Catching My Breath After Years of Running on Smoke
(GETTY IMAGES)After smoking my lungs out at a lake-house party last weekend, I was rarin' to quit. So after traveling some 11 hours by car, bus, subway, and foot, I stood at the entrance to my apartment eager to kill this monster. Sweaty and a bit breathless, I set my bags down on the sidewalk and lit my final cigarette (Id safely tossed the rest of the pack in the trash can down the street).
The cigarette felt harsh on my lungs, the final puffs choked me. With my last drag, I shot the thing a quick dirty look, cursed it, and stomped it out, hard. When I got inside the apartment, which had aired out over the weekend, I dropped my bags, kissed my kitty cats, and felt relieved...rather, I felt happy!
Monday, Day 1 of my nonsmoking life, began with that nervous excitement I used to get on the first day of school. I awoke in a surreal, Technicolor mood. Everything would be slightly altered todaymy schedule, my experiences, my emotions. Id try and make it as breezy as possible.
I enjoyed a hearty, healthful breakfast, whistled through a couple hours of work at my computer, and gathered my belongings for a relaxing day at a pool. Then, just as I was about to leave, came Freak-out No. 1: My keys?! I searched for them everywhere, tearing through every possible hiding spot thoroughly and at least twice. Nearly an hour passed and the noon heat in my apartment grew suffocating. I called my husband (who had wisely taken my advice and extended his vacation at the lake house a day longer so as to protect himself from me). I told him I was feeling panicky, lost, and trapped without my keysand that my body was begging for a cigarette. Then I got frustrated that he couldnt quite make out what I was saying and asked him, "You want me to repeat myself? Cant deal. Gotta go." I huffed a good-bye. Then I cried.
Suddenly I remembered where my keys were and forgot my meltdown. I decided to skip the pool (too crowded on this hot day) and dive into three other types of therapy instead:
Massage therapy: After a commute that had me growling at two pestering catcallers, and another brief out-of-nowhere cry session, I ducked into a spa. The massage was a beautiful half-hour escape. I floated out of that peaceful place, all pains and cravings and negativity numbed...temporarily.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): I got lost looking for the office of the NYU social worker/smoking-cessation therapist, which made little ol fragile me feel nutty again. I did not feel like communicating with words, and I was particularly afraid of being evaluated. Besides, the last topic I wanted to focus on while in the throes of my withdrawal was my addiction. I went in anyway. The kind woman gave me a little space as she went through a very basic checklist of reasons why quitting is good and asked general questions about my smoking triggers, my reasons for quitting, and so forth. She wanted to see where I was coming from, and I just wanted to leave. I pooh-poohed the hypnotherapy she offered (I was afraid to go too deep). I wasnt ready to face anyone, especially myself.
Dance therapy: My next stop was a Dancehall Fusion class, a chance to just let go and release my anxiety in a physical way. I shook off all inhibitions and tension, sweated out some toxins, got my endorphins going, and left completely relaxed. But damn if the relaxation didnt make me want a cigarette. I remembered a breathing exercise the therapist had shown me earlier in the day, and it helped get me through my little post-dance nicotine fit. (Had that intro CBT session been more useful than I realized?)
Then I got a special visitor! My period came. I started doing a little Web searching to see if this would make me even crazier. Quite the contrary! Apparently, women who are premenstrual (or in the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle) when they quit smoking experience far worse symptoms and greater depression than those who are in the follicular phase (days 1 to 15) of their cycles. It has also been found that premenstrual women are less likely to succeed in their attempts to quit. I figured that my periods arrival might change all that by making withdrawals easier to cope with for the remainder of the week.
By Tuesday (the beginning of my follicular phase) I felt a bit better. I was able to carry on conversations without crying (except with my husband, who is getting to see everything I bottle up—poor thing).
I felt more relaxed overall, but I was still wanting. After chewing on everything in sighttoothpicks, straws, gum, junk food, water bottlesI decided to try some nicotine gum that Ive been holding on to for a couple years. Id planned to go cold turkey and flush the nicotine out all at once, but I felt I needed this. Hey, its better than a death stick.
On Day 3, Wednesday, I felt my first true reward of quitting. My Afro-Haitian dance troupe was practicing a long, energetic carnival dance called Rara, which had left me gasping for breath after every performance in the past. For years, I'd learned to tone it down at shows to accommodate my weak lungsby holding my jumps lower, for instance, and generally cutting corners. But at this rehearsal, for the first time, I couldn't dance hard enough. My supply of breath felt endless, deep. It was as if I'd been suffocating myself all my life and had been offered a chance to breathe. With this new clean-breathing thing I have going, next year's lake-house trip will be far more refreshing.