Giving Up The Smoke

I CAN'T QUIT!" I said to my wife Dotti. "I am just going to smoke until I die."

I believed it too. I had told myself that I was going to quit smoking. I threw my cigarettes away, and set out on my path to being smoke free. It lasted about 2 hours and I was crawling back for another cigarette. It was 1978 and I was smoking Marlboro 100's at the rate of three packs a day. I used to chuckle at the smoker who was going through less than a pack a day, saying he was not really smoking. I could not envision myself cutting back to even 2 packs a day, let alone holding it below one.

I had cigarettes going constantly. If a television show was on, I smoked. If I was on the phone I smoked. As an electronics technician in the US Navy, I smoked when I was troubleshooting electronics problems. It seemed that the only parts of my life that did not include having a cigarette were showering and sleeping.

The years went by, and I got out of the Navy and went to work for a company that made Computerized-Axial Tomography (CAT) scanners for hospitals. I finally was in a situation where I had to actually walk out of the room where I was working in order to be able to smoke. That was a bit inconvenient, and I did stop and go grab a smoke quite often. I was still never far from my next cigarette. Dotti and I did not care for the town of El Paso much and we decided to search out greener pastures. I ended up back in the Navy, and in 1986, while I was still smoking 3 packs a day - now Benson & Hedges 100s - Dotti and I attended a quit smoking clinic at the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia.

I was very skeptical that anything could be done for my smoking habit. I had never been able to lay the stinking things down for more than a few hours before lighting up another one. I had never come close to making it through a whole day without smoking. Dotti had much better success with quitting. She had just laid them down for weeks at a time before.

Though skeptical, I paid very close attention to what was said at the clinic. I found out about "triggers" and psychological addiction. I was handed some techniques that sounded strange to me, but I tried them. We met every week for seven weeks, and by the fourth week we had quit smoking. I had my last cigarette on April 2 and I began breaking new ground instantly. The days starting going by and the next thing you know I had not smoked for an entire week. It was amazing! Then, 2 weeks, and 3 weeks went by without a cigarette. On April 23, 1986 we had a graduation ceremony for the clinic, and we were cut loose to chart our own waters. We had 4 weeks under our belts without smoking and we were feeling pretty good.

I had been an instructor at the Norfolk Naval Station and just about then I came up for a duty change. I was transferred to the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier, and suddenly I caved in and started smoking again. I was shocked. I thought I had it beat, but I had underestimated the habit. After over a month of not smoking (which I would have considered a complete miracle a mere 2 months before) I was suddenly overwhelmed with the habit once more.

I was back up to 3 packs a day in no time. Shipboard life was hectic and stressful. It required that I be away from home a great deal, and that I hated. I spent the next two years not even imagining that I could quit smoking again. And then my enlistment ran out.

We moved up to Massachusetts in 1988, and I took my 3 pack a day habit into a new world. In the high tech environment I found myself in, they did not allow smoking around the electronics I was working on. To have a cigarette, I had to drop my job, walk completely out of the area and go to the cafeteria to have a smoke. I found that very inconvenient. About every 30 or 40 minutes I wanted a cigarette. I could seldom push it out to even an hour.

After a year and a half of this, I transferred over to the training department and went back to teaching. Dot went through 3 surgery procedures in less than 6 months, and my Mom came down with cancer. After all of this, in August, I was tasked with teaching classes onsite at two of our customer locations, one in Oregon, and the other in Idaho. Since I do not like to fly, and they were agreeable, I arranged to drive across country to do the classes. Well, on the way back I pushed it. I was smoking like crazy, drinking coffee and driving long hours.

Suddenly, on I-90, along about Amsterdam, NY, my chest tightened up, and pain was creeping up my left arm. The left side of my head felt like it was going numb and I was sure that I was having a heart attack. I pulled over at a toll center and had them call an ambulance.

The next few weeks I learned some things about stress. I had just gone through a year that was guaranteed to do me physical harm, according to the checklist I had found in a book on stress. Changing jobs, the medical problems with Dot, my Mom's cancer, and several other personal issues had added up to exceeding the tolerance specifications for the human body. To this day, I am not sure what happened in 1990 on the toll way through New York. My doctor says that I may have had a very small stroke. My cousin who is a nurse says that sometimes blood vessels can contract so much that they create the same symptoms that other forms of blockage can produce. Whatever it was, it scared me pretty badly.

Obviously, the smoking had contributed to the problem. It should have been very motivating for me to quick you might think. I laid the cigarettes down, for about 2 days and then I was right back on them again. But I was thinking about quitting every day. I started getting ready. I counted my cigarettes, and worked my triggers, and after a few months, I actually did quit. I wrote in my diary on October 22, 1990 "Today at work I made up my mind that I am not letting go this time. I am quitting, and quitting, and quitting again, until I quit for good!!!"

And I did. I finally laid the cigarettes down for 5 years. I did not even think about cigarettes anymore for the most part. But I found that you must be vigilant. When stress hits you, the habit is always ready to come forward and offer its own deadly form of "support." I went from training to field service, in order to get back to the West coast where Dot and I were more at home. The down side of the change was that all at once I found myself flying a lot, which I do not like. On one trip to Texas, I found myself with a pack of cigarettes in my hand. Before long, I was back to smoking again.

It took me 2 years to come around to my senses once more, and I quit again. This time, I have gone 2 and half years, without a cigarette, and I am on my guard. When I smell a cigarette, or think about a cigarette, I tell myself, "No way! Never again." I will not even contemplate it for a moment. And the temptation, and it is a very rare temptation indeed these days, evaporates instantly.

I have found that quitting smoking is a very personal process. It is cluttered with guilt and shame, and overgrown with frustration and tears. But when you can look that green-eyed, smoke breathing monster of a habit it in the eye, and know that you now are no longer under his power, it is a wonderful feeling. To be master of your own life, and no longer even think about where the closest designated smoking area is located is wonderful. I no longer have to find a restaurant with a smoking area. I no longer have to get up in the middle of a movie and go out into the lobby, or all the way outside to have a smoke. I can stay as long as I like in the library, or in a store where smoking is not permitted. It is a freedom that I could only dream about for years. (See Dear Non-Smoking Al.)

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