Regrets from a Nicotine Addict
Francine L. Baldwin-Billingslea
The year was 1969; I was thirteen years old, in the ninth grade, and had just gone through a very traumatic experience. I had become rebellious, tired of the regimented parochial schools I had attended all of my life, and very disappointed with arrogant nuns and priests and their rules and rulers. My rebel mind began to dictate my thoughts, actions and behaviors. It also told me that since I had become hip and cool, the hip and cool thing to do was to smoke. As I lit my very first cigarette and blew the smoke into the air, a smile came across my face. I felt like the models on the TV, in the magazines, and on the billboards and I felt sexy, appealing, and trendy. I only smoked when I was around my friends; it wasnít something I had to do, but it was something that I wanted to do. When I was introduced to inhaling, it made me dizzy. I staggered around, coughed, got teary eyed, felt sick to my stomach and no longer felt sexy. As a matter of fact, at that point, I no longer liked or enjoyed smoking. Everything inside of me rejected the nicotine. A red flag had gone up, but due to the laughter, instructions and encouragement from my friends, I ignored it. Soon, I was addicted, a full-fledged smoker, and smoking was no longer a thing I wanted to do, but needed to do. Besides feeling hip and cool, I also felt confident, accepted and all grown up. Although the two or three non-smokers in our group were just as accepted, we secretly thought they were babyish and corny. I never thought the day would come when I wished I had been more like them. At the time I had no regrets, but smoking quickly made changes in my life.
Before my addiction, a pack of cigarettes would have lasted well over a week. I didnít have to go without lunch to buy them, I didnít have to sneak outside to get a few drags, I didnít have to keep my bedroom window open in the dead of winter, blowing smoke out and letting the cold, rain, snow and hail in. I didnít burn pockets off my clothes by rushing and putting half lit cigarettes in them, and I didnít have to worry about having to look over my shoulder or having close calls in getting caught. Even when I wanted to go out with my family, I made excuses to stay home alone; they became opportunities to smoke in peace. If I had to choose between catching a bus and walking, which I had to do to get to school, or buying cigarettes, I chose the latter and gladly walked the 45 minutes it took to get there. With these negative factors in place, plus some unmentioned, I smoked with absolutely no thoughts of quitting. After all, it was the hip, cool and acceptable thing to do. And besides, I was now addicted, and as crazy as it may sound, I found a sense of solace in smoking.
Years later, one morning I woke up, grabbed a cigarette, lit it, and it made me sick. I found that not only did the smell and taste of nicotine nauseate me, but also the smell and taste of everything else. After a few weeks of this happening, I went to the doctor and discovered that I was pregnant. So, for the next seven and a half months, smoking became a thing of the past. However, less than a week after the birth of my daughter, the desire and craving came back so strong that I couldnít resist it, and I enthusiastically resumed my old habit. During this time, which was in the early seventies, smoking was still considered hip, sexy, and trendy. I even changed to a longer, slimmer cigarette and, supposedly, I had "come a long way baby!"
Everywhere you went the smell of nicotine was in the air. Smoking was allowed in movie theaters, homes, restaurants, work places, buses, planes, trains, offices, and even in the hospitals. There werenít any Surgeon Generalís warnings on the side of the cigarette packs or mega law suits against the tobacco companies. Smoking didnít take the blame for cancer and other health related issues, and very few complained about second-hand smoke. Those that did were usually ignored. Smokers had their rights, we were respected and tolerated. The tobacco companies were booming and thriving. The open, inviting, well-stocked store shelves had several choices of every kind of cigarette that appealed to the smoker, and the choice was steadily growing.
Sure there were people who stopped smoking back then and Iím sure there were secret regrets, but they were kept silent or quietly expressed.
I enjoyed my cigarettes. In fact there was nothing like having one after a good meal or while talking on the phone or in-between sips of wine. Then thereís that last cigarette before bed and the first one as soon as you woke up. Thereís the cigarette to calm your nerves, the chain smoking when youíre upset, the ones to relax you while watching TV or listening to music, and letís not forget the after passion one. Someone once asked me if I smoked after sex, I told them, I donít know, I never checked! It might take a minute to get that. Anyway, I had so many reasons to smoke and none to stop, I hadnít reached that point nor did I think about or want to accept the true dependency I had on them and the hold they had on me. I never experienced any withdrawal symptoms because I was never without a cigarette for any real length of time to experience them.
As the years passed, more and more people began to quit smoking. They said cigarettes were becoming too expensive, they were tired of smelling like smoke, or it was for health reasons. I decided that I also had enough; it was becoming less and less desirable, so the next time I went to the store, I didnít buy any. I was going to kick the habit, but before the end of the night, the habit started to kick me. I became restless and couldnít sleep. I needed one last cigarette. I tossed and turned until I finally got out of bed and rode around until I found a store that was open. While driving home smoking, it dawned on me that I would have to become unwavering in my determination to quit, so I decided that this was going to be my last pack of cigarettes and I meant it! A few days later, I made that same decision. This was the first time in fifteen years that I tried to quit and I realized that quitting wasnít going to be that easy. I began to fight a losing battle. I began to regret the day I ever picked up a cigarette. There was nothing sexy or appealing about them, and now they werenít even that trendy or sexy, and I had become too old to think about being hip and cool. I was nothing but a nicotine addicted fool!
Over the years, Iíve tried every stop smoking aid there is, patches, pills, hypnosis, magnets, you name it and Iíve tried it. I stopped for days, a week or two, but for some reason, sooner or later, Iíd find myself in a store and, almost in a guilty whisper, telling the clerk to ďGive me a pack ofÖĒ
There have been times that I sat with my cigarette in hand and my thinking cap on for hours, wondering why in the world I ever started smoking and why in the world I just couldnít quit. I realized that smoking was a crutch, some sort of band-aid, but I couldnít find the reason why I was leaning on them so much. It wasnít that I was enjoying it as much as I used to, and I certainly didnít like the dependency, and yet I continued to smoke, almost hating every drag I took. I finally figured that I really wasnít the woman of strength and determination that I thought I was. I hung my head in shame over the fact that this thing had me beat, and there was an underlying issue why. Thereís a reason for any type of addiction, and I realized that I started smoking shortly after I got raped. I wondered if I tried to cover the emotional damage with smoke or tried to hide the anger in ashes.
In the mid nineties, I relocated to Georgia and, one time while I was back home in New Jersey visiting, I ran into an old friend, one that had laughed at me and taught me how to inhale. As we stood reminiscing about old times, I pulled out my cigarettes and, to my amazement, she laughed and yelled, ďYOUíRE STILL SMOKING?Ē After cutting our conversation short, irritated and appalled, I walked away and threw my cigarettes in a garbage can. Three days and ten bitten off fingernails later, I bought another pack. Every now and then, Iíd get the strength and will-power to stop for a couple of days, but my spoiled body constantly demanded that I give it what it craved and I seemed to be powerless in my struggle to constantly deny it.
January 2003, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I asked if it came from smoking, I was told that it is a fact that smoking does cause cancer, but, in my case, it was mostly hormonal. This might sound a little bizarre, but in a way I felt relieved to hear that. However, the regrets I felt about smoking remained dominant. I became very angry with cigarettes, the tobacco companies, my so-called friends, peer-pressure, but mainly with myself. I was always strong, an over-comer, a fighter, a winner and an achiever, but in this case, I seemed to fail in my quest to quit smoking time and time again. I just couldnít understand why quitting was so difficult for me, especially during this critical time in my life. Having had close family members that passed away from lung cancer, Iíve seen and experienced the pain that it causes the person and their loved ones. Now, besides battling this nasty habit, I was in another battle, a fight for my life and whoís to say that smoking did not contribute to it.
The chemo and its affects were ruthless, but they made me even more determined to win the battle over smoking forever. I quit and began hating smoking and cigarettes with a passion, and how much I regretted that I even started. I overcame the illness but felt grief, remorse, distress and, for the most part, I felt so guilty and so ashamed, especially later when I allowed my addiction to come back and I would sneak and light up a cigarette. Iíve always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of person, open, honest, and quick to express my opinions and thoughts, and quick to let you know this is my life, Iím an adult and Iíll do as I please. And now I was allowing this ugly, nasty habit to make me, me of all people, want to sneak and hide. I never liked sneaky people or sneakiness of any kind for any reason, and I was becoming what I disliked. And who was I kidding anyway, especially when I emerged from my hiding place reeking of smoke? I began to openly smoke and hated the stares, whispers, and people saying, ďAnd after what sheīs been throughÖĒ Even though I held my head high as I fed my addiction, deep down inside, I felt like crap as I silently and sincerely prayed that Iíd kick the habit.
Nothing good ever comes out of smoking, from day one it causes problems. In addition, society had persuaded and programmed us for years with all the brainwashing advertising and smoking propaganda, making it look chic and hip, and now after millions of people have been addicted and thereís been millions of nicotine related health problems and deaths, itís frowned upon. Theyíve changed the rules. Smoking is no longer accepted or allowed in most public places, especially in places where smoking was most enjoyable, such as a bar or a casino. There are times a smoker is even frowned upon for smoking out in the open air, and, when I had stopped smoking for awhile, I had the nerve to be one of those frowners.
Yes, I regret smoking; itís not only harmful to the smoker, but also to those around them. Itís smelly, inconsiderate, nasty and expensive. I donít even want to think about all the money Iíve spent on cigarettes in all the years that Iíve smoked. No, I canít and I wonít play the blame game, starting and stopping is totally up to the individual, and whatís easy for some may be the hardest, most difficult and challenging task for others, namely me. And every time someone, especially my daughter and my grandchildren, asks me to stop, I tearfully tell them Iím trying. But donít people understand that as much as you want to and as much as you try, itís a habit? For me, itīs an addiction of thirty-five plus years, an illness thatís a part of me. Itís not something that Iím proud of, and as much as I love my loved ones and know I wasnít setting a good example, itís just not that easy to quit. And that alone was hurting me, because they knew I was hurting myself and it hurt me to know I was hurting them. Non-smokers will never understand smokers. Hey, we donít even understand the logic behind it ourselves. And it seems as if the former smokers are the hardest ones to deal with. They donít want to hear anything. They feel that if they stopped, you can too.
Since nicotine is a drug, I often wonder why it isnít treated as such. Why arenít there rehab centers for smokers, paid for by the tobacco and insurance companies? And, if they do exist, which Iím sure they do somewhere, theyíre probably unaffordable for the plain, everyday, working, just-making-it, smoker. I wonder if cigarettes were still made out of plain, pure, dried tobacco, would they be just as addictive? And why do they have to put nicotine in them anyway? And why has the Surgeon Generalís warning changed to, ďCigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide?Ē Whatís that all about? And what exactly does that mean? And now I see that the latest warning states, ďQuitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health,Ē as if we smokers, along with everybody else donít know that!
As we grow in age, knowledge and wisdom, there will be things that weíll always regret. There are quite a few things that I wish I couldíve, wouldíve, shouldíve, but none compares to the regrets I have about smoking. If I knew then what I know now, I most certainly wouldíve been glad to be called babyish and corny.
After all thatís been said and done, every now and then Iíll still go into a store and whisper, ďGive me a pack ofÖ.,Ē but not nearly as often as I used to. Iíll smoke a few and mentally beat myself up so bad that I donít even enjoy them. Iím ashamed to smoke in front of people, and when I do, Iíll take a few drags then throw the cigarette or the whole pack away, and I donít go back into the garbage to get them or rush out as quickly to buy more. I can now go for weeks without a cigarette, even when I have some hidden in my stash, and Iím at the point that I can hardly stand the smell and the taste of them. And no, Iím not pregnant!
Iím so happy that Iím finally losing my taste and desire for cigarettes and without the harshness of withdrawal symptoms. I guess itís basically a mind over matter thing. Not only that, but years and age have softened some of lifeís blows and my needs have changed. Iíve mellowed and found new perspectives on the whyís and more positive ways to deal with the negatives. We may not always understand them, but there are reasons for everything, including every battle we may go through, endure, or tolerate. They might weaken us, but in our weaknesses, weíll find strength if we ask and look for it. And when we find it, we need to accept, lean on, learn and grow from it. One thing that I had to accept is the fact that, in spite of it all, the truth of the matter is, yes, I was addicted, but I guess I also just wanted to smoke. Iíve overcome the traumatizing impacts and effects of rape, divorce, and breast cancer, just to name a few, because I wanted to. I didnít allow those negative things to destroy my life, so why should I allow cigarettes?
Itís been a long, hard journey, but I can see the finish line and myself on the other side of it. Iím beating and winning the battle against smoking without any quitting aids, just prayer, faith, sheer determination, and the fact that, frankly, Iím tired of it, just plain tired of it, and itís time to quit. That ugly, stinking nicotine monster is gradually meeting his demise. Iím no longer lost and bound in smoke, Iíve just had enough, and I want to live a healthier, cleaner way of life. Iíve found that my house, car and clothes smell a whole lot better. I have more pocket money and I feel better in every aspect of my life.
I know that I have been truly blessed and I have mentally, physically and finally reached those points where this time I really mean it. And if cigarettes and smoking served as some kind of band-aids to cover up any painful experiences or wounds from the past, the hurts are now healed and Iím finally on the road to recovery. And the fact that I just threw away a pack of nine-month old cigarettes proves it.