Monday, February 22, 2016

Twenty-two Years of Not Smoking

My anniversary as a nonsmoker occurred last month. It has been twenty-two years since I quit smoking. If I had continued smoking, I am not sure that I would still be alive today or what quality of life I would have if I were alive.  I live with the consequences of my smoking every day because I cannot breathe well without inhaling a corticosteroid twice a day. 

I only recently recovered from a nasty cold.  When I visited the doctor back in January, she seemed to believe that the cold was aggravating my asthma and prescribed a rescue inhaler and pills to suppress the coughing. She didn’t detect any signs of either bronchitis or pneumonia, she said, and didn’t prescribe antibiotics. After a week, including one night when I couldn’t sleep because of the coughing, I decided to self-medicate and dug out the four-year-old antibiotics that I had stored in the refrigerator. After two days, there was a sudden transformation, and I continued taking these antibiotics for another eight days. If this doctor had known, from studying my medical history, that my viral infections become more serious because of the damage to my lungs, I would have left her office with a prescription for antibiotics. I am not one to recommend taking antibiotics without reason, however.

My wife had had to give up burning incense and candles because the smoke irritates my lungs and makes my breathing more difficult.  I feel fortunate that my house remains fairly air-tight in the winter because some of my neighbors heat their homes using wood and apparently haven’t learned what kind of wood burns hottest and what kind of stove prevents the venting of large amounts of smoke and particulate matter. I am also happy that the restaurants where I live no longer provide a smoking section.

I certainly recommend giving up smoking, and I don’t think that things like hypnosis or the nicotine patch really work. My own story regarding my efforts at quitting appear below in an essay that I wrote in 1999. At the time, I was teaching a first-semester writing class and decided to write about my experience as my students worked on their own essays.

An End to Smoking

I knew that an end to my smoking would be a possibility when I opened up my book bag one night in my 20th century American poetry seminar in 1993, during my second semester of graduate school for the PhD, and smelled the stink of cigarettes.  The smell became stronger still when I opened up my book of Robert Lowell's Selected Poems.  It didn't help any that I was sitting next to my professor at a seminar table.  I felt extremely self-conscious, perhaps because of my doubt about succeeding in her class and in graduate school as a whole.

I knew that an end to my smoking would also be a possibility when I sat in an unheated room one winter night that same semester, dressed in five layers of clothing, and in front of an open window, where I positioned a fan to blow my cigarette smoke outside into the frigid night air.  Just to be near that open window, my six-year-old cat slept in a chair beside me, inhaling that cold, smoke filled air, as I worked at my desk until 5:00 a.m.

As a considerate smoker, I made an effort to not subject others to my habit.  In 1980, when I visited my parents while they were living in England, I went outside to smoke. My father at that time had been forced to quit his pipe smoking because of his health.  My mother's lungs were also sensitive after thirty-five years of inhaling my father's secondhand smoke.

During the two occasions I lived with my sister, first in San Francisco and later in Connecticut, I went outside to smoke as well.  Once one of her neighbors in Connecticut told her that someone had been lurking around her house.  “That’s my brother,” she said.

When I moved into my own apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, I got involved with a nonsmoker and didn’t smoke in my apartment when she visited me.  Later, when I began seeing someone else, who smoked more than me, I actually found her smoking repulsive, particularly when she fixed food.  I always felt as if her smoking tainted the food in some way.

I refrained from smoking around my wife, too, when we first started seeing each other in Manhattan, Kansas.  Her upstairs apartment had a screened in porch attached to it and provided a place where I could go whenever I needed to satisfy my craving.

Once my wife and I began living together, I always smoked in a separate room, the same room where I had my desk.  This arrangement continued when we got married and lived in Lawrence, Kansas City, and Stillwater, Oklahoma.  By confining my smoking to one room, I didn't associate smoking with the living room or the kitchen or bedroom.  This consideration for others probably contributed to my own amount of self-consciousness regarding my smoking.

These two things--my consideration for others and self-consciousness--were probably an early step in my pursuit of life as an ex-smoker.  I never suspected when I started smoking cigarettes in the Air Force that I would be a smoker twenty years after my discharge.  Oddly, I had always hated the smell of pipe smoke or cigarette smoke when I was a child.  I used to find the smell of my father overpowering when I sat next to him at church.  From having inhaled his unfiltered pipe smoke, his skin was not only yellowed but also smelled strongly of nicotine.

When I was undergoing my security police training in 1970 at Camp Bullis, I began smoking little cigars as I leaned against one of the cabins where we were staying during our week in the field.  I had seen Clint Eastwood’s western movies and believed that smoking little cigars would make me seem as rugged as one of his characters.  My behavior didn't last longer than the week spent at Camp Bullis because I didn’t find smoking particularly enjoyable.

While stationed at RAF Lakenheath in England, I began carrying cigarettes so that I could mix the tobacco with the hashish I started smoking then.  The tobacco made it possible for the hashish to burn when it was rolled in a joint.  Some of my friends at Wethersfield, where I was TDY for six months, used to place five cigarette papers together to create a thin joint that measured four inches in length, to which they would attach a rolled up playing card as a kind of filter.  A joint was often six to seven inches in length when they were finished.  At one time, when out of hashish, I began smoking the cigarettes.   Once I discovered that the cigarettes made me high and legally, too, I was hooked.

My habit started at just a few cigarettes a day.  By the time I was discharged from the Air Force in 1971, I was smoking about half a pack a day of Winston.  The amount I smoked increased to a pack a day once I started college and remained a constant during most of my days as a smoker.  By 1974, I had a yellow stain on my right hand from smoking so many and such strong cigarettes.  Someone I knew suggested I try switching hands, which helped to eliminate the stain.  A few years later, once I became aware of the amount of nicotine and tar in particular brands, I switched to Winston Lights.  I switched brands again when I was an undergraduate at Wichita State and began smoking Vantage regular, believing that an even lower tar cigarette was better for me and had less of a stigma attached to it.  One of my literature professors at Wichita State regularly smoked that brand while he was lecturing in the classroom.  Several years later, I switched again and began smoking ultra light Vantage.

When writing essays, I often smoked so much that I voided whatever benefit I had gained by switching to a brand with less nicotine and less tar.  I eventually found myself smoking more than I was writing when I was in graduate school.  I would write a little, light a cigarette, then think about I had written.  Sometimes, I would put the cigarette in the ashtray, forgot about it, and then light another one before I had finished the first one.  After a few hours of this, my ashtray was overflowing, my mouth felt like cotton, my breathing was labored, my clothing and surroundings reeked, and my writing was still unfinished.

A similar pattern developed when I was grading essays.  To make it easier to get through a stack of freshman essays, I used smoking as a way of giving myself a break.  After grading twenty to twenty-five essays, I had smoked a lot of cigarettes.  My students sometimes used to hold their papers up to their noses when I handed them back.

I first tried quitting when I returned to my folks’ house after my discharge from the Air Force.  That first attempt lasted a couple of hours before I was creating a cigarette by rolling my father's pipe tobacco.  I don't remember trying again until twenty years later when I bought some nicotine gum and rented a quit smoking tape from Blockbuster.  The gum, because it seemingly contained more nicotine than I was used to, made me jittery, however.  For the next week or so, my wife doled out just three cigarettes a day, after we had agreed that I should try to quit by reducing the number of cigarettes per day and by smoking them only when my craving was the strongest--after meals, especially.  It wasn't long before I was behaving like an alcoholic by keeping cigarettes hidden in my car and smoking them while driving, unbeknown to my wife.  This attempt at quitting was short-lived, too.  My wife looked surprised and disappointed when she returned from teaching one day to see me smoking outside of our apartment in Kansas City.

Even when I was poor as an undergraduate and had no money for cigarettes, I always returned to smoking once I had money again.  I generally ate something first, after not eating much of anything other than rice or baked potatoes.  Then I bought cigarettes.  That buzz I felt after not smoking for a few days almost equaled that initial satisfaction I found in smoking cigarettes.

Beginning in 1992, I resolved to quit smoking at the end of each New Year's.  This resolution went unfulfilled for the next two years.  Once I learned of my wife’s pregnancy in 1993, my reasons for quitting became that much stronger.  I had told myself, even before I married or even thought about marrying, that I would quit when my wife became pregnant.  Now I had to satisfy that statement. 

I once again resolved to quit smoking at the start of 1994.  Not smoking became more of a possibility during Christmas, when I was staying with my in-laws, because confining my smoking to the outdoors helped me to reduce the amount of cigarettes to less than ten a day.  By that time, I had also grown tired of smoking, without actually separating myself from the habit.  Spending about $2.50 on each pack, or about $75.00 per month, was more than I could really afford on my graduate teaching salary.  More and more health warnings were appearing in the newspaper and on the television news.  More restrictions on smoking were continuing to be publicized.  Another study revealed that professionals smoke less than the rest of the population and that smoking, because it is a habit of those in low-paying jobs and the habit of those with little education, actually prohibited upward mobility because of the stigma accompanying the habit.  All total, more and more things were working against my smoking.

My end to smoking came on the morning of January 21, 1994, as I was writing a letter to a friend before going to bed that morning.  Around 1:30 a.m., I smoked the last cigarette I had in the house.  Two others were in the car in case of an emergency, however.  A friend of mine had told me that when he quit, he kept two cigarettes in the glove box of his car in case of an emergency and still had them there, five or more years later. 

Instead of relying on hypnosis, or the nicotine patch, both of which cost too much money for someone without health care, I chose nothing but my own determination.  I had made a list of reasons of why I wanted to quit and referred to that list whenever I needed to.  Two things, I believe, contributed to my success at not smoking--my wife’s pregnancy and the hectic pace of my life.

It was difficult to think about smoking when I was enrolled in nine hours of graduate work and taught two composition classes.  Grading essays, reading, and writing essays kept me busy.  Combined with this activity, my wife and I were starting to attend birthing classes at Stillwater Medical Center on Wednesday evenings.  Beginning in March, we made Thursday morning trips to University Hospital in Oklahoma City for our prenatal visits in the gestational diabetic unit before we had to rush back and teach our two classes that afternoon.

Of course, the biggest temptation to smoke came when I was in my office at home, the one room I had set aside for smoking.  I resisted this temptation in several ways.  Once I quit, I rearranged the furniture in that office and took out the fan I was using to blow the cigarette smoke outside.  I scrubbed cigarette smoke off the panes of glass.  I also took great pleasure in the warmth available by not having the window open, and I felt as though that room had become that much more enjoyable and welcoming.

By not smoking, I found that my concentration when composing at the computer had increased dramatically because I was no longer stopping every fifteen minutes or so to smoke a cigarette.  Still needing to busy my hands when pausing while writing or when grading papers, I started squeezing a rubber eraser before it broke apart.  Then I borrowed my wife's Isoflex, a small balloon filled with sand and available at the drug store as a stress reliever.  When grading, I often kept the Isoflex in my right hand and squeezed it during those moments I would have been smoking. 

Because of the stress of that semester and the conflict I was having with one of my professors, I had to smoke those two cigarettes stored in the car on two separate occasions.  But I never bought any others after smoking those two.

My cravings became less frequent the longer I went without smoking.  I resisted them by using my hands, by thinking of the reasons I had stopped, by going to another room in the house.  I also had to think back to the person I was before I took up smoking so that I could refamiliarize myself with the behavior of someone who doesn't have a cigarette in hand at least once an hour. 

Like many smokers who quit, I gained weight afterwards, but my weight gain of thirty-five to forty pounds cannot be blamed solely on quitting, because I was more sedentary after the baby was born.  I also wasn't active when I was studying for my comprehensive exams or writing the dissertation.

It has been more than five years now since I quit smoking.  I don't miss it.  I like who I am as an ex-smoker, in regards to such things as the smell of my clothes, the smell of my hands, my ability to devote so much more time and attention on those things that interest me.  It continues to amaze me that I finally ended my reliance on cigarettes.

My lungs, having been scared by those years of smoking about 168,000 cigarettes, are more susceptible to infection.  Whenever I catch a cold, it often turns into a chest cold and becomes bronchitis.  A year after quitting, I developed pneumonia, as a result of catching a cold from my sister, when she came to visit during New Year's to see her nephew.  I had to see several different doctors from February to June, before I finally recovered, after taking lots of antibiotics.  I also have been diagnosed with asthma and take one or two inhalers whenever I wheeze or experience difficulty breathing.

Despite these health problems, I feel better overall now as a result of having quit smoking.  Returning essays to my students no longer causes me embarrassment.  I especially like knowing I need not feel self-conscious when I hug my son or when he kisses his daddy.