A journey to compassion and song
Reprinted from "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4), p. 19
I began smoking cigarettes at 21 years of age, when I won a few packs in a poker game. For the next 20 years I chain smoked two and a half to four packs a day.
At 41, I climbed the Grouse Grind, smoking three or four cigarettes on the way up. I reached the top after four and a half hours, having stopped every eight minutes to catch my breath. I felt elated at reaching the top, but realized smoking was having a negative effect on my fitness level and health.
I quit smoking back in 2000. For the last 10 years I smoked, I didn’t enjoy it; it was just habit and something to do with my hands. But it took me three attempts over 10 years to finally quit for good. I used the patch and had a buddy to help me along.
One reason I quit was because a good friend of mine had a mild heart attack. This heart attack happened in part because of his cigarette smoking. I had shortness of breath and noisy breathing, which constantly reminded me that my health, too, was at risk if I kept smoking so heavily.
Another reason I quit was that my ex-wife Alisen had suffered from respiratory problems and the onset of emphysema related to smoking. She died on September 27, 2001. We were very close. By the time Alisen passed away, I had already quit smoking tobacco for about a year and a half. She had supported me wholeheartedly in my quest to quit.
My addiction to marijuana, however, continued until Easter 2004. I had smoked weed every day since 1984; smoking to feel ‘normal.’ But when I hit a low point with a high point of anger, with the help of a Dual Diagnosis Anonymous group, I decided to clean up my life. I quit marijuana, got some anger management skills, became a Christian, adopted some Buddhist beliefs, became a vegan and quit drinking coffee.
But it was Alisen’s death that motivated me to eventually start the Butt Out group. I knew that I had to find a way to help others stop smoking. I’m sure that if I’d had the support of Butt Out, quitting smoking would have been easier. I started the group with help from Lori Keith, the occupational therapist for the West End mental health care team. We based it on a book called Breathe Easy.1 And I had my Dual Diagnosis group experience to call on.
Our first Butt Out meeting took place February 24, 2005, at the Coast Mental Health Resource Centre, with four or five people attending. One of the attendees was Joanne Kirk, who had smoked for 45 years and finally quit on April 1, 2005, with the help of Butt Out. Joanne says, if she can quit, anyone can. If you join Butt Out, chances are you will hear Joanne’s amazing story, as she is usually the inspirational speaker at one of the first meetings.
Butt Out is for mental health consumers. The groups provide support and encouragement to find the path to better health, without smoking. ‘Quitting buddies’ at Butt Out provide support between meetings to keep you focused on your cessation goals. There is no judgment of any of the attendees. Vancouver Coastal Health funds the program.2
I believe in compassion and serving others. I run a support group every Saturday morning at the Coast Mental Health Resource Centre, followed by a free lunch. This is a group for people not ready for Butt Out, or people waiting for space in the Butt Out group.3 At the meetings we discuss triggers: alcohol, coffee, peer pressure and stress. Some participants are not at all aware of why they smoke as much as they do. Some people want to quit because they simply can’t afford it anymore, health-wise and money-wise. My top three reasons for quitting were health, fire hazard fears and finances.
I also assist the professionals who facilitate the Butt Out groups. This helps me stay true to my commitment of maintaining sobriety from smoking marijuana and cigarettes. It has been said that smoking cigarettes is harder to kick than heroin. That said, it can be done. I never thought I could do it, but I haven’t had a cigarette for seven years.
It’s been tough at times, but it’s worth it. I now have a much easier time exercising—and, the day after I quit smoking I noticed the tone of my voice was louder. I also discovered that I can sing. I’ve been singing with a group at the Coast Clubhouse and am taking singing lessons. When I smoked, I was ‘doing’ something. Now I’m always singing. Singing helps keeps anger away, and it makes me happy, which smoking never did.
Through Butt Out, I believe we are working to save lives. Every person that is successful in quitting, or even in cutting down, makes me so happy. I wish that Alisen was one of those. If she had quit, maybe she would still be here today.
About the author
Rene is a member of Coast Mental Health Clubhouse and Resource Centre. He leads a weekly support group for mental health consumers who have quit smoking. He lives in Vancouver
- The Breathe Easy book is a program workbook that was developed by Canadian Mental Health Association–Simon Fraser Branch. See the article on Breathing Easy.
- For more information on Butt Out, see Tom Heah’s article.
- Contact Rene Rey at 604-716-0903 for more information about this support group.