While I was celebrating my sixth year without a cigarette I found myself thinking about the time many years ago when I experienced my first puff. I was thirteen in eighth grade. I remember sneaking up on the family ashtray when no one was home and taking the longest cigarette butts in the tray because they allowed me more puffs than the short ones. Of course most of them were too short to smoke but occasionally I would find a long one. I remember taking those crumpled cigarette leftovers and straightening them out as best I could. My fingers would be all black from the ash and the butt would taste like the ashtray itself but that never stopped me. I was a determined teenager. Adults were smoking these nasty things so why shouldn’t I. I am still confused at what the real attraction was. I would light the end of that horribly disgusting cigarette and as soon as I took a puff I would become violently ill. But that never stopped me. I always went back for more. I would sneak around the corner of the house in the backyard where no one could see me and I’d smoke those crumpled up cigarette butts until I was sick.
My friend Winette was a little braver than myself. She would steal whole cigarettes from her mother’s purse. She would say, “Come on Lacy, I have some cigarettes,” and off we’d go to the local elementary school. Climbing up on the classroom roof we’d light those cigarettes. Boy did we feel cool. I hate to admit I had fallen into the trap of appearances but I wanted every other kid in the neighborhood to see me sitting up on that school roof puffing away. I can’t say I was ever afraid of being seen by an adult. I guess my fear of getting caught hadn’t developed yet. Eighth graders aren’t known as the sharpest tools in the shed.
I never actually inhaled the smoke. Doing so caused me extreme nausea and dizziness but I could take into my mouth lots of smoke and blow beautifully formed smoke rings. It all seemed so innocent and fun but such a lot of work. Stealing cigarettes didn’t last long. We never got caught, we just became bored.
I didn’t smoke another cigarette until my freshman year at college. My good friend from high school, Moxie, enrolled in San Diego State University with me. We got an apartment together and became roommates. Moxie liked to sit and smoke cigarettes while she watched soap operas in the afternoon. It seemed harmless enough so I would join her. I only allowed myself two cigarettes each afternoon. But before long I was craving them in the morning before school and finding myself smoking them at night before bed. I didn’t understand the power of addiction and before I realized it I was smoking on a regular basis, something I had promised myself I would never do. And that was it. I was an official cigarette smoker and would be for the next twenty years.
I became a professional at quitting smoking. I knew every trick in the book to give up those nasty cancer sticks but my longest attempt lasted only about nine days. I always started out with the best intentions. I would crumple up my pack of cigarettes and drown them under water. I did that at least once a week. But more times than not, within a few hours, I would dig those broken and wet cigarettes out of the trash and dry them in the oven. I alternated from quitting smoking and swearing I would take those cigarettes with me to the grave. Quitting was so difficult, after each failed attempt, I would vow to never quit smoking again. But smoking in today’s day and age isn’t the same as it was back in the 1940’s when everyone smoked. The kids were being taught in school that I was going to die because I smoked. That created a whole lot of unnecessary quilt within me and fear within them. I tried to explain, “Yes the cigarettes might eventually kill me someday, but not today.” My kids didn’t understand matters of death and dying. I actually thought it was cruel to tell my kids that their smoking mother wasn’t going to live very long. I felt that was deceptive and manipulating. And it only made it harder for me to enjoy my cigarettes.
The day I actually quit smoking wasn’t much different than any other day. I had been to a meeting the night before and a friend inquired, “Do you enjoy your cigarettes?” I replied, “I usually do, not always, but I will never quit smoking because it is too hard.” He shared with me that he had quit and it was the greatest decision he ever made. He talked about having more time in his day and having more air. He said it felt amazing walking up a flight of stairs without running out of breath. He mentioned the freedom he had in the morning to take quiet walks and spend time with God. My mornings consisted of four or five cigarettes and a pot of coffee. I listened to him for awhile and I appreciated what he said. Instead of telling me all the dreadful consequences of cigarette smoking he shared with me all the good that came from quitting. I liked that approach. I went home and that night I had a dream that I quit smoking. When I woke up the next morning I quit. I vowed, “I will never smoke again.” Of course I had no idea it would be the first day of the next six years without a cigarette but I actually quit that day and haven’t smoked since. When a day would come that went all wrong and everything within me cried out for a cigarette I’d call nicotine anonymous and talk to someone who knew exactly what I was going through. Talking to an ex smoker is the one thing that helped me the most.
I remember calling my mom on the phone every time I’d decide to quit. “Hey, mom, guess what? I haven’t had a cigarette all day.” She was always so proud of me. And then I would get all upset over some irrational nothing and swear the only relief to my problem was a cigarette. Then I’d call my mom again, “Guess what mom? I had a cigarette.” She would say the same thing to me every time, “Never quit quitting. One of these times it will be the last time.” And she was right. Not long ago I ran into my old college roommate and I told her all about that nasty habit she got me started on. She replied she hadn’t had a cigarette since college. “Good for you,” I said. And I meant it.