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Tempted and terrified

The Quitting Chronicles

Posted: May 3, 2008 2:52 a.m.
Updated: July 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Signal Staff Writer Karen Elowitt recently enrolled in the Tobacco Cessation Program at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. An off-and-on smoker for more than 20 years, she has half-heartedly tried quitting many times but decided to get serious this year. She hopes that after eight weeks in the program she will be able to quit for good. Her column, The Quitting Chronicles, will run every other week during that time so that our readers can follow her experiences - and maybe get inspired to quit, too.

I'm about to smoke my last cigarette, and I'm terrified.

Yes, I finally decided to quit, after more than 20 years of off-and-on puffery. Now, I'm not exactly a heavy smoker by most measures, but even the five or so a day I do indulge in has become a source of inner conflict and debate.

On the one hand, the angel on my right shoulder keeps nagging at me, reciting the statistics like a PR rep from the American Medical Association: "Do you know what your lungs look like? Do you care that your chances of having a stroke or a heart attack are far higher than a non-smoker's? Do you want to die a terrible death from metastatic cancer or emphysema?" Well, obviously not.

But the devil on my other shoulder, who is a dead ringer (no pun intended) for the Marlboro Man, fights back: "You are perfectly healthy. Some people smoke their whole lives and never get sick from it. It's just five cigs anyway - you'd have to smoke a pack or more a day to be considered a 'real' smoker. It's not a big deal."

The fact is, I love smoking and hate it at the same time.

Now, non-smokers won't understand this, but I love the feeling of the silky smoke entering my lungs as I inhale, and I love the way the plume curls as I exhale. I love the ritual of lighting up, watching the excess paper at the tip of my Marlboro curl and crackle when the flame first hits it. I love the smell of smoke as I walk by the coffee shop on Saturday morning. I love to have that one last cigarette before bed, while I am walking my dogs late at night through my Canyon Country neighborhood. It keeps me company on those solitary strolls.

But I hate the shame I feel from being a smoker. It is such an anachronism to be one in this day and age, where it is no longer a probability that cigarettes can kill you, but a certainty. Considering the sheer volume of public health campaigns imploring us not to start, how to stop, and why it's bad, it has become not only politically incorrect but downright taboo to be a smoker. I can't tell you the number of disdainful glances and lectures I get from total strangers who see me puffing. "Why would anyone logically choose to do that?" they tell me with their harsh stares.

I hate the way that smoking has made my voice hoarse and scratchy.

It's a voice I associate with sickly middle-aged women, but I am only in my late 30s. I hate the fact that I get winded easily just walking up a short staircase. I hate the amount of money I waste buying cigarettes. They used to cost $1.10 a pack when I was in high school, but now cost at least $4.50. I have spent thousands over the last two decades - money I could have been putting toward a car or a vacation in Hawaii.

I started to seriously contemplate quitting in 2006, my 20th year since starting. Something about the number 20 did it for me. It seemed like such a very long time for me to have been doing something very bad. I mean, it's not the same level of danger as trying Ecstasy once in college, because smoking is not a one-time deal. It has been 20 years of sucking toxins into my body, day in and day out. That's why I decided it was time to stop.

While writing an article about quitting smoking for this paper a few weeks ago, I interviewed Peter Jaeger of the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Tobacco Cessation Program. During the conversation, I felt a mental shift occurring: I stopped being the impartial reporter, and started thinking about my own habit. Wouldn't it be somewhat hypocritical of me to write an article about the virtues of quitting while I was still an active smoker?

One thing Peter mentioned was that you have to be ready to quit. I realized then that I am ready. Much as I like smoking, I don't want to be a smoker anymore. So what reason did I have for not putting myself through the program he described? And since I work for a newspaper, why not lay it all out there for readers to see, and write about it in a bi-weekly column?

But yes, I'm terrified. I'm scared of giving up my habit, which has been a comfort in times of stress, and a defining part of my personality for more than half my life. I am also frightened of the unknown. What will I do while I'm waiting for a bus? How will I resist the urge to light up? Do I have to stop hanging around my dear friends who are smokers, and if so, will I lose them as friends? Will I become an anti-smoking Nazi if I am a successful quitter? What if I have terrible withdrawal symptoms?

Most worrisome for me as a reporter, what if I change my mind about quitting? What if I relapse and fail miserably for all the world (OK, 12,000 people in Santa Clarita) to see? On the flip side, maybe it will help me stick to my guns. And maybe my writing about quitting will help others decide to quit, too.

So please join me on my journey, and welcome aboard the ride. Please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times, and do not exit until we've come to a complete stop in eight weeks.

Karen Elowitt is a staff writer at The Signal. Her opinions are her own, but may have been influenced by nicotine, carbon monoxide, or any of the other 4,000 chemicals commonly found in cigarettes that can addle the brain. Her views do not reflect those of the Signal, nor those of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, which waived the normal Smoking Cessation Program fee of $149.


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