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It Smokes You

burninghellAt the meetings I usually say I am an alcoholic, because I consider drinking my main addiction. However I am also a tobacco addict. I have to remember that as well. This month I am five years off tobacco. Here’s how.

Smoking for me was a weird thing. It didn’t seem to give me all the obvious things alcohol did, for example a longer lasting and pleasant intoxication. That intoxication was something I loved alcohol for and couldn’t let it go for a long time. Tobacco smoking didn’t do that for me. It would give me a slight kick of relaxation that would last for a very short time, and I wouldn’t even realize it, because I’d receive it in the process of smoking. It wouldn’t last. If I needed more of it, I had to go for another cigarette, I guess. For a long time, however, I didn’t realize how and why the cigarettes worked for me.

First couple of cigarettes I had tasted awful and made me stink. I tried in the third grade with some kid that I barely knew from school. After I did that I came home and brushed my teeth with tooth paste and then rinsed my mouth with soap. I didn’t want my Mom to find out. Second one was probably three years later, with the same effect. But then I started “getting into it.” Probably because it was one of those things about which everybody said “don’t do it” and everybody did nevertheless. So you had to wonder.
Another thing that made smoking attractive to me in the early age (besides the fact that I found the smell of some cigarettes attractive) was that people who smoked, mostly adults, looked cool. They were serious and seemed to speak about important things. I wanted that. I had nothing of my own and I needed to belong. I had little opinion of things because I rarely cared when looked around. If I smoked, I figured, I could be important.

Needless to say, a 14 year old smoking cigarettes looked nothing like important. Nevermind the idea of looking cool I held dear deep inside, I was very aware of the stigma about smoking. So when I went for a smoke, I had to hide from people who I thought would judge me. Obviously, there was a huge internal conflict because of that. Conflicts cause stress. Smokers got for a cigarette when they are stressed. So life seemed even more complicated to me those days and days looked grey more often than not. Hence, I guess, my alcoholism had plenty of reasons for blooming wildly.

For quite a long time I’d smoke when hung out with others, mostly with kids at school in between classes. That’s how I started and that’s how I carried on. Soon I started buying cigarettes because I couldn’t ask others for smokes anymore. It would ruin the relationship. Even though it was not a meaningful friendship relationship, it seemed to be all I had.

One night when I was about 18 years old I had a dream that my friends I hung out with and came to a theater or movie place with have died from cancer because they smoked. Even more bizarre was the fact it was my grandma who told me that (in the past she worked as a nurse). I woke up and freaked out. It was only a dream, but again, the stigma about smoking was harsh, so I knew I was doing the wrong thing from the very start. I threw my cigarettes into a trash can and stopped smoking for six months. I must say that after three or four days it was easier for me and I don’t remember much of the cravings. Although I was also younger, so it was not too difficult.

I had the slip on the graduation day. We all got hammered and I felt like I needed a smoke. I bought a pack from the waitress at this bar we reserved for the event. I later noticed I had a craving for smoking every time I’d get quite drunk. I also noticed that smoking was allowing me to start conversations easier with others.

I was smoking on and off in States and quit every time I’d start running out of money. Surprising it might seem that I wouldn’t cut on booze! I also remember that on the days I had to study the hardest due to a midterm coming up and I had to catch up on a lot, I’d give myself a permission to go for a smoke every half an hour. I wasn’t much into studying and needed an excuse to get away. Going for a smoke was always a perfect excuse!

The day I quit drinking for good I started smoking a lot. The person who introduced me to the recovery was a smoker and I smoked half a pack from him while we cruised around the city, sharing experience. I guess I’ve replaced one harmful addiction with another. It seems only natural. I surely knew I was doing the right thing quitting drinking, but I guess I wasn’t completely ready to stop messing with my head on the physical and mental level. It seemed like a good bargain, though. I started getting to work and school on time and pay attention and stay for the whole periods it required. I was spending less money. I wasn’t having hangovers and terrible headaches. I was getting back in balance with myself after ten years of insanity that drinking had caused me. It felt right and I was happy about that change.

My summer was crazy, nevertheless. You can read about it here. Things weren’t going as smoothly as I thought they would, for after all, I made one of the most significant changes in my life. Things were stressful which caused me to keep smoking for a while. Then I quit again. It was around that time that the news were coming through about smoking in bars and concert venues to be banned. I went on a vacation in the Rockies for a while and one person there smoked, so I started again. I was in and out all the time. Next year one guy moved in with me for a couple of months and he smoked in and out. We were quitting and starting together. Same thing with my AA sponsor who moved in with me next year. We were talking recovery a lot, going to meetings, doing Steps. We both had no girlfriends and we smoked a lot. We had an AA related project and every once in a while we’d talk for hours and drinks gallons of coffee and smoke half a pack. Then a month later we’d try to quit. Some day I’d quit for a week because I’d freak out after reading on the cigarette pack that it contained cyanide related chemicals, but I’d always go back to smoking again. Relaxation, image of other people smoking, and wanting to have a chat would always come to mind as a good excuse to lit one up and join the club.

One day my sponsor/roommate got a book that taught quitting smoking while still smoking and reading about all the terrible things smoking caused. You also had to collect your cigarette butts in a jar that you’d keep under your sink. So every time you’d throw in garbage, you’d smell the butts and what they turned into. After I read about ten pages of that book I was ready to quit. So I did. My friend still went for a while. It didn’t last long for both of us.

Then our common friend in AA got diagnosed with lung cancer. She was selling cigarettes, she smoked, and it caught up with her. A couple of months after that she was hospitalized, she refused doing chemotherapy and wanted to die with dignity. We’d visit her in the hospital and go out for a smoke. It was a weird situation – all three of us in the hospital yard, she’s in the wheelchair, like many others around us, and she’s dying from smoking and we’re all puffing away! It was a strange thing to look at!

When my roommate phoned me to say that this friend of ours passed away, I was standing by the slightly opened balcony door, smoking. The air was coming in and playing with the way cigarette smoke moved. I was watching smoke slowly wrapping my hand in which I held the cigarette. It was a frightening vision. I quit that day for another two months. I remember I also wrote a poem for her that day. The change felt right.

Then I met this girl who was smoking and didn’t seem to have an intention to quit. The relationship was going good and every once in a while I’d talk to her about quitting, but it didn’t get anywhere. Soon I started smoking again, but only for a couple of months. Those were the last months of smoking for me.

The way it worked was… well, weird. I worked in the homeless shelter where it seemed every single person, visitor or staff, smoked. Plus, at that time we had a “smoke room” in the building, so you could have a smoke without going out in the cold or in the rain. After working hard for a couple of hours I felt like I deserved to have a cigarette. Our workers were allowed to go for a smoke, and since I needed the breaks, I’d use them. One time I was still not smoking but I needed a break and I asked somebody for a cigarette, since we hung out together and he lit one.

I was trying to cut down the amount of cigarettes I smoked. I was stressed out about a couple things at work so there was a good reason to smoke, but when I was off, I’d tell myself I wouldn’t smoke. I’d go home at night, having one last cigarette on the way and at home I would not smoke at all. I also wouldn’t smoke most of the time off. I’d smoke almost immediately when got back to work.

My health was letting me know it’s sick of my poisoning it with nicotine. My lung and my stomach were aching from time to time. I moved a lot and was active and yet I was screwing myself at the same time by inhaling poisonous chemicals. One time I went to play squash with friends and getting there by walking fast up the stairs, I realized I realized I was breathing heavily. As I got to the top I wondered how in the world I am going to play in this condition. I had to tell myself that, after all, it was the cigarette that smoked you (me), not the other way around. Understanding this, on one level or the other, would kick my butt to quit for a while.

Then one day I walked to work and threw a cigarette butt on the street. As I was walking away from it, as I did thousands of times, I thought of it for the first time. I was killing myself and I was littering the world around me. The seeds of doubts and discomfort finally fell on the fertile soil (pun unintentional!). That afternoon at work I was pacing from one corner to another, while I was assigned to answer the front door for several hours. At that time we had an AADAC (provincial addiction recovery committee) posters in the building. One of them was by the front doors and it was called “What’s in the cigarette?” It had a very peculiar description of what we smokers inhaled and it had good pictures, illustrating the point. I had plenty of time to read about stuff that a regular cigarette contained, which, among other things, was used for cigarette lighter fuel (butane), paint thinner (turpentine), preservation of dead bodies (formaldehyde), nail polish (acetone), wood preservatives (arsenic). While I was writing this post, I had to go online to look up that poster. Instead of the original, I found another one, rather similar, that shows that another one of the ingredients, hydrogen cyanide, is a poison used on death row. Back in the day I knew of nicotine, of course, yet for a long time I failed to read into the fact it was used as a pesticide. As if learning of all these wonderful things wasn’t enough, there was also an element that cigarettes contained and that was used for washing toilets (ammonia), which completely disgusted me.

That day I quit for good.

It wasn’t easy. I was constantly running into smokers, smell it off their clothes as they passed by. I had to chew pencils for a while when I was in distress and needed a break. Mind you, I couldn’t go for smoke break anymore, so I’d go for “fresh air” breaks instead and I’d spend them all by myself. I soon changed pencils for chewing gum (not Nicorette!). I’d carry lots of gum with me.

I also started to pray more and did First, Second, and Third Steps for my tobacco addiction. I felt it was really hard to do the rest of Steps for that, because I’d usually smoke when alone or among other smokers, so I couldn’t see who I’d make my amends to. But the first three Steps weren’t optional and doing them helped a lot.

My addiction to tobacco was a substitution of something I couldn’t have. I’ve beaten alcohol, but somehow tobacco/nicotine was stronger. It took some time to get to this current point without smoking and I had to talk to plenty of people on the way. And I did. I did more meetings with people early in recovery and I think it helped me to reach out and share more. That way I got a bit more over my inability to talk to strangers whom I’d previously approach with or for a cigarette.

I still live with a person that smokes and she has a hard time quitting. She knows a lot about smoking, and she knows it is not a habit, but an addiction, but she is not there yet to quit for her own sake. I also try to avoid people who walk smoke on the street. When I smell it, I get very uncomfortable. I try not to play the “holier than thou” attitude, but sometimes it just doesn’t work and I have to clench my teeth and hold my breath as I pass the smokers, blowing poison into the air. I realize very well that they are addicts, people who are killing themselves and most likely suffer a lot form it. I wish I could help them somehow. Yet it is still weird to see their smiles as they offer cigarettes to each other, ever ready to light a smoke for each other and stand there, seemingly enjoying the time.

Smoking is one of the worst things out there, because nevermind the research and stigma, followed by banning smoking in public places, it is so widespread. Smoking, from the first sight, is not as dangerous and personality-degrading, as doing drugs or drinking a lot. So it can carry on without making a person sick and damaged for a long time. By the time the health start suffering, it is so hard to stop, for it became a part of personality. A cigarette with a coffee in the morning feels as mandatory as breakfast and sometime might make you feel it is so vital, that it can replace breakfast on certain days! I still remember perfectly content having a cigarette after a meal. It always felt right! A smoker can always feel like he/she searches for calming their nerves while having a puff, and with that argue “well, I am not like those guys on the street smoking crack, so don’t put me in the same row!” And what can you say to that? A person can only beat something when it gets too much. The worst thing is they can see it got too much, but have no forces to beat it, or remove this behavior that was such a large part of what they are, which could be a very kind and positive person.

I am so glad that I quit before I couldn’t remove it from what it meant to be me.

[the picture was copied from 'ere. thank you!]

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