“I once remarked to a friend that the only way I’ll quit is if you chain me to a tree and leave me enough food for a month.”
With a hint of a laugh in his voice, Ryan Smith recalls his former attitude to giving up cigarettes. “It’s amazing how I couldn’t have imagined it even six months ago.”
STOP Program client Ryan Smith
The 33-year-old appears a confident, outgoing guy with a passion for sharing his journey. Ryan is a client of CAMH. He’s enrolled in the Nicotine Dependence Clinic’s STOP program, which helps clients quit smoking through counselling, nicotine replacement therapies and other supports. The STOP program has treated over 130,000 Ontarians since it began.
Ryan started smoking as a teenager for the same reason as a lot of other people: to look cool. “All the older kids and the tough kids were smoking and I wanted to be cool, I wanted to fit in and I worked hard to become a smoker.”
The desire was so strong to look cool that Ryan ignored the nausea he felt. “It’s disgusting when you start. I remember being lightheaded and really grossed out by it but you can’t let that show when you’re with your buddies trying to look tough.” Ryan knew he was hooked once he would go to great lengths to get them. “I distinctly remember waiting outside of variety stores waiting for an adult that would buy them for you. Stealing them from your parents or their friends, when you’re starting to behave like that, that’s when you’re really hooked.” He was smoking 30 to 40 cigarettes a day -- about a pack-and-a-half a day.
Over the years, smoking became part of a series of issues Ryan was facing. He was addicted to alcohol for years and also faces challenges with depression and anxiety. He hit a serious crisis point. “I had a nervous breakdown about this time last year. I got in trouble with the law. I had a seizure from drinking too much. I was an emotional wreck. I was crying all the time,” he said. “The only thing that would get me out of bed is if I needed cigarettes or wine. I would come back and lay in bed until I was too sick to drink or smoke anymore and I would sleep for two days straight.”
“Luckily my sister showed up one day and said ‘pack your things, you’re coming to stay with me’.” He did a few stints in rehabilitation centres, including at CAMH. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “Just started to slowly get back into shape and to be able to forgive myself and not feel like this huge failure as a human.”
Despite the growing victory in the battle against alcohol, the addiction to nicotine continued to nag at him. “I knew, as much as I didn’t want to acknowledge it, that it was harming me, both physically and mentally. If I went out on a date I would feel very self-conscious. I consider myself a rational, intelligent human being, yet I was paying to poison myself and that was really hard to deal with.” With mounting pressure and encouragement from his family, Ryan found CAMH’s STOP program and signed up.
Initially, he wasn’t convinced it would work. He wasn’t sure he could do it. “I was more or less doing it to make other people happy. If I give it a try and it doesn’t work, they’ll get off my back and I’ll get off my own back,” Ryan recalled.
Ryan speaks to Ontario’s Associate Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Dipika Damerla at the Nicotine Dependence Clinic during a CAMH event
To his surprise, the program was working. He no longer needed cigarettes to cope with stress. “A lot of the practices I do, meditation and exercising and not being so hard on myself, has been a big part of it,” says Ryan.
“When I was involved in these programs, I was like, how am I going to enjoy life if I can’t go out and drink and party and smoke? Now I’ve learned through the doctors and the group that those things only seemed really fun to me because I was drinking to be less anxious. That’s why those particular behaviours seemed so great to me and so rewarding. It creates that illusion, when really it’s just me having a brief period of time with low anxiety and low stress and that completely changes after a while when your life falls apart.”
The benefits to quitting smoking have been tremendous. In addition to having more money and more energy, Ryan has found a missing part of himself. “It’s the increase in self-esteem and self-confidence and sitting back and going, ‘look how irrational you were to think you couldn’t do this’, and it’s a huge feeling of accomplishment.”
Nowadays, Ryan is working to get his life to where he wants it to be. In addition to staying sober and smoke-free, Ryan is looking forward to attending either a college or university in the fall, looking to pursue either a counselling or technological field. He’s going to Costa Rica in the spring, and he’s even taking cello lessons.
“I can draw a funny parallel between playing the cello and quitting smoking. When I first started (the cello) it sounded horrible. But after a few days and a few tries, once you know it, you know it. It’s great, you can just build on it. So now I’m not discouraged. When I’m playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ I think, ‘wow, I can play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and a month ago I couldn’t play it’.”
“It’s just a nice feeling to be satisfied with yourself.”