Sunday, May 4, 2008

Introduction to Stop Smoking, Stay Quit

"It's easy to quit smoking, I've done it a thousand times." -Mark Twain
I started helping others quit smoking for very selfish reasons. I thought if I was teaching others to quit, it would help me to stay quit too. I started smoking when I was 14 because I was very shy and self conscious. Smoking gave me something to do with my hands when I was hanging around with my friends.
The first time I quit was because of Mr. O’Kelly. I worked in a medical clinic and Mr. O’Kelly was an elderly gentleman with emphysema that came in for daily treatments. I could hear him gasping for breathe as he walked into the clinic. He died from breaking his back due to complications with his medication.
As I was driving to work one day, smoking my morning cigarette I was thinking of Mr. O’Kelly and that I didn’t want to die like he did. I looked at my cigarette and thought "This is really stupid". I put the it out and didn’t smoke one for a year. It seemed easy at the time, maybe too easy because eventually I was telling myself that I could control my smoking and only smoke when I wanted too. This time I was going to control my smoking but I was wrong. In a very short period of time I was back smoking the same amount I had been smoking before I had quit.
It was several years before I quit again. This time was because I was dating an adamant non-smoker. He wouldn’t allow me to smoke in his car, in his apartment, and finally I couldn't smoke around him. Having to put up with his ravings seemed more stressful than quitting but when the relationship ended, I went right back to my cigarettes. After that I always wanted to quit and I would stop for a day or two every once in a while but it wasn’t until July of 1987 that I made a serious attempt at quitting. I was determined to quit for good and I attended a smoking cessation workshop sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Three months later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 32 years old and couldn’t handle the stress of chemotherapy, so I started smoking again.
No one ever told me my cancer was caused by smoking, yet I didn’t think that ingesting a cancer causing substance was a smart thing to do. I was at high risk for a cancer relapse and if I did have cancer again, I didn’t want to tell myself that it was something that I did to myself. What followed was a three year battle of me trying to give up my cigarettes. I quit several times but I always relapsed after a few months.
My last cigarette was August 19, 1990. I was down to the last one in the pack and I asked the friend I was driving with, to stop at a store. Very facetiously she said "So when are you going to quit again".
Her words struck a nerve with me. It became clear I needed to make a decision on what was more important to me, smoking a cigarette or quitting for good. Like a light switch being flipped on, I made the decision I did not want to smoke anymore and I was willing to do whatever it took to be successful.
I had attended a couple of stop smoking workshops and one of my facilitators had told me that the best way to quit for good was to teach someone else. I was already a volunteer with the American Cancer Society and I trained to facilitate their smoking cessation program. My first class started a month after my last cigarette. I was going to teach three classes over the next year and figured that at the end, I would have a good foundation to never smoke again. But I was hooked, I really related to others struggling to quit and discovered I could make a difference.
I became quite active with The American Cancer Society and the local Anti-Tobacco Coalition. I met many health educators, nurses and doctors teaching smoking cessation, but I couldn't understand how they teach other how to stop smoking when they had never smoked themselves. I disagreed with many of the principles being used. If I, as a former smoker, didn't believe what they were saying, why would another smoker? Although these professionals had medical or psychological backgrounds and I didn’t, I thought I knew more than they did about quitting.
Someone who has never smoked has no idea how embarrassing it is to explain how you singed your hair while lighting your cigarette on an electric stove because you couldn't find a match. Or how desperate you feel when waking up in the middle of the night, reaching for your package of cigarettes, only to find it empty. Then, going to the ashtray searching for a long butt, only to find it empty also. Grabbing the garbage can finding those long butts soaked by coffee grinds, but wanting a cigarette so bad, you get dressed and drive to an all night convenience store to buy a pack. I finally realized that most of those teaching others how to quit had no idea what it is like to be addicted to tobacco. But I do. I know the fears, the denial, and the rationalizations.
I started using different techniques in my class that I felt instinctively would work and I received favorable feedback from the participants. I thought that if I could say just the right thing at the right time to a smoker that I could get him or her to quit. My background was in sales and I had learned how to develop rapport with a client, establish a need, and overcome objections. I realized that I was selling good health and there was no objection that I could not overcome because there was no good reason to smoke.
I went back to college and received a BA in psychology. With every paper, every project, I tried to geared it towards additional knowledge about smoking. This blog is a combination of what I learned from helping others quit successfully and the psychological processes I learned from research. I have been trained as a Tobacco Treatment Specialist by the Mayo Clinic and just returned from a Nicotine conference there about smoking cessation for those individuals with a mental illness or substance abuse problem.
Quitting smoking is like walking down a street that is filled with landmines. Some landmines you know about and you avoid those, but others are hidden and if you step on one, you blow yourself up. You have the best intentions of staying quit but something happens and you blow yourself up or relapse back to smoking. What makes quitting hard is that the landmines are different for different people so what causes one person to relapse, may be avoidable with another person. The trick is finding out what will work for you, which may be different than anyone you know who has ever quit. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle and everybody has a different puzzle so what worked for someone else may or may not work for you. When I hear that a method has 100% quit rate, I know that can’t be true. Every method will work for some, but no method works for everyone. The trick to quitting is to figure out which pieces of the puzzle affect you and then formulate a plan that works for you. You need an individualized plan to be successful. You don’t smoke exactly how anybody else smokes. Each person has their own individual triggers, emotions and connections to their cigarettes, and each person, needs a plan that will work for them. Let the Quitting begin!

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