OPED: Smoke-free nearly 30 years on

Tribune News Service
In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, two men smoke outside at Seattle Central College in Seattle. A proposal in the Washington Legislature seeks to raise the smoking age to 21. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

I smoked my first forbidden cigarette at a high school sorority meeting. I choked and gagged but pushed on.


Because I so wanted to be cool. Because I was a 15-year-old who had been exposed to endless images of movie stars smoking, looking glamorous and sophisticated. I wanted that badly.

I was short, hated my hair and yearned to look older. Those foul-tasting cigarettes seemed the perfect answer. But not foul-tasting for long.

I loved smoking. I smoked in my classes in college, and so did the professors. Absolutely permitted. I smoked during three pregnancies — and so did my obstetrician. I know, unthinkable!

All of this came back to me recently when, through a chance conversation with a lovely woman, ironically in a medical office, we somehow got on the subject of quitting smoking. It was something I did 28 years ago (who's counting) and it was one of the toughest struggles of my life. If you think that's an exaggeration, then you're probably lucky enough to be a nonsmoker.

It turned out that Barbara's husband had quit smoking at almost the same exact time, and in the process, also had given up coffee and had started a fitness program, too. I was dazzled.

It had been so long since I'd thought about that chapter of my life, and so long since I'd talked to a fellow quitter. So on a total whim, I asked this semi-stranger whether she thought her husband might be willing to talk to me about our mutual experience.

Perhaps it was subliminally tied to this time of year, when resolutions float in the air we breathe, and all of us who have a habit we want to ditch believe that this time we'll really do it.

With his total permission, I introduce my new friend (though we've never met) and my smoking doppelganger, Darrell Hammons.

Turns out that we are neighbors who happened to quit smoking in the same year — and who both did it the hard way: cold turkey.

By the time I actually picked up the phone and called Darrell, his wife may have told him that a woman — whom she may have described as loony but not dangerous — wanted to talk about quitting smoking.

Darrell, a retired supervisor with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, turned out to be a wonderful guy who also was interested in sharing our giant leap away from tobacco.

For ex-smokers, there is common ground impossible to describe to anyone who isn't.

You've been through guilt and shame, remembered pleasure and the intense pain of withdrawal. You've been through the humiliation of being separated from the rest of mankind in segregated areas of the workplace or restaurants — or outside in the rain.

You surely know the boot-camp experience of feeling shaky and sad, starving and lonely, without your nicotine buddy, and, yes, downright scared.

For Darrell, the decision to quit was unexpected, unplanned, unannounced — and ultimately a triumph.

"I had smoked my last cigarette," he told me, "and even though I had another pack in my desk drawer, I decided not to open it." Why that day? That moment? He may never know. He can only explain that, for him, it had to happen without a declaration, a plan or a pledge of any sort. "It was just a question of could I go for an hour, or two, or more," he remembers.

It turned out to be for the rest of his life.

Darrell surrendered his beloved coffee because it was, of course, a trigger. And he started to take long walks _ and then to run — but only after he had gained 50 pounds as a nonsmoker. Almost all of it is still off.

We could laugh together, two strangers, about that crazy time when food suddenly just tastes so good that you have to stuff it in.

My story is a bit different.

I'd stopped smoking once before and then had stayed a nonsmoker for two years — until I made the fateful decision to have just a puff of a cigarette at a holiday party. That same night I went to a convenience store, bought a pack, and the monkey was again on my back. The shame and guilt were overwhelming.

My daughters ganged up on me. My wise husband didn't, but I knew just how he felt.

And then, on the cusp of a milestone birthday, I made a public pledge to my family that I was quitting.

I felt terribly sorry for myself. I acted like a whiny brat for the first horrible week. I also was weepy and convinced that, even as a long-established writer, I'd never be able to write another word. And I'd gain so much weight that I would never want to be seen.

I was wrong on all counts.

I gained a little weight, but vanity kept me from piling on the pounds. I wrote and wrote, lost in a new clarity that I couldn't understand or explain.

And here I am, a former smoker who can underline that key word "former"  on those medical forms we so often need to fill out.

I have the utmost understanding for people in the throes of wanting to be rid of this habit but who are still lighting up. I

don't condemn them. I don't judge them.

But how I hope that, when the time is right, they'll do it. They'll kick the butt.

And somewhere out there, my new friend Darrell and I will be cheering you on.

Sally Friedman is a writer in Moorestown, N.J.