Quitting Smoking: Losing Your Worst Best Friend
Quitting smoking is harder than kicking a heroin habit.
That’s a fact I learned in three different Smoking Cessation programs I participated in more than 20 years ago. The reason doesn’t have much to do with the substances themselves – nicotine vs. opiates. It has more to do with using out in the open vs. abusing in private. As a former smoker, quitting meant not only giving up nicotine, it also meant giving up social rituals that were a huge part of my life. You don’t see many heroin users shooting up during a game of pool. But smokers – particularly 25 years ago – were part of any social scene.
I’m talking about the 70s, when you could find students and faculty smoking side-by-side at my high school’s smoking patio. And the 80s, when it was perfectly acceptable to smoke at work – in my office, not in some area behind the trash dumpsters. I was a writer for IBM in North Carolina, where it’s practically mandatory to support the tobacco farmers by lighting up. My office came with a computer, an ergonomically-correct chair, and two black, molded-plastic ashtrays.
We smoked in restaurants, retail stores and even health clubs. I remember the year they banned smoking on the tennis courts, meaning we could no longer have a cigarette break between sets. It caused a huge rift among the club’s membership, and “vandals” continuously stole the No Smoking signs.
We smoked on airplanes. The ashtray was built right into the seats’ armrest, so even if you didn’t smoke, you certainly reeked of the habit after your flight.
And then there was smoking-after-sex. Sweaty and satisfied, my lover and I would pass a cigarette back and forth, sharing a ritual nearly as intimate as lovemaking.
As a writer, I had one particular habit that was as hard to break as quitting smoking itself. I would type the first draft of an article, a speech or a script, then lean back, light up, and review what I had written -- making edits with one hand, tapping ash into my black plastic bowl with the other. I’d continue writing this way until the project was complete, and then reward myself with yet another cigarette. Whenever I tried to quit smoking, I felt as if I could no longer write. My mind got foggy. My words got lost. I longed for the rhythm of write-edit-smoke, write-edit-smoke.
This is why becoming a non-smoker meant more than kicking a habit; it meant abandoning a lifestyle. We were young, healthy students and professionals, smoking as an accompaniment to everything else we were doing. A cigarette was the finishing touch to any meal; a morning partner to my mug of coffee or Diet Coke. And it was definitely what I held in one hand when the other was holding a cocktail. If you were at a nightclub in the 80s, you were either inhaling your own smoke or that of 90 percent of the other people bellying up to the bar.
I tried seriously to quit smoking three different times from 1988 to 1990. The first few days weren’t so bad, because the initial recovery is so immediate. In just 12 hours of non-smoking, your lungs begin to heal from the more than 4000 chemicals in cigarettes. “The morning after” took on a whole new meaning as I woke up without the tightness in my chest or that annoying cough. But after a week or two, I would start to forget why I quit; I would conveniently misremember how bad my symptoms were. And by this time, I was in the depths of the withdrawal – depression, food cravings, anxiety, and an irritability that blows away anything I’ve experienced in my pre-menopausal life—at least, so far. (God help me and those who live with me!)
It wasn’t just the nicotine I missed; it was my pre-quitter life. When I wasn’t smoking, I couldn’t possibly go out to clubs, and what else did single 20-somethings do at night? If I went out, I’d inevitably have a drink, which would weaken my willpower and then I’d have just one cigarette. Then I’d have another cocktail and another cigarette and pretty soon I wasn’t a non-smoker anymore.
And even though I could breathe better with each sunrise, I had trouble waking up without lighting up. That’s when I truly felt as if I’d lost my best friend. I’d spend the morning sad, depressed and lonely. I’d go through my day feeling lost and miserable. Today, more than 20 years since I quit smoking for the last time, I still remember that feeling lasting nearly two months.
Ginger Emas is a freelance business writer, the mother of a 14-year-old son, and the author of the hilarious and helpful book, “Back On Top: Fearless Dating After Divorce.” She is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist, and has written for Skirt! magazine, More.com, Glamour.com, LovingYou.com and several other women-centric media.
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