You can still be “Smokin'” without lighting up!

No, this isn’t some crappy advert for electronic cigarettes disguised as a blog post.  In honor of the Great American Smoke-Out, and to celebrate the fact that my husband and I have been cold-turkey quitters since October 20th 2009 I have decided to share with you my experience of getting addicted to nicotine, and eventually getting the nicotine monkey off my back.

The Big Tobacco lobby is simply too powerful (having branched out into pharmaceuticals and packaged foods as well) to ever let the real stats out of the bag.  All it takes though is a bit of common sense to conceive of the damage their profit mongering has done to innumerable lives all over the world.  Smokers and chewers of tobacco products are ADDICTS.  It is a word no one wants to associate with them self but that is the reality.  How does nicotine addiction begin?  The details of the story are different of course for everyone but the result is the same.  I will share my path to addiction here as an example.

I was a passive smoker since birth.  Both of my parents smoked and by the time I was in the first grade one of my older brothers had started smoking as well.  All of my parents’ friends smoked too so I had been totally immersed in the “culture of the smoker” since infancy.   The cup of coffee, glass of wine and after meals associations were all well embedded in my subconscious long before I ever lit up.  My parents are both well educated and civic minded individuals, they were my role models, if intelligent people like them did it then there couldn’t be any real danger involved, could there?

When I was 5 I had my first really serious bout of bronchitis and the doctor told my folks that I needed to be in a smoke-free environment in order to recover.  That meant I camped out for two weeks at our non-smoking neighbor’s house and she administered the antibiotics that seemed the size of horse pills to my 5 year old eyes.  The main side effect of my stay at Mrs. Lipp’s house was the restoration of my sense of smell.  After the first week my parent’s literally stank when they came to see me but I couldn’t get them to understand that.

Having realized how good a smoke free house smells I began my campaign.  I begged and pleaded, whined and nagged.  I buried all the ashtrays in the backyard and once I even hid their cartons of cigarettes but that really pissed them off so I was afraid to try that again.  Then one fine summer day while our moms were having coffee and talking about politics my friend Piper and I decided to steal one of my mom’s cigarettes to see what it was like.  Since the grown ups were doing it all the time it must be something really good, right? I grabbed a book of matches from the kitchen and we sneaked out into the back yard.

Surprise surprise, those first puffs made us both feel dizzy and nauseous.  As we coughed and sputtered we looked at each other in utter astonishment and said, practically in unison, “Are they crazy?!”.  Of course we couldn’t go ask them because then they would know we had smoked.  What struck me though when we went back in the house was, I could no longer smell the smokiness.  Having ingested the stuff directly had anesthetized my olfactory and taste sensors enough where the smell no longer seemed to bother me.  I had found the secret at last, if I puffed on just one then all of the others that the people around me smoked wouldn’t bother me any more.  I was 10 years old.

When school started (I was going into 7th grade) I discovered a sub-culture of secret smokers.  The smell of cigarette smoke had acquired a very different significance since my initiation and we could recognize each other.  We would take turns pilfering “smokes” as we called them so as to keep our activities under our parents’ radar.  By the time I was a freshman in high school I was up to 5 to 10 cigarettes per day.  I would wait till may parents’ cartons got close to the middle, then I would nick one pack from each (Kent and Viceroy at the time).  Those two packs would just about get me through the week along with a few extras bummed from seniors at the “ashtray”, a drainage ditch near the entrance to the school where the smokers hung out.  If nobody had any cigarettes then we would pool our change and one of the seniors would go across the street to El Rancho Market and buy a pack.  The one who bought got to choose the brand and keep half the pack.

I held steady at around 5-10 per day until the middle of my junior year – that’s when I met “Mr. Wonderful”.  He was an “older” man with a job and everything (at least he had a job then) so my adolescent ego was flattered by the attention.  I got involved in a damaging relationship which culminated in (among other things) a bad but thankfully short-lived marriage.  I practically stopped eating and was living on coffee, cigarettes and sugar.  I was a nervous wreck and depressed by turns.  Everything positive and creative in my life had suddenly come to a screeching halt.  After that relationship came to an end my self-esteem needed a long time to rally.  I moved to LA to pursue what I loved which was theater   Studying and working and auditioning and dealing with bizarre roommates and imbalanced relationships wore me down steadily, the only constant in my life was nicotine.

In August of 1987 a friend and I were on our way to work when we were hit head on by a drunk driver.  Although I broke the windshield with my head, I was fortunate to not have suffered any major injuries.  Despite everything I was quite fit (to avoid weird roommates and forget bad boyfriends I spent a lot of time at the gym) which was the primary reason I had no fractures.  I did however dislocate my shoulder and hip, displaced two vertebrae and had a whopping case of whiplash.  Just for the record my head is so hard I didn’t even suffer concussion when I broke the windshield!  It certainly didn’t slow my smoking down any but it did make me re-consider what exactly I wanted to do with my life.  I started keeping a journal, writing poetry I even started writing plays.

I was approached by a scout for a modeling agency and going to Europe seemed like an interesting opportunity to gain a different perspective.  That was the first time I considered quitting smoking.  Of course I had no clue as to what heavy smokers many Europeans were.  I’ll never forget the day a friend dropped me off at LAX.  I didn’t even have a pack of cigarettes with me, I was determined to land a non-smoker.  I had diligently booked my seat in the middle of the non-smoking section so I would be out of temptation’s way…  About 40 minutes into my SAS flight it seemed like everyone aside from the flight attendants was smoking!  Finally I had to buy a $5 pack of St. Moritz from the duty-free cart because I simply couldn’t stand it.

After settling in Greece quitting smoking just seemed impossible.  People smoked everywhere, bank tellers and postal clerks smoked while working, everyone you were introduced to asked if you would like a cigarette and they were cheaper than chewing gum was back in the US.  At one point I had gone too far, 4 packs a day of the strongest cigarettes on the planet – Kyretsiler (18 tar and 12 nicotine, I don’t think they make them any more…)  Once again I was living on coffee, cigarettes and sugar, at nearly 6′ 2″ I had melted down to 114 lbs.!  Then a miracle happened – I got pregnant.

I didn’t manage to quit completely during either of my pregnancies, but kept it under 3 cigarettes per day.  I rigorously stuck to max 1 cigarette per day while breast feeding, usually right after the last feeding (I would always make sure to have filled at least one bottle over the course of the day).  That way my liver and kidneys had filtered most of the crap out of my blood before the 1st morning feeding.  The minute I went back to work though it was 2+ packs per day, like I had never stopped.  When it got to the point where over the course of an entire year I vacillated between sinusitis and bronchitis, lost my sense of taste and smell, did I consider quitting smoking?  Of course not – I moved out of the city.

It was when I had my physical for my teacher’s license that I got the wake up call.  One of the mandatory examinations was a chest x-ray (based on an antiquated law to rule out TB) however the young respiratory specialist, total stranger, looked me in the eye and said, “You are a young and attractive woman, do you really want to develop emphysema by the time you are 50?”  I was stunned (the cheeky bastard) but he refused to let up.  I had just turned 40.  I justified the situation by telling myself that at least he had given me an entire decade grace period.  relocation had both benefits and drawbacks however.

The increased humidity and poorly insulated structures on the islands meant lots of mold and mildew.  I started having ever more frequent asthma attacks and my increasing shortness of breath led me to a less and less active lifestyle.  I began putting on weight, and not only feeling like crap but feeling crappy about myself.  Even though I would resist the desire to smoke all day, not wanting to go to work smelling of smoke (I was teaching English full time then and didn’t want to set a bad example) as soon as I got home and settled on the veranda to grade papers I would light one with the other.  I could go through 2 packs of cigarettes in two hours and, worst of all, I literally smoked them down to the filter (all the best carcinogens hang out there!).

Our combined nicotine habits had reached the point where we literally smoked $600 per month (me $400, him $200). The clincher for both my husband and I however, (sorry if this shocks or offends) was sex.  Our sex life had gone to pot because we would both become so short of breath that we simply couldn’t continue.  We were in our early 40’s, hoping to enjoy each other’s company for at least another 30-40 years, but too pooped to pop.  We made a pact: as soon as the then tourism season came to a close that summer (2009) we would quit, for good!  And we did!

My husband had always smoked a lot less than I did, and he had started much later than I had (during his military service) so his withdrawal symptoms were slightly less intense than mine.  We both suffered though, especially the first three months.  We both got cranky as badgers, we both gained weight.  After those first three difficult months though we both noted extreme improvements in our senses of taste and smell and the quality of our sleep.  We could both walk up the stairs to our apartment without becoming winded.  Best of all though, we could enjoy each other’s company, thoroughly, if you catch my drift!

Helpful hints:  Vitamin C really curbs withdrawal symptoms and vitamin E is very good for damage control.  Stay busy and active with activities that require you use your hands.  Avoid enclosed spaces where you know smokers hang out.  Drink as much water as you can and eat lots of fruit and veggies.  In the end, you need to love yourself enough to realize that what you are trying to achieve is improved quality of life!

Victoria Andre King is a freelance writer and audiovisual professional her novel The Führer Must Die is available for pre-orders and will be released on November 8th 2016 with Yucca Publications, an imprint of Sky Horse Publishing NYC.

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