On the occasion of the 37th annual Great American Smokeout, the American Cancer Society encourages smokers to make a plan to kick the habit. Humorist Roz Warren explains how it can be difficult to encourage a smoker to quit.
Mark was a smoker when we met, 18 years ago, and he’s smoked ever since. I wish he didn’t, but I can’t convince him to stop.
The first boy I ever fell for, at 17, was also a smoker. It went along with his scruffy, adorable “bad boy” vibe. I loved those smoky kisses. When Steve lit up, I snuggled closer.
Now I’m 57, and what was irresistibly edgy in a 17-year-old boy seems idiotic and self-destructive in a man pushing 60. When Mark smokes, I glower at him. If he wants to kiss me, he has to brush his teeth. When he lights up, I move away.I can forgive myself for falling for a smoker at 17. Who has any sense at that age? And at 17, lung cancer, if it’s going to happen, is in the distant future.
At 57, it could be right around the corner.
I was 40 when I met Mark. I wasn’t crazy about the fact that he smoked, but he was so dear and funny and good to me that I overlooked it.
Soon I stopped overlooking it and began to nag. Over the years, loving a smoker has turned me into quite the kvetch. But I have yet to find the magic words to make him quit.
A few years ago, Mark’s mother, also a smoker, died of lung cancer. You’d think that going through that might finally make him stop. It didn’t even slow him down.
My father, a psychoanalyst, never smoked cigarettes, but he did enjoy the occasional cigar. (Insert your own joke here.) Although Mom loathed smoking, she tolerated Dad’s infrequent cigars, as long as he smoked them in his office, with the door shut. The rest of the house was off-limits.
I’m less tolerant than my mother. If Mark wants to smoke, he smokes outside. It’s partly the smell. But beyond the fact that the man I love smells like an ashtray, I hate to see him slowly killing himself.
And when I protest, he just jokes about it.
“Are you about to light up another cancer stick?” I’ll ask as he heads outside, cigarette in hand.
“I prefer the term ‘coffin nail'”” he’ll say mildly.
Mark’s 20-year-old daughter is a smoker. “Would you be more likely to quit if your dad didn’t smoke?” I asked her once.
“Of course,” she said.
When I repeated this conversation to Mark, it made him very unhappy. But he kept right on smoking.
Recently, I decided to just give up. I couldn’t get Mark to quit smoking. But I could quit nagging. I resolved to accept Mark for who he was and finally let him be.
Not a single friend or family member supported me in this decision. “You’ve got to keep trying,” everyone insisted. Even Mark didn’t want me to stop. “You do it because you love me,” he said.
When I was growing up, Alvia, our nanny, smoked. (I adored Alvia. Could this be why I’ve always been drawn to smokers?) My sister and I guilt-tripped her relentlessly. We told her she’d get cancer. We hid her cigarettes. We tore them up and threw them in the toilet.
Despite our best efforts, Alvia smoked — a lot — for the 11 years she took care of us. When I gave birth to my son 24 years ago, Alvia offered to visit for a week to help me care for him. I wanted this so much that I resolved not to say a word about her smoking. She could rock the baby’s cradle with one hand and hold a lit cigarette in the other. Having her there would be worth it.
But when Alvia arrived, she told me she’d decided to quit. She regretted smoking for the many years she’d taken care of me, and didn’t want my son to spend the first weeks of his life with a smoker. So when the baby was born, she stopped. Cold turkey. She hasn’t touched a cigarette since.
Smokers quit when they are ready to quit. And not before. But there’s always hope.
All I can do is continue to nag. And kvetch. And push Mark out the door whenever he lights up, even if it’s 10 below outside.
And hope for the best.