Reporter's fight to quit smoking brings out inner demons

Old habit proves tough to break

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

Disclaimer: The Peninsula Clarion and the writer of this column in no way endorse smoking. It is a dirty, nasty, deadly habit and anyone who currently smokes should quit immediately. Anyone under 25 who does not smoke should not even consider touching a "cancer stick." (To all those nonsmokers over 25, congratulations, you're safe, because let's face it, no one starts smoking as an adult.)

All that said, I miss my cigarettes!

Until about two weeks ago, I was very much a smoker. I'd been smoking for about seven years (not long compared to many people who reach the decision to quit, but long enough for me). I clearly remember my first cigarette. I was 16 years old, at church camp in South Dakota, and crushing hard on an older boy. He smoked, and I stupid and desperate to impress asked to bum one. It was nasty, but it started quite a conversation. I was happy, but contrary to popular opinion, not immediately hooked. That took time.

It was a couple months before I had another one. Even then, I had no intention of becoming a smoker. I just wanted to know if I could pass for 18 and buy a pack. (Note to all minors: Do NOT try this. It is illegal!)

I don't remember how I started smoking regularly or how I became addicted. But I can say without question that I did. For a long time, I loved it. I smoked in the car, and I smoked in the middle of the night. I smoked with coffee and most definitely with alcohol. I smoked when I was nervous, stressed, relaxed or satisfied. I smoked when I was bored or busy, happy or sad, comfortable or feeling out of place. I smoked when I was sick, and I smoked when I was supposed to be getting exercise.

And I have to give the tobacco companies their due. I truly believed that I needed a cigarette in all of these situations. A part of my brain actually believed that nicotine was the miracle drug.

Only now, as I am trying to quit, do I realize how absolutely ridiculous all of these things are: A cigarette does not calm the stomach when one has had too much to drink you just think it does. Nicotine does not calm the nerves it's a stimulant! It does not make sense to smoke before and after a hike, when you can't breathe to begin with. And while the opposite sex did play some role in the beginning of my little habit, men do not like it when a woman smokes before and after fooling around.

No, smoking definitely is not a cool habit. And, in addition to all the terrible consequences everyone knows cigarettes cause -- cancer, heart disease, poor lung capacity, bad breath, yellow teeth, wrinkly dry skin, etc. I've found there also is a hidden consequence science has yet to reveal: Nicotine must burn a hole straight through the center of the brain.

Thanks to the over-the-counter smoking cessation products which I highly recommend I've had only a few minor physical withdrawal symptoms. The real trick is the struggle with my own mind. That internal battle of wits is truly fascinating.

It takes a lot of mental effort to ignore the psychological urge to continue a seven-year habit. I've bought gum and carrots and suckers to keep my hands and mouth occupied. I've also scoured my apartment about four times, washed all my dishes by hand at least twice and joined a gym.

Still, there is a part of my brain that just doesn't get it. My body seems convinced that it's supposed to be smoking a cigarette. I've actually rolled down the window of my car and reached my hand out to flick the ash off the end of a no, wait, stupid, it's a pen, not a cigarette. And it's not on fire.

I've walked out my front door and stood on my porch, only to find I have no idea what I'm doing there.

My favorite hole-through-the-brain moment, however, came when I was sitting on my couch trying to forget the desire to smoke. One side of my mind was chanting, "We don't need to smoke, think about something else, we don't need to smoke."

The other side of my mind, being the helpful soul that it is, immediately came up with a fabulous plan: "We need a distraction? Oh, we should just go outside and have a cigarette. That's always a good distraction."

The first voice was very angry with the suggestion and said so quite loudly.

But the latter voice just didn't understand. Apparently, the fact that quitting smoking and not having cigarettes go hand-in-hand did not make it through the cerebral gap.

I'm noticing lately that there are many concepts that aren't making it through the gap. For example, while I know that it's important to be healthy and responsible, there's a part of my brain that doesn't understand why I'm making any changes in my life. It looks in the mirror at someone who doesn't smoke, who enjoys working out at the gym, whose checkbook is balanced, and it says, "Who on earth are you?"

That's OK, I guess. I don't mind disagreeing with other people, so I suppose I shouldn't be too bothered by disagreements between my several personalities.

It's just a little confusing and disorienting. I wonder if nicotine could fix that, too.

Jenni Dillon is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Really, she does not endorse smoking. While she understands that this column will probably entice some smokers to light up upon first reference to the word "cigarette," she hopes any youngsters reading the column will realize that the habit has made her crazy and will add this to their long lists of reasons not to smoke.

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