Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/8/2009 (3819 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I am approaching the age of 46 and smoked my first cigarette when I was 10. I have a very clear memory of being a small child, hanging out with friends one weeknight, wanting to be cool and inhale for the first time. I remember what that felt like, the taste, the smell, the loud dry cough afterwards leaving my throat sore. But I felt cool. For the first time I felt important, I was one with the gang of girls. Rothmans king size, blue pack. I was a child, they were my friends.
My father almost always had a cigarette in his mouth and cigarette packages in every room so it couldn't possibly be such a bad thing.
Smoking quickly became almost a salvation, the perfect escape from an unhappy childhood. Smoking was the solution to all of my problems. It made me feel important, it lowered my anxiety, gave me something to do when I needed a distraction, a way out of this world and into another. Smoking was cool, it's what all the cool people did. And so I was initiated that night at the age of 10, and I would never be the same.
It was impossible to quit. Over the years I tried so many times and every time it was painful, and every time I failed. I lasted a few hours, a day or two, once I managed three days, but I always went back to what I craved, even if it was killing me. Smoking was a friend. Tears of joy, I smoked. Tears of sadness and grief, I smoked. Stress, smoke. Fatigue, smoke. Hunger, smoke. Depression, loneliness, pain, hurt, social functions, time alone, celebrations, study, work, marriage, divorce, smoke, smoke, smoke.
I did not know any other way to be. I could always smoke and somehow everything would be fine. It would all work out. And it always did — as long as I could smoke.
After a decade of smoking I developed an unpleasant cough which I managed to deny or hide or attribute to other things. After two decades, the cough became more persistent but again I was able to cover it up. I told myself I could not survive as a non-smoker. After three decades the cough became more severe. I got better at managing it and pretending that somehow it had nothing to do with smoking. I ignored the many other signs of ill health, like having trouble breathing, difficulty going up stairs, my deepening smoker's voice, which I preferred to think of as sexy. When I thought about the seriousness of the addiction and its effects on my body, I told myself I would quit when I turned 25, then 30, then 35, then 40. You get the picture.
Last year, one month shy of my 45th birthday, the decision to quit became a lot easier. I had been noticing more signs of smoking-related problems which I had learned to ignore until the throbbing daily headaches interfered with my work. I woke up one morning to find that a blood vessel had burst in my eye. A friend said that it could be the result of high blood pressure. Until that moment I'd never even considered I might have a problem like hypertension, but something clicked.
On Aug. 10, 2008, at 10 a.m. I'd smoked my third cigarette of the day. My partner suggested I walk over to the drug store where there was a blood pressure monitor. I found my pressure was 186 over 104. That seemed high. I had always prided myself on being thin, on walking everywhere and getting lots of exercise, on being vegetarian and having a mostly healthy diet save for the coffee addiction and my weakness for potato chips. So given that the number was high, my partner convinced me to go to a walk-in clinic where the doctor again took my pressure and the result was much the same. He looked at me and suggested that I needed to see my family doctor as soon as possible, that I needed to be medicated to bring the pressure down immediately. I told him I was opposed to taking pharmaceuticals. He used words like stroke and heart attack. I insisted that he give me the lowest dose possible.
Thus began my journey to learn to live as a non-smoker. It wasn't the fear of death that made me quit my 35-year addiction, but my fear of illness. Fear was a powerful motivator for me that day and in subsequent days spent in doctors offices and in hospitals having electrodes attached to my chest to have my heart checked for potential problems including signs of heart attack. All the while thinking, I am not 45 years old, I'm vegetarian, I walk everywhere, I am healthy, dammit! I'd really like to have at least a couple more decades.
The first three months of not smoking were sheer hell. I was as addicted to nicotine as you can imagine. The worst part of the physical withdrawal lasted about six weeks (the "experts" tell you three days, well that just ain't true). The psychological withdrawal I continue to struggle with. I won't lie and say that I am over it. I am not. I still want to smoke. But I know I will not. I will not because I know that one cigarette would lead to another one and then another. I won't because for the first time I feel free. I am learning to be human without cigarettes. I am learning to cope without smoking. I am learning to be strong and to face what needs to be faced and not smoke. I am learning to be healthy and it feels really good. I am learning to breathe and it feels great. And so I celebrate my one year, smoke- free.
This is a big deal. A really big deal.
Janine Legal is a Winnipeg writer.