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Running From the Pack : Once a person decides to quit smoking, group programs can offer crucial emotional support.

November 17, 1994|RACHEL ALTMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

* Smoker's Helpline of California, 1-800-7NO BUTTS; Spanish 1-800-45NO FUME; Asian languages 1-800-400-0866; hearing impaired 1-800-933-4TDD. Telephone counseling for those attempting to quit, thinking of quitting, or needing continued support after completing a cessation program. Free.

* Cyber-Support on the Internet, alt.support.stop-smoking

Diary of an Ex-Smoker

MONDAY

Having decided to quit smoking once and for all, you flush half a pack of cigarettes down the toilet, slap on a nicotine patch and go to the store to buy sunflower seeds, carrots, hard candies, grape juice, sugarless gum and other distractions.

Your first post-smoking task: Begin to work on an article about quit-smoking programs. Unfortunately, you can't seem to concentrate; images of lighting a cigarette keep flashing through your mind. You try deep breathing, then chew sunflower seeds, carrots, gum. Still desperately craving cigarette.

You give up and go to the gym for a two-hour workout. Immediately after, you feel a great urge to smoke. You stop at a store, buy a half-pound of chocolate-covered almonds, polish them off before getting home.

Later, you attend a reading at Barnes & Noble, throughout which you suck candies like a madman, rummaging in your purse for another as soon as one is finished. You ask lots of questions, loudly, aggressively, interrupting other people who give you dirty looks.

11 p.m. Can't sleep. Watch David Letterman.

12:30 a.m. Fix a cup of chamomile tea. Take a Benadryl to make you drowsy. Eventually fall asleep.

TUESDAY

You try, again, to work, but it's hopeless. You're distracted by cravings. You log onto Internet stop-smoking news group and spend the morning maniacally telling strangers things you've never told your husband, your best friend, your therapist.

You find sunflower seeds very satisfying to chew, chomp, pound with teeth, destroy (the little scamps) and tear to shreds. Ha! Take that.

Lunchtime comes very quickly; you've moved it up from noon to, oh, let's see, it must be 11:05 now. Alas, another morning with no work done. You go to the gym and pump the Stairmaster while watching a soap. Cry unabashedly. You ask your husband if he will still love you if you are intense, interrupt all the time, weep uncontrollably and gain 20 pounds. He says he thinks there's medication you can take, a response that's less than encouraging.

11:30 p.m. Letterman again. Make a note: Call doctor and ask if she knows of a Benadryl addicts support group.

WEDNESDAY

Dreamed that you had quit smoking and feel happy--then see yourself in a mirror, grotesquely obese. You log onto Internet and post: "If anyone knows of a fat-free sunflower seed, please e-mail me immediately!!!" Make a mental note: Stop using so many exclamations points!!!

You read through notes for the article you need to write, but the words make no sense, and your Internet buddies are getting on your nerves: all that whining, and worse, the cheerleading from the ones who are having an easy time.

5 p.m. Panic. What possessed you to quit when you are facing a deadline? You said you would do anything to become an ex-smoker, but you didn't expect to give up your livelihood. And what sort of work is available to people with the attention span of an e-mail message?

Images of famous writers sitting at typewriters flash through your head--they're all holding cigarettes. What made you think you could be a writer, and sane, thin, and a nonsmoker all at once?

Your daughter calls from college, depressed and talks for an hour about her problems (yeah, right, like she thinks she's got problems). You murmur consoling noises and take deep breaths, while maintaining a silent mantra that goes like this: "I want a cigarette, I want a cigarette, I want a cigarette."

The husband catches you in the act of eating peanut butter out of a jar and offers a lecture on fat content. You yell at him to get off your back, then have a glass of wine--OK, three glasses of wine. They only make you want to smoke more.

10 p.m. Post frantic note on Internet to ask if anyone has had a craving in the last five straight hours. While posting, devour a package of Oreos. Now you have a headache. Make a note to call doctor: Can you overdose on deep breathing?

THURSDAY

Fall asleep around 1:30 a.m., but the cat wakes you at 4:30 to go out, then at 5:30 to come in. Make a mental note: After breakfast, kill the cat. Annabel in England, who is on her eighth month of not smoking, e-mails you. "Don't worry," she says, "you will learn to concentrate, and you can write without smoking."

You decide she is lying but resolve to stay more relaxed today, focusing on the positives: No more wheezing attacks. Some occasional coughing, but that's a good sign--the cilia are coming back to life, doing their job. Mouth tastes fresh, skin looks healthier; have more energy. Getting to know Dave Letterman, and he's actually a warm, nurturing person, very misunderstood.

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