Pride on my side
Reprinted from Visions: BC's Mental Health and Addictions Journal, 2007, 3 (4), pp. 11-12
Every time I coughed, my left lung felt as though it was tearing apart. I was 18 and it was my third bout of bronchitis in recent years.
Nevertheless, first thing in the morning on November 12, 1985, I lit up a last cigarette. I had a two-and-a-half-year habit, with each pack I bought—they cost about $2.75 back then—lasting me one to two days.
I smoked about half the cigarette before I coughed and, feeling disgusted, threw the rest of the cigarette over the side of the balcony.
Later that day I saw my doctor about the bronchitis. I told him I would quit smoking for the duration of my bronchial illness. As he wrote out a prescription for antibiotics, he retorted: “While you’re already at it, why not just quit altogether?”
As I left his office and made my way to the Work & Learn program (a special, very small school for regular-school dropouts), I thought, “Yeah, why don’t I just quit? I already feel like crap whenever I inhale because of my bronchitis. So, why not quit now!”
And I did.
When I got to school, I announced to my peers that I had quit smoking.
“Yeah, right,” they all said, or thought.
Before I knew it, it was smoke time. There were two smoking breaks during the school day. Everybody—or almost everybody—lit up. Even though the windows were open, the small room filled with cigarette smoke. And, unlike those smokers who claim it’s harder to quit the habit when around second-hand smoke, I felt repulsed. In fact, just breathing in the smoke was more than enough to calm any ‘nic-fit’ I might have otherwise endured.
After about two weeks, I got over my bronchitis and was, for the most part, over my habit. The urge simply was not there. And, the fact that my proud-of-me parents didn’t smoke made my transition easier.
Ah. But I hadn’t entirely given up ‘smoking.’ On May 25, 1986, I intentionally inhaled my last blast of marijuana smoke. Soon after, I successfully targeted alcohol (though to be honest, to this day I’ve had bouts of alcohol consumption). I had become obsessed with my health and didn’t want to abuse my body anymore.
I was clean. But I still hung out with my substance-abusing peers. Instead of being tempted, I felt proud—even smug—that I could be around these somewhat jealous friends with whom I had consumed many drugs (including tobacco) and could now completely abstain.
The dangle of cigarettes in mental health institutions
Come the new year, 1987, I was still completely clean. It was about that time, however, that I began to experience the onset of mental illness. Although I was suffering from a more mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) than I later would, I believe that quitting the above-mentioned substances brought to the fore a latent potential of my brain chemistry for diagnostic mental illness—ironic, since my obsession with good health helped me quit smoking. Without getting into the details of my illness(es), let it be known that I went through more than a year of undiagnosed-mental-illness hell before I was stabilized.
In late spring 1988, my psychiatrist got my permission to admit me to Hillside, a (then) six-week inpatient program at Riverview Hospital.
Really, I can recall only a few patients other than myself who didn’t smoke tobacco. And with the price of tailor-made, filtered cigarettes being as high as they were, such cigarettes—for those who didn’t have to buy loose tobacco and roll it up themselves—were like legal currency.
A friend who, in the mid-1980s, spent a lot of time in Riverview, once traded his fairly expensive ghetto-blaster—a gift from his parents—for a relatively small number of cigarettes.
However, it was one very shameful incident during my stay at Hillside that stunned me into realizing the potent tobacco addiction endured by the patients who smoked. One young woman in the program I was in was asking around to “borrow” a cigarette—until she had the misfortune of turning to the disgusting preconditions of one young guy. Thanks to his parents’ money, he had an ample supply of tailor-made cigarettes. The next thing I knew, they had both disappeared. A short time later, she walked back into the building counting out four or five cigarettes in her hand, followed by the young guy, who had a mischievous smile on his face.
“I just got a blow job,” he bragged to me.
She had performed oral sex on him for a small handful of cigarettes!
It was then that I realized just how disgustingly potent the cigarette market at Riverview was—and perhaps is for the entire mental health consumer population, including off the grounds of Riverview and in other hospital psychiatric wards.
Currently, the cigarette supply held by institutionalized mental health clients is regulated by institution staff. This is a positive step forward. But, as far as I can tell, such control doesn’t hold much sway over (mostly) women with mental illness, who are desperate enough for a cigarette to perform oral sex—and who knows what else—on men who have the funds to purchase cigarettes. Nor does it hold sway over men, mentally ill or not, who dangle the cigarettes underneath these vulnerable women’s noses.
I am so thankful to the spiritual “powers that be” for giving me the will power to quit—and stay quit.
About the author
Frank lives in White Rock, BC. His website is www.mentalhealthconsumer.net/FrankGSterleJr