Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Glamourous Image of Cigarette Addiction

Picture the successful writer. You may see her differently than I do. I see her sitting on a screened-in porch overlooking a pristine lake as she sips iced water with sliced lemons. Her fingers glide across the keyboard as ideas flow from her brain to the screen in an unending stream of brilliance. Yes, even at my age, I continue to hold the image of myself as a successful writer sitting in full view of that beautiful lake.

Sadly (for me) so many people my age are already successful in their chosen field. Some of them have already retired. Late to the party, I'm not quite "there" (successful) yet, though I hope to make it to the success line sometime before I die (postmortem recognition wouldn't be bad either, though). 

My lungs, however, are in poor shape, and I sometimes wonder how much longer I have to live. I also know I contributed to this disease that threatens to end my life.

Though I'd like to say I never smoked – quite stupidly – I did. My image of a writer when I was a young adult was that of a woman sitting at her desk with a typewriter in front of her (at the time), smoking a cigarette, and drinking a cup of coffee. That portrait somehow looked glamourous to me. 

The fact that I have had asthma since I was 5-years-old didn't prevent me from smoking when I was 19. The only thing that halted my smoking was a nearly 3-week stay in the hospital where I almost died – twice – from an asthma attack and severe upper respiratory infection. For my mother, it took a diagnosis of borderline emphysema to stop smoking. Apparently, some of us need the incentive of our own potential deaths to quit sucking on what my dad used to call, "cancer sticks."

Why do we wait until our health is in jeopardy before we CHOOSE to quit?

As the years pass between that hospital stay in 1977 and now, my lungs continue to get worse. Today I have nodules all over my lungs, hopefully due only to past infections, but I have so many nodules, my pulmonary doctor wants to wait until September to see if they grow; they could be scars from previous respiratory infections; they could be something worse. 

My lungs are so sensitive that all I have to do is pass by somebody who is smoking or be within 25 feet of a smoker, and I feel my lungs shut down. My breathing becomes labored. My fear level rises. Unless you've experienced what it feels like to gasp for breath, you will never know how frightening the inability to breathe can be. 

People who reek of smoke also cause my lungs to tighten. When I breathe in their exhaled smoke, my lungs feel as if they are filled with burnt charcoal and every breath I take feels as if all of the air around me has been replaced with ash. 

You might think, possibly because of the tone of this blog, that I despise cigarette smokers. I don't. I love many of them because they are family members and/or friends. I feel compassion for them, because I know they would love to quit, not only for medical reasons but also for financial reasons. Their addiction, however, is too strong. They fail every time. Cigarette addiction can be an insurmountable burden to overcome.

I remember a man once, the father of a boyfriend of mine, who was dying from emphysema. He looked like the image of death, lying on the couch day after day, smoking one cigarette after another, gasping for air. I could barely breathe just looking at him while my boyfriend and I puffed on our own cigarettes. It might have been a black comedy, had it not been so tragic.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 million children currently suffer from asthma and every day 9 people die from the disease. Every year, the incidence of asthma increases, and nobody understands why. The CDC tells asthmatics to avoid triggers, but when smoke is in the air – inside and outside – how does a child – or an asthmatic – escape?

What frightens me is that so many young people will begin smoking today. I can't help but wonder if I had been born today, would I have understood the repercussions of an asthmatic who decides to smoke? At some point, before a smoker becomes a smoker, he or she makes the choice to – or not to – smoke. I was one of the ones who made the stupid choice and who quit only because I was forced into it by my own health.

With all the research available today, WHY would somebody choose to smoke? Forget the asthma, which is bad enough, because asthma alone can kill you – why isn't the possibility of emphysema or lung cancer enough to prevent these young men and women from smoking? 

They feel invincible. That's why. They see Grandma Moses smoking at the age of 100 and she's still alive, so they use that "reasoning" to give themselves permission to continue. As they age, they smoke around their children or grandchildren at home or in their cars. When their children develop asthma, they tell themselves their children would have developed it anyway, because the problem is genetic. They become experts at denying their problem and excusing their behavior.

Until it's too late. Until the day they DECIDE it's time to quit. 

What works though? Some places are conducting studies on what works and what doesn't work to help smokers quit their cigarette addiction. What works for one person does not work for another. For my mother and me it was a diagnosis of death.

I sincerely hope I haven't hurt my chances of finding myself on that lake some day with at least one successful screenplay in production and more awaiting their debut on the screen. I sincerely hope those nodules on my lungs are just remnants of previous lung infections. It took a near-death experience for me to quit. What will it take for you or for one of your loved ones?


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