November 02, 2022, will be my twenty-year anniversary of being smoke-free. Yes – 20 years ago I quit smoking for good. I will share with you, my journey.
I can remember as far back as being 11 years old and smoking my first cigarette. We had a babysitter who smoked. I recall being persistent with her and managing to get her to give me one. I was a real pain in the “you know what” and nudged her until she caved and gave me one of them. After that, a couple of my friends would steal cigarettes from their parents, and we would smoke in the woods. I am sure many of you can relate.
Then at 13 years of age, on Friday nights, we would go to the movies or the roller rink and we would buy a pack of Parliaments and smoke a pack of cigarettes those nights. I cannot believe they sold us cigarettes, but they did. This was when you could smoke in movie theaters. There was one side of the theater for those of us that smoked. I now feel for those nonsmokers who were trying to enjoy their movie but had waves of smoke blown in their faces.
My smoking habit increased and became more frequent. At the age of 15, I smoked on a regular basis and would hang out in the “back of the school” where all the smokers spent time together. We were referred to as the “burnouts” and there were a lot of us who smoked. It was the “cool” thing to do. Between classes, we were all out there like hungry animals puffing away and “bumming” smokes off each other.
Smoking now had become part of my daily routine. I went from smoking Parliaments to Marlborough’s to Marlborough 100’s over time. Not that the brand of cigarettes really matters but as a smoker, you do have a cigarette preference. For instance, I never liked menthol cigarettes.
Fast forward to a couple of decades later, and I was now in my mid 30’s and still smoking; anywhere from a pack to sometimes a pack and a half a day. I really enjoyed smoking. I never thought of quitting. I honestly thought I would smoke for the rest of my life.
Then in the summer of 2002, I went to a women’s fitness camp in Colorado based on a colleague’s recommendation. The fitness retreat was called Women’s Quest which was run by Colleen Cannon, who was an accomplished athlete. Colleen, along with several other world-class athletes ran this weeklong camp for women strictly based on optimizing health, and wellness, and engaging in total fitness activities throughout the week. We would get up early to have a nutritious and healthy breakfast, do some yoga and then go for a run, hike, or mountain biking depending on the day.
Each day was filled with various sports and physical activities along with a guided lecture by one of the women athletes on a topic such as training, mindfulness, etc. In addition, there were exercises to increase self-awareness through journaling, and of course, we had some downtime during the day to just relax and soak up the beauty of the mountain landscape. They also did a fantastic job of incorporating FUN and playfulness. We would “skip” around the room like when we were kids. It was a total experience of reclaiming ourselves within a safe group.
And amazingly, I still smoked. I would wait until about 3 pm when we had some free time, and I would go several hundred yards away from the cabin and sneak a smoke. I had this ignorant and naïve notion that after I washed my hands and sprayed some air fragrance that no one knew I smoked. I was wrong. The women there never said anything to me except for one person. And all she said was, “You smoke?” in a non-accusatory but questioning fashion. And that was all it took. At that moment, I started feeling an emotion that I had not experienced related to my smoking and that was the feeling of sheer embarrassment. For the first time, I was embarrassed that I was a smoker.
The feeling of embarrassment stayed with me even when I returned home to Boston. Several days later I was on the “T,” Boston’s subway system, and I was reading a paper that was created by the homeless and on the back page of the paper, there were ads to participate in various studies conducted by the local universities. One stared me straight in the eyes. It was a research study to help you quit smoking. It was conducted by Harvard University, and it was a study on “the patch.” When I got home that night, I called the number, left my information, and hoped that I could get in.
I was enrolled in the program shortly after I reached out and had to travel to Boston 4 times a week to go through the preliminary work before I actually “quit”. When the day came to quit, we had to select to do it on a Saturday – YES, a Saturday, the worst possible day to start or stop something. You usually do that on a Monday but now I had to quit on a Saturday and so Saturday, November 2, 2002, was the day. Saturday, November 2nd was the first day I became smoke-free.
Day 1 was awful. I vowed that I never wanted to experience Day 1 again, so I kept going. On Day 2, I experienced another awful day, and I vowed that I never wanted to experience Day 2 again and so on. I just kept telling myself that if I continued it would get better and that I never wanted to experience those initial painful and awful days again. At this point I wanted, I was resigned to quitting. I was doing it I would tell myself. Day 2 turned into 3, then 4, then before I knew it a week had gone by, then 2 weeks, then a month, and so on. I just kept going.
I decided that on my first weekend of quitting that I would go to places where I could not smoke. I went to the mall, the movies, etc. anywhere I could not smoke. I also did not allow myself to drink alcohol, which is. Not that I was a big drinker, I was not, I just knew that drinking led to smoking, and often smoked a lot.
It was working and I was not smoking. Do not get me wrong, it was hard. It was one of the most difficult things I have done in my life and at the same time the best thing I have done for myself.
When I went to work that first Monday, I realized that I was not taking my frequent smoke breaks. I had more time to do more work. In retrospect, it became apparent that I had been paid for my smoke breaks and paid for chunks of time over the years that I was not actually working.
I also began realizing that the times that I had thought would be the toughest for me i.e., driving in the car, after a meal, etc. were not the worst times when I was craving a cigarette. The worst times were connected to my emotional state. A realization I only made during this quitting period. Often, I smoked to release boredom. Yes, I smoked when I was bored.
I then told myself I needed to do an activity to counter my desire to smoke. I decided to start running. Well, when I say running, I do not mean I was blazing trails and kicking up dust; I started a slow jog. I figured if I incorporated exercise that required strong lungs and breathing it would lessen my need to smoke. It worked.
I needed to build up my lung capacity as I would quickly be out of breath. I would start running one block at a time and then I would walk the rest. I used a training system where I built up to running for 3 minutes, then walking for one minute and I would repeat this over and over. I was able to increase that over time when I ran for 9 minutes and walked for one minute and repeated that cycle. This was the technique I used to train and eventually used to run the four marathons I completed.
So, yes, I am at the 20-year mark of being “smoke-free”. I share my story because there was a time when I never even entertained or thought that leaving my relationship with cigarettes would occur. I believed deep down that I could never actually do it. I had this mindset and perception that quitting was an impossible feat and therefore I was destined to be a lifelong smoker. So, I never attempted to quit, until I went on that fateful trip to Colorado. It was there that I realized the power I did have and that I made the decision to exercise that power.
In my early 20s, I recall going to watch the Boston Marathon every year and being on the sidelines at the last turn of the race at Hereford and Boylston. I used to watch the runners every year on Patriots Day with admiration and respect. I would say to myself, one day I am going to do this. I would say it with intention and desire, however, I never really thought I would. I proved myself wrong.
Quitting smoking led to me training and completing four marathons, three of which were in Boston, which eventually led to other major leaps such as becoming a solopreneur. It all started with that feeling of sheer embarrassment and the belief that I could do better; that I deserved better.
What false beliefs have you dismantled?
What limiting thoughts have you challenged?
I know many have said this but trust me, if I can do it so can you! No doubt! It is a simple and true statement.
What is one area that you want to change but feel is unattainable? Dig deep and know that our only limitations are those that are self-imposed.
“Believe in yourself. You are braver than you think, more talented than you know, and capable of more than you imagine.” Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Join me in celebrating my 20th smoke-free anniversary!! I am going to relish a little in this huge feat!