Reprinted from "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4), pp. 16-17
I started smoking tobacco when I was 13. But that wasn’t the first time I had funnelled smoke down my throat.
One cold and stormy Vancouver night, when I was 10, the power had gone out and my family was outside cooking on a bonfire with our neighbours. Out behind the garage, a group of us kids—dared by a teen neighbour to “puff it up”—were smoking rolled-up pine needles in newspaper. A lot of coughing and hacking ensued, but that wasn’t the end of tarring my lungs.
Being an adventuresome kid, I was naturally game for anything. By the time I was 13, smoking—and drinking and skipping out of school and doing whatever the kids around me were doing—was about as cool as I could get. As time went on, smokes came to be just a part of who I was.
Yes, smoking is a habit. But it also goes hand in hand with mental illness. I’ve lived with the challenge of bipolar disorder, which has kept me swinging in and out of psychiatric hospitals for 35 years. And today, I still have the same complaints about being ‘locked up’ in hospitals as I always had. You go into hospital, get pumped full of pills, then join the rest of the captives in a designated smoking area to spend most of the time ‘puffing it up.’
Walk into the patio areas of psych units and you will be astounded at all the people vegetating while puffing on cigarettes. When it comes to people who are in the mental health system, smoking is such a common behaviour that it has become an accepted action, despite the health risks. Health care workers seem to passively accept this.
Smoking is not a good health choice, as we all know. But smoking is one of the ways mentally ill people—like many other people—cope. People with mental illness are lonely and isolated and have lots of time to kill. Smoking kills time; it gives them something to do. This is especially true in hospitals, where there really isn’t much else to do, and where there is a huge deficit of treatments other than drug therapy.
I would like to see psychiatric hospitals treat people with more dignity and help them learn ways to occupy themselves. Health care workers give many excuses as to why there is little attention given to such programs—most often that there isn’t enough money or space. I look at it this way: if people with mental health issues were taught to discover their potential through learning new skills, there might be fewer admissions for these people, and more available beds. Doctors and support staff should be designing programs that help condition mental health consumers to celebrate their lives, by discovering what their gifts are and moving forward in that positivity.
I have quit smoking, a couple of times. I’m a firm believer in holistic medicine, and in the past have used licorice root to help quit. It’s a body tonic and blood cleanser and, when sucked and chewed on, will cleanse the body of nicotine in a couple of days. The root comes in stick form, so can satisfy the oral fixation of smoking. I always went back to smoking, though. Honestly, I like it. I like to ‘puff it up’ and blow smoke!
As I write this, however, I am celebrating the fact that six weeks ago I quit. And I am determined never to succumb to the looming monster again. My motivation for quitting this time has to do with cosmetics: I’m not a teen smoking behind the school gym anymore. I’m forever doing everything I can to keep young, healthy and in shape. I swim a lot and you’d think that clearing my lungs would be the reason I quit. But no! I just decided I will not end up with ugly yellow teeth. And that was that.
I feel great since quitting. The sports I enjoy are way more fun now, because I’m not out of breath. In fact, when it comes to breath… Have you ever wondered what it is about filling one’s lungs with smoke and then blowing it out that creates satisfaction? Each person has their own theory—but I think it gives a sense of power, in that we have something in our hands that we are in control of. It’s not control, however, if you can be disempowered at any time by the ‘six-foot drop.’
My decision to be a non-smoker was easy, because I strive to be the best I can be and to move forward in life no matter what obstacle may be in the way. Smokes were an obstacle—so I got rid of them. To my comrades, who also suffer from the stigma and labelling of mental illness, I say: if you just ‘puff’ your self up and recognize your worth and capabilities, you can do whatever you set your mind on doing.
About the author
Dawn-Marie lives in the Fraser Valley. She is a multi-talented artist, writer and athlete who attributes her zeal for life to her bipolar disorder. She says it is a gift. “I don’t walk in the slavery of labels; rather, I rejoice in my brilliance.” She plans to get on a Harley and seek the open road