Thankful I quit smoking

Woah. That's why people smoke...

Every time I tell someone I used to be a smoker, they look at me as if I'm trying to play a trick on them. As if it couldn't possibly be, this educated mostly-together professional used to engage in such a nasty habit that leads to premature aging, and all sorts of nasty diseases. Yep. I sure did. Not only that- I loved the heck out of it. I talk about smoking the way some reflect on a past lover. It was really love at first sight...or puff. I was a teenager, skulking the streets of downtown on some weekend with my best friend, when she pulled out a pack of Winston cigarettes and a lighter. I remember thinking that this is one of those peer pressure moments you see in after school specials. The just say no kind of deal, without the crying child yelling "I learned it from you!" to his dad. It wasn't drugs. It was cigarettes! That's not as bad right? I remember my big brother used to smell like smoke sometimes, and the Chinese restaurant down the street always smelled awful from the stench of stale tobacco you could likely scrape off the wallpaper. I figured, it wasn't a big deal. No way would I ever turn into one of those old, wrinkly, horse-voiced, skinny people on oxygen, counting their days -and their breath until their last. I don't think anyone ever thinks that with their first cigarette. I took my first puff and thought- what's the big deal? Then my friend informed me that I didn't inhale. I guess she figured that I should be coughing. She was right. With my second puff, I could feel my lungs weeping- immediately followed by this wave of absolute dizzy, light-headed pleasure. Woah. THAT'S why people smoke. That was amazing. With each drag, came another wave of joy. I thought to myself, I could get used to this.

Purple Passion at the convenient store...

Of course, at that time I was a teenager and my access to cigarettes were limited at best. I found myself "bumming" them off friends at parties, or one girl from my cheerleading squad used to shoplift them with bottles of purple passion at the convenient store. I could never do anything like that myself, but I sure reaped the rewards of her delinquency. For better or worse, I ended up dating a smoker. He smoked Camel Wides, which was just another way to smoke twice as much at one time-they were big suckers. He was more than happy to supply me with smokes as we sat at coffee shops thinking big thoughts and exchanging hidden meanings in Pink Floyd lyrics. I bet Roger Waters smoked. Anyway- It was the 90's and smoking wasn't demonized yet. Sure, people likely thought smoking was gross here and there, but it wasn't banned in public places, people smoked in restaurants, cars, THE MALL...it wasn't as taboo as it is today. Plus, pop culture was chock full of examples of how smoking is just a normal and accepted part of life. I was more than a little obsessed with the movie Reality Bites, which in my opinion is a pretty accurate representation of the unfortunate reality of "adulting" as the youngsters call it today (I really just said that). In that movie, every scene is laced with smoking, coffee, friendship, and ways to scam through life with as little work as possible. While I have always had a work ethic bordering obsessive, the other areas were painfully representative of my own world. 

A reward for pretty much anything...

When I hit my early adult years, I saw smoking as a reward for pretty much everything. As a waitress, it was usually the only thing that provided me a break. Non-smokers never got to go outside and take a load off. It was kind of a given, that smokers got deserved breaks, whereas others just had to suck it up with their sore feet, and aching backs. Now that I think of it, we were all kind of pompous jerks- asking people to run our food for us while grabbing a drag here and there. Also, during my college years, I looked at smoking as a reward for finishing a page of a paper, a particularly grizzly stats/math problem, or just walking across campus to another class. Smoking is one of those things that is literally a good idea at any time. Did your water heater explode destroying everything on your second floor? Have a cigarette. Get to work and see that the business has gone under via a notice on the door and you are now unemployed? Hello cigarette goodness. See your ex making out with their new honey in the car in front of you at a stop light? Delicious nicotine- come to mama. Those are all real things, and yes- smoking made them better. It made everything better for many many years. I mean sure, there was bad stuff. It was expensive as heck! I think it was about $3.75/pack when I quit, but they are way more now. I had horrible coughing fits in the morning. It was only for the last few years I smoked, but I would sound just like a nasty depiction of a terminal smoking stereotype for about an hour after I woke up, until my coffee and cigarette calmed it. I later learned that the coughing was my cilia (hairs on your lungs) trying to clear out the crud, and smoking paralyzes them. Awesome. There was also the smoker bullies. Granted, I know throwing a cigarette butt out of my window was littering- I was a self-centred and self-serving twenty-something that cared little to nothing about the environment. However, once, I threw a burning butt out of my window, and a bystander threw it back in my car- burning a hole in my seat. Yes, I see his point, but I wasn't scum. I didn't deserve such a blatant display of jerk-dom.

Lived off of tootsie pops and anger...

There came a time when I knew I had hit my limit. The expiration date was upon me. It was now or never. Either I quit now, or I'm just going to be that person. The one that looks crusty and littered with disease, that smells kind of bad, and oozes various sputum-like substances. I didn't want to be that person. So I quit cold turkey and lived off of tootsie pops and anger for about 3 days before giving up. Several months later, I made it 11 days. It wasn't for me. I have never felt so weak in my life! My sheer will wasn't enough to get me through the pure unadulterated hell that quitting entails. I later learned that nicotine is more addictive than heroin. Well that explains a lot. I kept it up. I kept it up for years. A12-year total smoking history. You know when you go to the doctor and they ask you about tobacco use? Forever, as long as I live- I will say 12 years. I smoked for 12 years, about a pack a day for the last 10. I quit in October of 2004. Let me tell you about that day. 

The smoker in me was gone...

I took a pregnancy test. That's right, I had been especially hungry. In fact, I had gotten up in the night to eat two turkey sandwiches. I never ate at night. I hardly ate at all. After a little math and looking at the calendar, it appeared that things were a little off. On the way to Rite-Aid to pick up a pregnancy test, I smoked a cigarette thinking it didn't taste very good. Kind of stale, or flat. Something wasn't satisfying about it- which was weird, because I loved smoking. I didn't know that would be the last one. When I got home, my story changed and like a light switch- the smoker in me was gone. I was going to be a mom. It wasn't about me, and wouldn't be ever again. My daughter likes to remind me that she got me to quit smoking- like she has a superpower that somehow overshadowed every failure. She was big enough. Indeed she was.

Smoking isn't much of a pal after all...

Today, over a decade later, the irony of my history faces me daily. In addition to my other credentials I hold great pride in, I'm also a Mayo Clinic trained tobacco treatment specialist. Yup- I've been trained to help people quit smoking. I work in a medical setting with heart and lung patients, desperate to quit- what has given them a problem list a mile long. What makes this role unique, is my extraordinary compassion and understanding for their struggle. I get it. I get the feeling that cigarettes are your one true friend- the one thing that is always there in times of distress or celebration. Perhaps- the longest relationship you've ever sustained. The grief of letting it go can be palpable. But like a crummy friend that gossips and backstabs, smoking isn't much of a pal after all. It's a thief- stealing years, and quality-of-life from your loved ones. Perhaps it was the years working in hospice, seeing a 75 pound woman with esophageal cancer, unable to swallow, still find the strength to light a cigarette with shaking hands. The man with COPD, that trained his dog to jump on his chest when the phlegm choked him- to dislodge the loogie and allow him to breathe freely. Like all addictions, it seems senseless. I'm so thankful I quit smoking. I'm thankful for the benefit of health and longevity that will follow me. I'm thankful that I quit early enough, that I don't have any lasting damage but sensitivity to smoke and allergens. I'm thankful that I experienced it, so I can reach other smokers in my practice with a gentle kindness and understanding they are desperate to hear from a provider. Smoking was a joy, but breathing is a much greater gift. Happy Gratitude Tuesday. What are you thankful for?

AM