Fake it Until You Make It, Part II
My first cigarette ever (smoked in the back of the high-school bus in response to taunting by Robbie the neighbor boy) left me vomiting and shaking behind the milk shed. I stumbled up to the house and collapsed into my bed on that sunny spring afternoon, my head spinning and stomach churning, certain I’d puke some more if I dared move a finger. Never again, I swore. Smoking is stupid. Next time someone taunts me or calls me a sissy for not smoking, I'll just tell them to forget it.
Even as I thought those thoughts, I felt the cold fist of doubt in my guts. If the cool kids smoked, and I didn’t, how was I going to fit in? I was the new guy in a rural school, and desperate for acceptance. I was also pretty small, barely 5 feet tall and 100 lbs, an easy mark for bullies. Being with the cool kids meant no bullying of me, so being made sick by smoking was a real problem.
When mom came home I told her I must have caught the spring flu, that I wouldn’t be able to keep down supper. It took hours before the headache and nausea were gone. I slept fitfully all night. I worried about what I’d do the next day, when I would certainly be expected to smoke again. I was at a real-life crossroads, for sure.
Robbie treated me differently the next day. He’d saved a seat for me on the bus, and invited me to hang out later with him and his friends at the ‘smoking doors’ (behind the gym at the back of the school). I begged off with a story of a typing class assignment that was long overdue.
All day, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about smoking. That night I watched TV actors smoking and laughing, smoking and beating up bad guys, smoking and getting the girl. I saw a parade of commercials about cowboys on horses roping cattle; sleek, sexy women coming a long way, baby; and other guys with black eyes who’d rather fight than switch. Was I the problem, I wondered, and not the cigarettes? Maybe I just wasn’t manly enough. Maybe I needed to toughen up and learn how to smoke right. After all, I saw smokers smoking everywhere I looked, and not one of them was getting sick over it. I resolved then and there to try the smoking experiment again. Maybe smoking would actually make me tough enough to smoke!
The next morning I asked Robbie if he was going to be at the smoking doors after 3rd period. When I showed up, there were half a dozen boys in jeans and flannel shirts, swearing and roughhousing and smoking. One boy held out his pack of Winstons and offered me a cigarette. I can still feel the thrill of that moment, the personal validation of the gesture, the implied respect and acceptance that came with not only being offered a smoke, but with accepting and smoking it. Even better was the social cachet of hanging out with the other smokers, or, rather, being seen hanging out with them; that was worth any amount of physical discomfort.
I took tiny little tobacco puffs while pretending to take big ones. I could feel the dizziness and nausea returning, but somehow managed to not lose control—until Mr. Benoit, the Civics teacher, burst through the smoking doors and caught us red-handed (smoking on school grounds was prohibited even then). Startled, I inhaled a monster hit of tobacco smoke and burst into a coughing fit. The other boys escaped, but I was too busy choking and drooling to go anywhere. Mr. Benoit collared me and hauled me off to the principal’s office.
This smoking-related trouble turned out to be a lucky break for me, however. It gave me street cred with Robbie and Co, while providing me the alibi I needed to avoid smoking with them for the rest of the year. It also gave me a break from my conflicted thoughts about smoking. In fact, I really believed my smoking dilemma had been resolved once and for all--in favor of not smoking.
Until my senior year in high school, that is. I fell hard for a classmate, Janice A. She was bold and brash. She did what she wanted when she wanted, took no crap from anyone…and she smoked. But I didn’t care about that; I would have done anything to get her to pay attention to me. All my previous bad history with tobacco fled my memory. Before you could say smoking kills I was at the local market (which regularly sold tobacco to underage kids) buying Janice’s favorite brand. And a fancy Zippo lighter.
As I remember it, I wasn’t really thinking about smoking those cigarettes myself. I had in mind a clear image of offering her a smoke, just like in the movies; of snapping the Zippo lighter to light the lady's cigarette; of cupping my hands just so around the burning end to shelter the flame from the wind. And surely, just like in the movies, love would flow from that moment.
I learned that Janice usually snuck down to the park to smoke during study hall, and so arranged to ‘accidentally’ bump into her there. My plan worked. Me, Janice, and a red and white pack of cigarettes wound up occupying the same point at the same time. I offered her a cigarette, gave her a light, cupped my hands just so to get the fire started…She looked at me quizzically and asked, “Aren’t you going to have one?”
“I just had one,” I replied.
“Well, I hate to smoke alone,” she said. So I grabbed a butt and stuck it in my pie hole. I lit it, but only pretended to take a real puff. I sucked some smoke into my mouth (taking great care not to inhale), held it in there while faking a deep dive into the lungs, and then slowly exhaled with my mouth pursed and my cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s. It was hard to hold a conversation like this, and after a few minutes of bemused observation, she came out with, “How come you don’t inhale?” I was shocked, certain I’d given a command performance.
“I do inhale,” I answered.
“Not today , you don’t,” she responded.
“Well, I’m in training,” I offered.
“Training for what?” she asked. “Training to smoke?”
I don’t remember what I said after that. Janice and I never did hook up, but I spent the rest of that school year avoiding smokers and telling myself they were losers.
Next time: An Army of smokers?
Alan P, CTTS-M
When we're planning to quit smoking, it can be helpful to think back on our smoking history, to learn from our own journey and experiences. How did we start smoking, and why? How long did it take for us to become addicted, or daily users? How have we tried to quit before, and why? What worked, or didn't? What did we like or dislike about being ex-smokers? How did we end up back on the death sticks again? What's different about this quit?
Sometimes it's enlightening, even fun, to tell our smoking story to someone else. In my next series of blogs, I'm going to write about my own descent into tobacco addiction, and my long, tortured rise out of it into smoke-free living. Hopefully both you and I will learn a thing or two, or at least be able to relate to each other better as we help each other stay quit.
Most smokers start smoking before the age of 18. I was no exception. In fact, smoking imagery was such a part of our culture that I remember pretending to smoke even as a four year old. My aunts and uncles thought that was cute, and from time to time handed me lit cigarettes to hold, just for laughs.
By elementary school, me and my friends were already stealing death sticks from adults (though none of us had the courage to actually light them). I remember being repulsed by the smell of them, unlit, but that didn't matter. All my heroes smoked in those days, and every TV show and movie showed folks puffing away, usually in situations of high stress or emotional drama. Cigarette smoke didn't just look cool, it solved problems, too. And tobacco was heavily advertised in all media, often with bogus claims from doctors about the health benefits of smoking!
The first time I remember deliberately breathing smoke into my lungs was in the sixth grade. My buddy Tom had swiped his brother's Zippo lighter and some lunch school milk straws still in their paper wrappers. We held the straws as if they were cigarettes, and practiced lighting them for each other and ourselves. They burned up pretty quickly, of course, being milk straws, but we managed to take in some heavy puffs of paper smoke into our young lungs. As we hacked and gagged, Tom's brother Larry came to investigate. "You stupid idiots," he barked. "Why don't you just stick your head in the burning barrel and breathe it in!" (I grew up on a farm in the rural Midwest; in those days we disposed of our own trash in large burning barrels, every Thursday night). We were embarrassed, and not feeling so hot, either.
I attended our country church school through grade school, and went to a seminary prep high school for two years after that. Smoking was considered a mortal sin by my religion, and punishments for being caught doing it were severe. So I was never exposed to tobacco smoke until I switched to the local public school in my junior year. Being the new kid in a small town, I was desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the other kids. Most of them smoked openly, and repeatedly urged me to join them. I was hesitant, remembering the smoking straws caper from years back and not really liking the smell of cigarettes anyway. But I also wanted the other kids' approval...
They say if you hang around in a barber shop long enough, you'll end up with a haircut. The day came when I could no longer refuse my peers' challenge to smoke. It all went down in the back of the yellow school bus, riding from school to the farm on a warm, sunny summer day. Some boy called me a sissy for not accepting his cigarette, and taunted me in front of a girl I liked.. I grabbed his lit cigarette and took a couple of big pulls. I don't know why I didn't explode into a coughing fit, but I was able to maintain for the next several minutes until we reached my stop.
As soon as I was off the bus, I dashed to the milk shed (where no one could see me) and vomited until I was dry heaving. Then I staggered up the driveway to the house, and collapsed into my bed. The room spun around me, and I swore I'd never smoke again. I have rarely been that ill since.
Next time: Faking it till I 'made it'...
Alan P, MTTS
Halloween is rife with scary music, ghoulish décor and fiendish costumes. But for some, nothing could be more frightening than a trip to the dentist. Nothing, except perhaps going to the dentist and finding out that you have a cavity or gum disease.
Children are not the only ones getting cavities; adults have their fair share as well. According to the National Institutes of Health, 92% of adults have dental caries in their permanent teeth. Factors contributing to tooth and gum disease include brushing habits, genetics, stress and smoking!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers are 4 times more likely than never smokers to have problems with oral health. These problems include:
- Bad breath
- Tooth discoloration
- Increased build up of plaque and tartar on the teeth
- Increased loss of bone in the jaw
- Increased risk for leukoplakia (white patches inside the mouth)
- Increased risk of gum disease
- Increased risk of oral cancer
- Problems with hot/cold sensitivity
- Tooth decay/loss
With every cigarette, thousands of chemicals, heat and smoke assault the teeth, gums and oral cavity. This alters the acidity of the mouth, contributes to plaque build up and staining of the teeth, damages taste buds and nerve cells, and impairs blood circulation. Smoking also compromises the immune system, making a smoker more susceptible to infections like cold sores.
Cigar smoking is not any better for oral health, even if you don’t inhale. Some cigars contain the equivalant amount of tobacco as an entire pack of cigarettes! The smoke and chemicals from cigar smoke can irritate the gums and can cause them to recede at rates similar to cigarette smokers.
Even without smoke or heat, tobacco in general is bad news for oral health. Smokeless tobacco comes into direct contact with the gums and causes even greater irritation and recession of the gum line. Furthermore, bacteria in the mouth “feed” on the sugar added to smokeless tobacco. This bacteria produces acid which eventually wears away at the tooth’s enamel, making smokeless tobacco users four times more likely than nonusers to develop cavities according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association.
Knowing all of this, quitting all tobacco products for healthier teeth is a no brainer. When smokers quit, they cite noticing pinker gums and lips. Another benefit noticeable within days of quitting is improved sense of taste and smell—making food more enjoyable again! There may also be some less pleasant side effects. Sometimes smokers will notice gum sensitivity or gums that bleed more easily. Ex-smokers might also notice a “metallic” taste in mouth, a medical term known as dysguesia (altered taste). These symptoms are temporary and can probably be attributed to improved blood circulation, repair of taste buds and nerve cells, and other signs of healing those early weeks of quitting.
In the meantime, it’s important to keep up with a regular dental routine (brushing and flossing, using a "soft" toothbrush head, and being as gentle as possible) as well as maintaining regular visits to the dentist. Limiting sticky, sugary foods like juice, nougat, caramel and taffy will also help prevent cavities. Your dentist will no doubt notice the improvements and compliment you. And that's something to smile about.