though even then I had no intention of being hospitalized over the holiday.  They gave me mega-doses of antibiotics, then bent me over the exam table for a big ol' shot of steroids.  There I was, bent over, pants hiked down over my hip, nebulizer loaded with levalbuterol in my face, and the Physician's Assistant asked that question I always dreaded.

"Do you smoke?"

I realize now, looking back, that there's no way she didn't know.  The smell of it to a non-smoking nose is unmistakable, regardless of how much perfume or powder is used.  But she asked, and I answered.

I said, "Not anymore." 

She rolled her eyes, she said, "Ah, good luck with that."  She was singularly unsupportive.  And there was a time when I was so desperate for justification for smoking that I would have used her lack of support as an excuse to continue.  But that was before.

Before I felt like there was no air in my world.  I felt like I'd gotten a free preview of COPD, and you know what?  I didn't EVER want to feel like that again.

That was the day I changed my life.  Forever.  I went from being a 2 1/3-3 pack a day smoker to being a non-smoker.  I had smoked for 26+ years.  No piker, me.  No, I smoked like I meant it.  I used to joke that there was no point in half-assing anything.  Not even smoking.

Now, before you shake your head and say, "Yeah, but it was easy for you--you had pneumonia and couldn't smoke," listen well and get a grip.  I was a PRO, I could (and did) smoke through anything.  I smoked through bronchitis, I smoked through pleurisy, I smoked through flu, pneumonia, and even through throat and nose surgery.  It wasn't that I couldn't smoke--never.  It was because I was scared.  Something had finally managed to claw its way through my haze of denial and addiction and make an impression.

Don't think I was one of those shamefaced, self-hating smokers, either.  I didn't make a lifetime of excuses or leave in my wake a trail of failed quit attempts.  In fact, outwardly, I PRIDED myself on having never attempted to quit.  And I never had tried, but inside, I wasn't proud.  I was afraid.  I was so convinced that I couldn't quit that I never even tried.  In my mind, I would look at every new carton of smokes and hope that the "quit" was in there, but it never was.  And I never shared that with anyone.  I was brash,  "proud," and positively abrasive in my declaration of "smoker's rights." 

Dang.  This is hard to type.

I howled when they banned smoking in restaurants, insisted that separate smoking and non-smoking sections would solve the problem.  As someone who has now been an ex-smoker for almost seven years?  I cringe at how stupid I was.  Believe me, that smoke doesn't pause at the little divider sign and decide to stick to the smoking side.  Perfume doesn't cover it.  Even doing laundry doesn't get the smell out of the clothes.  I know that because we just found a bag of old clothes in storage--these clothes had been washed, then bagged, but they still reek of smoke.  Seven years later.  Our leather jackets?  Still stink.  Our books on our shelves?  Indelibly stamped with tobacco smell (and staining).  I used to accuse non-smokers of pretending to be bothered by smoke. 

And then I quit.  I quit, and I had to, one by one, ditch every one of those rooted-in-denial ideas I had about smoke, smoking, and non-smokers.

Three weeks after I quit, my sense of smell started to rebound in a big way.  I had always thought my sense of smell was pretty sharp, but . . . well.  Once again, I'd been lying to myself.  At three weeks out, I found myself in Hastings, a book shop.  I was reclining in an easy chair, eyes closed, waiting for hubby to find whatever it was he was looking for.  Quite suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the breathtaking, overpowering smell of wet, dirty ashtray and smoke.  It was a meaty, visceral smell.  It was as if a smoker had dropped into my lap.  Truly, it was that intense.  My eyes snapped open, but there was no one close to me.  However, 15-20 feet away, there was a woman who had been smoking outside when we arrived.  She had just walked in.

From twenty feet, I could smell her.  Strongly.  It was devastating.  You see, for years, I had dropped cash on fancy perfumes, sprays for the hair, dryer sheets, lotions, powders--name it.  All so I could feel like I smelled pretty.  And none of it worked.  I realized that the little Mormon girl who had once told me that she couldn't smell my new conditioner, all she could smell was smoke?  Wasn't being a snot--she really couldn't smell anything over the smoke.  The only reason *I* could was because I was accustomed to the smell of smoke and could, therefore, disregard it and smell other things.  It really was ego-crushing, the realization that I smelled that strongly of smoke.

By five weeks out, I could smell a burning cigarette across a parking lot.  Hubby quit soon after I did, and I remember seeing someone toss a smoke out of their car ahead of us.  We wound up next to that smoldering cigarette, and, even with the windows rolled up, we could smell it.  This is no joke, no exaggeration.  We had to leave Chili's one night because a crowd of teens came in and sat behind us, and they smelled so strongly of smoke that it was nauseating.  We asked for to-go boxes and ate at home.  Feeling utterly ashamed.  Just a short while before, that was US.  We were doing that to other people.

By spring, my renewed sense of smell was really a treat.  Cherry blossoms, which had long smelled like dirty feet to me, suddenly smelled like they were supposed to.  Everything smelled stronger, which isn't always a good thing.  Some cuts of beef started to smell like the county fair.  Chemical smells were overpowering, as were some perfumes I had previously enjoyed.  But, for the most part, it was pretty amazing.

Four months after hubby and I quit, my sister quit.  Within a week, her daughter, who had coughed miserably every night for years, stopped coughing.  Our mom, who had been smoking for almost 60 years, quit.  Defeated.  She didn't quit because she wanted to, she quit because we had all quit and she felt outnumbered.  Hey, whatever the reason, she's been quit for going on seven years now.  She no longer gets the annual pneumonia.  She no longer requires an inhaler.  She no longer drops hundreds of bucks a month on smokes.

And that's huge.  All the other reasons to quit aside, think of the money!  Between us, hubby and I were burning through 5-6 packs of cigarettes a DAY.  A DAY!  Back then, when they were ONLY four bucks a pack, that was over 600 bucks a month.  Now?  In Utah, we'd be looking at over a grand a month in cigarettes.  Can you IMAGINE?  The first year we were quit, we saved the money and took ourselves, our boy, and our niece and nephew on a ten day vacation to SoCal.  Disney, California Adventure, Legoland, Sea World, etc.  Rental car, hotels, meals, everything.  The second and third years?  A two week (and then a three week) vacation to the east coast, from DC to Maine, with a little Canada thrown in.  All on smoke money.

I've had people say to me, "You're stronger than I am."  That's utter crap--if I was strong, I wouldn't be struggling with my weight.  I'm not stronger than you or anyone.  Saying that makes me seem extraordinary, and if I'm extraordinary, you can feel okay about not succeeding.  That's self-defeating garbage, stop it.

I've had people say, when I offer advice, "Oh, no thanks--I'm a pro at quitting."  No you're not.  If you were a pro, you wouldn't be smoking.  You're a pro at failing to quit.  I, on the other hand, succeeded.  Let me help you.  I'm happy to.

Quitting wasn't easy.  But you know what was harder, by far?  The FEAR of quitting.  That is no joke.  My over-the-top panic at the very idea of quitting was SO much worse than the actual deed.  It was like finding out that the gorilla in the closet was actually a Capuchin monkey.  Sure, still has a bite, but isn't likely to throw me around, jump on my chest, and then tear my head off.  Quitting was manageable.  All I had to do was remember that cravings pass whether I light up or not (but lighting up guarantees there will be more cravings), learn to laugh at the craziness of cravings, and recognize that the stress "relieved" by lighting up is usually CAUSED by craving.  When those things sank in, quitting got markedly easier. 

I'm not going to go into a detailed "how to quit smoking" thing here--if you want that, leave me a comment and I will hook you up.  But I am going to say a few things.  One, surround yourself with people who don't smoke and who support you.  I'm not saying you should permanently ditch smoker friends, but the first few weeks should probably be sans smoking friends.  Sans alcohol, too.  Two, join a community--I hung out on the smoking cessation forum, and it did wonders.  All sorts of folks in all stages of their quit--from those just planning to folks who've been quit for ten years.  The answers are there, and so is the support you need.  Three, know that smokes aren't rewards, they're not something good that you're denying yourself.  Change how you think about cigarettes.  Smokes are killing you, they're not a treat, they're a burning tube of carcinogens that cost you money.  They cost you LIFE.  The reward is soldiering through until your quit becomes easy.  And that's number four--it DOES become easy.  I think that was always my fear--that the cravings, the urges, the emotional roller-coaster would last forever.  That I would forever have itching fingertips and shaky hands and be obsessing about my next smoke.  Well, I'm here to tell you that's not the case.  Thank goodness, huh?  It all passes, it does.  And it doesn't take years.  I don't even think about smoking now.  I don't crave, I don't find myself wondering what I should do with my hands now that dinner's over.  No, I just learned new things to do, and I never even think of it now. 

Not even once, in seven years, have I woken up and thought, "Oh, damn!  I wish I hadn't quit smoking!"  But every day for at least twenty, I would, at some point in the day, as the throat got itchier and the chest got tighter and the head ached more, think, "Oh, damn!  I wish I'd never started this!" 

Tomorrow is The Great American Smokeout.  I used to be so angry every year when this rolled into town.  I felt so bitter and so persecuted.  But now?  I just wish I'd tried, wish I'd hopped on earlier.  I realize now it's not borne of meanness or meant to be a way to pick on smokers.  No.  It's a movement of hope, it's an attempt to help people break clean from this addiction.  So take advantage of it!  Go into it with your eyes open and make a change for yourself and your family!  Join's smoking cessation forum (or some other forum dedicated to quitting), stock up on ice water, Jolly Ranchers, gum, Coffee Nips, carrot sticks, frozen grapes, a quit meter, and some cleaning supplies. 

Cleaning supplies? 

You bet.  Clean out all those places you used to smoke, home and car.  Do your best to "de-smoke" them.  And then make a rule that they are not to be smoked in again.  You'll be surprised just how motivating this is. 

So get out there and quit.  There's no reason for you not to.  You're not too set in your ways--I wasn't, and I was the perfect cheerleader for the tobacco lobby.  You're not too old--my mother was 72, for goodness' sake!  You don't need patches, e-cigarettes, or anything else that keeps the nicotine in your body.  Just quit.  And if that seems scary to you, try to remember--many things worth having are scary and require work at first.  Many things worth having put us out of our comfort zone when we first wade in.  Just do it, and do it through rethinking and reimagining smoking.  Don't try to muscle through on willpower--willpower fails eventually.  Rethink tobacco.  Remember all the things you hate about it.  That carried me through cravings--I would just close my eyes and remember how badly it sucks to hear that crackling and popping in my throat.  How awful it felt to have my sinuses burning, my head aching, and my throat tight and itchy.  And that was just a normal day of smoking.  I didn't even have to concentrate on the pneumonia. 

Quit.  Be good to yourself, be good to the people who love you.  It's never too early, and it's never too late.  Quit. 


And please, know that this isn't an attack.  If you don't quit, I still like you.  This isn't an attempt to shame folks who smoke, but rather an attempt to help them to quit.  I wish I had quit years before I did.  Maybe, if someone had been open and supportive, I would have quit.  Of course, maybe I didn't give anyone the chance to be those things.  Who knows?  Either way, I hope I've been of some help.  Take what you can from this, walk away from the rest, and know that my intentions are pure.


1 comment:

  1. Very well written! I quit about 12 years ago. I had tried and tried for almost ten, thru all sorts of things. I too answered "no" when an ER nurse asked if I was a smoker. I had tossed my pack out the window on the way there! I had a swelling around my heart that mimicked a heart attack! But even that was not enough.

    My husband had quit many years before me when he could no longer breathe. When i did quit it was because he got laid off and was going to be home 24/7. There was no way to hide my smoking anymore. I'm sure he knew, but was able to cast a blind eye as long as we were apart all day.

    Anyway, I finally did quit and like you I have never regretted it. I really struggled with weight for a long time, but knew if I went back to smoking it would not cause me to lose weight. I look around and see many fat smokers.

    I always hated the smoke out. It would often fall on my Birthday, the 17th. I never participated.