Why I Still Smoke
From long-standing bad habits and ineptitudes to space-cadet moments the likes of blithely jumping down a flight of stairs and breaking my ankle, I'm absolutely conscious of the fact that I can be incredibly stupid for a smart person.
We're all slaves to our lizard brains sometimes. Whether it's junk food, alcohol, unhealthy relationships, retail therapy or worse, everyone has a soft spot for something idiotically harmful. True stupidity, though, is not only being complicit in our demise but actively hastening it. If genetics are to be trusted, there's a good chance my demise will result from a smoking-related condition. There's also a pretty good chance I'll be a willing accomplice.
My family history is laden with heart conditions and aneurysms. Three of my grandparents have suffered and two have died from conditions linked to or exacerbated by smoking. Grandma Audrey, my ancestral doppelganger on my dad's side, died at age 36 from an aortic aneurysm. My father, one of the five little kids she left behind and, like his mother, a longtime smoker, seemed the picture of health until his first heart attack at age 42. Carrying on the family tradition, I have a minor genetic heart defect that, while so far benign, elicits an extra-emphatic anti-smoking plea from every health professional who encounters my chart.
The universe has been pretty clear about the no-smoking message, which is why my brother's and my disregard for it is so embarrassing. We've both smoked on and off since junior high; we, the kids who grew up on anti-cigarette after-school specials, ashamed of our home's pervasive smokiness. We, the two-time recipients of a nightmarish phone call from our mom that led to witnessing our dad unconscious and hooked up to machines. We apparently don't know any better.
Sure, either of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow. We could take after my maternal grandmother, who has smoked for 60 years and never had more than a cold (although she did once almost burn her house down). People who've never smoked get cancer and heart disease. But why play with fire?
To my brother's "credit," his physical addiction is much stronger than mine. He's suffered extreme side effects in his attempts to quit. I quit for six years until relapsing while working at a particularly stressful job. My erratic smoking patterns and preponderance of healthy habits - regular exercise, taste buds that favor kale and quinoa over junk - have convinced me I'm not a true smoker, despite evidence to the contrary. It's easy to justify bad behavior when we operate, as I often do, under the flawed logic that there exists some omniscient health-karma bank where our actions are tallied and equalized and it all just comes out in the wash.
I've managed since age 14 to hide my habit from my family, their own smoking and my granola-y proclivities proving diversion enough. That is, until last year, when my mom walked up behind her unsuspecting daughter mid-inhale on a Parliament Light. I felt sick, mostly because she was uncharacteristically calm. I could tell from her expression that she was living what all parents fear: a bad example to which she had subjected her child had come to fruition. She felt worse than I did, and I felt badly for her.
According to the experts, what spurs change are the emotional "a-ha" moments, not necessarily logic, which is why we do things we know we shouldn't. But when we truly see how our bad habits affect someone else, that insight becomes a permanent and uncomfortable part of the ritual. Here's hoping the memory of that sick feeling will be enough to prevail over my idiocy.
What unhealthy habit do you resist giving up, even though you know how bad it is for you? What is it that holds you back?
Jot in a journal.
You can keep track of your progress, monitor any backsliding, and identify situations that may cause you to give in to temptation.
Set small steps.
Instead of attempting a wholesale, huge life change, aim only for one behavior at a time. Break your goal down into smaller parts. For example, "if your goal is to lose weight and you didn't reach your goal of lost pounds in a few weeks, think about the health benefits of the weight you did lose," Marlatt says.
Surf your urges.
The compulsion to light up another cigarette or toss down a bag of chips has often been described as a wave. It builds and builds, potentially threatening to wash away your newfound resolve like a tsunami. Marlatt's solution: surfing. "Imagine the urge is a wave, and as you feel it build, close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing," he says. "Picture yourself on a surfboard riding the wave and the desire will subside."
Don't trust willpower.
Maybe you've had a couple of weeks with newfound willpower. But, Marlatt cautions: "Even if you think you can slide back into a behavior and put the brakes on whenever you want, it doesn't work like that. Keep yourself out of situations that could make you more likely to backslide."
With help from your journal, you might be able to identify triggers that may lead to old behavior. Some triggers may include being around others who are engaging in the activity you wish to stop, or it could be stress or negative emotions that may lead you to smoke or overeat. "Try using calming efforts such as meditation or yoga to cope with triggers," Marlatt says.
Try, try, try…again.
There's a difference between a "lapse" and a relapse. A lapse is a slight slip; a relapse is becoming entirely entrenched in your old behavior. "About 80 percent of people have lapses," Marlatt says. "You're up against formidable odds, but the good news is that if you keep trying and learn from mistakes, you'll get better as you go along."
Prepare for the next hurdle.
While those first few weeks may be the toughest, Marlatt says the first three months are the trial period that'll test how well you avoid the urges. "Rely on your journal to show you what triggers the behavior you want to change," he says. "Changing a habit is like learning how to play piano or speak a foreign language. Learn from mistakes so that next time that situation occurs, you'll know how to deal with it."