- Posted November 17, 2014 by
Nashua, New Hampshire
This iReport is part of an assignment:
First Person: Your essays
Celebrating My Second Life Thanks to the "Great American Smokeout" by Carolyn Choate
“I really started smoking when I was 12, but I didn’t get to a full pack a day until I was 15. That’s pretty pathetic,” says Choate, now 56 and living in Nashua, New Hampshire. “We had a smoking lounge at school, are you kiddin’ me? Cancer wasn’t talked about at our house.”
“Twenty-eight years later – a second life actually – including a wonderful marriage, two beautiful daughters, and many incredible adventures, I’ve never once craved another cigarette or had a panic attack.”
Read Choate's essay on CNN.com
- zdan, CNN iReport producer
I’m a quitter. And glad of it. Nov. 20 – the 37th anniversary of the Great American Smokeout – marks my 28th anniversary without a “cancer stick.” It was 1986; I was 28 years old at the time and had smoked a pack a day from the age of 15. That’s about 115,000 cigarettes. All these years later, writing that figure still makes me feel sick to my stomach. (Or should I say, “lungs?”)
Like a lot of teenagers “in my day,” I started smoking in high school. At the time, 1973, it was the cool thing to do and if there was anything I aspired to, cool was it. Sucked into the rip tide of popular culture, my juvenile delinquent brain, gravitated towards anything that questioned authority and everything anti-establishmentarian. Just like my heroes. Born too early for Woodstock, and angry at the world because of it, I could still bang out a Joan Baez tune on my guitar, recite enough lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to prove I was cooler than cool, and buy cigarettes. Nobody stopped me. A cigarette dangling from these radical lips were part of the image I had carefully crafted for myself. And once the die was cast, well, that would be like asking Rose Marie from the Dick Van Dyke Show to take that black bow out of her hair. Not gonna happen.
Cancer? Didn’t give it a thought. And nobody at home mentioned it either. This, despite the fact that neither the single mother raising me smoked, nor did my grandmother, whom we lived with. The war in Vietnam, the protests against it, the music, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the psychedelic drug scene, feminism, the whole counter culture movement was way more intriguing than President Nixon’s war on cancer. Cancer? Only old people got cancer. Like my dear Uncle Frank who died at 48 (an astonishing young age, I later realized) of lung cancer when I was in sixth grade. He was younger than me when he started smoking.
My high school in the suburbs of Baltimore even had a smoking lounge my junior year, 1975, outside the cafeteria so students could smoke before school and during lunch break. I’m guessing the consensus at the school board was that such a move would decrease fire hazards in a building meant for 2,300 students when we were bursting at the seams with 3,000. Regardless, smoking didn’t stop in the bathrooms as I had plenty of suspensions on my record to prove it. I was addicted, plain and simple.
Now, in my own defense, I wasn’t a bad kid or a bad student. I almost always made honor roll, was way more intellectual than anyone else in the family (or so I thought), and would be the first to go to college. How I conducted my life was my business, I reasoned. And, I had a responsible side. I worked like a dog at a hoagy and pizza joint in town and felt I had earned the right to spend my money the way I saw fit. Heck, I was bringing home $52 a week and spending less than $3 on my nicotine habit with cigarettes costing .35 cents a pack.
Oh, the folly (and ignorance) of youth.
You know you’re hooked when, despite being bedridden with a lethal case of strep throat at 17, you’re craving a cigarette. Or when it’s two in the morning and you’re too tired to drive to 7-11 so you scrounge through all your ashtrays fishing for a butt with a modicum of tobacco left. Or you’re with friends and they light up so you light up because that’s just good social courtesy, right? In a word: pathetic.
I started coughing my junior year of college. Especially in the morning. I remember being thankful I was an English major spending all my free time writing poetry and song lyrics. Never could have made it feeling like that and being a jock. But those Marlboros? Boy, they got me through many an “all-nighter,” typing papers on Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Edgar Allen Poe. No big deal.
Besides, the drinking age at the time was 18. The college bar scene was hopping, local alcohol and cigarette sales propped up the local economy, I’m sure. Hell, we were just having fun, were young and invincible and had plenty of time to do “the adult thing” after graduation. I’d quit then.
I didn’t. It was 1982; I had moved to Burlington, Vermont, with my best friend from college and eked out an existence following the economic fallout of the Carter years. I net about $100 a week working at a department store as the demand for poetry and song writers wasn’t what I had hoped. Depression and cigarettes made comfortable bedfellows. Compared to a lot of things I could be spending my money on, cigarettes were tame. And cheaper. I kept telling myself.
The government’s anti-tobacco/anti-smoker tactics including the Surgeon General’s original report about the health consequences of smoking (1964), the advent of health danger labels on products, and the banning of cigarette and other tobacco advertising, according to The Tobacco Timeline by Gene Borio, did little to affect the bottom line of the tobacco industry. Tobacco giants merely hiked the prices to recover from the 11 to 19% decline in smokers and became more ambitious with overseas markets.
But a major sea change was taking place nonetheless.
“What the smoker does to himself may be his business, but what the smoker does to the non-smoker is quite a different matter....six out of ten believe that smoking is hazardous to the nonsmoker's health, up sharply over the last four years. More than two-thirds of non-smokers believe it; nearly half of all smokers believe it. This we see as the most dangerous development yet to the viability of the tobacco industry that has yet occurred.” – 1978, Tobacco Institute Report.
This was a different kettle of fish. I was hurting me and the innocent bystanders. Sadly, it didn’t matter enough.
By the ripe old age of 26, I was waking up regularly in a cold sweat; my pulse racing so fast I thought I was having a heart attack. Single, working long, late hours in layout in the publishing industry, my lifestyle was far from ideal. Subsequent medical attention ruled out cardiac issues but a chest x-ray revealed some significant “shadows” for a person my age. The doctor clicked his tongue annoyed, “You should give up smoking. It’s just not cool.”
For close to two years I lived with the horrible burden of panic attacks, not knowing what caused them or how to stop them. Then one day in a brilliant moment of clarity I realized that I was scared to die. More specifically, I was scared to die from the effects of smoking cigarettes. It was all so clear; there was only one way out of the prison I had sentenced myself to: I had to quit smoking. I had read about the Great American Smokeout in the local newspaper. It was the following Thursday, November 20, 1986. My mother’s birthday. The nicest present I could give her and the present I had to give myself.
28 years later – a 2nd life actually – including a wonderful marriage, two beautiful daughters, and many incredible adventures, I’ve never once craved another cigarette or had a panic attack. At 56, I’m still finding out just how cool life really is.