I started smoking when I was 13. My habit began with me smoking one cigarette with friends, periodically, on the walk to and from school. That escalated into me having my own pack and sharing with the friends who wanted one.
During the early years I could stop smoking when I wanted to. In the summer I normally did. I went to great lengths to keep my parents in the dark about my smoking. Looking back with adult eyes, I’m sure the gross stench of lingering smoke on my person, clothes and belongings clued them in.
As I reached my late teens, my smoking habit grew steadily — until eventually I was smoking a pack a day. By then I was clearly addicted. I knew the dangers of cigarette smoke and how much harm it was doing to my body, but I still put off quitting for as long as I could. According to the Mayo Clinic, cigarette smoke “contains more than 60 known cancer-causing chemicals and thousands of other harmful substances.” Near the end of my time as a smoker, I could really feel smoking’s negative effects. My husband and I would take an evening walk, and by the time we’d finish I’d be short of breath and coughing.
My husband had been a smoker too, but he quit about six months before I did. His nagging — along with my health issues — was what prompted me to quit. It was December 2003 when I finally decided to take the plunge. My goal was to stop smoking on New Year’s Day, but as THE day inched closer, my addict mind started taking over and I made excuses about why the time wasn’t right for quitting.
In fact, I had mostly convinced myself that I would just continue smoking for some comforting, unspecified time. But on Christmas Eve, I caught a nasty flu bug and was feeling so horrible that even the thought of smoking made me want to run to the nearest toilet bowl. Amidst the haze of sickness, I knew I had to use my unexpected illness as a starting point for quitting smoking.
Quitting cold turkey was hard, but it was the only way to go for me. I have a very addictive personality, so I knew that cutting back wasn’t going to work.
I went two days without a cigarette when I was still feeling ill. By the third day, I wasn’t sick with the flu anymore and noticeable cigarette-withdrawal symptoms were felt in full force. I was VERY irritable and — surprisingly — sad. I hadn’t expected to be upset emotionally, just physically. This threw me for a loop, but I’ve since learned that what I was feeling was normal. (The Mayo Clinic notes that, when quitting smoking, “mood-related signs and symptoms,” such as “depressed mood,” can rear their ugly heads.) The best way to describe how I felt? It was like my best friend had moved far away. Looking back, I would probably have benefited from some counseling (or at least a support group) while going through the quitting process.
I began to think about when and where I typically smoked: after meals and college finals, while driving, during breaks at work. Clearly I needed other alternatives to get me through the day. My already-large sweet tooth grew during this time, and dessert took over the crucial after-dinner spot previously reserved for smoking. I kept a supply of hard candy close at hand, and also chewed gum. (Gum-chewing became another addiction I had to tackle later, but it certainly helped get me through this difficult time.)
Getting outside also helped ease my withdrawal symptoms, so instead of staying huddled next to the building with the smokers, I started taking short, brisk walks during my work breaks. This approach helped after taking stressful college tests as well.
I bought one last pack of cigarettes and kept them in my car. This technique probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but having the cigarettes within reach helped me mentally get through each day. During particularly bad cravings I would tell myself to wait until later, and reassure myself that if some time passed and I still felt like I absolutely had to smoke, then I could open the pack. That never happened, and I was able to refrain from smoking them at all.
Also, I made it a point to stay away from smokers during this time. Thankfully, most of my friends didn’t smoke, so that helped. I also found myself turning down invitations to go to concerts or clubs that I knew would be smoker havens.
Eventually, I was able to toss the box of cigarettes that was in my car. As the smoke-free days went by, I started noticing that my coughing and shortness of breath were becoming less noticeable — and my physical stamina was increasing.
I didn’t consider myself a nonsmoker for a while. It continued to feel like something was missing. When I would pass smokers on the street, my body would crave a cigarette, and I would wonder why I hadn’t had my first smoke of the day yet. I kept having to remind myself that I was no longer a smoker.
After a few years, everything I was doing to prevent myself from smoking became habit, and I officially began to think of myself as a nonsmoker. It’s been almost 10 years since I’ve quit. I still crave a cigarette from time to time, but I’ve never had another puff.
I’m thankful that my body is slowly repairing itself. (As WebMD states, “Your risk of having a heart attack is cut in half two years after you quit smoking. And 15 years after you quit, your risk of a heart attack is similar to that of a person who never smoked.”) I’m very optimistic about my health and proud that I accomplished such a fantastic goal — which once seemed dauntingly unachievable.