25 Years Smoke-Free

October 11, 1990.

That date — 25 years ago today — will always be significant to me. Why?

That’s the day I quit smoking for good.

I started smoking in 1975, around the age of 14, because I thought it was cool. My dad smoked. So did my brother. And I’m pretty sure my sisters did, too, although my memory of that is a little cloudy. But I definitely grew up around smokers, even though my mom hated cigarettes with a passion.

I remember very vividly the first time I tried smoking. I had stolen a cigarette from my brother — I think it was a Salem — and kept it hidden in a dresser drawer until I thought the opportunity was just right to venture outside and light it up.

A few days later, on a Saturday afternoon, I was ready to cross over into coolsville by finally attempting an activity I had been exposed to all my life.

I took that single menthol cigarette and a book of matches with me as I snuck out the back door and walked to the furthest corner of my backyard. I huddled against a telephone pole that was planted where two fences came together, put the cigarette in my mouth, struck a match, and lit up.

When I first inhaled and the minty, tar-filled smoke entered my lungs, I coughed. How could anybody want to do this, I thought to myself as I took another puff. But that puff wasn’t as bad as the first one. And the next one was even better than the first two. Maybe I was getting the hang of it. Maybe I was actually going to become a smoker. How fucking cool!

My euphoria was short-lived, though. About midway through my first cigarette, I turned around and looked back at my house as I exhaled smoke from my freshly soiled lungs. To my surprise, there was my mom, standing in my bedroom, looking out the window. Right. At. Me.

I was devastated. I knew how much my mother despised smoking. And here she was, looking at her baby in the backyard, puffing away. I immediately threw the cigarette down on the ground and stomped on it to extinguish it.

Then I froze.

I didn’t know what to do. There was no way in hell I wanted to go back in the house, so I just stood there, for a good hour or so, wondering what my mom was thinking and what she would say to me.

Twenty-five years later, I can reflect on that moment and laugh about it. But back then, it was the most terrified I had ever been in my life. Surprisingly, my mom didn’t yell at me. She expressed her disappointment, lectured me a bit, then continued on with her Saturday afternoon house cleaning.

Fast forward to late 1989. I had smoked pretty much non-stop from the age of 14. There were some stints of being smoke-free along the way, because I had tried to quit on a few different occasions. One time I went several months without smoking, only to be sucked back into the habit by a new girlfriend who smoked. Apparently I thought that love was better — or at least easier — when both participants smelled and tasted like an ashtray. Wrong.

It took the birth of my first son in December of 1989 for me to once again start seriously considering giving up cigarettes for good. As months went by, I noticed my little boy watching me intently. No matter what I did, he watched. Babies are so observant, and much of what they learn they learn by watching their parents. Smoking was not something I wanted my son to pick up from me.

Unfortunately, wanting to quit smoking and actually quitting are two different things. Almost ten months after my son was born, I was still a slave to my Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra-Light Menthols.

But in early October of 1990, I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis and a sinus infection. I went to the doctor and he examined my nose and throat. “Do you smoke?” he asked (in a way that let me know he likely already knew the answer). When I told him I did, the next words out of his mouth were: “Quit. Not next week or next month. Today. NOW.”

And that was it.

When I left the doctor’s office, I went back to my office, went in the bathroom, took one last cigarette out of the pack I had, and smoked it. I flushed the rest of the cigarettes down the toilet. I was done.

I went back to my desk, pulled out a business card, and wrote on the back of it:

I put a piece of tape over what I had written so the ink wouldn’t smear over time. Then I stuck the card in my wallet. Twenty-five years later, I still carry that card in my wallet.

Quitting smoking is right up there with the best things I’ve done in my lifetime. Smoking is dirty, dangerous, and expensive. The smoke-free me is healthier, will live longer, and has had a little more pocket change to spend during the last quarter of a century. (I think cigarettes were about $2.00 a pack back in 1990. If you figure an average of $4.00 per pack between then and today, giving up my pack-a-day habit has saved me around $36,500.00.)

To this day, I still get cravings for cigarettes. They don’t come as often as they used to, but they do still come. Thankfully, I’m able to zap those cravings out of my mind almost as quickly as they show up.

It’s been 9,132 days since I last touched a cigarette. And I don’t plan on doing it ever again.

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” — Mark Twain