They say that cigarettes can be harder to kick than heroin. From what we hear that's true and then some. Because it's so difficult but so essential, we asked people we know to describe how they quit and what it felt like. Although quitting was a triumph for everyone, some still see themselves smoking in their dreams. One writer is hoping there's a smoking section in heaven where he can light up with impunity. Now that he's quit, let's hope it takes him a long time to get there.
'Little men working on my brain'
After smoking for about a decade, I started seriously thinking about quitting, partly because of something my wife said. It wasn't a motivational speech like I might have expected, but the simple truth, "I don't want you to die."
Well, what do you say to that? Her cousin and my good friend, who happens to be a respiratory therapist, had offered to tell me some "stories," when I was ready. Finally I was ready, so he told me all about how a person dies, slowly, from lung cancer, in graphic detail. The "Ya gotta go sometime" argument was completely blown for me at that point.
I'd like to say that with great determination I up and quit one day, but it really started when I got sick with a chest cold and had to stay in bed. I literally couldn't smoke because I was coughing so badly. I woke up the next day and realized I'd gone without a cigarette for 24 hours, so I decided to go for another 24. It wasn't too bad, but then I went back to work.
I got through the first few hours, but that was all I could take. I was about to light up when I remembered some samples of nicotine gum that my aunt had sent me. I was very surprised that it actually did help. Even though my lungs felt like they were still starving for something, I felt better.
The mental part of all this was pretty tough. I had just been promoted, so I thought while I was trying to envision myself as a manager, I could just throw in the mental image of a nonsmoker, too. That wasn't exactly easy. After a week or so of voracious chewing (according to my wife), I felt like I should be able to relax and let down my guard. But the reality was that at this and other milestones, I had to stay tough and aware of the task. The unconscious wasn't taking over as quickly as I had expected.
I was also feeling kind of depressed, and I beat myself up a little for feeling such a loss over cigarettes. But then I realized that my brain had gotten used to the nicotine, and maybe had suppressed making chemicals of its own that affected my mood. So with that I developed a childlike but effective model of what was going on inside my head. I pictured little men up on scaffolds, working slowly but diligently on changing my brain, one section at a time, from a smoker to a nonsmoker. Oh, they took coffee breaks and lunch, but I think they worked all three shifts.
Eventually they finished the job, and after six weeks or so of nicotine gum, I was done. I think it helped that I didn't know my last cigarette was going to be my last cigarette, but I was also lucky that my wife gave me so much support. For years afterward, I had dreams in which I was smoking. (I still have them occasionally; I never dreamed about smoking when I was a smoker.) I do know that I'll never smoke another cigarette, because after 14 years I still remember what it was like to quit.
-- Bob Herscher, Gurnee, Illinois
Gum, Carrots, Patches, and Pills
I've been smoking off and on since I was 15 years old. My parents smoked so it seemed like the natural thing to do. Although they didn't allow it and said it was bad for me, I did it anyway.
In hindsight, I think I was very happy smoking until I reached my mid-20s, at which time the quitting process began. This would go on until I was 32. I would start out by setting a date. I always needed to set a date. That way I could smoke as much as possible up until then and not feel guilty. I would tell everyone I knew that I was officially quitting on this particular date and after that I would never smoke again.
The friends who have known me for a long time got quite a kick out of this declaration. Every time I had quit in the past, I tried different aids to help in the process: gum, carrots, patches, and pills -- none of which were nearly as satisfying as cigarettes. The longest period I went without cigarettes was three years. Then all it took for me to become a smoker again was a bad breakup and a bachelorette party in Las Vegas.
I feel that I am an intelligent woman who is very aware of the risks associated with smoking, but actually managing to quit is another story. My father has emphysema from smoking (he quit cold turkey after 40 years, but it was too late). My mother, at the age of 63, still smokes and so far has no health problems. We're keeping our fingers crossed.
It wasn't until the past few years that I began seriously trying to quit. I'd quit and start again, but the space between quitting and starting began to get shorter and the guilt over smoking again got stronger.
I recently decided this was really it! I started taking Zyban [a drug prescribed by doctors to curb nicotine cravings] for the second time, but with a stronger will to be successful. I do believe that the desire to smoke is all in my head. And when I really started to think of cigarettes for what they are, I realized I was killing myself slowly. Every time I inhaled, I could feel it. I've been free of cigarettes for six weeks so far. And now when I look at someone smoking a cigarette, it's without envy, and I thank myself for making it through another day without one.
-- Kendra Stanley, San Francisco
Happy Sweet 16 -- Here's Your Cigarette
I come from a long line of smokers. I honestly cannot remember my late mother without a Tareyton cigarette (or two) lit at all times. My father, who died peacefully at age 83, smoked two packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day for half a century. He quit in his late 60s and never seemed to have suffered from the vice. (In contrast, my mother, who died in her early 60s, was racked by painful and debilitating cancer for the last decade of her life.)
Smoking was a part of everyday life in our home. Neighbors would drop by for coffee and cigarettes. There were ashtrays in every room of the house, (except in the bedrooms), and those in the old DeSoto always needed emptying. Dinner never ended with dessert. The adults savored a final course of coffee and cigarettes at every meal -- even breakfast.
My siblings, however, were forced to wait until their 16th birthdays to join in the ritual. After blowing out the candles, each received a gift-wrapped pack of cigarettes from the folks and an invitation to light up with the grownups. As the youngest child and the family rebel, I was granted early admittance to the smokers' club at age 15. Five months before my 16th birthday, after finding my secret stash of cigarettes for the Nth time, my parents simply threw up their hands and told me to go ahead and smoke in front of them.
I smoked for many, many years. In high school, I smoked Camel straights. My choice of brands was driven partly by economics -- few novice smokers would bum an unfiltered cigarette -- and partly by the added coolness factor of smoking hardcore coffin nails. During lean times in college, I rolled my own with Drum tobacco. As a young copywriter, my smoldering ashtray overflowed constantly, and a fresh pack of Marlboro Reds was always within easy reach of my typewriter.
Writing and smoking are the Fred and Ginger of habits. Even now, as a nonsmoking writer, it's hard to imagine one without the other. Stuck on a passage, you stare at the paper and take a deep drag on your cigarette. As the fresh burst of nicotine hits your brain, closing tiny circuits and firing nerve endings deep within, the right phrase suddenly shimmers before your mind's eye. Your fingers race to tap out the words before they vanish; your teeth clench down hard on the filter, and smoke streams out your nostrils. Seconds later, you lean back in your chair, ponder the sentence you've just written, and celebrate your small victory with another drag of your cigarette.
With cigarettes having been such an integral part of my life for so many years, quitting was never easy. Over the years I've quit for periods ranging from less than an hour to more than eight years. I've gone cold turkey, chewed the gum, and worn the patch. (I've found the latter to be the most effective tool.) Smoke-free for the past 13 months, I believe this will be the last time I endure the agonies of quitting. My moment of nicotine epiphany was a coughing fit that nearly caused me to pass out. As I hacked, coughed, saw stars, and leaned on the shower wall for balance more than a year ago, I realized that dying of emphysema, lung cancer, or the like would be a horrible way to go. The single most effective way to avoid such a fate is to stay off the smokes. However, if there's a heaven (and I'm admitted), I will definitely request the smoking section.
-- Robert Glantz, Berkeley, California
First A Day, Then A Week, Now 23 Years
My father smoked two to three packs daily until the day he died at age 85. I can't remember him ever having any health problem worse than a head cold, so I had a solid role model. Just as they were for my father, cigarettes became an integral part of my social and emotional habit patterns and I actually believed that I enjoyed the taste and the smoking experience. By age 32, with my children ages 4 and 1 ½, I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
My father was never athletic and it was a disappointment to me that he wouldn't play catch or any other sports with me. I'd always suspected that his smoking had been a factor in his lack of interest and ability. So at 32, after losing a club championship tennis match to a 17-year-old from the local high school team, I decided that my kids would not have to suffer the same fate of having a father who could only watch their achievements from the sidelines. And when that day's second pack ran out, I never bought another.
Acknowledging my competitive personality, I made a game of it. Let's see if I can last a day, until the weekend, then a week, then two weeks.
Fortunately for me, I had a good friend who had decided to quit a week before me and clued me in to the coming pitfalls. Like the second week's feeling that all this effort is stupid and that I really liked smoking, or the third week's belief that it was so easy to quit smoking that I could start again and stop any time I felt like it. He also told me about the "cigarette dreams" -- the ones in which you dream that you started smoking again, then wake-up, angry at your weakness, only to realize that it was just a dream. These were very important tips and got me through the tough times during those first few critical weeks.
Now, 23 years later, I can say that I have never smoked again or even considered picking up a cigarette, even while under the influence of alcohol.
Oh, yes, two years after I quit smoking I was in another tennis tournament and had to play that same young man in one of the early rounds. He was then 19 and the top-ranked player at his college. I beat him in straight sets. About a week later, I saw him on the street with his friends, and they were all smoking.
-- Jon Leeke, New Rochelle, New York
Cold Turkey in the Andes
I quit smoking 14 years ago during a hiking trip in the Venezuelan Andes. It happened when I and two anthropologist friends hiked through a cloud forest for nine hours to reach a small, remote village of potato farmers.
That long journey through the forest was the only way in and out of the village, which was made up of three or four thatch-roofed houses nestled along a freezing mountain creek. The houses had no running water or electricity. Residents made the once-a-month trek down the mountainside to get any needed toiletries, medicines and other supplies. It took so long that one woman told me she had given birth on the dirt trail that led to the nearest town.
It was a starkly beautiful, cold, silent place that gave visitors a respite from the "real" world and all its amenities, including cigarettes. Unfortunately, in my haste to pack, I had forgotten to bring some with me! I went through various cycles during my days-long stay among the Andean potato farmers: I craved. I yearned. I cursed myself.
Finally, I imagined a cigarette. I asked myself, "What is a cigarette, anyway?" It's a little piece of paper wrapped around a little bit of dried vegetable matter. How could I let THAT conquer me? Something in my mind clicked. I resolved to stop and did. I've had isolated "flirtations" with cigarettes over the years. But, for the most part, I've kicked the habit. I haven't had one in five years.
-- Deborah Mendez-Wilson, Highlands Ranch, Colorado
Last Updated: March 11, 2013
May 18: Health Headlines
Making news this week: Hysterectomy and heart disease, alcohol misuse, ringing cell phones and blood pressure.