My son Jamie has always been a deep thinker with a huge heart. He lights up a room and loves a good party, but like most of us, has had his struggles. And one that’s been most difficult for him to tackle is nicotine addiction. Jamie started smoking at age 16. Cigarettes. Yuck. Toxic. Smelly. Cigarettes. An avid skateboarder (who refused to wear a helmet, mind you), I was hopeful that he’d forgo the smokes to help him land that perfect trick or boost his lung capacity, but it didn’t happen.
He continued to smoke all through college, and at some point realized that his addiction was inconvenient, expensive, smelly, and unpleasant. Truthfully, I’m sure he knew this all along, but like every teenage kid, felt invincible and immune to nicotine addiction. I don’t think smokers start out by imagining the long, arduous, potentially illness-laden road they may be stepping onto, and get pulled in by the insidious snare of dragging on that cigarette, the nicotine rush, and the pleasurable ritual of each cigarette consumed.
Around 2014, Jamie discovered e-cigs––a cunning invention marketed explicitly to appeal to kids and adults alike––and off he went down a new rabbit hole of nicotine enslavement. Of course I was thrilled that he was moving in a direction of getting off of the offensive, traditional cigarettes. But I intuitively knew that anything being inhaled into the lungs could not be good. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern this. Around a year later Jamie moved on to the “juul” and vaping, where he’d regularly suck on odd little devices discreetly tucked away in a pocket. Not realizing it at the time, the juul was even more insidious for him, as he was using it almost constantly all day, without realizing it…. Until he attempted to quit.
Like any parent watching from afar as your kid – now a grown man in his mid-20s– participates in a habit that you know can ultimately kill him, or at the very least lead to any number of debilitating illnesses, you strike a balance between expressing concerns and keeping the f*%# quiet. So I did. Hoping and praying every day that he’d quit. Or at least some day express an interest in quitting. Both my parents smoked as young adults. My mother smoked through all three pregnancies, including with me. When the science came out that smoking led to lung disease, they both stopped. They were lucky. One of my brothers, not so much. He’s been smoking for over 4 decades. I’ve never underestimated the power of nicotine and the oral fixation of the smoking habit. I just had hoped that it would forgo getting its ugly grip on one of my kids.
It’s now April of 2020, and we are smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jamie, now 26 and having been a smoker for 10 years, has moved back home to start saving a pot of money for a long term dream (a topic for a future blog). My daughter, Julia, made her way home from Montreal just as the Canadian border shut down, thanks to my determined husband, Jean, whose status has now been elevated to Super Dad, and will stay there. I am so grateful to have our little family of four together. Safe. Quarantining in Watertown.
We get into a quarantining rhythm very quickly. Both Jamie and Jean’s work shifts to home. Julia’s McGill studies all go online. I’m used to working from home, so this is not new for me. In our house, as you can imagine with my love of all things food and nutrition, meals become the high points of our days. As it turns out, Julia has become a phenomenal and adventurous cook. She gets a craving, we discuss the mouthwatering menu, create a grocery list for online delivery or the “every few week” dash to the store, and the creation materializes into a delectable meal of heavenly scrumptiousness. Our good fortune of having this bounty is never underestimated. Truly, every food item that comes into our home is met with reverence and gratitude. I know so many are food insecure for any number of reasons, and it breaks my heart.
So, it’s in the midst of this time of quarantine that Jamie announces: I’m going to quit the vape. Hallelujah, Praise the Universe, can this be real?, yes, yes, YES!!! But shoot, we ARE in the midst of a pandemic, and as insulated as we may feel in our little world on Adams Avenue, it’s still stressful. Every day we are tremendously appreciative for our health, the roof over our heads, the love we share, and wish so much that we could do more than just stay at home to help with this world wide, earth-shattering crisis.
We are all 100% on board to support Jamie in this monumental venture. And really, what a better time to tackle this magillah. First, Jamie goes into preparation mode. I really know little about the specific techniques of how to successfully break a nicotine addiction, but I do know I will jump in however Jamie needs me.
His prep list:
- Nicotine patches in place, check.
- Find a support buddy to quit with, check.
- Get started on Symbicort and have a rescue inhaler in place, check. (Sidebar: Jamie had attempted a 2 day vaping cessation a few weeks prior and his asthma kicked in. For some people, the lungs can become inflamed when you stop smoking and flare conditions such as asthma).
- Toothpicks to help with the oral component, check.
- Family completely on board for support, check.
- Get rid of all vaping materials, check. (Julia appointed as the hider of all paraphernalia)
- Resolve and readiness, check.
Let’s do this.
Day 1: Jamie: Oh my GOD. I didn’t realize how much I reached for the vape. It’s like I’m about to have a “good thing.” But there IS no “good thing.” And I just drop my head and shrug and feel like something really amazing has been yanked from me. And this is happening over and over and over.
Jamie is really good at storytelling with perfect body language to illuminate the story. He literally looked like a kid who’d had his favorite candy taken away from him. So dejected. Such a cruel twist. Slumped shoulders, chin dropped to his chest. Like a despondent dog, collapsed in sadness. As Jamie describes it, it felt like my heart was being broken 50 times a day. Wow. That is quite powerful.
The days went on. Toothpicks were helping, the nicotine patch a complete fix for the physical withdrawal, his buddy a support. And, the coach and mother in me wanted to find out what was helping to get through this quitting. I ask Jamie: What are some new “good things” to help replace the old?
The positive Jamie quickly listed them off. The new “good things.”
- Sips of water
- Deep breaths, particularly meditative breaths like deeply inhaling from the juul
- Ginger beer
- Little treats, like small squares of his favorite Ghirardelli peppermint bark squares
- Activities that require full attention, like playing guitar
But Jamie was quick to counter that it’s not about finding other “good things.”
Jamie: The point is, to me, replacing the good thing with other good things is not a long term option. The REAL good thing is gone forever. None of the replacement “good things” compare. It’s apples and oranges. I have to learn to live without it, not replace it with other things. That’s the point. I can’t be eating chocolates all day. This addiction is about learning to release it and let go of it. The real “good thing” is not coming back. I feel like I’ve lost a limb. IT’S GONE. I have to adapt.
Sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other. Keep on going. Sure, you gather all the tools and support that you can. And then you just face each day that comes your way, and do your best. I’m walking right alongside my boy. We all are in this house, during this unparalleled time of COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. I have no doubt that my Jamie will make it to the other side and be released from the relentless craving, agitation, and “lost limb” feeling he’s currently experiencing. And I can’t wait for the big celebration when he gets there. In the meantime, we will continue to revel in the daily and weekly benchmarks.
Everyone’s journey is different. I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert in helping people to quit nicotine. But I do hope this little story of my son’s path of severing the stronghold of a nicotine addiction may be helpful, even if just for one person. I send out my greatest admiration and love for everyone struggling with any addiction, especially addictions that take lives and decimate families, like the opioid epidemic. That is true heartbreak, and I can’t imagine it. Stay strong. Reach out. Get help. Know that you are a valuable and treasured human. I am rooting for you.
Please feel free to leave comments of what may have helped you conquer your own addiction. You just may provide the words of wisdom to help another lost in the weeds, grasping for that “good thing” and holding on for dear life.
This blog is dedicated to all the brave souls on the front lines, from the health care workers to the mail carriers, grocery employees, delivery personnel, and many more. You have my utmost admiration and infinite appreciation.
Gretchen Dunoyer, RN MSN, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach