It was the early ‘90s, and I was renting a small apartment at a women and children’s center in Santa Monica. Other than going to a 12-step meeting, I didn’t know what to do with the other 23 hours of the day. It was hard not to do what I had always done before: consume massive amounts of drugs and alcohol. But having lost everything, I hoped this would be my bottom.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I took a long, satisfying drag off a cigarette when I heard my 10-year-old son Rikki’s footsteps behind me. I leaned over to blow the smoke out the window, but it came right back in my face.
“Mom, when are you going to quit smoking?” he said, batting his hand in the air.
“This is all I have left, Rikki.” I gestured to the Marlboro scissored between my fingers.
Rikki hated cigarettes, but his nagging had gotten worse since the school district started educating kids on the dangers of secondhand smoke.
“But it’s hard to breathe in here,” he complained.
“Get ready for school or you’ll be late,” I said, changing the subject.
Rikki stomped off to his room while I took another drag, while gazing out the window at the street below. It was another sunny day in Southern California, and there was a parade of beautiful people on bikes and rollerblades headed for the beach. I was pretty damn sure none of them smoked. The oh-so-fabulous-Westsiders did yoga, juiced and would look down their perfectly sculpted noses at someone like me. I stubbed out my cigarette and yanked the yellow-stained curtain shut. I didn’t need anyone to remind me of just how much a loser I actually was.
Soon after that, I decided to quit, but I’d give myself a month. Until then, I would cram as many cigarettes into my waking hours as humanly possible.
When the dreaded day arrived, I slammed-dunked the empty pack of cigarettes into the trashcan. “This is it, Rikki. Your mom is quitting today.”
“Well, it’s about time,” he said.
After he left for school, I tried my best to stay busy by cleaning the apartment. But as my anxiety increased, I started to aimlessly pace the living room with my fingers clenched. By mid-day, I was so stressed out, I headed for the liquor store to buy another pack of cigarettes.
Later, when Rikki got home, he could tell by the way I hung my head that I had smoked. “I’m sorry, Rikki...”
I saw the shadow of disappointment flash across his face before he headed to his room. Would I ever stop letting this boy down, I wondered?
I tried over and over again to stop, but it seemed impossible. I thought after quitting drugs, I would be able do anything, but that was not the case.
Then I remembered my counselor, who once said, “If you want to stop a bad habit, you have a better chance at success if you replace it with a healthy habit.”
That got me thinking. What if I tried replacing smoking with some physical exercise? I knew Rikki had the same shoe size as me, so I decided to ask him if I could try his rollerblades.
“What for?” he asked.
“I just want to see if I can do it.”
“Oh mom... you’ll break your neck.”
He paused his video game and said, “alright.”
With wrist guards and blades in hand we went down the front steps. I sat down, extending my foot, and Rikki slipped on the red plastic boot.
“See, I told you, we are the exact same size,” I said.
Not impressed, Rikki shrugged while snapping the Velcro shut.
“Okay, help me up,” I said, reaching for his hand.
It felt like the wheels were going to slip out from underneath me. My heart raced. I was slammed with panic.
“You sure about this?” Rikki asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be alright... “
Slowly, I rolled along the sidewalk using his shoulder for support. As we turned the corner onto a newly paved street, I knew this would be the perfect surface for my first test run. Extending my arms like the bride of Frankenstein, I pushed off, one clunky blade at a time. Maybe it was all the ice-skating I had done as a kid, but I was a natural. Within seconds I found a rhythm and easily glided along.
“Oh my God,” I screamed. “Look. I’m doing it.”
I rolled to the opposite corner, made a wide turn and headed back. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to stop, so I rolled right into Rikki’s arms.
“I did it. I did it,” I exclaimed.
“Pretty good Mom for your first time.”
That was all it took. I was hooked and the next day, I was stuffing a fanny pack with a Walkman and music cassettes. And since I was still in the research phase of this so-called theory of replacing a bad habit, I stuffed a pack of cigarettes in there as well.
I put the blades on and made my way toward the beach, keeping a keen eye out for cracks in the cement. By the time I got down to the bike path, 11 blocks away, I felt like I had run a marathon. As I stopped to catch my breath, I was totally mesmerized by what lay out before me. The sky was a brilliant blue and the ocean sparkled like cut glass. There were a few random surfers, who zigzagged, cutting into a small wave. Seagulls floated overhead, looking for scraps of food.
Oh, this must be why the snooty Westsiders went by my window every day, I thought. They come down to see all this.
After I rested, I rolled back onto the windy bike path. As I picked up speed, the muscles in my legs gripped as my arms swung, back and forth like pendulums. As I was leaning into a S-curve, a cute boy with dark hair and tattoos came along side me. As he passed, he flashed me an unexpected smile, before disappearing into a spec of dust down the path. I can’t emphasize here enough what that did for my low self-esteem. Ever since my husband left me, I felt discarded, ugly and surely no one would ever want me again. That fleeting smile rolling by on blades meant I wasn’t so invisible after all.
With all the stimulation going on, I decided to take another break. This time I plopped down on a patch of grass. To reward myself for exercising, I unzipped the fanny pack and reached inside for a cigarette. However, this time when I smoked, I kept turning my head to make sure that cute boy wasn’t coming back. What would he think of me, I wondered? He probably wouldn’t smile if he saw me sucking on a cigarette, that’s for sure.
I was suddenly struck with the impact smoking was having on my life. Not only my life but Rikki’s as well. I knew I had to find a way to stop, but how? Desperate, I started to pray, please God, Universe, Higher Power or Whatever, remove this obsession in me to self-destruct.
But as the hours, days and weeks went by I became discouraged and was about to give up the notion of giving up. That is, until, one morning I woke up and heard a voice, crystal clear inside my head, say, “QUIT NOW!” Having been riddled with self-doubt all my life, this voice spoke to me with such authority and force, I did exactly what it said. Only this time, when I tried to quit, I felt like I had some invisible help from behind the scenes.
Don’t get me wrong. I still had anxiety and cravings, but they weren’t nearly as bad as they had been in the past. That was May 17, 1994, and since then, I would agree with my old counselor: you have a better chance at success if you replace a bad habit with a healthy habit. At least, it worked for me.