A community gathering on the Gulf Coast brought together a few hundred people for a no-holds-barred conversation about addiction and a stand-up celebration of recovery from it. At the end, there were stampedes in opposite directions; people headed to the podium to share snippets of their own stories with me, and the rest -- many of whom were going for a smoke -- bolted for the doors.
It is a cruel irony of addiction that so many people manage to overcome their destructive use of alcohol, opiates or cocaine, only to smoke themselves to poorer health or death because they're hooked on nicotine. It isn't that smoking is tolerated as an acceptable alternative to those other drugs. It's not. In fact, today most treatment programs ban the use of nicotine products by employees and patients alike. Instead, they're encouraged to give it up with patches, acupuncture, hypnosis and group therapy.
But among those in recovery who still light up, chew or dip, there is ambivalence about quitting and a perverse comfort in still finding refuge among one another, trading ciggies and secondhand smoke before or after it is time for a meeting. This is true for the newcomer barely hanging on to seven days clean and for old-timers who haven't picked up a drink or drug for 30-plus years yet don't think twice about burning through two packs a day.
"I'll give you my whiskey anytime. Just don't you dare try to take my butts," laughed Diane, the flame of her lighter illuminating her pleasant face as she lit another one. "In sobriety, I've changed plenty, given up tons, given back a lot to help others." Waving her cigarette like a glow stick in the warm night air, she used it to make her point: "This is the one vice I'll never surrender."
Charlie, fragile as a soft-boiled egg, is a smoker, too. He knows it as a "bad habit" he's desperate to stop. "Only not now I can't, 'cause kickin' heroin is hard enough. Gotta have somethin' to dull the edge on these nerves." And I can see he's struggling, along with a cluster of people his age from a crosstown treatment program who rode in an old van to the event. They're shuffling in place nervously, as unsure about their place in the crowd as they are in this new world of recovery. All of them smoke, except two guys with wads of tobacco in their mouths.
"Of the 430,000 people who die each year because of tobacco-related disease, about half of them are people who have mental illnesses or addictions," said Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. This past week, her organization unveiled a comprehensive nationwide project to educate addiction and mental health treatment providers and agencies on ways to assist the people they treat in also stopping smoking at the same time. Pfizer and the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center also will pitch in.
Of that half, I don't know how many were sober. But I know tobacco has killed some of my dearest friends and mentors who were sober to the very end of their remarkable lives. I know others who beat depression or bipolar disorder but were beaten by the cigarettes that they swore were as essential to quieting their minds as the meds they took. I see far too many young people stunting their opportunities to live a long life in recovery with every puff or chew they take.
The epidemic of tobacco is a cancer eating away at the foundation of what we're trying to build. We need to take it as seriously as we do the other substances that nearly destroyed us. Nothing will change until we change our head-in-the-sand ambivalence toward tobacco. It's not a lesser evil.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His new book, "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery," has just been published. Please send your questions to William Moyers at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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