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Clearing the air

One woman’s journey to a smoke-free — and shame-free — life

By Heidi Wicks

On a recent stroll through Bidgood’s Park in the Goulds, Gail Myles radiates with the strength of someone who has conquered her demons to find inner peace.

Walking along the trail, a place she visits often during difficult times in her life, Ms. Myles says she is a different woman than the one who used to self-medicate with alcohol and cigarettes to treat anxiety and depression, eventually suffering with high blood pressure and pre-diabetes as a result.

An addict’s story

Not so long ago, Ms. Myles came to the realization she was losing herself — and her loved ones — to her addictions.

Then, her luck changed. She read Ryan Taylor’s story in the Gazette about quitting smoking and decided to make the call to the School of Pharmacy’s Medication Therapy Services (MTS) Clinic, which facilitates the Smoking Cessation Program.

“I was in a bad place, and when I saw Ryan’s story, I remember seeing his picture and him looking out at the water and I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”

Ryan Taylor and his son, Gavin, in 2017.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Ms. Myles began smoking heavily as a teenager after moving to St. John’s from Fortune, to attend university. Her first quit-attempt was at the age of 26. That attempt lasted six months.

For a few years, she convinced herself that having a cigarette every once and a while wasn’t so bad. Then it again turned into a daily thing: a crutch to cope with stress.

For a week she tried to go cold turkey, but the cravings were all-consuming.

“Every second of the day, all I thought about was having a cigarette,” she said. “Like Pavlov’s dog. ‘It’s 10 a.m.? Time for a cigarette.’ By the end of that week, I had a really horrible day. I got in an argument with someone I was dating and there were those feelings of rejection, self-pity, worthlessness. So I went to the store that night, bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked them all.”

It was another year before she tried to quit again. That attempt lasted 41 days, with the help of an app, which provided some motivation and support. But, once again, stress was a trigger. The pattern repeated.

“Alcohol is part of my story,” she admitted. “As my life got harder, there was no better place than on my back patio with a glass of wine and a cigarette in my hand. When you’re having emotional turmoil, and you know a cigarette can give you relief for five minutes, that five minutes of relief is better than no relief.”

Insufficient drug coverage a common quit barrier

Dr. Leslie Phillips, director of the Smoking Cessation Program, helped guide Ms. Myles through her quit journey.

From left are Gail Myles and Dr. Leslie Phillips at Bidgood’s Park.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Alongside shame and frustration, obstacles such as access to quit medications and fear of becoming addicted to medications impede success, she says.

“Most smokers make numerous quit attempts on their own, which often results in relapse within a day or two,” said Dr. Phillips. “Over time, this erodes their confidence in their ability to quit and they resign themselves to a lifetime of smoking.”

As well, the myth that quitting is simply a matter of having the will power to do so can be problematic.

“Sometimes this misconception is reinforced by the lucky few who seem to be able to just quit cold turkey with relative ease. Less than five per cent of smokers quit this way because nicotine is such a powerful addiction.”

“Many of us blame the smoker, when we should be blaming the cigarette.” — Dr. Leslie Phillips

(Ms. Myles, who recently wrote of her experiences in a CBC op-ed, can attest. In the piece, she writes that she felt she should be able to conquer her addiction by herself and used to hide her problems.)

Medications aren’t always covered by drug plans, or there are limits on their coverage, adding another layer of complication.

“Many of us blame the smoker, when we should be blaming the cigarette,” said Dr. Phillips. “We shouldn’t expect smokers to pay for quit medications from what they save on cigarettes. We don’t treat any other disease this way. We don’t expect people to pay for their cholesterol medications from the money they save by not eating take-out. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.”

Dr. Leslie Phillips helped Karen Brown quit smoking in 2014. Today, Ms. Brown remains smoke-free.
Photo: Heidi Wicks

Breaking through barriers, overcoming obstacles

And, patients sometimes are fearful of smoking-cessation drugs, worrying they’ll replace one addiction for another.

Dr. Phillips says that nicotine is not the lethal ingredient in a cigarette – it’s the other 7,000 chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens, that are in there.

“A cigarette is a lethal drug that kills one in two users. Taking a nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) drug, which just contains ‘clean nicotine’ increases your chance of quitting up to 20-30 per cent.”

Ms. Myles says that NRT was a big factor in her success – but not until she reached out to the Smoking Cessation Program for support.

“When I tried to quit on my own, I was using a patch that was too potent for the amount I was smoking,” she said. “It made me very nauseous, so I stopped using it. When I came to the School of Pharmacy, I learned to just adjust the dosage. A simple thing, but so effective.”

Gail Myles in Bidgood’s Park, May 2019
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Ms. Myles gives full credit for her smoke-free life to Dr. Phillips and the Smoking Cessation Program, citing the support and accountability she received.

“I had two appointments before my selected quit date arrived,” she recalled. “After sharing that I smoked a lot in my car, I was advised to just stop doing that. So I did. I ate snacks in my car instead. I normally had a cigarette at 10 a.m., and I was advised to wait until noon. So I did. I always smoked on my back patio, so I smoked on the front step. And I was given guidance on how to use the nicotine gum for those really intense cravings, and when to start weening myself off it.”

Simple as they may seem, these practical recommendations for tiny steps began to break her smoking patterns and shift her mindset, that, over time, accumulated into something life-altering.

“I’ve taken my time with the changes I’ve made in my life. If you try to change everything overnight, you could be setting yourself up for failure. I didn’t do everything all at once. From choosing my quit date to choosing to speak publicly about my struggles, I am successful because I took my time getting there. I now know that having a cigarette just isn’t an option for me. I can never have just one – I’m a smoker and I’ll always be a smoker who doesn’t smoke. If I choose to smoke, the shame and guilt would quickly follow, and old patterns would inevitably return.”

Unload the burden

Does she have any advice for anyone who has a voice inside, however tiny it may be, telling them to quit?

Talk to someone.

“If somewhere in your mind you think you can quit, if you don’t want to be chained to that anymore, you can quit. What stood out to me about this program is how non-judgmental it is. I didn’t go in feeling like I’d done something wrong. I went for help, and that’s what I was given. It gave me the accountability, without the shame.”

The Smoking Cessation Program is a free service and is currently accepting new clients. If you or someone you know is interested in quitting smoking, contact Beulah Jesso at 864-4536. Memorial’s Department of Human Resources also offers MUN Cares, a smoking cessation initiative for current university employees who are thinking of quitting smoking. The university is currently reviewing its smoking policy. For updates on the Smoking Cessation Program and more, follow the Medication Therapy Services (MTS) Clinic on Facebook.

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