Following journey of successful former smoker

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Heather Holcomb
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
The smell of smoke is like a subconscious whisper to someone who is addicted to cigarettes. A mere whiff can cause emotions to simmer beneath the skin and incite an addict to draw the sweet poison into their lungs without a single contrary thought.

I recently decided to end my four year love affair with cigarettes and it has been agonizing. There's something calming about feeling the smooth burn in my lungs and seeing the thick plumes catch the sunlight as they swirl up into the air and dissipate.

However, smoking seems so relaxing because it entails rhythmic, controlled breathing, the smooth burn is really my lung tissue being suffocated and clogged with tar and the thick plumes are really toxic second-hand smoke.

For me, smoking was a way to escape my problems. I began smoking when I was 19 years old. Although I was married at the time, I was almost always alone and searching for any way to stop the dark labyrinth growing in my mind.

Taking that first drag was part defiance and part undiluted desperation. I was at a stage in my life where I felt completely empty and I felt like there was no one I could go to. I know my family and friends in Colorado would have helped but they were more than 3,000 miles away and I had convinced myself they would just say I told you so.

Within weeks I was stepping outside at exactly 10 minutes before each hour and counting down the seconds in between. Of course, smoking didn't fix a thing and we were paying nearly $100 dollars per week just to feed an addiction. In the four years since I began smoking, I always managed to find money for cigarettes, even if I had to use my credit card and eat ramen noodles every day.

After I got divorced in 2009 and moved back to my parents' house, I began to associate cigarettes with quality time. My Mom, Dad, sister Brittney and best friend Rachael all smoked (although my mom and sister have recently told me they are going to quit too) and we never had a conversation without chain-smoking in the garage or in Rachael's basement. I didn't want to quit smoking and it would have been nearly impossible when the only person I knew who didn't smoke was my 12-year-old sister, Miah. So, why quit now?

Once again I'm more than 1,000 miles away from family and friends, but this time it's because I'm finally beginning to take control of my life instead of just drifting along. I joined the Air Force to do something meaningful with my life and start acting on all my big hopes and dreams. For the first time I finally feel like I'm headed in the right direction.

The next step is to be debt-free and a little more than a month ago it really hit me that I was essentially burning money. I was wasting at least $5 a day on cigarettes when I could have been using that money to pay off my debt. Now I'll have at least an extra $2,000 per year that I can put toward whatever I want. Not to mention that the value of quitting will only increase as the price of cigarettes goes up and the amount of interest I'm paying on my debt goes down.

Patty McGruder, Keesler AFB Health and Wellness Center Health and Promotion Educator, said there are four steps to tobacco cessation:

Deciding to quit: Making the decision to quit is a commitment that must come from within; not because someone else wants it. Make a list of reasons for quitting and refer to it later when temptation presents itself.

Setting a quit date and quit plan: Simply put, if you fail to plan you plan to fail. Pick a date and stick to it. Before the quit date, create a support system and identify triggers that cause the urge to use tobacco.

Withdrawal: Although withdrawal symptoms can seem to consume your entire body and mind like flames, they will usually pass within a week or two. Drinking water, snacking on low-calorie items, staying active and taking deep breaths can all help ease the symptoms.

Staying quit: 
Avoid any triggers that cause the urge to use tobacco, review the list of reasons for quitting and ride out the desire to give in until it fades away completely. I knew I couldn't quit on my own. So, I asked my boyfriend, Brian, to hold me accountable. This has meant he patiently endured a few fits where I was like a child on a road trip asking, Are we there yet? except it was, I really want a cigarette.

He's helped calm me down when the cravings get so bad that I'm enraged. He also listens while I work out my problems aloud in my complicated way, aka ramble. This helps me make sense of everything going on in my head instead of leaving my thoughts tangled. I don't think I could have made it this far without him.

Another thing that helped was telling myself that having one cigarette isn't failure. If I said I could never have another cigarette again ever, I would become instantly resistant and want to smoke even more.

Everyone has the power to overcome an addiction. At the same time, everyone is different so what works for one person may not work for another. If one method doesn't work, don't give up.

Years ago I was watching the Disney movie, The Haunted Mansion, and one line has stuck with me ever since, "You try, you fail. You try, you fail. But the only true failure is when you stop trying."

For more information, to sign up for weekly tobacco cessation classes or to take part in the Great American Smokeout, contact your base HAWC.