Smoke and Mirrors

Susann Hayden discusses an ongoing quest to quit smoking cigarettes and traces the clues that may lead to kicking the habit.

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Lucky for me that heroin is illegal. Otherwise, I probably would have smoked it at some point to quit smoking cigarettes. Buddha knows, I have tried everything else: gum, patches, pot, Xanax, raw cookie dough, exercise, meditation, tearful promises, urgent prayers, psychotherapy, hypnosis, tough love, goal setting, reward, punishment, abrupt withdrawal, tapering off, locked rooms, 3 day fasts, 3 day tranquilizers, relaxation tapes, 50x magnification spa mirrors, lollipops, inhalers, screaming, sobbing, self-loathing, begging for help, books – just to name a few. When the facts and inspiration from reading doesn’t help me, I suspect there may be a deep-rooted psychological block to overcome.

For the life of me – the literal Life. Of. Me. – I have not been able to conquer this hideous habit over the years that I have been actively trying. Until maybe last week. A randomly chosen movie – Dead Again – featuring Robin Williams as a former therapist, had one line that clicked into my subconscious and made me think about the subject differently. Early in the film Williams’ character coolly observes a private investigator – played by Kenneth Branagh – and says to him, “Do you want a cigarette?” Branagh replies, “No. I don’t smoke.” A few lines later, Williams says again, “Here – take a cigarette.” Branagh retorts, “Why do you think I want a cigarette? I am trying not to smoke.” Williams explains, “Look. There is no trying to quit. You are either a smoker or you’re not. Think about it. And when you decide, you’ll know what to do.” I could easily answer that question: I am not a smoker. Why on earth have I spent so much time and effort to sustain a habit I don’t even like? Psychological issues usually trace to the beginning of a behavior– some tangible episode/event that sparks a behavior change. This weekend, I strolled down bad habit memory lane once more to prove my suspicion that I am not a smoker.

Parental Influence? My dad never smoked; my mom was a social smoker. Both of their fathers had smoked and dad’s had died in his fifties of emphysema. My mom’s dad – a small town sheriff during the depression – was shot to death by the town drunk in a little town in Georgia when mother was five years old. Mom remembered him as a tragic romantic figure, with a head full of black hair and a cigarette dangling from a full bottom lip; over time he came to be personified by Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind – mother’s favorite book. My mom smoked during weekly bridge games and Friday night dances at the country club. She also smoked a couple of cigarettes every New Year’s Eve. The woman could literally take a year smoking one pack of cigarettes. Each time, my father would have a conniption fit and lecture all of us on the evils of smoking.

This was in the seventies, before the real evil of mass produced cigarettes was even known…to the public. But, my father remembered the devastation caused to his depression era family when the patriarchal bread winner had to take to his bed permanently with a terminal case of lung disease leaving six children to fend for themselves. My mom had more of a denial mechanism: her father was cut down by the malevolence of alcohol and ignorance. She never saw her dad wrinkle and wheeze from a long life of cigarettes. My siblings never really took to cigarettes; it was just me who faced that demon. Maybe we are predisposed to an addiction gene, but clearly I cannot look to my family for the cause of this plague.

Youthful Indiscretion? My first cigarette was five cigarettes. They accompanied my first drink: Jack and Coke in a railcar suite at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo when I was barely thirteen years old. At this age, I was a freshman in high school. Everyone else seemed so much older. When the girlfriend of a senior at my high school asked me to keep her company in Tennessee for an overnight away soccer game, I jumped at the chance. She was great to me that weekend; she introduced me to alcohol and cigarettes, talked me through the pitfalls of being a female in high school, held my hair when I got dizzy and sick that night, and never said a word about it to anyone. She set the bar really high for my feelings that what I chose to do was mine to do and deal with accordingly. I didn’t smoke or drink again for a year. When I did, it was in defiance of my boyfriend who thought smoking “wasn’t ladylike”. I smoked my way right to a break-up, then quit again for the rest of the school year.

I would have let the smoking chapter end, but my dad heard about my smoking a couple of months after I stopped. He prepared a long chat with me – drove out to my boarding school on a weekday – egads! – and told me that if I didn’t quit he would remove me from school. I was outraged at the heavy handed tactics, bummed a cigarette from a classmate walking by the window of the family sedan dad and I were conversing in, and lit up on the spot. I smoked off my nose to spite my face. Then, I smoked for a few more months to show my dad who was the boss of me. But, I really couldn’t stand it, so I quit again for several years. What could have ended right there as a youthful indiscretion/rebellion crept back a few years later.

Social Pressures? I am an introvert. I hide it really well, like my corporate training taught me. But, I unwaveringly enter any social gathering looking for the chance to skip outside to smoke a cigarette – alone. Outside, there is usually some other soul like myself who I will talk to over my American Spirit; as an introvert, this one-on-one conversation is infinitely preferable to me. The only times in life I have ever had more than two cocktails was when I could not escape, like a cocktail party or a presentation day for work. People will press drink after drink on you while telling you all about the wickedness of something else. Socializing within these confines is a soul sucking situation for me.

I became a professed teetotaler by my junior year of college; nobody forces non-drinkers into bawdy conversations. But, I was singing in a bar to pay for school, so I took up smoking again to find a way out of talking to the customers in the clubs where our band played. Ironically, no one ever pressured me to smoke to be cool. Smokers are generous with cigarettes; they will always give you the last one out of their pack. But, no one ever pressed a cigarette on me. So, while there are social pressures for me associated with smoking, they spring from inside myself. I have adapted aberrantly with cigarettes, so I can’t blame social pressures for my smoking any more than I can blame society for people’s fascination/obsession with loudmouths, drunks, and self promoters.

Oral Fixation? Definitely. Thank Allah I never had much of a taste for alcohol, because I have rarely spent a moment of my adult life without a coffee, diet soda, juice tonic, or glass of ice water in my hand. My mom did breast feed me and I loved her very much. So, yes, I don’t at all discount Freud here when I think of my need for oral reinforcement when feeling upset or anxious. Since having gained and lost the same 15 pounds throughout my entire life, I believe my family when they say that they can always tell when I am happy because I’m healthy and fit. When I am not happy, the pounds go on and no unclaimed cigarette lying around is safe from my clutches. This epiphany from the movie happening at this point in my life seems to point to a successful oral substitution change to something healthier for a while, like carrot sticks or Nicorette gum. There’s some hilarious patter in the Gwyneth Paltrow/Ben Affleck movie Bounce, where Gwyneth Paltrow takes up smoking again to wean her off nicotine gum. Sadly, my oral fixation may be that pronounced. But, as I am aware of it all of the time now, it seems to be lessening dramatically on its own. Time to move on to the next excuse/reason…

Emotion Mitigation? When I quit smoking, I alternately cry easily or fly off the handle about almost everything remotely inconvenient or imperfect. I know smoking helps me hold back a lot of my feelings. I am honestly afraid of the physical and mental energy I have when I am not smoking. I quit for ten years starting in graduate school. During that time, I ran five miles a day, played racquetball incessantly, started a new career, and moved to the big city of Atlanta. There was no time or reason to think deeply or smoke cigarettes. Then, I switched to a job that would lead me to living and working in Europe. During that time, I also married and became pregnant. And, waiting for that baby to arrive was when the smoking bug hit me again. I made it through the end of that pregnancy without smoking, but it was touch and go. Once my son was born and would only drink from a bottle, that’s all I needed to light up for another ten years. My time raising my son was golden. Work and marriage were horrendously stressful, though.

Smoking was also much easier. Europeans don’t think about cigarettes the way Americans do at all. And, their cigarettes are not as full of drain cleaner, et.al., and extra addictive poison sludge like those in the U.S. So, I started again. When I moved back to the US, I stopped once more later for several years when I was happily ensconced in a completely different job. But, then, after a lifetime of friends who didn’t smoke, I met my future husband and he smoked like a chimney. We talked and smoked and smoked and talked. It was heavenly. I fell off the wagon again.

See how I wrote two paragraphs without acknowledging the important discovery I made in the first sentence of this section? Cry easily, inconvenient, imperfect. Those issues all come from early childhood: scary big sister, Type A personality from birth, shameful Bryan’s Song crying jag at six years old, having to hold my bladder too long at elementary school because of an overwhelmed second grade teacher, pathological need to score 100 on tests, training for track every day in all weather, dancing en pointe, tendency to have head in the clouds reading books and singing along with record player until sibling revolts snapped me back. Okay… So what if I spend four weeks crying while I am not smoking? Who cares? My husband won’t harass me about it, nor will the computer. I live in the city now in a tenth of the space I am used to inhabiting: everything is inconvenient. If I focus on improving/embracing this period of change, then I won’t need the smokes as a crutch to prop up my denial of my discomfort right now. Imperfect? Um, yes I am. I do tend to hide that from even my closest intimates: I am supposed to be the person who always has the answers. If I stop doing/being that, I bet I will stop being stressed out over things I don’t care about and stop smoking. I am writing full time now; the only answer I know and want is to keep doing that.

Behavioral Habit? At this point in life, I absolutely have to quit and have needed to for a while, now. If you smoke, you know what I mean. I have the lung capacity of a hummingbird. My face shows the signs of a day of heavy smoking; it also rosies right up when I forego the habit. I smoke so as not to eat when I am nervous. I smoke to punctuate something good happening or something bad. I wash my hands and brush my teeth all the time. Smoking is robbing me of time – a moment here, there, and everywhere – that is not going to come endlessly anymore. I must stop and identify the feelings propelling me to light up every time I change gears. When the urge is purely physical, as it will be for the first couple of weeks, then I can use my inhaler. When I want to use the behavior to celebrate writing a chapter or working out (I know, it’s pathetic), I could find another way to behave right there in the moment that suits the non-smoker that stands tall at my core.

Conclusion? I am not a smoker. I am a generally happy person in the middle of a lot of change and transformation. I do want to live for a good, long while. I am not a self-saboteur. I will use these mirrors from my past to cut through the haze of smoking. My sister lives 4000 miles away! I can do this. It has been 36 hours since I started writing this and since I have had a cigarette.  Please leave any comments, tips, cartoons, advice, etc. in the comments below. Thanks for listening and cross your fingers for me.