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T-Negative

Smoke Signals

November/December 2003

A note from TheBody.com: Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

Eric L. Watts

It was cold. It was wet. It was late December 1997, and the weather was almost as miserable as I was. Standing outside the back door of the office building in which I worked, the cigarette smoke I exhaled was indistinguishable from my foggy breath. I wasn't there, on what I laughingly referred to as a cigarette "break," because I wanted to be. I was there because I was compelled to be. While my colleagues and coworkers were inside the building, warm and oblivious to my misery, I was driven outside into the hateful weather, by myself, by a nicotine addiction that demanded to be sated.

Why was I there? Why was I doing this to myself? What possible reason could I have cited to justify my actions? I had been coughing up green phlegm every morning as I brushed my teeth for several months. My breathing had a slight wheezing to it. At chorus rehearsals, I couldn't hold long, sustained notes for as long as I had once been able. If I had ever had a good reason for starting to smoke, I'd be damned if I could think of it at that moment. All I could think of right then was that I was no longer in control of my actions. I stared with contempt at the Marlboro Light burning between my fingers, realizing that it had more control over my life than I did. When I was finished with it, I didn't just stamp the ash out with my toe -- I angrily crushed the butt with my swiveling heel until the filter was reduced to wisps of cotton fibers. I went back inside the "smoke-free environment" of my office with my cravings temporarily satisfied, my health further jeopardized, my self-esteem further diminished.

It wasn't as if I hadn't successfully quit not once, but twice before in my life. The first time, in 1985, after a particularly severe case of strep throat that left me gasping for oxygen for a week before recovering, and again in 1992, back in the days when those newfangled (and expensive) nicotine patches were still prescription-only and covered by my medical insurance. I remembered having quit twice before ... why couldn't I remember why I had ever started back again? More importantly, why couldn't I quit, again, for good?

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It's not like I hadn't tried. I "tried" switching to the "ultra light" cigarettes. I "tried" smoking only half a cigarette. I "tried" smoking only with a beverage: morning coffee, lunchtime soda, happy hour cocktails. The funny thing was, all of these "attempts" to quit smoking curiously involved still smoking!

I finally realized that, absent another respiratory illness or unaffordable nicotine replacement system, the only way I was ever going to be able to stop smoking and to stop smoking for good was to simply just not put a cigarette in my mouth ... ever again.

On the cusp of 1998, my best friend Keavin and I made a joint New Year's Resolution to quit smoking. I'd learned many years before during a tenure with Weight Watchers that personal accountability and a support system were vital to the success of any permanent behavioral modification. Back then, the Weight Watchers program worked not so much because of its delicious prepackaged foods or easy and practical calorie-counting systems as it was the potential embarrassment of having an unanticipated weight gain announced at your weekly support group meetings. Going in together on a quit-smoking resolution with Keavin afforded me the accountability and support I would need to break my nicotine addiction "cold turkey."

The next three months were among the absolute worst periods of my life. To say I became irritable, short-tempered and generally unpleasant to anyone and everyone who came within earshot is a tremendous understatement. But amazingly, I found a support system where I had not expected: at work. After I'd announced to an office neighbor that I was hell-bent on breaking my nicotine addiction and warned that there just might be some coworker casualties along the way, I was surprised -- hell, almost suspicious -- at the number of "good lucks!" and "attaboys!" I received from nonsmoking colleagues, many of whom had never previously offered more than the obligatory "good morning" at the office coffee machine, but which were rewarded now with little more than withdrawal-addled grunts of acknowledgment.

As of this writing, it's been five years, ten months and twenty-one days since I smoked my last cigarette. The cravings for nicotine finally subsided after twelve weeks. I could not have made it through that horrendously difficult time without the accountability and support of my colleagues and best friend (who, by the way, fell off the wagon several months later). My lungs eventually cleared up so I no longer coughed up phlegm every morning; my wheezy breathing cleared up; my breath control strengthened and my singing voice became both stronger and cleaner. Unexpectedly, I also realized I could once again taste foods and smell fragrances that had long been denied to those senses. (Not unexpectedly, I also gained 40 pounds over the next six months ... but that's a tale for another day.) And not unimportantly, I found myself saving about a hundred bucks a month.

The advantages of quitting smoking are innumerable. But nicotine is an addictive drug, and breaking any addiction is always difficult, often ugly and occasionally dangerous. I could not have quit smoking for good without two things: 1) a strong personal determination to quit, reinforced by 2) an omnipresent support system to offer encouragement, camaraderie and yes, even commiseration. But the support system is the easy part. The hard part is finding the strength and conviction to commit to success.

According to an online survey conducted by the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC) on TheBody.com earlier this summer and answered by 431 HIV-positive people, more than half reported smoking cigarettes, twice the proportion of smokers in the general population. In a survey of HIV physicians also conducted by IAPAC, smoking was rated higher than HAART as a cause for cardiovascular problems among people with HIV. Eighty percent of surveyed doctors said that people with HIV were at a greater risk for developing such health problems.

If you're a cigarette smoker and want to quit, please consider attending ASP's November 20 Lunch & Learn on smoking cessation, sponsored in part by GlaxoSmithKline in conjunction with the American Cancer Society's 27th annual Great American Smoke-Out. Quitting may very well be the hardest thing you've ever done, but if I can do it, I know you can, too.

Good luck! Attaboy! Live Long and Prosper!

A note from TheBody.com: Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!



  
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This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.
 
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