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The boy lay pensively inside an oxygen tent, struggling to breathe the cold, aseptic air; nurses and doctors gathered curiously around their little patient. The child became frightened by this sea of white coats, not knowing if their appearance might precede some other invasive treatment for his inability to inhale.
The child had almost died two days earlier from asthmatic bronchoconstriction. After an ambulance rushed him to a hospital emergency room and then stabilized his gasping, labored breathing, his heart raced from fear of these doctors plus the speedy effects of epinephrine surging through his bloodstream.
Ten years later, the child had “outgrown” his acute asthma attacks and was becoming a rebellious teenager. Since this was the mid-1960s, around 50 percent of adult men in the U.S. smoked cigarettes, the 20th-century symbol of iconoclastic culture, the rise of Marlboro Man.
Hollywood icons such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Yul Brynner and George Peppard popularized the cool habit—and then died because of it. A monolithic tobacco industry employed marketing trickery to make the dangerous and addicting product appear benign if not downright healthful. Smoking had become the cultural norm celebrated in advertisements and movies.
The teenager became hooked on nicotine before the U.S. Surgeon General announced, in 1965, that cigarette smoking could be a cause of lung cancer and other serious diseases. By the time this teenager became a college graduate student in psychology, he had smoked as many as two packs of cigarettes per day, and lung abuse was beginning to take a toll on his health.
The person I'm describing is me. An asthmatic in childhood and addicted to cigarettes in my youth, I owe my health today to a man and a philosophy of living that he personified. And to me, this man's life also represents how suffering can be faced and managed and inspired by the courage of others. The day we first met, coincidentally, became one of my life's most significant watershed moments.
At the beginning of my second year of graduate school at the University of Kansas, several students and I visited a popular professor at her home. During our conversation, her boyfriend stopped by, a man of imposing stature, at that time weighing around 215 pounds of solid muscle. At six-foot-four-inches and with a chiseled jaw, Mark Crooks initially appeared to be a stereotypical jock, albeit one who could have also posed as a male fashion model. I learned that he was a Ph.D. candidate seeking double degrees in sports psychology and exercise physiology.
Mark's extraordinary fitness and his friendly nature caused me to confess to him that I was then having growing concerns about my health. By the early 1970s, the connections between smoking and cancer had gained wider acceptance in spite of extraordinary denials by tobacco companies. I knew my long-term health was on the line. Mark invited me to go jogging with him the following Saturday, and though hesitant, I accepted.
We ran in a city park in Lawrence, and at first, I kept pace, being young and lean. But as the miles stretched out, Mark's graceful stride left me in the background. I recall seeing him running effortlessly ahead in the distance. Because I wanted health more than anything after a childhood punctuated by illnesses, I quit smoking four days later, on Sept. 14, 1973. Mark never scolded or lectured me about smoking but caused me to seek health because of his example.
In emulating Mark, I began to enjoy the best health of my life, which has endured for over four decades. I finally understood what it means to live strong, and that has been more important than any transitory social gains I might have experienced as a young (and dubiously cool) cigarette smoker. The anniversary of my quitting day is as important to me as my birthday. Mark and our fateful run together changed how I approached my health and transformed my life.
Brent Green is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant focusing on the intersection of aging, business, and technology. This excerpt is from his forthcoming book, Questions of the Spirit: The Quest for Understanding at a Time of Loss.