This was published Feb. 11, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission. (Editor’s note: Feb. 15, 2017 marks four years since I’ve had a cigarette).
By David Heitz
You could find me there every night, at the corner of 69th and Mary streets. Beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. On the weekends, sometimes you could find me there 12 hours a day, “pulling double shifts,” as I used to tell the bar owner.
Definitely NOT the corner of happy and healthy, at least not for me.
Today marks two years since I gave up cigarettes. The day after Memorial Day I’ll celebrate a year without alcohol.
It was tough finding a picture of me with a cigarette. I usually wouldn’t allow pictures of me smoking. I found this pic that a friend posted on Facebook in 2010 after Iowa’s no-smoking law went into effect.
Actually, I sort of like the picture. I do look happy, and I certainly had lots of great times at the bar where I used to hang out. But changing your life really does have to be all about changing faces and places sometimes, even if it means leaving behind the good memories as well as the bad.
Immediate disclosure: I still have a few vices, not the least of which is Willy Wonka candy. I’m sharing my story not to sound like Mary Poppins, but to relay how disgusted I became with myself. My sort of “rock bottom,” I guess.
The truth is, I gave up smoking because I always considered it “low class.” That’s right. It sounds horrible and arrogant, it makes me sound elitist and awful, but even as a child, I seemed to notice that people who smoked always had so many other darned problems.
It may be boiling it down to an extremely superficial level, and maybe there’s not always causation between a person’s problems and their smoking habit, but to a casual observer there certainly does appear to be correlation many times.
Do teenagers still say “smoking is for losers?”
When my generation was younger, we called the kids who smoked in high school “burnouts” or “lunch loggers,” because at my school they sat on a giant log adjacent to the student parking lot and puffed away during lunch.
At what point did it become OK for so many of us who should know better to smoke?
I say this even though my parents BOTH smoked. And they both had lots of problems, health-related and otherwise.
So I am just going to put out there that at a young age I noticed the happier, and, indeed, more successful people in life, seemed to be non-smokers. Of course, this was in the 1970s, when LOTS of people smoked. All I knew was that I associated cigarettes with “people with problems,” and non-smokers with success and happiness, and I wanted to be one of the happy and successful people.
And so I was a complete and, at times, very nasty, anti-cigarette snob all the way up until moving to Los Angeles. Then I added cigarettes to my beer. Then I began doing hard drugs, which can turn even a non-smoker into a pack-a-day person. Easily.
And I’ll skip all of the juicy stuff that happened in between, but two years ago I found myself fat, hung over, crying and depressed, wondering if life was even worth living, lying in the basement of the house I grew up in. I had moved back to Illinois in 2002 to escape a crystal meth addiction and to help take care of dad. While I was happy I had survived the meth and felt lucky to be alive, I hadn’t been living much of a life since the day I moved back.
In theory, I was taking care of my dad. But I wasn’t qualified for that job either, and after a hard day at the office, I’d spend a hard night at the tavern. Eventually I quit my job.
What a horrible mess my life had become.
I don’t advocate for any sort of religion, but the higher power thing has indeed brought some peace into my life. On that day that I woke up hung over, depressed, in the basement of the house I grew up in, I prayed to God for change, any kind of change. Something just had to change.
Because, man, did I have a lot of problems!
So I decided my part of the deal would be to stop smoking. That would be my first change. That’s the deal I made with God.
After all, how anyone could continue to smoke when we all know about how bad it is for you is…well…not congruent with being a smart person, which of course for years I have associated with happiness and success. So I knew that in terms of getting off the wrong path, I might want to start with giving up the deplorable cigarettes.
Things in my life did begin to change when I gave up cigarettes. Maybe it was just because I finally had at least some sense of self-worth after years of feeling like a louse. I was able to make decisions and stand up for myself, perhaps. I found that I believed in myself much more, and that my confidence really escalated very quickly the longer I went without a cigarette.
Honestly, it hasn’t even been too difficult giving up smoking. But it was harder for me to quit smoking than to quit drinking. Even when you know smoking is terrible and gross, the nicotine craving still nudges at you sometimes. Booze, on the other hand, almost never enters my consciousness anymore, even after only 9 months without it.
In the madness of giving up booze and cigarettes, somehow 70 pounds fell off during that two-year period, too. But 30 of them have come back on. With every challenge I face each day, I try a new approach to solving it. I’m doing everything in life differently. Something as simple as not answering the phone when I don’t want to, or not responding to an unpleasant email in a knee-jerk way…I’m getting so much more done by slowing down and doing less. Anything to keep the anxiety low.
People ask what the key has been to turning my life around in terms of getting rid of booze and cigarettes and losing weight. My advice is to just shake everything up, change every routine possible, find new, healthier addictions if you have to.
My new addiction is social media. Zuckerberg gets my money now, because I have turned my professional Facebook page, David Heitz Health, into a little hobby.
But it’s better than spending my dough on beer and cigarettes. And it certainly keeps me social in a place where it’s a lot easier to be me than a tavern.
I probably will be called “arrogant,” grand” and every other name in the book for this. But that’s OK. Maybe my story will ring true even with one other person and convince them to give up the poo-poo sticks, whatever their reason may be. Because there are a million of them.