Addiction, Grief, and EFT

Throughout my childhood and early adolescence in the nineteen fifties, it seemed almost everyone I knew smoked.  My mother, aunt, and eventually my older sister and school contemporaries were lighting up Dumauriers, Rothmans, Kools, or Camels.   Boys used cigarettes to foster an aura of coolness, hoping to emulate James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.  Girls often used cigarettes to suppress their appetites to achieve the lean boyish look that would eventually peak with Twiggy, the wide-eyed, androgynous teen model who burst onto the Mod style scene in the mid-sixties.

I first began experimenting with smoking at twelve.  At fourteen, I had developed the habit of using cigarettes in social situations.  By the time I was sixteen, I was a serious smoker, carrying cigarettes wherever I went and surreptitiously smoking at home when I could get away with it.  Not all young girls became smokers, but many of my generation did.   Usually, we were members of families where conversations, especially about emotional issues, were fraught with misunderstandings that left everyone feeling isolated and defensive.   We assuaged our loneliness by congregating in small groups of similarly wounded girls while doing our best to appear emotionally invulnerable.   If by chance we discovered someone’s secret or someone discovered ours, we made light of the tragedies that left us feeling orphaned in an indifferent world.

When I began my professional teaching life in a grade one classroom, the intimacy of teaching prompted me to work out a schedule of non-smoking so I wouldn’t smell like cigarettes when I sat down on the floor to play a game with my students or perched next to them while reading their stories or admiring their art.  Fifteen years later, I behaved similarly with my own children, postponing smoking until adult time in a place where my children wouldn’t breathe my smoke or smell my cigarette breath.  Still, they knew I was a smoker.

In the spring of my daughter’s grade-one school year, she came home from school and tearfully told me that her teacher had taught a lesson about smoking.  Somberly, she informed me that cigarettes killed people and that if I continued to smoke, I would die.  This wasn’t news.  After the ridiculously mind-bending cigarette ads of the fifties and sixties, many easily found today on YouTube, research began to surface linking cigarette smoking with emphysema and lung cancer.  Years before my daughter’s concern for my health, I’d read my first anti-smoking article and decided to quit. I soon discovered my addiction was much stronger than my willpower.  By the time I learned how bad the habit was for me and for those around me, my body craved nicotine, my hands craved the drama of smoking, and my psyche craved smoking’s ability to manage my more troublesome emotions.

 Smoking is, among other things, a breathing habit.  When we are emotionally traumatized as children, we often learn to hold our breath during dangerous encounters with angry parents, other adults, or older siblings.  I used to be a superb breath-holder although it was, at least for the first thirty-five years of my life, an entirely unconscious habit.  The summer I decided to become a non-smoker was the summer I learned to breathe consciously, without lighting a cigarette.  I have Michele Landsberg to thank for this transformation.

Landsberg’s Women and Children First was published in 1982, three years before my date with my non-smoking destiny.  I was a busy mother of two children and although I bought the book of newspaper columns the year it was published, it sat on my shelf unread until my daughter came home from school and expressed her fears that cigarette smoking would kill me.   I reached for the book when I remembered a friend had told me one of the essays was about quitting smoking.

I don’t remember its name, but I will never forget the profound effect Landsberg’s article had on my addiction and my understanding.  As I recall, Landsberg checked into a spa for weight loss and discovered on her arrival that she was required to be a non-smoker for the duration of her stay.  For me, the most memorable part of her reflections on this experience concerned her description of smoking as her best friend.  If she were going to successfully give up this faithful companion, she wrote, she knew she had to grieve its loss. There it was in black and white, the most accurate description of my relationship with cigarettes:  over the years of my tobacco habit, smoking had indeed become my best friend, something I turned to for comfort in good times and bad because, while smoking, I had to breathe. 

As an adolescent, I had unknowingly given myself permission to breathe after challenging situations with family members by sneaking out to smoke as I reviewed the tangled exchanges that left me feeling battered and worthless.  On dates, lighting a cigarette at a particularly awkward moment created a distraction that made whatever was going on far less embarrassing.   During teachers’ college social events with students older than I, inhaling and exhaling my way through painfully self consciousness moments at party after party helped me to feel like I might actually belong.  Emotional challenges at home and with friends were calmed by the tactile aspects of my smoking habit – finding cigarettes, lighter, ashtray, sharing cigarettes, and, finally, igniting that dull brown tip by dragging in air as I held a match to it, and, afterward, watching the comforting smoke curl upward.   Native Americans believe smoke carries negativity away, hence the widespread practice of smudging before, during, and after important gatherings.  Once I’d begun the smoking habit, my adolescent cells embraced this ancient wisdom.

The year my daughter’s fears prompted me to read Michele Landsberg’s book, it took me the better part of July and August to prepare to be a non-smoker.  I spent a good part of every early morning journal session identifying the gifts my smoking habit had bestowed during the fifteen or so years of our on-again, off-again, on-again relationship.  When I wasn’t writing about the various situations the habit had seen me through, I was getting in touch with the grief I felt about saying goodbye to this steadfast friend.  The depth of my grieving often shocked me.

Because of Landsberg’s piece, I also learned the effectiveness of something I later identified as a form of aversion therapy.  Usually fastidious in my smoking habits by limiting smoking to my adult time, during that long goodbye-to-smoking summer I made myself smoke as soon as my feet hit the floor in the morning, usually around five AM.   In my journal, as I explored my feelings about what it was like to smoke before drinking water, washing my face, brushing my teeth, eating my breakfast, and going for a swim, I came to know my acrid tasting habit by participating in it far more than I usually did.  By the end of the summer, we were intimates physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.  Through attention and constant practice, I had transformed my previously mindless relationship with cigarettes. I knew I was finished with my grieving process and with smoking when I felt the excitement of butting out forever, no matter what emotional challenges I faced.

That summer of conscious smoking and grieving taught me a great deal about the power of mindfulness, the power of writing, and the power of acknowledging early emotional traumas.  In order to be free of a habit we want to change, we must first acknowledge its gifts.  Smoking provided pseudo glamour, emotional distractions, and slimness during adolescence.  During adulthood, I met smoking’s darker side:  a foul tasting mouth, carbon-monoxide headaches, economic wastefulness, and serious health risks.  Expressing gratitude to my smoking habit for its gifts and then acknowledging its considerable downside allowed me to disengage from the entrenched smoking behaviours that had thwarted my earlier attempts to become a non-smoker.

Now that I practice EFT regularly, I believe I could have extinguished my smoking addiction in far less time by tapping as I told myself the specific stories of how smoking helped me to manage my adolescent sadness, rage, fear, and social awkwardness.  Tapping is an effective means of accessing and discharging grief that bubbles up when we are threatened with the loss of the habit we want to replace.  What took me two months to accomplish that long-ago summer most likely would have been reduced to a week or two of intense, mindful, tapping and grieving although I can never know for certain.

I am certain that when we are caught on the horns of an addiction – the positive horn all the benefits the addiction brings by managing rage, loneliness, fear or sadness, the negative horn all the risks including physical disease, social alienation, and economic hardships – using EFT supports us in creating a personal grieving ritual to facilitate change.If we are faithful in our tapping practice and specific in our story telling, we often discover we are free of a troublesome habit in a remarkably short period of time.  Sometimes all it takes to relinquish even the most entrenched addictions is a personal journal, a good EFT how-to book, and the willingness to tell the truth about our lives and feel our feelings regarding these truths.  Getting in touch with and expressing the grief of losing an addiction that has helped us through tough times is an amazingly healing process.  Singing, dancing, writing, walking, and swimming are a few of the ways I expressed my grief then and express it now.  Giving grief voice, movement, or any other acknowledgment transforms it into the kind of energy we need to move forward.

As we undertake our transformational journeys, should the earlier traumas that led to the addiction prove too much for our individual recuperative resources, we can engage the help of a trained EFT facilitator to work through our challenges with us.Whether we go it alone or with a facilitator, EFT is a remarkable tool for tapping through the grief we feel when we choose to give something up that bestowed many gifts even as it threatened our health and our relationships.  Whenever we decide we’re ready to quit cigarettes or some other form of addictive behaviour, using EFT to support our grieving process helps to create the addiction-free lives we are longing to live.

If you have an EFT/grieving/addiction story, please send it along to inspire others as Michele Landsberg inspired me.

Until next week