Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

My life as a closet smoker: How I hid the truth from the ones I loved, and me as well

Even after her father had a heart attack, Gail Myles continued to smoke. In a powerful Point of View column, she reveals the path that got her to quit for good.
Gail Myles, who has successfully been a non-smoker for almost two years, at the base of Pilot's Hill, the steep St. John's street that prompted her to change. (John Pike/CBC)

"Mom's van coming yet?"

That was the question I asked my high school friends every day for two or three years while we smoked behind the autobody shop next to our high school.

My mother was a teacher at the elementary school next door and lunch hours were spent at home.

Like clockwork, she would drive by the shop and when someone sounded the alarm I would duck and hide.

My early days as a closet smoker.

After high school, as many "bay kids" do, we moved to "town" for college and university. I had roommates and we smoked regularly in our three-bedroom bungalow … ugh!

During that phase, my parents knew, and so I smoked freely around them. At that time my father was a smoker and occasionally I would even bum a cigarette from him.

My father was diagnosed with heart disease at age 48. I was 22 at the time. As I write this, Dad and Mom are packing for travel to Ottawa for final assessment for a heart transplant. We are very hopeful that a new heart will bring an increased quality of life.

Twenty years ago, my dad had his last cigarette. That was also the day he had his first heart attack.

He really is an inspiration, and has embraced health and well-being. Dad has successfully maintained an ideal weight, remained smoke-free, and continues to be as physically active as he is able.

I didn't like my life very much. Cigarettes and wine were an escape.

Even though I watched my dad struggle with heart disease, I still wasn't motivated to quit.

I smoked regularly until I was about 26 years old. At that time my roommate and I decided to quit together. We supported and cheered each other on — and were successful. I was very proud and shared my success with my parents, friends, and family.

I am keenly aware that heart disease is genetic and smoking increases my risk. Regardless, when I was around 30, I started having cigarettes on Friday nights when I was socializing with friends.

For several years I smoked only on the weekends. I convinced myself this was OK and smoking on a Friday night wasn't terrible.

Coping mechanisms

Initially, I'd bum them off friends but I didn't want to be 'that person' so I started buying my own. I'd keep them in the freezer (you know, to keep them fresh) and break them out again the following weekend.

At this point, I was in a relationship that was quite tumultuous and as a coping mechanism, I started sneaking a smoke after arguments, and for few minutes, my anxiety was reduced.

Eventually that relationship ended and I started turning to cigarettes more and more as a coping mechanism, to deal with my changing life.

I was now about 35. Other than my Friday night friends, everyone in my life thought I was smoke-free.

I made a deal with myself that I would only smoke when I drank … so I started drinking more. But that's another story. For a few years I'd have one cigarette in the morning, one on the way home from work, and several, often with a glass of wine in hand, in the evening.

I didn't like my life very much. Cigarettes and wine were an escape.

Addiction reared its ugly head

In April 2015 I switched jobs.

As no one knew me and I had no one to disappoint, I started smoking during the work day. At that point, I was off to the races, and was a full-on smoker again — except — when my family or friends were around.

The addiction was so powerful that I dreaded visits and events with family and friends. I came up with innovative ways to keep the smoker smell at bay for fear of being 'caught'.

Twenty years ago, my dad had his last cigarette. That was also the day he had his first heart attack.

I'm an intelligent person who knew better, but I couldn't fight it. The physical addiction reared its ugly head and I couldn't stop.

When my parents visited they thought I didn't want them there. If I'm being honest — they were right. I was irritable, crooked and discontent. I'd find reasons to escape so I could smoke. During family time, I was not present, the nicotine was. I hated feeling that way.

I actually really like my parents. They are fantastic, and I particularly love beating them at a game of cards.

I thought about confessing, but could not find the courage. I had a preconceived notion that there would be tears, disappointment, a lecture, and pleas to quit. I wasn't ready. 

Gail Myles credits the smoking cessation program at Memorial University's School of Pharmacy for helping her quit. (John Pike/CBC)

Living my best life

In January of 2017 I recognized that I had a problem with alcohol. 

I joined a 12-step program and have been sober ever since. When I made that decision it became clear that I wasn't living my best life. I made another decision to take care of all of me. I gave myself a few months to settle into an alcohol-free life, but I knew quitting smoking was my next goal.

Smoking and alcohol use were intimately connected for me  —  they went hand in hand. I recognized that if I wanted to abstain from alcohol, abstaining from cigarettes would be vital.

I read about the smoking cessation program that the School of Pharmacy at MUN was offering. I called right away and within a few weeks, I had my first appointment and we devised a quit plan. I had weekly appointments during which obstacles were discussed and strategies were developed to overcome them.

Before I knew it, the 12-week program was complete, and I had not smoked! It wasn't easy and there were many times I wondered if I'd be successful, but I knew it would get easier.

And it really did.

I'm almost two years smoke free. It is just amazing. My life doesn't revolve around that next cigarette. The shame is gone — and I can walk up stupid Pilot's Hill after work without feeling like I'm going to die. 

I am present in my life now.

I am free.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gail Myles

Contributor

Gail Myles lives in St. John's.

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