Rising from the Ashes: My Journey to Quit Smoking
By Sarah Torgerson
Nestled in the heart of Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus is one of about a dozen designated smoking areas, where you are likely to come across a handful of generally unhappy-looking smokers wreathed in plumes of grey. I’m often among them. This mecca for the stressed-out and nicotine-addicted is where I take my own study-and-smoke breaks.
I started smoking on a beautifully humid evening in November, 2009, while I was living in Perth, Australia. I thought I could smoke recreationally. “Recreational smoking” ended when I lit my second cigarette — some may argue it ended when I lit my first.
Who am I kidding? It was a downward spiral into addiction from the first puff.
And of course, the problem isn’t limited to jonesing students. According to Stats Canada, some 18.1% of Canadians identified as smokers in 2014. That represented a drop of 2.7% since 2010, but the figure is still high. You don’t have to feel sorry for us; smokers don’t ask for your sympathy. But I do think if non-smokers knew more about the trials and tribulations of addiction, and the lengths some of us go to in our efforts to quit, we might get fewer disdainful looks while we huddle together in our designated area.
I’ve attempted to quit about six times. The first time, I went to my doctor and asked about the BC Smoking Cessation Program. The process is simple: pick up your phone, call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1, and tell them how you’d like to go about quitting — nicotine replacement therapy (patches or gum) or a prescription (Zyban or Champix). Scientists are still uncertain how the latter work, but they believe the drugs create a feeling similar to that created by nicotine.
However, I had always assumed that Zyban or Champix are anti-depressants, and that taking them would mean ditching my own prescription that I had gone through hell and back to find. I was wrong — more about that later — but meantime I decided to go the other route. I picked up my free patches, slapped one on my arm, and felt instant dread fill my soul.
I spent the rest of that day with my non-smoking boyfriend, running errands, getting whiffs of cigarette smoke from passersby, and crying on the inside. Finally, back home, the crying was quite clearly on the outside. I said “I’m done!” and made the cold, sad walk to the Chevron down the street for a fresh pack of menthol cigarettes. I had lasted mere hours as a non-smoker, and felt agonizing grief the whole time.
More recently, with the university year and its stresses revving up again, I decided laser treatment might do the trick. Laser therapy has become quite popular in the past few decades. Some say you can lose weight, rid yourself of depression, and/or stop smoking by applying a special laser pen — not the one used to entertain your cat — on certain pressure points on the body. The laser reaches your bloodstream, and allegedly helps release endorphins.
I drove to Imagine Laserworks, a laser treatment facility in Qualicum Beach, and, an hour and $350 later (thanks, Canadian government student loans), walked out and threw my pack away in the first trash can I saw. I was a non-smoker. I would conquer the world. That was it. I felt relaxed and generally okay.
I spent another $90 on the company’s prescribed list of vitamins and minerals, and all was well. By day three I was telling everyone I had quit and felt fine. Day four, however, found me in a doctor’s office, sobbing and begging for Ativan (a popular anti-anxiety prescription). The next day, I caved.
I was again defeated, smoking, and $440 poorer (or, as I saw it, 44 packs of cigarettes poorer).
After the failed laser treatment, I decided to go the patches route again, but this time I was going to get serious about it. Nicoderm patches come in three different strengths, the first with the highest amount of nicotine, the third with the least. If you are a light smoker, it is recommended you start at the second level. I started with the highest level of nicotine I could get my hands on, and I did alright. This was probably my most “successful” attempt.
Alas, eventually I was secretly puffing away when I could. But for the first time in years, I was able to go days, even weeks at a time without a cigarette. Of course, I carried a small vial of eau de toilette with me at all times, and packs of gum took over my purse and coat pockets, in case I had to cover my tracks. I was also constantly looking over my shoulder, fearing that my boyfriend, a friend, or even a friend of a friend might spot me and proclaim loudly to the world that I, Sarah Torgerson, was a failure. I felt like a fugitive. Eventually, the jig was up. I came home from a long, trying day at work and told my boyfriend and our roommate that I was going to have a smoke. That was that–I didn’t want any flack. Before I knew it, I was back to my pack-a-day habit, feeling absolutely miserable.
In between these attempts and failures were a number of half-hearted cold turkey efforts, occurring during the cold season, after a night out with friends (smoking heavily), or when I just felt sick and tired of the whole process. I’d go to bed feeling horrible and tell myself I would not have a smoke with my morning coffee, I would not take a smoke break at work, that I refused to give in. But cold turkey can be a journey through the depths of hell, and eventually I’d give in.
Finally, I set aside my general dislike for doctors’ offices, which only enflame my worry-wart tendencies, and visited the Port Place Medical Clinic. I had to; I had bronchitis. But after Dr. Jatinder Mander had written me a prescription, I decided to broach the subject of my smoking. I listed every avenue I’d unsuccessfully stumbled along, and mentioned that I had avoided Zyban and Champix because I didn’t want to give up my anti-depressant. But Dr. Mander told me I wouldn’t have to, that I could take Champix and my current meds together. I was elated. How foolish I’d been to avoid the subject when I could have simply started a conversation with my doctor.
Champix users are advised to cut down in the second week, and set a quit date. I continued smoking well into my third week, and made a couple of quit dates. I was scared — no — I was terrified the prescription wasn’t working. On top of that, my cigarettes were beginning to taste disgusting, and I had daily headaches. What I hadn’t realized was that these were huge signs that I was actually making some progress. When you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, it’s not easy to take a full breath, and for years I had been breathing shallowly, avoiding deep breaths that could start a coughing fit. Breathing deeper and taking in more oxygen unfortunately causes headaches from time to time.
It took me 24 days of Champix, to realize I was never going to smoke again. I smoked half a cigarette, only to put it out because I felt nauseated. I also weaned myself off of Champix after two weeks of not smoking, and now I am nicotine- and Champix-free. My throat and lungs feel clearer, I’m running three to four days a week, practicing yoga, and getting excited about all of the activities I could not enjoy as a smoker.
I used to roll my eyes at people who said quitting smoking was the best thing they’d ever done, and that they’d never go back. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea. Smoking takes up so many hours of a person’s life. What do they do with all of that free time? I couldn’t fathom a nicotine-free life, one that didn’t include a miserable, insatiable longing for a cigarette. But strangely enough, once the longing for a cigarette goes away, and the pleasurable effect of a cigarette goes away, managing your new free time turns out to be pretty easy. In fact, it’s kind of great, once you get over the idea that you’ve “given something up.”
It’s important to stress that quitting smoking is something you have to do for yourself. Quitting for a significant other is only going to end badly. Similar to the notion that one must love oneself before they can love anyone else, quitting smoking requires a strong focus on you. You need to want to quit — only then can you be truly successful and happy with your success. It is also crucial to do it on your own terms. During my attempt, I never denied myself a cigarette; if I had, I would have felt deprived. Instead, I got to the point where I realized that they taste gross and I wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of sitting in the cold, coughing up a lung.
Champix helped me greatly, but what worked for me won’t necessarily work for you. When you’re ready, start your research, and trial and error, and find what will. Take initiative and talk to your doctor. It might be a long, trying process, but the end goal is incredibly important — a healthy life. The fear-mongering and passive aggression that non-smokers sometimes engage in when “helping” are not helpful, but you can’t blame the world. Take action.
Supplementing your chances
Certain vitamins and minerals have been known to make the journey to non-smoker a bit less painful. The general idea is that if your body feels healthier, you’ll feel happier and less likely to light up. As well, supplements can speed up the lung-healing process and, says Imagine Laserworks, cleanse the body of pollutants that have accumulated due to smoking.
Chlorella: According to Laserworks, Chlorella helps “build the immune system, improve digestion, increase energy, balance pH levels, control blood sugar levels, detoxify the blood, liver, and bowels, and rid the body of heavy metals, pesticides, and dioxins.” This fresh water green algae tablet smells like seaweed, tastes like a gulp of lake water, and has a striking green appearance, but it will certainly boost your energy. I took the tablets twice daily, and felt I could walk to and from work with ease. You can find Chlorella at natural health stores.
Magnesium: Essentially, smoking affects the heart. Your heart rate speeds up when smoking, slows down when not, and that affects your metabolism. It also explains the role of magnesium in quitting. According to Traceminerals.com, magnesium “fuels digestive enzymes to help the body effectively process carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.” When smokers quit, their metabolism slows down and, according to Laserworks, “the need for magnesium increases, because it is required by the enzymes that keep these reactions going.”
Magnesium can be taken in liquid or capsule form. After my laser treatment, I was told to take a swig of liquid magnesium whenever I felt a craving. It seemed to work, but maybe only to a point? Magnesium can be found at most pharmacies and health stores.
Vitamin C: Besides the fact that it’ll fend off scurvy, Vitamin C can give your immune system the boost it needs to survive (and possibly avoid) the rough patches that arise in the first few weeks after quitting. Laserworks calls it “a garbage collector in the body.” Smoking causes the body to crave all those toxins and disgusting additives that are found in each cigarette. Vitamin C aids in removing these poisons and, in the process, is supposed to help ease the cravings.
Laserworks says Vitamin C also eases stress, which can be overwhelmingly present during the first few weeks of nicotine-free living. It’s a fairly inexpensive addition to your medicine cabinet, and can be found at most pharmacies.
You’ve got nothing to lose in adding these vitamins and minerals to your quitting plan. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. At least you’ll be making your body a little bit healthier.