Hardest thing I ever did was best present


It felt like I had been socked in the stomach the day my husband told me rather casually, “I really can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke in your hair and on your clothes. The house stinks of cigarettes, too.”

Ouch! That hurt, and I was embarrassed, too. I wondered if my breath was offensive as well. Two years of blissful marriage had gone by, and I couldn’t believe how easily Dan and I fit together.

We happily wondered when the difficult period of adjustment would begin because we still felt like we were on our honeymoon.

So his announcement came out of nowhere.

Dan had never smoked despite going into the Navy at age 17 and living with a shipload of smoking sailors.

I started smoking as a lark when I was a junior in high school. A bunch of us had gathered for a sleepover after a basketball game on a Friday night.

The one-night sleepover turned into a weekend when a large snowstorm stranded us in my friend’s house. At the time, I was dating Joey, a guy three years older than me, and I thought it would be cool to smoke; I thought I would look older, more sophisticated.

One of the other girls shared her cigarettes, and after the initial coughing and sputtering, I started enjoying it, and the habit began.

Dan had never indicated he was bothered by my smoking while we were dating. After all, just about everyone did smoke. It was simply accepted.

But now I had a problem: Dan was bothered by it and had told me so. I loved to smoke and was then consuming two packs a day. I knew you had to want to quit in order to be successful.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to stop. But I also felt I had to do this because it was important to Dan, and I knew he would do the same for me if the situation were reversed. I also knew that if I did quit smoking, it had to be final. There would be no going back.

Could I really do it? All my friends and co-workers smoked, and this was the 1960s before the health concerns were as clearly known as they are today.

It was also before smoke-free workplaces and smoke-free restaurants were born.

I wasn’t sure I could actually stop, but Dan loved me and would do anything for me, and the idea that my whole body reeked of cigarettes, which he found offensive, upset me.

I thought about the approaching holidays, and with a fair degree of self-knowledge, knew this wasn’t an optimal time for such a huge behavioral change.

How would I be able to get through Christmas and New Year’s parties without my cigarettes?

My struggle ended with a firm decision that I would quit, but the only motivation I was certain would keep me from failing was to make it a gift to Dan.

So I wrote a simple note, placed it in a box wrapped in Christmas paper and added a fancy ribbon. This would be his Christmas gift. The note read “As of January 2, 1970, I will quit smoking forever!”

You have to know my Dan to understand why I was sure this would work. You just don’t give Dan a gift and ever, ever take it back. It wouldn’t be something he would understand or forgive.

I got through the Christmas and New Year’s festivities smoking like crazy, and on the morning of Jan. 2, I threw the darn things away.

That was only the start. I missed smoking after every meal, when it was second nature to light up.

I missed it when we were out with friends. I longed for a cigarette whenever I saw someone else smoking.

Every place we went, people smoked, and I wanted it so badly. The worst times were being in a bar and having a drink and no cigarette. The mental memories were incredibly strong. It actually took 10 years before I completely lost the desire to smoke.

Quitting smoking was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It also was the best present I ever gave to my husband. He still has my note in the top drawer of his armoire, where he keeps special treasures like our kids’ first teeth and locks of their baby hair.

It wasn’t until years later when I lost my two older sisters to lung cancer that I realized it also was the best gift I’d ever given myself.

Barbara Sullivan is a retired foreign service officer now residing on Daniel Island with her husband of 45 years.