Reflections on quitting tobacco

Lynn Cunningham is a former smoker. She smoked her last cigarette in January 2014 moments before she checked in to the Residential Treatment Program for tobacco dependence at the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center  in Rochester, MN. Recently, Global Bridges asked her to share her experience:

I looked diligently for a similar program in Canada, since attending a program that involved two flights and $500 in airfare wasn’t all that appealing. Plus, given the depressed Canadian dollar, the program’s fee came in at something over $7,000. Still, I figured if I really could quit, that cost would be made up by my savings on smokes: at the time, a pack of 25 cost between $12.50 and $13.50, and I was smoking two packs a day.

As it turned out, I was at the extreme end of consumption among my Mayo cohort of nine others. Curiously, this didn’t seem to translate to having a significantly harder time. Not that the first few days were easy. I was going to bed really early so as to reduce the amount of time I spent thinking about cigarettes. Not to mention the phone call I got several days in from my kid, who announced that my water pipes at home had frozen.

How did you fare as a non-smoker in the days immediately following your departure from the program?

Getting home on the last day of the program proved to be impossible because of a major storm. After my plane out of Rochester was delayed and delayed again, I finally made it to Chicago. What was different was that I didn’t rush out of O’Hare to mainline nicotine. I didn’t really even want to.

After that, it was pretty easy to avoid smoking and smokers, since virtually all my friends and acquaintances no longer smoke, if they ever did.

What type of challenges, if any, did you face in the weeks and months following your visit to the NDC?

In Toronto, where I live, there is literally nowhere public you can smoke inside – or even outside if there’s a roof or awning overhead. Since I quit smoking, the regulations have widened further. Aside from standing outdoors in all weather, about the only option left is lighting up in one’s house, and I was becoming increasingly embarrassed about how much my place smelled of stale smoke.

This is a long way around to saying I had to really go looking to be in the vicinity of smokers — except for my kid, who, to my extreme regret, has been a smoker since he was 15. Some role model I was.

A little more than a year later, and you are still not smoking. How do you feel physically, emotionally? In other words, how’s life?

I received a lot of praise for getting off and staying off cigarettes. This came not just from my friends and neighbors, but from strangers, too, since I wrote a magazine feature, “Giving up the Ghost,” about quitting (part of my motivation was using the fee to pay down my Mayo debt).

After a month or two of being smoke-free, I felt comfortable inviting my book club to meet at my house. I also gained sufficient moral ground that I could get on my kid’s case about his smoking. I wish I could report that my shortness of breath had gone away, but 50 years of smoking equals the onset of COPD; however, my chronic cough disappeared within weeks of attending the Mayo program.

Would you recommend this program to others who may have had a difficult time quitting?

[There is] Nothing like it if you’re a hard-core smoker. It’s not just the content, but the camaraderie. Not to mention the financial incentive, if your health insurance doesn’t cover it.

Any advice for people trying to quit?

It’s hardly news that you should keep trying, but truly, I think that’s true. Also, skip the cold turkey agony unless you have a serious martyr complex: nicotine replacement therapy is the kinder, gentler way.

Global Bridges: Treating nicotine dependence as seriously as other forms of addiction

About the Author: Lynn Cunningham is an associate professor emerita, having taught journalism at Ryerson University, Toronto, until September 2014. Before joining the university, she spent two decades as a magazine editor. She now spends her time writing memoir-style articles.

Listen to an interview with Lynn Cunningham on the CBC “Q” program