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Story Last modified at 9:06 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Smoking: Up close and personal
Mountain Echoes (Second of two parts)

Frank E. Baker

Indirectly, my parents helped me quit smoking. First came my dad's death from emphysema 27 years ago and then my mom seven years later from congestive heart failure, due in large part to arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Both diseases were attributable to smoking. It frightened me to the point that I knew I had to quit.

It wasn't easy. I'd smoked for more than 20 years, and generally, the longer one smokes the harder it is to stop. It seems that the longer we smoke, the more difficult it is to rewire neural pathways in the brain—pathways that have been established in support of a person's nicotine addiction. Think of ruts on a road—our car's tires want to follow those ruts and it's often difficult to steer out of them.

The first step in quitting, of course, is wanting to quit – and even though I'd witnessed my parents die earlier than they should have because of smoking, I didn't really want to quit. But I had something stronger, more compelling going for me. I knew that if I didn't quit I would die at a relatively early age like they did. There wasn't much of a choice.

I did not taper back or try any of the nicotine substitutes, which for some are effective. I went cold turkey. I was miserable for days and weeks and very difficult to be around. My employer was sympathetic and allowed to me treat smoking cessation as a full-time job. I'm not sure how much real work I accomplished during those painful days and weeks.

And I had plenty of props and crutches: beef jerky, plastic drinking straws, tooth picks, chewing gum, small hard candies such as Life Savers, and a wide variety of food. I resolved that I would probably gain about 10 to 15 pounds and then lose it later, and I did. When I felt like a cigarette, which from the first hours and days all the way into three weeks was about every two minutes, I popped one of the aforementioned items into my mouth.

I changed behaviors. After a meal I got up from the table immediately, and did not wait for the strong cigarette craving. When it came on me five minutes after leaving the dinner table, I went to the garage and cleaned it. I cleaned the garage 25 times in the space of three weeks. I generally kept myself moving and physically active during all of my waking hours. On hikes I didn't stop to rest, because if I stopped I would want a cigarette. I remember wearing myself out that way.

As I said, quitting smoking became my full-time job and I congratulated myself after each and every successful day. I shared my journey with others and they lavished me with praise and accolades as I struggled hour by hour, day by day.

When did the cravings start to diminish? For me, it was at about the fourth week. For some it is less and for others it lasts much longer. I talked with someone recently who after 17 years still craves a cigarette from time to time. But that's an exception. Most people I've talked to feel released from the cravings after about two to three weeks. But you still have to be on guard and work on quitting after that. I don't think you're really out of the woods until after a few months have elapsed. By then, those destructive neural pathways seem to be magically erased. A craving might come by, but it is fleeting—and then it's gone. I might have a craving once every three or four years, and it lasts for about one or two seconds, if that.

I have helped pack out heavy quarters of moose and hiked scores of miles and climbed thousands of feet vertical on a single day, but quitting cigarettes is about the most difficult thing I have ever done. But I do know this: If I can do it, many others can.

For people like my mom, who lived alone, cigarettes were a companion, a friend, or at least that's what she thought. The irony is that her friend killed her. It was much the same for my sister, who died last month of emphysema.

Cigarettes took my entire family prematurely. My children didn't get to know their grandparents and would have liked to have known their aunt much longer. I don't disparage or condemn people who smoke. It's a personal choice. I only want them to be aware of smoking's perils.

I've been up close and personal with its destructive power three times...three strikes, and my immediate family—my father, mother and sister, are all out. For information on smoking cessation, contact the American Cancer Society in Anchorage.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. His books of poetry are available at the Book Shelf.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.