By contributor Sarah Torgerson
Nestled in the heart of the Vancouver Island University campus, students can find plumes of grey smoke and a handful of generally unhappy-looking smokers. This mecca for stressed out, nicotine-addicted students is where I sit between classes and take study breaks.
I started smoking on a beautifully humid evening in November 2009. I was living in Perth, Western Australia, and thought I could smoke recreationally. “Recreational smoking” ended when I lit my second cigarette. Some may argue it ended when I lit my first. Who am I kidding—it was a downward spiral into addiction from the first puff.
As I write, I am, indeed, smoking a cigarette. In fact, during my three years of university education, it is not rare to see me chain smoking while working on assignments. I know I am not alone in this struggle. Why, in this day and age, are young, educated people, still lighting up?
It may not be something a non-smoker notices, but a great number of people suck back cigarettes on a daily basis. I see chain smokers at the smoke pit, and the look of disdain on their faces. I am one of these people.
I don’t believe it is necessary to sympathize with smokers; smokers don’t ask for your sympathy. But I do think that there is a great deal unknown in regards to the trials and tribulations of addiction. The attitude towards smokers seems to be something along the lines of: “Well, they made that mistake, right? Who cares?” I care. I care deeply. Being raised with the Surgeon General’s commercials displaying grotesque lungs and holes in the trachea, it’s strange that people choose to smoke. Scare tactics clearly aren’t working.
Step outside any movie theatre, grocery store, bar, or health clinic, and you will see people of all kinds taking a break from life in hopes of easing the incessant voice of nicotine withdrawal. Something needs to change.
Stats Canada states that smoking rates have decreased since 2010. That being said, the decline is small and not quite steady. That same year, 20.8 per cent of Canadians identified as current smokers, compared to 18.1 per cent in 2014. The decline is evident, but the numbers are fluctuating. With all the education, information, pharmaceuticals, and programs available, why is this decrease so slow and wavering? I’ve attempted to quit about six times. The first time, I went to my doctor and asked about the BC Smoking Cessation Program. For those unfamiliar with this program, the process is simple: pick up your phone, call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1, and tell them how you’d like to go about quitting—nicotine replacement therapy (patches or gum), or a prescription (Zyban or Champix). As a person who has suffered from depression off and on for 20 years, Zyban and Champix didn’t seem like viable options for me. Scientists are still uncertain of exactly how these medications work in regards to helping people quit, but they believe the drugs create a feeling similar to that of nicotine.
Essentially, Zyban and Champix are anti-depressants, and I’ve always assumed that would mean ditching my own prescription that I went through hell and back to find. That being said, I have heard many success stories from people who have taken the prescription (my mother, for one.) I picked up my free patches, slapped one on my arm, and felt instant dread fill my soul. I spent the day with my boyfriend, getting whiffs of cigarette smoke while standing in the line for a coffee, and crying on the inside. Finally, around 6 p.m., the crying was quite clearly on the outside. I said “I’m done” and made the cold, sad walk to the Chevron down the street for a fresh pack of menthol cigarettes. I had lasted mere hours as a non-smoker, and felt agonizing grief the whole time.
Last year in September, a week into my semester, I decided laser treatment might do the trick. Laser therapy has become quite popular in the last few decades. Some say you can quit smoking, lose weight, or rid yourself of depression by sticking a special laser pen (not the one used to entertain your cat) on certain pressure points on the body. The laser can be felt in your bloodstream, and allegedly helps release endorphins. I drove to a laser treatment facility in Qualicum Beach and, an hour and $350 later (thanks, Canadian government student loans), walked out and threw my pack away in the first trash can I saw. I was a non-smoker. I would conquer the world. That was it. I felt relaxed and generally okay.
I took the company’s prescribed list of vitamins and minerals to the nearest health food store, and spent another $90. All was going to be okay. By day three I was telling everyone I had quit and felt fine. Day four, however, found me in a doctor’s office, sobbing and begging for Ativan (a popular anti-anxiety prescription.) Addiction and withdrawals literally make you crazy. The next day, I caved. I was defeated, smoking, and $440 poorer (or, as I saw it, 44 packs of cigarettes poorer).
After the failed laser treatment, I purchased Nicoderm patches. Nicotine replacement treatment aims to wean the smoker off nicotine. Patches come in three different levels—the first with the highest amount of nicotine, the third with the least. If you are a light smoker, it is recommended you start at the second level. I started with the highest level of nicotine I could get my hands on, and I did alright. This is probably my most “successful” attempt.
Eventually, I was secretly puffing away when I could. But for the first time in years, I was able to go days, even weeks at a time without a cigarette. Of course, I carried a small vile of eau de toilette with me at all times, and packs of gum took over my purse and coat pockets in hopes of covering my tracks. I was also constantly looking over my shoulder, fearing my boyfriend, a friend, or even a friend of a friend might spot me and proclaim loudly to the world that I, Sarah Torgerson, was a failure. I felt like a fugitive. Everything was a lie.
Nestled in-between these attempts and failures, as well as quite a few times afterwards, are a number of half-hearted cold turkey efforts. Such attempts occur during cold season, a night out with friends (smoking heavily), or generally feeling sick and tired of the whole process. I’d go to bed feeling horrible and tell myself I would not have a smoke with my morning coffee, I would not take a smoke break at work, and I refuse to give in. Sadly, cold turkey can be a rough journey through the depths of hell.
A few days ago, I mustered up my courage and visited a doctor at the Port Place Medical Clinic. After speaking to Dr. Jatinder Mander about my horrible cough, I decided to discuss my smoking. After listing every avenue I’d unsuccessfully stumbled along, Dr. Mander informed me that Champix does not interfere with my current prescription. I was elated. How foolish I’d been to avoid the subject altogether, instead of simply starting a conversation with my doctor.
Next week, after I rid myself of this dreadful cough by diligently using my inhaler, I will start Champix. Aside from the possibility of vivid dreams and nausea, the side effects aren’t too concerning. As with most anti-depressants, there is always the slight possibility of suicidal thoughts, but I’m sure my family and friends will inform me if they see me falling off the deep end.