The journey to becoming an ex-smoker is a sprint to the finish line for some people. For others, however, it’s more of an amarathon’s finish line that’s so far in the distance it seems hopeless. Likewise, smoking is an addiction that some kick and never look back from as others constantly struggle with cravings and urge even decades later.
It’s vital to not base your successes and failures on anyone else’s smoking cessation journey, but it is helpful and inspiring to figure out how someone else kicked the smoking habit. Here’s my journey to becoming an ex-smoker.
I grew up in a home with so much smoke that the cedar cabinets were literally caked with sticky nicotine and walls intended to be white were actually brown. Both parents smoked at least a pack or two a day and didn’t open windows or doors.
As early as elementary and middle school, my teachers were certain I smoked. Everything I owned from a sheet of notebook paper to my underwear smelled like I had been rolling around in an afire tobacco field.
Needless to say that I grew up hating and being embarrassed by cigarettes and their smell. Yet, I still became a smoker.
I was in nursing school. By the second semester, half the class had failed or dropped. Some 12 of the 20 of us remaining smoked. Ironic, right? With that first cigarette, I could feel the stress subside. So, I had another and another, and I soon bought my own pack. From there, it spiraled into buying a carton per week by the time I graduated.
Stress wasn’t the only factor that led to my cigarette addiction. An important part of quitting is identifying why you smoke. I was introverted, shy, awkward, my OCD mind never stopped thinking, and I had little self-confidence or faith in myself.
Smoking offered me an automatic segue way into group situations with other smokers. It gave me a task to do with my hands to occupy my mind and settle my thoughts. It became as much a social and self-worth crutch as it was a physical addiction for me.
At 24-years-old, my husband, anon-smoker, and I found out we were going to be parents. It was the happiest moment of my life, but it was overshadowed by my tobacco use.
My first attempt was to quit cold turkey. The result was a long and painfully sleepless night. My hands shook and my body physically trembled. My mom, coworkers, husband, and friends advised me to just cut back until I could quit. In my mind, smoking while pregnant outweighed the risk of miscarriage from severe anxiety and stress.
I was still smoking, albeit a little less, by the time my baby bump started to show. It was embarrassing, and the feelings of guilt and self-loathing only compounded when I felt my baby move for the first time.
This led to my second attempt to quit smoking with nicotine patches and gums. After just a couple of days using them, I ended up in the emergency room a nervous, anxious mess with a heart rate of over 110 and blood pressure 180/100. The ER doctor concluded that I was likely allergic to the transdermal transfer of nicotine.
Shamefully, I gave birth to a healthy daughter as a smoker. Resignation set in as I thought to myself that I’d never quit smoking if I couldn’t do it for my daughter, who was the most important person in my life. It was a thought that would follow me through two more pregnancies as a smoker.
My dad had some inconsistencies at a routine work physically that landed him in a cardiologist’s office. We found out his heart was 75 percent occluded in three of his four major heart vessels, and he was immediately scheduled for a triple bypass the next morning.
As he recovered, he had his own battle with tobacco cessation. This prompted my third attempt to quit smoking with medicine. Our doctors prescribed Chantix to help my mom, dad, and myself quit together. There’spower in numbers, right?
It had been three months since my dad’s surgery. My mom successfully quit her 40-year smoking habit without any side effects. My dad turned to a mix of nicotine-free and nicotine vaporizers. I was down to half a pack a day.
But, the CHANTIX wasn’t agreeing with me and my dad. He started having thoughts of suicide and severe depression. Meanwhile, I wasn’t sleeping more than two hours a night and had gained almost20 pounds in a little over a month.
My dad and I both quit taking CHANTIX and returned to our previous smoking habits. The symptoms subsided, but I was left with the conclusion that I just needed cigarettes too much to quit. My increasingly bad experiences with trying to quit also made it easy to rationalize that quitting was more harmful to me than smoking.
It had been a couple of years since my last attempt. I hadn’t ‘seen’ any of the physical effects of being a smoker. I remember the first time that changed, though.
A new youth soccer league came to town, and my kids were so excited for me to teach them how to play. I found myself sitting on the ground gasping and coughing for air five minutes later, which was a far cry from my high school days of playing soccer. It only took two more minutes for me to light up a cigarette as my kids looked at me with disgust that was all too familiar.
I’d been thinking about making my fourth attempt to quit every since that day on the soccer field. But, it was always just one more stressful thing to get through, whether that be making it through a work transition or dealing with buying a new washing machine before I’d try again. Excuses were plentiful, including the stress of going on vacation with three kids.
We were in Helen, Ga tubing on vacation. My youngest was a novice swimmer, but these aren’t gigantic rapids and everyone is required to wear life vests. My husband goes ahead with my older kids on the faster rapids, and I and the youngest are just taking it nice and slow.
I’d just lit up a cigarette and was safely putting them back in the ziplock water protector when my son hit a rock that flipped his tube. His foot got trapped between two rocks when he flipped in water up to his chest. The vest meant he wasn’t going under the water, but the water going around the rocks was forceful enough to spray large amounts of water directly in his face. He was panicking.
The current had carried me at least 30feet from him before I could jump off in deeper water and start swimming to him. You have to understand that I grew up in the water, and had swum long distances against far greater currents than this.
The trust I had in body waned as I struggled for air as I made my way to my son. All the self-esteem and relaxation I thought cigarettes added to my life turned out to be nothing more than a destructive facade of ignoring the very real toll it had taken on my body.
I cursed cigarettes and myself. I wanted to take that very first cigarette back and break it into a million pieces. I prayed my ziplock bag of cigarettes was saturated. And, I vowed to my body that I would never pollute it again if I could just trust it to get me to my son.
This wasn’t a baby in my belly that I could easily say was okay because I couldn’t tangibly see him drowning in the effects of my nicotine addiction. Today, his drowning was in front of me, and the effects of cigarettes were about to be very tangible if it caused me to fail myself.
Waiting for one more stress to go away to quit smoking almost cost me everything. I never touched another cigarette after that day. I didn’t need nicotine therapies or medications, and I didn’t quit to help someone else, because I was disappointing others, or because it prevented me from enjoying fun activities. I became an ex-smoker upon the realization that I was the most important person in my life, and cigarettes were causing me to fundamentally fail myself on a grand scale.
Have you ever wondered why airlines instruct you to put your air mask on yourself before trying to help anyone else? It’s because you won’t have to worry about being around to help anyone else if you don’t help yourself first.
My previous attempts to quit were always about someone else, not me. I didn’t want it for me because I valued cigarettes as what got me through life vs recognizing them as the thing holding me back from life.
That day in Helen’s river was two years ago. It was my airline crash scenario. I realized I needed to put my mask on(quit smoking) for me if I wanted to save myself, much less anyone else.
Quitting is easy if you know your enemy. If you wish to quit smoking without therapies or medication, check out this cheat by Quit With Nerd.
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Jo Oliver is an LTC nurse from Hattiesburg, MS, and proud volunteer at a local food pantry for the needy and disabled. She writes as a health and wellness content researcher when not juggling all the activities of her overachieving kids.