Dawn's story: How I gave up smoking and created a healthy new life — with lots of twists and turns along the way

"My Dad died from lung cancer, so you'd think that would have been my motivation to quit. But watching him dying and dealing with my grief actually made me smoke more. Everybody judged me. No one in my family could understand why I smoked – my Mum especially hated it. I couldn't explain it to them and they couldn't understand the addiction."

After 10 years of struggling with quitting smoking, Dawn's last quit attempt was eventually successful. She had accepted that she was an addict and could never touch a cigarette again. She had also learnt why she smoked, dealt with those demons and then created a life filled with healthy habits that ultimately offered her more rewards than smoking ever had.

A socially acceptable addiction

"I would light-up my first cigarette before getting out of bed, sometimes not even realising that I'd lit-up. And then I'd smoke up to two packs a day – especially if I was going out", recalls Dawn.

Growing up in a small country town surrounded by kids who were five years older than her, Dawn remembers smoking her first cigarette as a way of fitting in with the older kids. "I hated that first cigarette and thought I was going to die. But as the older kids gradually took it up as a habit, so did I, and I was regularly smoking by the time I was about 14. We'd all play sport on a Saturday, and afterwards, everyone would go to the pub to have a few drinks – and everyone smoked. If you didn't smoke it was like there was something wrong with you. Smoking used to be so socially acceptable, that no one would consider you had a real problem – an addiction."

Quitting for someone else

Dawn continued to smoke, until she started a long-distance relationship with an athlete in Canada who said he couldn't be with a smoker. "I was in love. That was my motivation to quit. My desire to be with him made me promise to give up, but I didn't realise how difficult it would be."

Dawn had a quit chat with her doctor  who recommended using smoking cessation medicine. The process of quitting was challenging, but she persisted and eventually went to Canada to be with her new partner, cigarette-free.

"I hadn't smoked for months and thought I'd be fine. But when we travelled to America together, I had a melt-down. It was a new relationship and we didn't know each other's roles. He wanted me to go abseiling off a 60-foot cliff and I was petrified! I told him I couldn't, we had a massive fight and I went straight to the store and bought a packet of cigarettes. He threatened to break up with me; I was heartbroken, and was upset that I could so easily become a smoker again. Despite my attempt to quit for him, I still hadn't learned why I smoked."

Another quit attempt and more heartbreak

Dawn successfully quit smoking again when she came back to Australia. She hadn't smoked for a long time when her partner came to live with her in Australia.

"All was going well until he was unfaithful. So I punished him by taking up smoking again. I bought a packet of cigarettes and smoked them in front of him. Then I hated myself for doing it. I fought smoking, but found that all the reasons why I'd started smoking in the first place kept returning."

Smoking as a way to escape

"Ultimately, for me, smoking was about sucking everything up (literally) instead of speaking up. I was sucking up all the things that I couldn't say. Smoking was my escape, my way of dealing with stress, and of avoiding saying the things I should have said. And of course, then I would give myself a really hard time about the smoking. I knew that I needed to work this out for myself and find new ways of dealing with the stressors that always led me to smoke again."

Two new motivations to quit

Dawn recalls that she was still in an endless cycle of smoking and beating herself up about it when two dramatic things happened. At the time, she was a customer service officer with Ansett airlines. When Ansett collapsed, she lost her job. Dawn remembers sitting on a step outside her sister's house bemoaning the loss of her job and knowing that she couldn't afford to keep smoking. Her seven-year old nephew was watching her and blurted out "YUCK. I hate you Aunty Dawn; you stink".

"This was my trigger to stop smoking. For my nephew to look at me in such disgust, I knew I had to quit. I also knew I couldn't afford to keep smoking. I broke up the cigarette I was smoking and then the rest of the packet. I knew that it needed to be different this time and I did something radical; I bought myself a new car as a reward for giving up smoking. I couldn't afford to smoke, and with my new car and no regular job, I really couldn't afford to smoke."

Dealing with withdrawal symptoms

Even though Dawn was committed to quitting smoking, it was tough. She remembers feeling agitated and physically sick . She felt remorse for all the years she had smoked, and experienced social anxiety because she didn't have smoking as a crutch at parties and in awkward social situations anymore.

Managing nicotine withdrawal and building a new life of healthy habits

When Dawn's doctor explained about the nicotine receptors in her brain that make nicotine so addictive1, she felt like the penny had finally dropped. She was addicted to nicotine, and if she wanted to stay quit, she would need to find new and healthier ways to increase her 'feel-good' hormone, dopamine, that smoking had previously provided.1 She would also need new routines to avoid her smoking triggers.

"I started by changing a lot of my routines. I stopped meeting up with friends who smoked; I just couldn't be around them while I did this. I associated coffee with smoking, so I gave up coffee for two years. I had been practising yoga for a while and that gave me a new habit: instead of lighting up a smoke straight after work, I went to a yoga class. It also helped me cope with stress and with the anxiety and restlessness that were part of nicotine withdrawal."1

Dawn's next challenge was to manage the weight gain she was experiencing after quitting smoking.2 So she made a deal with herself: to focus on being healthy and giving her body an opportunity to heal. "I took the focus away from coming home and having a cigarette or coming home and overeating by absorbing myself in cooking a healthy meal instead. Then I felt good about myself and started losing weight, so I began to see quitting as a positive thing".

Dawn's top tips for quitting and managing nicotine withdrawal

"I gave myself lots of healthy new things to do that made me feel better about myself and helped me and my body to heal", says Dawn. To do this, she:

  • told friends that this was the hardest thing she was ever going to do and to please help her by being compassionate, patient and supportive
  • took up walking to fill time that she would previously have spent smoking
  • wrote in a journal to express her thoughts and emotions
  • surrounded herself with a few good friends who she knew would be supportive
  • threw away clothes that smelt of smoke and bought herself beautiful new clothes with the money she had saved by not smoking
  • played calming music at home
  • lit candles to make her now smoke-free home smell even better.

"And then it was time for some serious goal-setting", she says. "I gave myself goals of places I wanted to travel to from the money I had saved by quitting. I put these up on the fridge and they gave me powerful reasons to not go back to smoking."

 ©Pfizer 2020. Pfizer Australia Pty Limited. Pfizer Medical Information: 1800 675 229. Sydney, Australia. PP-CHM-AUS-1099, 05/2020.

1 Benowitz, N.L. (2010). Nicotine addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 362(24), pp.2295-2303.

2 US National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Weight gain after quitting smoking: What to do. Available at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000811.htm. Accessed 5 May 2020.