Here's a true-life tale I told during the Oral Fixation Show in Uptown Dallas earlier this month. I hope you enjoy reading my “Cold Turkey” story as much as I did telling it.
I stood outside during a downpour and took a long drag from my cigarette. I didn’t like smoking in my house, so I always stepped outdoors no matter how rainy or cold it was. That’s how bad that addiction had its hold on me.
After decades of smoking, I really hated cigarettes. I’d known the little suckers my entire life since my parents smoked. But I didn’t meet Mr. Marlboro personally until my early teens. I didn’t realize at the time he would become my constant companion. And I didn’t expect it would be such a struggle to say good-bye.
My family lived in the boondocks of New Mexico. The population of the town where I went to school was mostly Mexican American. I stood a head taller than most of the petite Mexican beauties. Somewhere I’d heard smoking stunted a person’s growth, so I thought I’d give it a try. Anything to stop growing.
When I was 13, I asked my 10-year-old sister to show me how to smoke. She picked up her first cigarette when she was seven.
One night we stole some of my mom’s cigarettes and snuck out the backdoor. I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching. Coyotes could always be heard howling in the distance, but I didn’t even notice the howling that night. My ear was listening for the back door to open. I was afraid we’d get busted. We made it to where the backyard began to slope down and walked a few more feet. I looked back one more time before sitting down, out of sight.
In hindsight, I wonder if by stealing that last glance of home, I somehow knew when I walked back through the door I wouldn’t be the same innocent schoolgirl anymore.
My sister explained how to light a cigarette and inhale, so I pressed one between my lips and lit the other end. But, I didn’t inhale. I swallowed. And I hacked. And I coughed. And I gasped. Yet I pushed on, bound and determined to learn how to smoke that night. And it quickly became my refuge. A substitute for no friends around the corner like I had when we lived in town. A source of comfort when I felt unlovable during those awkward coming-of-age years.
So, there I was, stuck in the middle of nowhere, lonely, and with no friends. Cigarettes helped ease that loneliness.
My ninth grade year we moved to California. I became friends with girls who smoked. They looked so sophisticated making perfect smoke rings. They knew more about boys, got to go to the beach with their friends, and stayed out late at night.
Being raised Catholic and going to Catholic school, I was sheltered most of my life, so it was hard for me to be cool like them. But, at least I tried.
One time, I flicked away a cigarette while it was still clenched between my teeth. The glowing tip separated from the cigarette and landed on my upper eyelashes. The smell of singed hair… well, I never did that again.
I’m pretty sure I was addicted by eleventh grade. I’d open my bedroom window upstairs and blow the smoke out. I didn’t want the smoky haze hanging in the air in case my parents came to check on me.
In high school I began hiding my smoking from friends and my new boyfriend. He’d smell smoke on me, but I’d say it was from Mom and Dad smoking around me. In college, another boyfriend said he could taste cigarettes when we kissed. I was very much aware guys might not like me if they saw me smoke.
After graduating from college, I tried to quit for the first time. I found a program that cost hundreds of dollars. Another boyfriend even encouraged me to give it a try, and it worked…for awhile.
We eventually broke up, and I was alone once again. I returned to smoking. It finally dawned on me that friends and boyfriends came and went, but cigarettes were always there, waiting.
During the big milestones in my life—getting married, having my first baby, turning 30—I always said I’d quit, but never did.
My husband finally did, but still liked his Jack Daniels. I still smoked, but got tired of the partying. On top of that, he started pulling away from our religious faith, and I took more of an interest in it.
We were heading in opposite directions.
And then my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her hair began falling out from chemotherapy. My heart broke seeing her bald. I’d cry listening to her throw up on the other side of the bathroom door. The one person who had always been there for me, my one constant, was slipping away. And yet, I clung tighter to my cigarettes.
She died three months later and in my grief, I finally saw with my own eyes the consequences of her addiction. That’s what moved me to give up cigarettes.
I’d been smoke-free for a year and a half when my husband decided he didn’t want to be married anymore. Once again, I was devastated by loss. I yearned for intimacy, but I didn’t want to fill that void with alcohol, drugs, or sex. So instead I turned to my old faithful friend, Mr. Marlboro.
I was embarrassed I started smoking again. I knew by keeping it a secret, it wouldn’t just go away, so I asked three girlfriends to pray for me.
But the struggle raged on. At night before going to sleep, I told myself, “This was it. I was done smoking.” Yet in the morning, I’d wake up craving a cigarette and pace like a caged lion. So, I’d drive to the 7-11 to buy a pack. I’d smoke five cigarettes before work, and then shred the rest in disgust. I’d flush them down the toilet, vowing I’d smoked my last one. After work, the same thing would happen. Buy. Smoke. Shred. Flush. Vow. This vicious cycle would start all over the next morning. This went on for two months, with me spending $10 a day and only smoking 10 cigarettes.
One Sunday I heard a pastor’s sermon about breaking bad habits. He said you need to face the problem head-on one minute at a time. That there was something that happens in the human psyche three weeks after quitting cold turkey. If you can make it to that point, he said, you can quit anything. I was skeptical. I’d stopped smoking before and picked up cigarettes again.
But, something inside me stirred.
One night, I’d sunk to the floor, exhausted by yet another failed attempt to quit. I was just so weary from fighting this demon. I didn’t know how to stop. Lying face down on the carpet, I cried out to God. I told Him I couldn’t do this on my own. That I needed His help. I just bawled and bawled, wiping my tears and nose with a soggy tissue. Why couldn’t I kick this habit? I’d succeeded at so many things in life, but why not this one? I felt like such a failure. And I didn’t want to die like Mom did. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally got up and went to bed.
The next morning when I woke up, I didn’t go to the 7-11. After work, I still hadn’t gone. It was a miracle! My friends’ prayers must have worked. I made it through the first day cold turkey. One day became one week. And then two weeks. And then three.
At first, I’d crave cigarettes when I smelled one. But, then I remembered that metallic-y taste from picking up the first cigarette after I’d quit before. And I didn’t want to taste that again.
Three years later, my dad died from smoking. I wish I could have inspired him to give up the habit. I miss Mom and him dearly and wish they could’ve lived longer. At least I know I probably will.
Here I am eight years later, smoke-free. There’s no longer the shame of being a smoker. And my first thought when waking up in the morning isn’t about a cigarette. Instead, I get to lie in bed a few extra minutes, thankful for another day of living.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” - Philippians 4:13