Reprinted from "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4), pp. 15-16
At the age of nine, I first shared a pack of stolen cigarettes with three other nine-year-old friends. After that, I would steal cigarettes from my parents and smoke them in the barn. At the age of 10, I stopped kissing my parents good night in case they could smell the smoke on me. I remember actually missing the goodnight routine. To me, it was the price of growing up.
By the time I was in grade six, my girlfriend and I were smoking two or three stolen cigarettes a day. By grade seven, we each needed to buy a pack a week to be able to smoke four a day. We could buy them from the store with our babysitting money, and we could smoke on the school grounds from grade six to grade twelve.
I can also remember trying to quit at least eight times before I succeeded. During the 30 years I smoked, I spent over $50,000 in my time using nicotine.
One belief I had that ensured my failure to quit, was that I couldn’t handle extreme stress without the use of nicotine. At age 21, I experienced a psychotic break; I was hearing voices and smelling things that weren’t real. I had stopped smoking just two months before, in an attempt to bring the depression I was experiencing under control. I started smoking again during my two months of hospitalization.
Many years and many hospitalizations later, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and my mental state improved considerably from getting on the right medications. When Zyban came out, I tried to quit smoking again. The Zyban kept me awake, though, which aggravated my bipolar disorder—and I was back to smoking.
One thing that kept me from trying to quit was the fear that I would experience psychosis again. I got my mental health symptoms under control with medication, but believed I’d experience the symptoms of mental illness if I went through the stress of quitting. I also believed that the nicotine was keeping my moods stable, as bipolar disorder is marked by mood swings.
I began to have confidence that I could quit when I learned that others with mental health issues have quit. I learned that people living with mental health issues have a harder time quitting. Knowing that helped me find as much help and support as was available. I began to believe that quitting was not impossible. Indeed, it is possible: I have been a non-smoker since June 9, 2005.
This ninth and last time I set out to quit—people quit an average of eight times before they are successful, so I fit right into that statistical norm—I prepared myself to become smoke-free. I made a new year’s resolution to quit by June 2005. I attended the Butt Out program, along with other people who had smoked a long time and felt hopeless about quitting because they were living with a mental illness. The Butt Out Education Program, available in the Northern Health Authority region, is 12 weeks of group support and education about nicotine cessation.1-2 I became smoke-free by week eight of this program.
For additional support, I also attended one-on-one nicotine cessation counselling sessions and used nicotine replacement therapy, which included medications, patches, gum and inhalers. (Northern Health supplies one free month of nicotine replacement to participants in Butt Out.) And, I attended the Gator Club, a support group for people wanting to quit, and for those who have quit. This integrated approach really helped me.
Since April 2006 I have facilitated the Butt Out program and have trained others to facilitate it. I was trained by my health authority in skills to help others quit—through an online course in nicotine cessation offered by the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program.3 I have also trained in a counselling technique called motivational interviewing through the Justice Institute. These skills help me encourage people in their quit attempts.
I feel like I have never smoked, and I don’t have cravings. I won’t pretend that I haven’t gained weight; however, I have read that you would have to gain over 65 pounds to negate the heart-health gains from becoming smoke-free.
One thing that quitting smoking and finding recovery from a mental illness has helped me to realize is that when I set a goal, I can achieve it. When I was searching for a diagnosis and the proper medications, I found my peers as well. I learned that through support and education from my peers, recovery from mental illness was possible and attainable. Setting a goal and being open to the ways to achieve that goal helped me succeed in recovering from both mental illness and nicotine addiction.
About the author
Kathryn is a Coordinator with the BC Schizophrenia Society in Prince George
- The Butt Out Education Program was written by Judy Mitchell, BSW, during her practicum at Northern Health in 2004. It consists of 12 units, each to be presented in a two-hour period over 12 weeks. The program provides information, a myriad of quitting strategies and group support.
- The Butt Out Education Program, funded by Northern Health, is offered through the BC Schizophrenia Society. Visit www.bcsspg.org, or contact Kathryn Lestage at 1-888-561-8055.
- Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program. (2006). Basic Skills for Working with Smokers. Prince George, BC: Northern Health Authority.