Being a quitter is not such a bad thing

29 December 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Right up there with more exercise, having fun, dieting and other general tortures we inflict upon ourselves in the name of the Great and the Good, is the resolve to quit smoking. The resolve itself is painful enough.  It fills the smoker with an impeding sense of doom.  Not dread, doom.  The sense of an all-encompassing doom, felt in the knowledge that the reason to get up in the morning is about to be taken away, and the only end in sight is death.

It is hard to give up an addiction, a habit you love and a way of life that, for me, represented the last vestige of my youth.  I loved smoking.  Any smoker will tell you this.  I loved the feeling of the inhale, letting the smoke fill my windpipe and lungs, and feeling the push of smoke leave your body.  In the morning, it gave me time to think about my day and it became another snooze button.  During work, it became an excuse to get away from it all and think about anything else.  After a long, arduous day, lighting up allowed the tension to ease out of you with every meditative exhale.  It beautifully rounded off a meal and was a great accompaniment to any sort of alcoholic reviver.

I was a dedicated, 20 a day smoker for 14 years.  I had never given any serious thought to giving up.  It was always something that would happen down the track.  That track stopped on the 30th of November 2008.  No patches.  No gum.  No drugs or any other aid.  Cold Turkey.

So, why give up?  Why give up one of the very few pleasures in my life?  And how did I do it?

In the months preceding D-Day, Doom Day, I was wading through the pressures of a work merger and the stresses of a family crisis.  After a particularly bad day at work one day in late October of 2008, I then went on to have a particularly uncomfortable dinner date with a guy whom I had met through a haze of smudged beer goggles, accompanied by the requisite cigarettes.  Surrendering to every bad turn of events that day, I admitted defeat and went home.

Thanks to hindsight, this is when I can pinpoint the moment that my life was about to change.  Trying to get to sleep that night, I suddenly became short of breath.  Deep breathing didn’t help and I became concerned when it continued.  Then I became acutely aware of a numbing, tingling feeling in both my arms, which then crept into my jaw.  My breathing was still shallow.  I felt nauseous and dizzy.  Then, horror of all horrors, I felt tightness in my chest, followed by pain.  Not a deep pain, but enough pain to raise bright red alarm bells.  Up until that point, I debated about what to do.  I don’t know what possessed me but I decided to drive myself to the nearest hospital.  It was 1am, there were no cars on the road and I got there in less than 10 minutes.

Upon presenting myself to the staff on duty, the last words they want to hear from a woman in her early 30s is that she has pain in her chest, numbness in her arms and is short of breath.  But I can guarantee it will get you seen to straight away.

It was the first time I had ever been admitted to hospital.  Priding myself on excellent health, including the fact that I was a heavy smoker, my health was otherwise good.  I did yoga with no extra effort, I walked and climbed the stairs at work instead of taking the elevator.  I ate reasonably well.  But, I had slowly gained weight over the few years preceding this and I was pushing my body.  And, I was smoking more than 20 cigarettes a day at this point.  I was taking my sound health for granted and it decided to give me a heart thumping punch to the chest.

I lay there on a bed, hooked up to a monitor and panic gripped me.  While listening to a man in the next room painfully passing kidney stones, I decided that I was too young to have a heart attack.  This wasn’t happening and it shouldn’t be happening.  My paternal grandparents both died from heart disease.  I had no desire for a cigarette that night.  For the first time in my smoking life, I seriously considered giving up.  I knew this was what the doctors on duty were about to tell me, and they did.  I had my lungs scanned and they were remarkably clear.  I was told that the first and immediate thing to do was to give up smoking.

After 13 hours of observation, numerous tests and a trip to a counsellor, the verdict was that I had suffered a panic attack.  Physically, everything was fine.  My heart, it turns out, is in excellent condition and has no signs of exploding in my chest anytime soon.  I was embarrassed that I went through all of that, using up valuable resources for someone in real need of medical attention.  I had never experienced a panic attack, or anxiety attack, or any other serious health crisis before.  After being cautioned about the symptoms of a heart attack and feeling those symptoms yourself, naturally it freaks you out.  It really scared me and shook me to the core.  I recognised a seismic shift in my psyche and intrinsically, my mind and body knew that this was it.  I had to give up smoking.

It took about a month for me to finally stop smoking.  I cut down, dramatically.  I cut down to pack a week, if that.  Pre panic attack, I would not have been able to do that. I always envied those smokers who could get away with 2 or 3 ciggies a day.  I knew I couldn’t do it.  With me, it was all or nothing.  I was holding on to and letting go of something that was a big and daily part of my life since I was 20.  I didn’t exactly choose the last day of November to finally give it up, I just let it drift out of my life on that day.

I have not had a cigarette since.

Have I had cravings?  Oh God yes!  But they only last in small moments, and they do pass.  They do.  They come back again, yes, but then they pass again.  And that is the cycle.

Have I been drunk since?  Hell yes!  And still no ciggies.  For me, the decision to quit was based on a traumatic event that became an intrinsic change, rather than a conscious choice.  For some, it is more of a conscious decision that needs more of a conscientious effort to actually stop.

The only reason, really, that people give up smoking is to improve their health.  People have very different ways of giving up, and it may not work the first time.  This is my first attempt at quitting and so far, so good.  That’s not to say I’ll take it up again, but for the time being, I’d rather not.   I do want to say at this point, I am not one of ‘those’ reformed smokers who tut-tut and moralise and prophesise the smoker who loves to light up.  I am one of those who laments the loss and who pines away when a craving hits.  I do miss smoking, but there are things about smoking I absolutely do not miss.

The smell.  What was I thinking?

The cost. I did a little calculation and was mortified by the amount of money I have wasted over 14 years. $65,898 is about the approximate estimation.  That is a deposit for a small property, a year off work or a year overseas.  Bugger.

Taste is restored.  Unfortunately, your waistline does pay.  But, you can exercise and not feel as though you’re grating your windpipe with every breath.

Men who smoke are now vetoed from my wish list.  They are now added to the list that includes married men, Carlton supporters and parking inspectors.

A non-smoker will read this and will criticise and ridicule at the absurdity of my attitude towards smoking.  Fellow smokers will read this with Kurtz’s sense of ‘The Horror The Horror’ wrapped up in the image of Edvard Munch’s paining  The Scream.  Those who have given up can empathise with a bittersweet nostalgia for a time gone by.  For those who have given up and started again, and again, and again, I can only wish this gives you hope, should you decide to quit.

Happy New Year.

Kim Hellard is a Bachelor of Arts student at La Trobe University.

What are  your resolutions for 2010?  Have  you  ever tried to  quit something, and  how did you go?  Drop us a  line  and  let  us  know what you’re planning  to do or do without in the  new year.