FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Quitting smoking takes time, patience

Carole Townsend 

Carole Townsend 

Lisa* is a good friend of mine. She quit smoking Friday afternoon at about 3 p.m. I know this, because she called me around 4 this morning to tell me the exact number of hours and minutes since she made that decision. She awoke from a dead sleep, sweating and craving the insidious coffin nails that have ensnared so many of us over the years. While my first instinct was to reproach Lisa for calling at that indecent hour, empathy stopped me in my tracks. I was in her shoes about 10 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I never touched a cigarette until I was 24 years old. I was old enough to know better, in other words. I was out with some friends one evening, lamenting the ungraceful end of a moderately long-term relationship. My friends were feeling sorry for me, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon. Before I knew it, a “friend” handed me my first-ever cigarette. I lit that bad boy up, and I do believe that was all she wrote. I believe I was addicted after the very first one. That’s kind of built into my personality, I’m afraid.

I smoked for six or seven years, snuffing out my last one the minute my then-husband and I decided to start trying to have our first child. I put them down and didn’t look back. Know when I picked them back up? The day I filed for divorce from said husband. My children were 4 and 6 at the time. Nicotine addiction is a funny thing. I don’t think it ever leaves you once you coax it out of its den. It may lie in wait for weeks, months or even years, but I know for a fact that if I lit a cigarette today, I’d be right back at it in no time. Scary thought, because quitting for good 10 years ago was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

My children were the reason I quit smoking. They used to come home from school and say things like, “Mom, smoking hurts your lungs. My teacher says smoking will give you cancer, and people die from cancer!” I used to think Wow, what are they teaching kids in school these days? Don’t they know such nonsense rains on my parade? Selfish, I know, but is there anything more selfish than an addiction?

When I finally decided that enough was enough, that it was quit or suffer lung cancer at some point (or raise junior smokers of my own), I threw my last pack in the trash. I got rid of all the lighters and other accouterment that smokers hold so dear. Then I braced myself for the inevitable onslaught, for the demands my body would begin screaming for a taste of its best friend: nicotine. And the demands came, fast and hard. That was about 15 minutes into my endeavor. I knew I’d be needing reinforcements.

One friend suggested hard candies. She told me to keep a handful in my pocket and just pop one in my mouth every time a craving hit. One hour into that little experiment, and I knew that yes, while I may quit smoking, I’d be a diabetic, toothless 30-something woman in about a week. Not a good prospect. Another friend told me to cut a straw the length of a cigarette and just keep that in my mouth. Not very practical, and people began to think I had a bigger problem than cigarette addiction. No matter; I chewed the straw to a small white pulp in about two hours. Scratch that plan.

I decided to begin chewing that nicotine replacement gum. At the time, there were no flavor options. The gum tasted like scrapings from the bottom of a bird cage, so I thought, “Well this won’t last long.” What I didn’t factor into the equation was the fact that I was now chewing cigarettes rather than smoking them. And I didn’t chew the gum properly, either. I chewed it with as much fervor as a rookie baseball player. I blew bubbles with it. One time, before a public speaking engagement, I was so nervous I crammed four or five pieces in my mouth and went to town. I don’t remember anything about my speech, but it was over about 15 minutes before it was supposed to be. I understood later that I spoke as fast as an auctioneer selling perishables. And still I continued to chew.

After about three years of chewing that awful tasting gum (and tens of thousands of dollars by my account), I implored my doctor to help me kick the habit — in all its forms — once and for all. He prescribed a drug typically used as an anti-anxiety drug. I took it for about a day and a half, and then I just quit it all. Makes no sense I know, but neither does smoking burned toxic weeds.

I met my friend Lisa for breakfast today, since I was already up before the crack of dawn. I picked her up at her house, just in time to stop her from rolling up the leaves of a house plant and trying to smoke them. She’s desperate, miserable, withdrawing. I very much feel her pain, and helping her makes me remember what an awful ordeal “quitting” really is.

There are still days when the thought will dart through my mind: “Boy a cigarette sure would taste good right about now.” It usually happens when I hit writer’s block or when someone irritates me. But then I remind myself that though I want a cigarette, I do NOT want to be a smoker. Then the weak craving fades as quickly as it formed, and I may not have that thought again for weeks or even months. I am always aware, though, that it’s lurking.

Have you quit smoking? Are you trying? I wish you the very best of luck with it. Help fellow readers out and share some tips and an encouragement.

* Lisa’s name was changed to protect the addicted and currently emotionally unstable. I’m not taking any chances.