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So far, not so good

The Quitting Chronciles

Posted: May 16, 2008 2:33 a.m.
Updated: July 17, 2008 5:01 a.m.
 
Week 1

I smoked my last cigarette the evening of Sunday, April 27, while I walked my dogs, as always. As I puffed and walked, I was very conscious I'd never indulge in this little ritual again. Ever. Sigh. I chose the walk as the end point because I figured it'd be easiest to quit with the dawning of a new day. Hence, the one last ciggie before putting myself - and the habit - to bed.

Besides, I knew I'd be seeing Peter Jaeger first thing in the morning, for my first appointment. (Peter is the manager of the smoking cessation program at the hospital.)

Considering the results of my carbon monoxide and oxygen tests (very low, and very high, respectively) and the answers to the questionnaire, Peter said my nicotine dependence was not high, and he thought I could quit fairly easily without the use of drugs, patches or even nicotine gum. He said for that me, changing the rituals I normally associate with smoking would be key. Avoiding the morning latté (which is always accompanied by a cig), walking a different route with the dogs, and not being around friends while they were smoking would help me avoid temptation. He added that getting past the first two or three days would be the hardest, since that's the longest my previous attempts at quitting had lasted.

Days one through three went by pretty smoothly. Each day I thought about smoking a lot in the late afternoon, which is when I usually get my cravings, but I didn't cave in. I had made up my mind to resist, and my resolve was working. Same thing when I left work. I wanted a cig on the drive home to unwind, but I sucked on a lollipop the whole way. (It helped that I had gotten my car thoroughly cleaned before I quit to remove the fumes and ashes.) After dinner I read a juicy gossip magazine instead of heading outside for a few drags. And when it came time to walk the dogs - the real test - I opted out. No need to tempt fate. I played fetch with them in the yard for about 10 minutes instead.

All seemed to be going fairly well until day four, when I got thrown for a loop. In the late afternoon, while I was at work, I got some bad news of a personal nature, which stressed me out. Two triggers right there. Late afternoon and stress. Both equal cravings.

I resisted to urge to light up, but only until I got home. I was ragged, anxious and tense from this news, and I needed relief. Out on the patio I rummaged through my ashtray until I found a butt that had a couple of drags left on it. I lit it up, puffed on it a couple of times, and instantly felt better. But only for a few minutes. Then I felt bad.

Day five, same thing. I managed to avoid smoking during the morning latté, the afternoon stress and even while walking through a crowd of smokers outside the office. But my personal problem had not been resolved, and I was still tense. When I got home I found another butt and sucked up what little nicotine was left on its bare bones.

Ugh. Peter was right - getting past the three-day mark would test me.

Unfortunately, I failed the test.

Week 2

More slip-ups happening. Although this time they are not so innocent. Now it seems that occasional cheating is the new "normal." Scrounging for butts in my ashtrays or dragging off a friend's cigarette are becoming all too common. I tell myself it's OK to have a drag here and there, because at least I am not smoking a whole cigarette, and eventually I will wean myself down to nothing, right?

Wait, aren't I supposed to be quitting? I can't believe I am scrounging in ashtrays and trying to justify cheating.

OK, this is not going to be as easy as I thought. The mental energy spent on resisting is tiring. Going to the gym and sucking on lollipops for distraction has lost its novelty. I am impatient for the cravings to go away and for the thought of smoking to not be ever-present.

But I think I am getting some insight into myself as a person. All my life I have defined myself as an extremely capable person, someone who succeeds at pretty much everything I try - the typical annoying over-achiever mentality.

But this quitting business is actually kicking my butt a little bit. It's not going as well as planned. It's going to take time - and patience, which is not one of my virtues. I have to grudgingly admit to myself that even the capable can stumble. Even perfectionists can't master everything right away. Just because you want something to happen doesn't mean it will. The realization that I am not perfect has had a bit of a deflating effect, but I think I needed that.

What I also need is encouragement. I got that in the form of a letter from a subscriber who is 86 and quit smoking decades ago. She read my first column and wrote to tell me about the "A-ha!" moment that led her to stop for good:

One day back in 1958 she was at home and ran out of cigarettes. Since she didn't have a car, she couldn't go out and buy a pack. In desperation, she went through all her pants pockets, ashtrays and drawers looking for a stray cigarette. It was only when she went out into the street to look for a butt that another smoker had thrown out of a car window that the lightbulb went on. She thought to herself, what am I doing? Scrounging for cigarettes in the street? This is insane! She quit that day and hasn't had a cigarette in 50 years.

After reading her letter and parting words of support, I felt better. I could identify with her frustration over a habit that was causing her to literally crawl in the gutter. And I admired her resolve to just say "no more." If she could do it, so could I.

I also remembered that Peter said it's normal to relapse a few times when trying to quit. So I decided to stiffen my resolve and not give in to defeatist thinking. Despite the last two weeks worth of slip-ups, I had to get back on the horse. I went home that night and dumped out all my ashtrays.

Karen Elowitt is a staff writer at the Signal. Her opinions are her own, but may have been influenced by nicotine, carbon monoxide, or any of the other 4,000 chemicals commonly found in cigarettes that can addle the brain. Her views do not reflect those of the Signal, nor those of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, which waived the normal Smoking Cessation Program fee of $149. Karen can be reached at kelowitt@the-signal.com.

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