April 27, 2022

Cigarettes still Have a Hold on Me—10 Years after Quitting.

I quit smoking in October of 2011.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve done.

And I’m not talking about how single parenting is hard, or going through the loss of a pet, or having my heart broken, or any of the other hard things life throws at us that we have no choice in—for those things, we have to keep moving through them. It’s not a choice. It just happens, and we deal with it (or don’t, in many ways).

Quitting smoking was a choice I had to make every single minute at first.

Then, for a long while, I made that choice every hour. Every three hours, like formula-feeding a newborn. Every 24 hours. After a week, even though I’d made more progress than I ever had in the many years I’d been trying, I was still reminding myself as soon as a craving hit: you are a non-smoker, you are a non-smoker, you are a non-smoker! It took every ounce of inner strength to keep making that choice.

I had to make that choice every minute of every hour of every day and while I’m not the type to pray, I hoped with every cell in my body that I’d eventually feel normal. That I wouldn’t have to struggle. (If you’re in the midst of it right now, the answer is yes, eventually you will be free of that pain! But it will happen so gradually, you won’t even realize it when it happens.)

I remember one night, after a few drinks with friends at my place, I stood outside with them while they had their smokes. I’d had about a month smoke-free, and I thought I had it licked. But instead, being more than a little tipsy, I went embarrassingly from begging them for a cigarette, to all of us, including me, talking me out of it, to me boasting, almost in a shaming sense as they took their drags, about how I am still a non-smoker, good for me! That was the last time I joined anyone outside for a smoke break.

I miss those breaks. I miss the emotional pause they gave me. The camaraderie and instant friendships with other smokers. I miss scratching that itch.

I don’t miss actually smoking, though. It’s gross. The cough. The stinky clothes. The shame. The cost! The way my mouth felt in the morning. Blegh.

I have a neighbor who’s a heavy smoker and in the spring and summer when our heat comes off, the positive airflow pressure within our townhouse also goes away, and in its place wafts the cigarette smoke from next door. It’s always kind of there in the winter too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s so bad in the spring and summer. It doesn’t just smell vile—it makes me angry. All that work to quit and now I’m smoking—secondhand—again. It permeates certain areas of my home so strongly that in disgust, I whip open the windows, regardless of temperature, only to find that she’s now set up a chair outside to smoke almost directly beneath my second-floor windows…so again, in it wafts. If only she’d choose one place and stick with it. I digress. The point is, although I miss certain tiny aspects of the habit, I mostly loathe it.

And yet, in 2017, six years after I quit, when I read that Canada—one of the first countries to do so—moved to ban menthol cigarettes, my brain immediately said, No! And again, this week, when I read that the United States is poised to do the same, my addicted little noggin felt sad about it. No, sad is the wrong word. Fear. I felt like I was about to lose something major.

I have not touched a cigarette to my lips in a decade, and the thought of not being able to smoke those smooth, crisp—shoot! It’s been so long, I don’t even remember what brand I smoked. Anyway, the idea of no menthol smokes! Pure anxiety.

“Menthol’s persistence infuriates health advocates because the ingredient’s cooling effect has been shown to make it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. The health consequences have disproportionately fallen on Black smokers, 85% of whom use menthols.

FDA officials estimate that a ban could prevent 630,000 smoking deaths over 40 years, more than a third among Black people.”

I didn’t always smoke menthol cigarettes. As a teen, I smoked whatever was offered—but it was never menthol. Then whatever the older teen attendant at the gas station close to my school would let me purchase as he looked the other way. That was before they started using decoys to catch businesses selling to underage smokers. I also smoked whatever cigs I could steal from my stepmother.

My mother smoked these super long, skinny menthols—Benson & Hedges, I think they were called (funny, how I can remember her brand!)—and I remember hating the smell of them worse than any other cigarettes as a kid. When I moved out of her house and in with my dad and stepmother, I wasn’t a smoker yet. In fact, I was vehemently anti-smoking. But thanks to regular teenage life in the 90s, I soon changed my tune and started smoking at 15. The first time I tried a menthol cigarette years later, as a young adult, it honestly made me feel kind of nauseated and I remembered the yucky, stale smell from my childhood, and so I stuck with regular cigarettes. I wasn’t a heavy smoker at that point.

But in my mid-20s, a new friend convinced me to try her brand of menthol cigarettes, and this time, I liked them. A lot. I quickly went from smoking half a pack a day to a pack a day, sometimes more if I was going out with friends. Soon thereafter, I couldn’t stomach the thought of smoking anything but menthols.

Studies show that menthol cigarettes are more addictive than regular ones.

Research from Nadine Kabbani of George Mason University, Virginia, found that menthol may directly promote nicotine craving because it binds to a specific nicotine receptor in the nerve cells called the a7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. In effect, menthol can alter the receptor’s response to nicotine.

Additionally, it was found that menthol can initialize a long-term effect by triggering areas of the brain that process pleasure, reward and addiction.”

I’m not surprised with how difficult I found it to stop smoking. It felt like a death. It felt like death. Smoking had helped me not deal with so many things that I then had to face when I no longer had that crutch, and that was as devastating as dealing with my addiction was. And it’s probably why so many of us fail even when we’ve stopped for weeks or months. It’s not just the physical dependence, which ends pretty quickly. And it’s not just the habit, which lingers far longer. It’s that on top of all of that, we’re faced with all the sh*t, all at once, that we used smoking to fix.

So clearly, banning menthols (and other flavored tobacco) is the right move. I mean, I’d like to see modern cigarettes and vaping banned entirely. But this is a really good first step.

I’ve gotten into yelling matches with family over smoking, I’m ashamed to admit. It was the wrong approach, even if my heart was in the right place. Having finally quit after agonizing years of hating myself for being a smoker and feeling so physically sick from it, I wanted everyone I loved to experience how amazing it felt to not be a smoker. I could breathe. I had energy—so much energy! I could laugh without coughing to the point of gagging. I took my kids to Disney World with the money I’d saved after a few years. I felt (and still feel) so strongly about quitting smoking.

For those who are still struggling with this addiction, I see you, and I feel for you, and I hope you find the strength to stop smoking. Because smoking is still so widely accepted in our society, the struggle to quit and the mental and physical aftereffects of quitting are largely ignored—long-term, they’re beneficial; short-term, they put us through the wringer first.

For those of you about to lose your menthol cigarettes, sadly, tobacco still has such a hold on me—after 10 bloody years!—that despite every anti-smoking sentence I write here, I am with you in how that feels, too.

One resource I will always recommend, over and over again, is Allen Carr’s book, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I wish you luck and healing.

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