My (Continuing) Battle With Smoking

More addictive than Heroin
I remember exactly when I decided to start smoking. I was in Jr. High. A lot of the kids that I went to school with smoked. I was the new kid. I didn’t really know many folks. I wanted to fit in. It was an easy way to immediately have something in common with the people around me. Turns out, it was about the only thing we had in common.

We moved to the neighborhood after a difficult time in NW Arkansas. It was the mid-80’s. A pack of cigarettes cost about $1.25. At the time, laws that required you to be 18 to buy cigarettes weren’t enforced, and penalties hardly outweighed the financial upside of increased sales.

In my early life, my dad had smoked. He quit for good when I was 11 or 12. From my pre-teen perspective it was effortless. I had no idea how hard it would be to kick the habit later on in life.

Addiction is not just physical. There’s an emotional side to addiction that’s hard to explain. Part of it has to do with the rationale for smoking. Smokers regularly smoke to relieve stress or other emotional events. It can feel calming and comforting. This feeling of comfort is the first thing you miss when you decide to quit.

Over the years since the mid-1980’s I’ve quit several times. In 1989 I quit for 8 months. That was by far the longest stretch I’ve ever made it through.

You’re probably asking yourself why I started back. The answer is complicated and not something I really want to rehash, but lets just say I sought the comfort that I once had in the form of a cigarette. I think this describes all kinds of addiction.

I quit a couple of other times, usually for a month or two before falling off the wagon again. They say that after three days you’ve kicked the physical addiction. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I can tell you you never kick the psychological addiction.

Back in October, after months of respiratory problems that began in earnest 8 months before, I quit again. My resolve was strong, the reasons were evident, quite honestly, it was easy…for a while.

The problem with quitting for purely health reasons is that once you start feeling better, your reason has gone away. The first month was easy. The second, as my health concerns faded, it became harder.

I was just days away from two months when I decided to buy a pack of cigarettes. I had been slipping for a couple of weeks, but managed to convince myself that it was temporary and I could get back on track at any time.

Now I’m not so sure.

Its not the physical addiction that I’m worried about, its the emotional dependency. That’s the thing that I’ve never been able to kick. That’s the thing that I think keeps lots of people from quitting…and not just cigarettes, any number of addictive substances.

I’m neither a professional addiction expert nor a prohibitionist. I don’t think making something illegal stops anyone from attaining that something. This should be clear based on the success of our 40 year “War on Drugs” alone. Demand will primarily determine supply, though other factors may weigh in on that relationship as well.

What I do believe is that in our search for a quick fix to all kinds of problems, from addiction to education, we’ve squandered our most precious resource…time. For decades now we’ve known about the psychological…the mental health element to a vast array of problems in our country. For that time and longer we’ve done everything in our power to try anything else to correct them…and failed.

We’ve doubled down on bad policy, enacting mandatory minimums on people suffering from addiction, and in the process, created a gateway for people who never engaged in violent crime to be forced into it in prisons, while truly violent criminals were let out to make room for people suffering from a mental health issue.

I won’t delve into the decriminalization issue except to say two things:

1. Washington and Colorado will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade by not prosecuting and incarcerating non-violent marijuana users who would have been declared criminals just weeks ago.

2. If those governments would set aside just 10% of the savings and appropriate them for increased mental health services, they will ultimately save hundreds of millions more on healthcare and incarceration for any number of other issues and see increased revenues through increased productivity as more people do more than they ever imagined possible with their lives.

Because the problem isn’t the drug, be it nicotine or an opiate…the problem is the addiction…a mental health issue that when untreated, leads to all kinds of other problems.

I’m starting my battle with addiction again today, and hopeful that I’ll find more success this time. I know it won’t be easy, but I’m working to strengthen my resolve and fight the urge to give in again.

There are thousands of people, just like me, who are struggling with their addiction, be it nicotine or something else. While its easy to judge these people as weak or broken in some way, I hope we all would find the strength and courage to not pass judgement…but show them the support they need to fight their addiction.

It’s only through that support that they will find any success.

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