I started smoking to fit in.
I started smoking in 1995 to fit in with the group of kids I hung out with. I quit in 2000 just because. I started again in 2005 to get away from stressful situation. I quit in early 2009 because the price went up by a dollar per pack. I started again in late 2009 because I was angry and stressed. I quit two months ago because I felt like it.
First time: 1995
I was 15, a sophomore in high school. I had been raised LDS, but I never really fit in with the mormons. I tried playing soccer, but I didn't fit in with the jocks, either. I tried hanging out with the sensitively artsy bookish kids, who wore dramatic eye shadow, carried three-ring college ruled notebooks full of their own poetry, and wore an eclectic mix of garments found at the local thriftstore. Unfortunately, I didn't quite fit in with them, either, even though I shared all their interests. I always vaguely felt as though they were sneering at me, as though I was somehow too peppy and shiny for them. Ironically, everyone else seemed to find me dark and somewhat morbid in personality.
Anyway, I drifted and bounced from clique to clique, trying to find a place where I belonged. Then I found the stoners, and while I didn't quite fit in with them, either, they weren't actively cruel to me and they greeted me with cheerful friendliness when they saw me. One of my stoner friends smoked cigarettes, too, and he would drag me outside with him during breaks and lunches. If he and his friends saw me heading inside to eat alone in the cafeteria, they would surround me and jostle me in a friendly, teasing manner, asking why I didn't want to hang with them.
So I did hang with them. We ate lunch together and drove places together and skipped classes together. They appeared to genuinely like and respect me as a person, and nothing ever happened to change that impression. They were my best friends, and the only group of people during my teenage years that I could rely on to include me even if they didn't quite understand my interests. I even tried pot a few times with the group, and would sit there either signing in ASL or nattering on in my beginners French while I was stoned, and not once did anyone get angry at me or stop inviting me by, even though that must have been hell of annoying.
After about 6 months of drifting into this group of kids, I tried to bum a smoke from one of my closest companions in the group. He became quite upset at me and told me I was too good for that, and that I had better opportunities ahead of me, so I shouldn't screw up my life by starting bad habits like this. In retrospect, he made some good points -- we came from very different income levels and familial situations, and like it or not, I did have better opportunities than he did. Anyway, I ignored him. I eventually bummed a smoke from someone else when he wasn't around, and by the time he finally saw/ caught me smoking, I'd been smoking cigarettes for about two weeks.
The next year, my junior year, this group of kids dispersed. My two best friends were arrested on a warrant from another state and shipped off to Juvenile detention on the East Coast. My other two close friends in that group had been seniors, and they graduated and went on with their lives. The other stoners I occasionally hung out with, but not frequently.
I spent the remainder of my high school years drifting between cliques and never really close with any one group, but I kept smoking. I liked smoking cigarettes because it was an instant ice-breaker. I could walk up to any group, any person who I found interesting or intriguing, and I had a ready-made conversation breaker: "Got a light?" or "Can I bum a smoke?" or "I'll give you a dime for a cigarette." I didn't smoke much, and mostly just in social situations. I went through perhaps 1 pack a week. I started smoking Marb Reds, but by 1997 I'd switched to Kamel Reds. I smoked those until I quit in 2000.
First quit: 2000
In 2000, I was 20. I was dating a little Twit of a guy who none of my friends or family liked. I was employed, he wasn't. I owned my own car, he didn't even know how to drive. I knew I needed to break up with him, but I also genuinely cared about him in a sort of mother-duckling way and wanted to help him. I was young and naïve and didn't really grasp the concept that real change has to come from within, and some people won't change as long as other people clean up after their mistakes. I didn't realize I wasn't helping him, I was enabling him. Anyway, I was coming to the realization that something needed to change. One night, I was sitting at Denny's with the whole group, drinking coffee and listening to the gossip, and I pulled out a cigarette like usual. I lit it, took a few drags, and suddenly it hit me: I didn't want this cigarette. I didn't want to be in this booth. I didn't want to be around these people. I didn't know what I did want, but I knew I didn't want this. So I handed the half-smoked cigarette to one of the others, left my pack on the table, and walked away.
Second Time: 2005
During the break-up process with Twit, I started going back to the church of my childhood. It was familiar and safe, and I thought that was what I wanted. That's where I met John, the man I would marry in April 2001. Our first and only child was born in 2002. Those early years of marriage were difficult, plagued with the normal newlywed tensions, new parent tensions, and financial tensions. On top of the usual issues, I was struggling with post-partum depression and the suicides of my best friend and my mom.
In 2005 I started smoking again. Soon after, my husband (who had also experimented with smoking as a teenager) picked up the habit as well. With both of us smoking, we switched from the expensive Kamel Reds to the less expensive Camel 99's -- a longer cigarette for the same low(ish) prices as Camel Regulars. We both cut down briefly when we separated for 6 months at the end of 2006, but when we started dating again, we started smoking again.
Smoking, weirdly, became a bonding thing for us. Nobody else in either of our families smoked, let alone approved of it. It became an escape from the stress of family visits. All we had to do when they got too stressful was make eye contact, ask "Breathing treatment?" (an inside joke), and step outside for a cigarette and some private, quiet conversation or stress-relief venting (if necessary). Our families invariably gave us a wide berth when we returned inside, too, probably to avoid the smell. I imagine they intended it to be a silent condemnation, but felt like a sweet reward to us.
Plus, because we always smoked outside and forbade our son from playing outside while we smoked, smoking provided us with small breaks during the day. Just little stolen moments of privacy where we could discuss grown-up things like the budget or relationship stuff without our son overhearing conversations he was too young for.
Privacy is ever-harder for modern parents to grasp -- in years past, family, friends, or church networks would help with childcare, and it wasn't even that long ago. My mom and dad had the church network and, later, their older children to call on when they needed some recharge/ relaxation time from the younger kids. My husband's parents had a live-in grandmother who watched their small children while they worked full time and took care of other adult-centric activities.
John and I had nothing like that -- both our parents lived much too far away to assist with childcare, even if they were able to (they have their own jobs and lives to attend to), and we'd left the LDS church in 2003 and not found another community to replace it. So we smoked, for privacy and relaxation.
Then the Federal government raised the taxes on cigarettes yet again. This price hike was concurrent with another state hike of the so-called "sin taxes," and cigarettes rose about $1.50 a pack in price, making the average price of brand-name non-reservation cigarettes about $7/pack. On the reservation, they were about $6/pack. So we quit in February of 2009, which lasted until . . .
Third time: November 2009
In November 2009, my husband and I tried out a relationship experiment that didn't work but taught us a lot about ourselves both as individuals and a couple. Long story short, we briefly tried polyamory. We discovered that while we're definitely not polyamory-minded, neither are we 100% monogamously-minded. We're more . . . monogamish.
Anyway, during this period my husband dated someone who smoked. He came home from these dates smelling like cigarette smoke, and though he denied smoking while with this person, his kisses tasted like cigarettes. I wasn't handling the stress of the newly-opened relationship well, and I was angry that my husband (who had really pushed the quit earlier that year) was smoking again and lying about it. I started smoking again, partly out of anger and partly to deal with the anxiety the situation inculcated in me. With both his wife and the person he was dating smoking, my husband said, "Eh, screw it," and he started smoking openly. The polyamory experiment was short lived, ending (to our mutual relief) about 5 months after it began. The smoking, however, stayed. Like a bad habit (ha!).
We continued smoking over the next year or so. It was weird -- neither of us really liked it anymore. At this point, we both agreed that it was expensive, that cigarettes no longer tasted "good", that the social pressure to quit was overwhelming, and that we honestly didn't particularly enjoy it. Our smoking seemed to revolved more around habits:
- We smoked in the car on long drives or walks.
- We smoked when visiting family, in order to create space and give ourselves a break from the stress of their company.
- We smoked when visiting friends, because they smoked and it was a social thing.
- We smoked at home to give ourselves the space to discuss grown-up issues we didn't want our son listening to.
All this smoking was adding up to about 1/2 a pack a day per person, or 1 pack a day for the two of us. Which meant we were spending (combined) about $217 - $300/month on cigarettes. Every attempt to cut back in amount was sabotaged (often unknowingly) by the other party or other extenuating circumstances. Finally, in September 2011, we said enough is enough, and we quit . . . kind of.
Third time's a charm
Actually, my husband quit first. His place of employment provides a quit-line and free stop smoking aids for employees and their families. So my husband ordered some of those nicorette mini lozenges, and I decided to quit cold-turkey. I'd done it twice before, once for 5 years and once for about 10 months, so I figured I could do it again.
Initially, it seemed like we were both we were both successful. Neither of us smoked at all for about 2 weeks after our established quit date. The problem was that last time I'd quit smoking (2009), I'd still been on medication for my anxiety issues. Since March 2010, I'd dealt with my anxiety and paranoia solely through self-medicating. Any time I ran into elevated, out-of-the-norm stress, I turned to cigarettes. That fall, the usual everyday life stresses were added to by these three specific situations:
- John was experiencing unusual and seriously debilitating migraine headaches, and I was concerned for his health.
- Our new neighbors were harassing us, which made me feel unsafe and scared in our new neighborhood.
- Moving closer to extended family created more stress in our lives than we expected.
John thought the migraines were due to nicotine withdrawal (quitting the cigarettes), not the nicorette lozenges. As a result, he was trying to power through the pain and was sticking to the lozenge regimen, thinking it would reduce/ mitigate what he thought were withdrawal-induced headaches. Eventually, we linked the resurgence of the headache to him taking a new lozenge, and he quit with the lozenges, too. The migraines stopped and he hasn't taken a lozenge or smoked a cigarette since late September 2011.
With the family situation, there were basically two family dramas playing out simultaneously. One one side, a sibling's spouse had been using us as unwitting covers to hide her adulterous activities with one of my husband's co-workers. When we discovered the situation, of course we told the sibling -- but it temporarily caused a lot of strain in a lot of relationships, from familial to friendly to work. The worst part was the knowledge that we were getting the fallout from someone else's screw-up. On the other side, a long-running resentment and growing family divide over some pretty darn obvious favoritism between the two branches of grandchildren/ families was highlighted by how close we now lived to the other branch of the family, which was causing little ongoing firecrackers of tension.
Smoking as self-medicating
I started smoking again in mid-September, though my husband didn't. I wasn't dealing with the elevated stresses well, even after the migraine situation was resolved. My husband works full time and I was home alone with our son. The neighbors -- both the adult male and the minor child, with his dad's encouragement -- would wait until my husband was at work and then do stuff like this:
- Setting off fireworks on our doorstep
- Ding-dong-ditching the house
- Beating up my son
- Firing bb's and throwing rocks over the fence at our dog
- Firing bb's at our front windows
- Yelling obscene insults at my son and I whenever I stepped outside
The few times I called the police about the situation, I was told I was over-reacting and if I didn't like it I should break the lease and move, or that there was nothing they could do, because we were in unincorporated county. As a result, I felt on edge and nervous. I was afraid to go outside, and felt a looming sense of menace from the neighbors.
To make things worse, (and this is why I sometimes hate being both female and mentally ill), I was getting the message that it was all in my head from both sides of the local extended family. On the one side, my brother was distancing himself and lashing out at me because of his divorce situation, so I couldn't turn to him for support. On the other side, the poor relationship with my in-laws (that was actually an extenuation of circumstances that preceded me) meant I tended to feel like they blamed me for everything that went wrong, anyway, so I couldn't turn to them for support.
With all my family support systems turning out to be mirages, as well the police department, I felt completely alone. I was even beginning to question my own perceptions of reality. In short, I was in a situation where every single one of my support systems was gaslighting me, though in the case of my husband and brother it was unintentional and in the case of the police department it was probably just that they were super busy.
Finally, it all boiled over. In retrospect, I suspect the neighbors had their own problems going on and we just happened to be become a focus of their personal tensions. Long story short, the male adult neighbor came on my property in October and began pounding on my door and threatening me. The police said because he hadn't specifically said the words, "I will kill you," they couldn't do anything. So my husband came home from work early to try to calm everyone down.
At this point, as I mentioned earlier, my husband wasn't aware of the extent of the harassment. Sure, the neighbors were a little unhinged and easily upset -- they had bragged about purposely harassing a supermarket checker and getting her write-ups because months before she'd told them something they bought was a better price at Wal-Mart, which they took as her insinuating they were rednecks -- but John also knew that I struggled with panic attacks and anxiety. He figured there was something going on, but thought maybe I exaggerating the seriousness of it.
So he went over to talk to the neighbors, all man-to-man, "we're all mature adults here." He knocked on the door, and the neighbor answered the door and sucker-punched him without a word of warning. I went out to get John to leave it and come inside, at which point I was also attacked. While my husband was distracted by the attack on me, the neighbor sucker-punched him again and broke his jaw.
Luckily, I'd been recording our property for the past few days, so I caught not just some of the minor property harassment, but everything that happened that day, from the first moment they approached the house to when they tackled me outside. For the first time we had video evidence of the harassment and attacks. While John recuperated from his broken jaw, I obtained an anti-harassment order against the neighbors and filed charges. I also started smoking more while dealing with all the court and medical and insurance issues.
I fluctuated quite a bit in my smoking at this point, depending on stress levels. At this point, my main stresses were:
- The neighborly attack and all the court paperwork I had to take care of.
- John's broken jaw and resultant surgeries, as well as the reduced income from temporary disability leave.
- My brother just stopped talking to me and my in-laws seemed to blame the whole situation on me.
- Our car broke down, so we had to start taking the bus to doctor's appointments and court dates, which worked out to about an hour commute.
Despite all this, I had dropped down to less than a cigarette a week by early December. Then the family stress kicked back up in two different areas -- my ex sister in law accused John and I of spreading workplace gossip about her, so my brother called me to yell at me. Naturally I pointed out that John was out on disability and I hadn't been in the store in weeks. For some reason, that just made my brother angrier, so we took a break from each other for a bit.
At the same time, other family was visiting for the holidays. They were taking more time off than they'd ever taken in the 10+ years I'd known them, primarily to see their other grandkids, and despite the fact they were staying less than 5 minutes from us, they didn't seem interested in seeing us. As a result, the mere fact of their simultaneous presence and absence was uncomfortably highlighting some long-term simmering family tensions.
My husband was amazingly patient with my stops and starts in quitting, and didn't shame or mock me, though others who knew about my stop-smoking failures did. About this time, the neighbors who had been harassing us appear to have abandoned their property, which took another metaphorical weight off our shoulders. Then my brother and I called a truce, and then the tensions with the other family faded to the background. It wasn't anything intentional, initially -- just post-holiday drift, we had our own things and they had theirs. Somewhere in that post-holiday drift, I finished a pack of cigarettes and didn't go pick up a new pack.
Time kept passing, and after about a month I met back up with my husband's family. It was as bad as you'd expect. The incident rekindled the urge to smoke, but it also sparked a realization. Everyone has stresses in their lives, and everyone has a tipping point, an elevated level of stress they can't deal with without some sort of outside assistance. For me, that outside assistance has been nicotine. I'd been self-medicating to deal with my raised anxiety and resultant panic attacks. I need to find another way to deal with elevated stress, but in the meantime I should just avoid those toxic relationships and situations that cause elevated stress.
At this point, I've been cigarette/ nicotine-free for about 2 1/2 months. At the moment, I deal with brief spikes in elevated stress levels by writing, exercising, or baking. I'm vaguely considering taking up meditation, but I don't know. Maybe Tai Chi or yoga. Something that is exercise but also requires me to concentrate and focus on slowing down. I move and think and react too quickly, and I think I need to cultivate an activity that requires me to really slow down and focus.
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