The Power of Habit
It’s 11:07 a.m., and I just finished drinking my morning coffee. I had my first cup at 6:30, and I’ve been sipping all morning, just like I always do. The first cup was fresh and robust, and as the morning continued, it became stronger and a bit bitter. By 10:00, it wasn’t tasting great, but I kept on drinking it, because that is what I do. It’s what I have done for 35 of my 54 years.
That’s a long time.
Finally, just a few moments ago, I realized, even though I continued to drink it, how awful it tasted. It wasn’t even pleasurable anymore, yet, I continued to drink it, because that’s what I do.
That’s my habit.
The addiction was satisfied long before 11:07, yet I continued to drink it.
I just confessed my caffeine addiction. It’s the strongest chemical I have ever depended on. I have never been a smoker, and I have heard that nicotine is much harder to kick than caffeine. And I can’t even kick caffeine, so I am sure I have no idea how hard it must be to break free from nicotine.
My dad was a smoker. He smoked in the house, as well as outside as he farmed. He said he had smoked since he was 14. As much as his wife and seven children begged him to stop, he didn’t until his life depended upon it—literally.
He was intubated after emergency quadruple bypass heart surgery, and through these tubes that made it hard for him to talk, he did talk. His first words were “I’m going to quit smoking.” The doctor didn’t even have to admonish him as we had asked him to, he decided that on his own.
After that, for the remaining 18 years of his life, he didn’t smoke. He chewed gum instead.
I spent the first four years of my career as a speech-language pathologist in the public-school system, serving children from ages 3-18. Sometimes, the children would come to school with a strong smell of cigarette smoke, surely as a result of their parents smoking around them. This always made me frustrated with the parents, and sad for the children. Then, I realized I was likely one of those children when I was their age.
This Thursday, November 19th, 2020, is the annual Great American Smokeout. On the third Thursday of November every year—exactly one week before Thanksgiving—the American Cancer Society sponsors this awareness activity, in an effort to help Americans who smoke begin the process of changing that habit. Like me, they know how powerful habits are. And, unlike my father’s experience, they know that the pattern isn’t typically changed in just one day, although it may indeed happen that way for some people who participate in this activity.
I was visiting with a friend recently, a Vietnam veteran and his wife—both in their 70’s, both smokers. This may be one way he alleviates his ongoing PTSD from his military experience, and I understand why he may need to smoke to relieve this pain. They smoke outside only; their home did not smell even faintly of smoke. They said they have quit before, and knew they should again. Several years ago, they quit for a period of months, and saved the money they would have spent on cigarettes. It paid for a tropical vacation. Despite the relief from PTSD that smoking brings him, he was able to quit—at least for a while, and I applaud him for that.
The Great American Smokeout has its roots in a similar story. In 1970, a man named Arthur Mullaney of Randolph, Massachusetts, asked people to give up cigarettes for one day and donate the money they would have spent on cigarettes to a high school scholarship fund.
In 1974, a similar event took place in Minnesota, and on November 18th, 1976, the California Division of the American Cancer Society got nearly one million people who smoke to quit for the day. The next year, it went nationwide, and it has been going strong ever since.
About 32 million Americans smoke cigarettes. It is the single largest preventable cause of death and illness worldwide. It is estimated that 480,000 people die worldwide annually as a result of smoking, which is about one in five deaths. More than 16 million Americans live with a disease caused or worsened by smoking.
Perhaps you may not be able to go cold turkey, even for one day. Perhaps, like me, the thought of giving up your addiction seems impossible. Perhaps, however, you could cut down for one day. Perhaps, even I could cut down to two cups of coffee daily, cutting myself off long before eleven a.m.
Any small change any of us can make to our bad habits is a step in the right direction. It starts with the awareness that perhaps at least some of our bad habit is due to habit only, not completely due to addiction.
I could bypass those last two cups of bitter coffee. Perhaps, if you are a smoker, you could bypass just a few cigarettes on that day and see what happens.
Positive change starts with small steps.
The American Cancer Society has a wealth of support for anyone who wants to participate in the Great American Smokeout on November 19th, or any day of the year. Please visit cancer.org/smokeout, or call 1-800-227-2345.
Starting with small steps, you can do this. Today. Or Thursday, November 19th. Or any day soon. Don’t wait until the moment it is a life or death matter.