HEALTH No Butts About It

When smoke gets in your eyes, it’s time to quit. I have. I hope.

THE WHOLE PROBLEM STARTED

when I realized that what I was doing was just not me. Oh, it was obviously me buying the cigarettes. But only a pack a day, never a carton, even though that would have been much cheaper. Because if you are about to quit smoking you don’t need a bunch of leftover cigarettes sitting around after you quit, do you? No, you only need the one in your hand to make it the last one, and the one in my hand was always the last one. It had been the last one for at least six years.

You see, every smoker is two people. There is the confident, secure, happy person you see in the cigarette ads that somehow still get published. And why shouldn’t we be confident? Twenty or fifty times a day, we carry out a highly personal ritual with hands and mouth and lungs that always works, that always makes us feel better. How many other things in life are that predictable, that safe? All you have to do is buy that pack. Every day.

The flip side of every smoker is the self-deceiving fool, the wimp, sucker, and cowardly suicide victim in training. I could not live with one of these tags, so I managed for sixteen years to do what all happy addicts must do: compartmentalize like hell. I was smoker A, the Good Smoker. I was not smoker B, the Bad Smoker.

The Surgeon General long ago tagged smoking the Number One preventable health risk. With so much evidence available about the dangers of smoking, I should have been the last person to consume cigarettes. I do not take unnecessary risks. I don’t drive fast and will nag at anyone who does. I’m fanatical about seat belts. I inspect our garage regularly for hidden safety hazards, and 1 wash the tops of canned goods before I open them.

And yet, I was taking a major risk with my life every day. It was fun while those compartment walls held tight and kept Good Smoker from having to rub elbows with Bad Smoker.

But something was shaking that wall. The glamour was long gone; tolerance was receding at every private, public, and legislative level, and the increasing bad press about this nasty addiction already had shamed me into the closet (where I still managed to consume nearly a pack a day). More importantly, over the years, I’d seen co-workers die of smoke-related illnesses. 1 have sad memories of my grandmother suffering from emphysema, caused by smoking.

So I woke up one day to find that Bad Smoker had crashed the party and introduced herself to Good Smoker, and they were mirror images, because they were both me. It was time for action.

I could not quit on my own, and cold turkey had never worked. So when I received the flyer from the Stop Smoking Clinic promising success within two weeks, I thought this was the program for me. The timing was right, too. The flyer was cleverly mailed just after the start of the New Year. Those resolutions could be kept after all!

While I would not issue a ringing endorsement for the class, which used a fairly common mix of smoking cessation techniques and group support, it did work for me. When the four-week course was over, twelve of our sixteen class members proclaimed themselves nicotine-free and accepted their “graduation” certificates. At our “reunion” just one month later, however, only three of us were still clinging to the status of Ex-Smoker. The rest had watched their time, their effort, their $255, and their willpower go up, alas, in smoke.

For the first night of class, we had been instructed to bring all of our cigarettes and relinquish them to the instructor. Lucky for me, my daily pack was almost empty. One student turned in two cartons.

After we literally stomped on all of these cigarettes, we left the first class with our personal cigarette assignments. I was assigned nineteen Merit Kings, which held .2 milligrams less nicotine than my old brand of Marlboro Light 100s. Since I had already “padded” my original quota (as had everyone else in the class), my first assignment was a piece of cake.

From there, I regressed (that is, progressed) to thirteen Winston Ultra Lights-A milligrams a day. It started getting hairy when I was assigned just eight Carlton 100s a day. These had .1 milligrams of “goody,” and disappeared after only two drags. My reduced nicotine consumption was making me a little edgy, but I still felt “in control.”

Then it happened. During my Carlton stage, I put on a suit jacket one morning, put my hand in the pocket, and discovered the lighter and the near-full pack of real cigarettes that I had misplaced three weeks before. I stared at these old friends for several long minutes. I couldn’t believe they had shown up like this in the middle of my new life, in the middle of my crucial journey to freedom! But there they were, my drug and my needle. I couldn’t bear to throw them away. I hid them in the garage.

I thought about them constantly. I told my husband about finding them, but I lied and told him that I threw them away. It was a small lie, but it filled me with guilt. He was so proud of me, so encouraging, so cheerful. I was miserable. Why couldn’t I just throw them away? Because 1 was scared. The big Quit Day was nearing; it would be the last time for us (me and the cigarettes, that is).

At the next class we would receive our final cigarette assignments. We were scheduled to quit two days later. I rushed home from work that afternoon with one thing on my mind. Without allowing anything to cloud my thinking, 1 reached for that old familiar white pack, grabbed that cigarette, and lit up. Ahhh, my old brand: long and white, not short and stubby with an ugly yellow filter, not trend-skinny, but just the right color and the right size. Argh! It was strong. At .8 milligrams, I was smoking my entire day’s allotment of nicotine in one cigarette. I was horrified-so horrified that as soon as I sucked the first one down, I lit another. By the time I finished the second one, I was reeling. In a state of combined euphoria and disgust, 1 ran into the house and doused the whole pack under the kitchen faucet.

I almost called it quits on quitting, but I couldn’t bear a confession to my cheerleading husband. Luckily, in class that night I experienced the power of group support. I discovered that everyone was crumbling under the pressure, except Linda, a woman I had informally partnered with from the start. She was about my age, with a similar smoking history and the same drive to quit. She had a slogan: “Quitting smoking has been on my list of things to do for twenty years, and I’m ready to cross it off the list.*’ Linda was an inspiration for me that night (incidentally, she made it too). Ours was not necessarily a cozy group, but it did help to know that I was not alone. By the time I left with my final assignment of five Now Regulars (smokers of this brand: why bother?), I was again pumped for success.

At our reunion party, we talked about having another, for all class members. Our instructor warned that such reunions rarely work because the successful students want to put their former addiction behind them and the unsuccessful students don’t want to be reminded of their failure.

He was right. It’s been ten months since that group of smokers came together in a common pursuit. I wish them all well, the Good Smokers and the Bad Smokers. But I wont try to set up another reunion. They’re part of the past now. Definitely.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find some wood to knock.

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