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Recovering smokers find a safe self-help community — online

In an often-brutal online world, one website offers smokers trying to beat the habit a rare haven of comfort and support.

September 20, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • Recovering smokers can go online to discuss the fallout from quitting that only smokers know: bad dreams, headaches, anxiety, cravings that come and go for years after the last smoke.
Recovering smokers can go online to discuss the fallout from quitting that… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )

It's like AA without the rambling speeches, stale coffee or stink of cigarettes. You can show up in the middle of the night, without leaving your bed.

It's no wonder self-help "communities" online are shoving conventional in-person support groups to the sidelines.

They offer more than 24-seven advice; they can be an encouraging counterpoint to the prevailing narrative of Internet cruelty and faceless online bullies.

I discovered that this summer, when my daughter downloaded an app that might, in the long run, save her life. It's the "Dare to Quit Smoking" website, where thousands of people from across the country and around the world come together to kick the habit.

My daughter's attraction to cigarettes blossomed when she was a freshman in college. The DSA — designated smoking area — outside her dorm was where the renegades hung out. She showed up for the camaraderie and left with a pack of Marlboro Lights.

In the four years since then, she's tried to quit, but it never stuck. Her habit had become an addiction; a tyrant and a crutch.

Now she's three months smober — that's what they call it — and she credits ex-smokers on the website with bringing her this far.

When she has the urge, she goes online and someone talks her down.

It's a place to discuss the fallout from quitting that only smokers know: bad dreams, headaches, anxiety, cravings that come and go for years after your last smoke.

And it's a place to celebrate the simple blessings of quitting: a bike ride without getting winded, a stranger who notices how good you smell.

They share tactics for managing withdrawal: a nicotine patch, e-cigarettes, acupuncture, meditation, yoga, a straw to chew on while you commute, herbs to help you sleep. They track how many cigarettes they smoke, and how much money they save when they don't.

And they know they'll be offered encouragement, whether they're crowing about success — Feeling pretty proud. Hung out with two smokers last night and drank beer all night with them and I didn't smoke — or confessing failure:

Fell off the wagon after an 8 month quit. Stupidest thing ever, but a valuable lesson was learned: never, ever let your guard down and think you can handle just one cigarette.


What makes online sites work, experts say, is not just the advice and encouragement, but the combination of accountability, anonymity and the bonds that develop when strangers feel safe enough to share personal revelations.

"Psychological monitoring is very successful as a technique to change behavior," said Karen North, a psychologist who heads USC's Annenberg Program on Online Communities in its School of Communication. "When you're checking in with your peer group, that provides both social pressure and social support."

Because they don't know each other in real life, group members can be more honest and intimate than they might be with friends, family members or even in a doctor's office.

"What they want is for someone to listen and care and talk about things that might be too private or embarrassing to people in the physical world," North said.

"These people know what you're going through and want to help. They've got advice to share. But they're not integrated in the rest of your life, so you can say things that, in your daily life, you wouldn't want people to know.

"It's a confessional group," she said. "And if you're lucky enough to connect with people who really care about each other, the process of sharing can bring you closer and help you reach your goal."


My daughter is lucky; I can tell from visiting the site and scrolling through posts. It amazes me how unfailingly kind and supportive her group's members are.

It's corny, maybe, their ceaseless cheerleading and inspirational sayings. But what a breath of fresh air in a social networking world so mean that teenagers can be pushed to suicide by ugly online screeds.

These people comfort one another in ways that go beyond quitting or smoking. They share the pleasures and irritations of disparate daily lives: the husband who won't help with the dishes, the kids that drive them crazy, the diet that finally kicked in.

Their confessions are a revelation to my 22-year-old, who mourns the losses and celebrates the victories: the man whose cancer is in remission, the woman struggling to right a wayward teenage daughter.

She's learned about the real-life hazards of smoking in a way she can't ignore, from a woman diagnosed with cancer 12 days after she quit.

I'm grateful for the lesson and the way they've embraced her. On the morning she started her new job, still nervous about the prospect, she awoke to stream of "good luck" messages on her app. She checks in with her group first thing in the morning and at night when she's in bed.

They've given her a peek at private lives that prime her for compassion and arm her with insight. These people, it's clear, are more than her mentors; they have become her friends.

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