Saturday, May 21, 2005


I quit smoking a year ago today. I never thought I'd live to say that.

I quit cold turkey the day that my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two surgeries and a lot of chemo and radiation later, he's doing well...and we take nothing for granted.

I'll have to get screened myself every year. As a former smoker, I'll be at an increased risk for lung cancer for the rest of my life. But I've already greatly reduced my chances of a lot of other unpleasant things, such as sudden death or having to talk through a metal box like that guy on South Park.

I started smoking when I was a teenager because of Reefer Madness. Not pot, tobacco. We kids saw that movie, which had become a cult classic by the early '70s, and we knew that pot didn't make you go instantly loco. And in Woody Allen's Sleeper, he's a health nut who's cryogenically frozen and awakens 200 years in the future, where red meat and cigarettes are actually good for you. And God knows there were enough granola heads around already to wag a finger and tell you that you should put nothing in your body but a high colonic enema.

So we figured, someday they'll find out they were wrong about cigarettes. But as the years went by, I could see that "someday" wasn't coming soon enough for some people I knew, and as I got older, these people were getting closer and closer to my own age. One was a couple of years younger, but I figured, "She lives on Long Island...they've got power lines or some crap there."

I wanted to quit by the time I was in my late '20s, and I did. About five times over the next twenty years. I would gradually taper off, and then I would restart a few weeks later, thinking I could be one of those people who has one or two every once in a while. Those people are very rare, and none of them are former habitual smokers.

Another thing that would get me started again was the certainty every time I quit that I would end up in a loony bin. This misconception is a natural consequence of having spent too much time around people who equate any strong emotion as a sign of mental disorder. Ironically enough, the people who are most likely to equate your addiction morally with child molestation or being a derelict in the street are the same people who are frightened of the strong emotions that are likely to come up when you quit smoking. So when I quit last year, I made sure that I spent as much time around those people as possible.

Having quit before gives you some experience to draw from the next time. But last year was the first time I had ever done it cold turkey. It was actually more merciful than tapering off; you don't have that jolt to your system when you light up again, and then have to go through withdrawal all over again afterward. But I did notice a new sensation after 72 hours. I had this clawing feeling in the pit of my stomach and cramps from my stomach to my throat. What's this, I asked myself, unresolved feelings from childhood? No, Schmuck, you're hungry! When that happens, what normal people do is they say, "I'm going to sit down and have a meal" like a selfish, greedy, out-of-control pig...I mean, like a human being.

I was always afraid I'd put on weight when I quit, but I actually lost weight. This could have been from worry over my husband, but it had more to do with not substituting a snack for the cigarette. You would think, if I put a lollipop in my mouth like Kojak, it'll substitute for the cigarette. You would be wrong. You're continuing to use something as a psychological crutch, and you'll be disappointed that it's not a cigarette. Better to break the reflex and set your energies off into new directions, as long as the direction isn't shooting somebody.

I have dreams every few weeks where I'm smoking, and in the dreams I feel disappointed. I wake up and realize it was a dream and I'm relieved. My husband has those dreams, too. Somebody will give him a cigarette and say, "You can do this now, you're okay now." But as any cancer survivor will tell you, no matter how good your last scan was, you never think you're "okay" again.

"So brunobaby," you may ask, "when you pass people smoking outside a bar or an office building, considering what you and your husband have been through and knowing what smoking can do, don't you feel like yanking the cigarettes out of their hands and lecturing them?" Yes, sometimes I do feel like doing that, but I know it wouldn't do any good. It never made any impression on me, and hopefully, they'll quit before they do themselves or their loved ones serious damage.

I don't allow smoking in my house, where it can linger invisibly in the air for days. But at the same time, I don't mind a momentary, passing whiff on the street. It's like a joke my friend Mary Catalano used to tell: "I feel about cigarettes the way I feel about an old boyfriend. I still love him, I just don't want him in me."

I'm not the Carrie Nation of nicotine, just somebody who broke a bad habit. I'll share my experience with anyone who's interested, because I'm fortunate enough to have a better way of communicating than did this girl who came up to me a few years ago:

I was on East 64th Street, on my way to a job, smoking "the one before work." It was very early in the morning on a beautiful Spring day, and I was the only one around for several blocks. Suddenly, I noticed a short, intense young woman across the street and down the block. She was walking in my direction, swinging clenched fists, when she caught sight of me. She crossed the street and headed right for me, her head leading the way by a foot. I was thanking God that I was wearing a backpack and had both hands free to protect my face when she stopped inches in front of me...and gave me a very loud, theatrical cough.

I blew smoke in her face.

Your husband is lucky to be married to such a wonderful woman. He must love you very much
What wonderful news. You will be able to "keep on keepin' on" because you want to. Jim too.

I started smoking in college because the manufacturers brought these cute little boxes of four cigeretts to the campus quite often and gave them out free. I used to smoke a few cigaretts a day and quit even that 31 years ago this last April 12. My best friend, Kathy, was in New York Hospital undergoing kidney stone surgery. We all held counsel in the sun room at the end of the hall. We were very scared because it was major, major life-threatening surgery. No sitting in the tub of water and being blasted by some kind of rays back then. It was an all-day vigil, and then more daily visits for about three weeks thereafter. We all smoked. My friend's mother, Jeannette, had left an unopened pack of Salem on the coffee table and had gone to the ladies room. I proceeded to open the pack and took out a cigarette as she returned. You could smoke in sun rooms of hospitals back then! Opening the pack was, indeed, very forward of me, and I told her I hoped she wouldn't mind. She said, and I obviously have never forgotten this, "It's all right, but you don't need that cigarette." It was not out of meanness, but rather was an observation. I told her, "You're right, I don't." I put the cigarette back into the pack and have never touched one since that time. I can't believe she made such a difference in my life. But than that's what mothers, or mother figures, are supposed to do.

I think it rang true to me because to be this forward meant that I had allowed something to control me even to the point that I would dare to open someone else's pack of cigarettes without asking. I realized at that moment that an external force was controlling me to some extent, and I will not allow anything to control me, and certainly not a bunch of leaves wrapped in a piece of paper.

Not to mention the money... One has to take out a bank loan to buy cigarettes these days.

Thanks, Alene!

You were smart to listen to your friend's mother, as well as insightful.

I would have said, "I do so need that don't want to see what I'm like without it!"

When I was willing to risk being a live lunatic instead of a dead nice person, I knew I was ready to quit.
I am so proud of you.
Thanks, Leigh-Anne!
Go Brunobaby! You're an inspiration.
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