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GUS (Gave Up Smoking) is a community support diary for Kossacks in the midst of quitting smoking. Any supportive comments, suggestions or positive distractions are appreciated. If you are quitting or thinking of quitting, please -- join us!  We kindly ask that politics be left out.  

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A message to ALL quitters. You don't have to avoid GUS if you have a failed quit. We won't give you a bad time and we consider the failed quits as "practice" for the real quit.

I wrote some of today's diary in response to a commenter on yesterday's sort-of-accidental GUS diary But You Don't Understand, You Don't Smoke, so apologies for the retread material. That diary got a lot of eyeballs and a lot of comments (more than your average GUS diary, that's for sure!), due in part to some long, contentious exchanges in the comment threads, and some fundamentally different viewpoints and reactions to smoking in general and the behavior of smokers in particular.

To be honest, reading some of the comments, and even the diary itself, was a little uncomfortable; some of it just hurt to read. People told stories of sadness and loss, of anger and frustration. People on both sides of the issue made assumptions, tossed around generalities, trotted out individual anecdotes to "prove" their point.

Some folks provided a deluge of links to scientific studies and cited articles, as if the sheer volume of supporting empirical evidence would bludgeon those arguing into submission (and haven't we all learned our lesson on that while arguing with wingnuts? That never works!); those arguing, somewhat predictably, dug in their heels and doubled down on the personal and anecdotal and the where-the-fuck-do-you-get-off-ness. Many a hot button was pressed. More than a few took offense and, understandably, went on the defensive, accusing former smokers (or those who never smoked) of being judgmental or "holier than thou."

Of just not getting it.

Time and distance allows for a different perspective, I think, at least it does for me. It's been a lot of years since I had to budget for smokes, and I'm pretty solid in my quit. So from here, on this side of the divide, It seems to me that it's less a matter of people being holier-than-thou than simply being uninformed.

Many people unconsciously ascribe a moral component to quitting, assuming it's a matter of will, of "rising above." Others dismiss smoking as mere habit, having limited understanding of or information about addictive behavior. A huge number of folks---virtually none of them former addicts---truly DO believe it's entirely a matter that can be resolved by rational decision-making, because DUH, smoking is bad, m'kay? Obviously. Duh.

As someone who grappled with the addiction for a couple decades, spent a long time even wrapping my head around the possibility of quitting, managed to quit cold turkey on a whim (and against the odds), and has maintained that quit for many years now, I know it's far more complex than that. There was a depressing familiarity in the comment section of yesterday's diary. What surprised me was how easy it was to slip on and assume the attitudes I used to wear when I was still smoking, sort of like a familiar old second skin. Who knew that knee-jerk reactions were subject to muscle memory, long after the accompanying habit is vanquished?

Because, if I am entirely honest with myself, I know that when I was a smoker---and I was a dedicated, multi-pack-a-day smoker for more than two decades---I was perhaps more likely to assume someone was being holier-than-thou or judgmental about my smoking, even if they weren't. Further, I assumed that in fact MOST people who didn't smoke were holier-than-thou, and thus worthy of automatic resentment. And for a whole lot of reasons (guilt, anger, frustration, self-consciousness, and good old addiction-fueled cognitive dissonance) I was defensive. Criticism, silly affectations like the fake-cough-and-wave from 20 paces away, or even clueless but honest questions about smoking always felt like a personal attack. This sort of stuff pressed my buttons, almost without fail. How could it not? If you're already irritated, being poked with a stick (even by accident) is no fun.

Remember, I worked in public health for roughly half the time I smoked. I routinely walked past the surprisingly crowded smoking area at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, past a host of prominent hospitals. There was a damn medical school right next door. I had an office in a building with an entire floor dedicated to smoking cessation and prevention, and a boss who spent ten years doing just that for the World Health Organization. I once had to share elevator space with former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (of cigarette pack warning fame) while I was on my way to a smoke break. The opportunities for guilt were quite literally everywhere. I felt (as did most of my fellow smokers there) as though we were under constant siege.

In short, I knew better than most---at least on an intellectual level---why smoking was bad and was more than aware of all the reasons why I shouldn't do it. But nicotine addiction is not a rational process; you know smoking doesn't make sense and yet you just don't care. Or if you do care, you can rationalize continuing to smoke, because you kind of have to, to live with yourself. At least I did.

And people who ask questions like "...why would you ever even start?" aren't recognizing that. It's not a superiority complex, it's a case of being "unclear on the concept" (of addiction in general and nicotine addiction---a "legal" and until recent decades, a socially acceptable one---in particular). They don't realize, for example, that most people start smoking in their adolescence (and yes, college counts), when their brains aren't quite finished baking. Their brains aren't wired like an adult's is, so their ability to extrapolate cause and effect or project consequences down the road is compromised or practically nonexistent. Virtually everyone who starts thinks "I can always just quit," or "I'll just quit when I'm X age" or "I'll quit when I have a kid," or some other point in the amorphous future...and the heartbreaker is, they MEAN it. They just don't recognize that by the time you wise up, it's too late.

It flat-out sucks feeling trapped by a compulsion to do something that you know is self-destructive. It's a horrible feeling to realize that you can't seem to stop even if you want to. Addiction and all the crap that goes with it causes a lot of guilt, self-recrimination, and seemingly endless frustration. Many of us turn these feelings inward, and beat ourselves up; others find it easier to lash out, to play offense when we're feeling defensive. Both are very human reactions, and easy to understand if you've ever walked a mile for a Camel Light.

Critics and concerned friends and family: a little compassion and understanding can go a long way, and pointed criticism, nagging, and appeals to the rational don't usually help, despite best intentions. Addicts and those in recovery: recognize and own your reactions and reasons for them...and know there are lots of people who do get exactly where you're coming from.

Who's your little buddy?
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