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Two steps forward, one step back

The Quitting Chronicles

Posted: June 27, 2008 3:19 a.m.
Updated: August 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
This is the last installment of The Quitting Chronicles.

As I approached the final days of my participation in the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital smoking cessation program, I started to panic about what I would write for this column.

The last couple of weeks had been relatively uneventful, and I was worried that there would not be enough to say.

Then I realized that although this may be the last installment of my column, it is not the end of my battle to quit.

It's true that I am more or less a non-smoker. "More" because I have not bought a pack of cigarettes nor smoked an entire one since the day before I started the program on April 27. "Less" because I still have the occasional slip-up. Just this past week, for example, I dragged off a friend's cig on more than one occasion.

Quitting for me has been a matter of two steps forward, one step back, and that delicate dance will no doubt continue well into the future.

I still have cravings, but they are weakening as the weeks go by. I have slip-ups, but they are getting less frequent. I have tried numerous techniques and strategies, and some work and some don't. I stick with the ones that work, and ignore the ones that don't.

But the net effect, I think, is that I am beating the habit - it is not beating me.

Hopefully, this trend will continue. I still don't have any Nicotrol inhalers, but I am in the process of getting some from an Internet pharmacy that will charge me considerably less than the $212 out-of-pocket that Walgreens wanted to charge me.

And I am still mostly on track as far as exercising and avoiding my other vices (eating and chewing my fingernails), though I have had some minor backsliding with both at various times.

Most importantly, I have learned a lot over these eight weeks: about myself, about the nature of addiction and about the kindness of strangers.

One lesson I learned is that a big part of quitting is mind over matter - or, as I like say, "mind over habit." It's about making a conscious decision every minute, every day, to not light up.

Before I quit, I had heard the phrase "mind over matter" before, but didn't really know what it meant, or how to apply it. I would get a craving, briefly consider not giving in to it, then light up anyway. But now I know that real mind over matter means going to the next level. It means you have to make a deliberate choice to try to resist a craving, then take steps to follow through. Whether you do that by repeating a mantra, calling a friend, joining a quit-smoking Web site, chewing a piece of gum or meditating, it doesn't matter. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't, but at least you made the effort.

And it is a self-reinforcing behavior that builds on itself. Once you resist and succeed, it gives you confidence to try again next time. Eventually the number of times you succeed in resisting will outnumber the times you fail. By then you will have gotten so far down the path to quitting that you know it would be a shame to undo all that hard work and start smoking again full-time.

The technique that has been most effective for me is to think about the potentially fatal consequences of smoking. Though I have made a concerted effort over the last couple of years to live more "in the moment," the last few weeks have taught me that sometimes it is helpful to project my thoughts a little into the future.

A letter I got from a reader recently helped me focus my thoughts in that respect. She described in heart-wrenching detail the horrible ordeal that she and her siblings endured while their mother was being treated for tobacco-related cancer.

As they cared for her through months and years of operations, chemotherapy, radiation and physical therapy, the family was pushed to the brink of exhaustion and dysfunction.

But despite the fact that their mother lost several lymph nodes, part of her throat (including her vocal chords), which rendered her unable to speak, and had to undergo a tracheotomy, her addiction was so intense that she was never able to give up smoking. No threats, no lectures, no pleas to common sense worked. She was hooked and unable to stop, and smoked secretly (or so she thought) until the day she died, much to her children's dismay.

Unfortunately I lost that letter and am unable to personally thank that woman. But I want her to know that her suffering wasn't for naught - whenever I have a moment of weakness, I think of her mother's tragic story and it quickly extinguishes my cravings. I tell myself that one moment of pleasure is not worth potentially putting myself and my family through years of agony.

Well, at least that is what has worked for me. That is not to say others will find the same path to success, like the five people who recently enrolled in the smoking cessation program at the hospital.

I was thrilled to learn recently from Peter Jaeger that sharing my story may have actually played a part in helping others take the first step toward quitting. During my last appointment with him he mentioned that several new participants in the program had joined after reading my column in The Signal.

So to those five people, and perhaps others out there who may be contemplating quitting but haven't made the first move yet - what are you waiting for? It's tough and you might relapse, but if I could do it, anyone can. Just look at it this way - you'll probably have an easier time of it than I, because you won't have to quit smoking AND write a column about it every two 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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