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