On Quitting Smoking

On this day, April 13th, in 2003 I quit smoking. That makes today my 13th anniversary. Not really sure how I feel about that, actually.

See, I looooved smoking. Loved it. It was the biggest crutch I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t walk down the street without a cigarette in my hand. I’d have one before bed, when I woke up in the morning, sometimes even if I woke in the middle of the night. I’d have a cigarette before and after every meal, and every time I went out for drinks. I’d smoke when I was angry, or sad, or stressed, or anxious – I mean, mostly anxious. I am anxious pretty much all the time. Smoking calmed me or, at least, I believed it did, which is really all that matters.

At the time, we could still smoke inside some establishments, or on patios of others. And packs of course cost way less, just like everything else did in 2003. It was far less difficult to find a spot than it is now. I went on multiple breaks from work during any given shift, and I drank way less because my hands were kept busy. I always had a lighter on me, but still preferred the smell of matches. It was kind of a social thing sometimes, too. We’d go out together and have conversations that didn’t include the people inside, and the cigarette would act as a timer to let us know when it was time to go back in.

For me, though, it was mostly just a huge crutch. A thing I felt I needed – or at least really wanted – to help get me through the day.

Then one day, I found out I’d been accepted to teacher’s college, and I’d promised myself that I would quit before school started, because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite teacher – one who tells the kids not to smoke, but then hangs out in the parking lot every recess and lunch break, puffing away and setting a bad example. I figured I could be the poster child for Don’t Ever Start, but I didn’t want to be a hypocrite if I could help it.

So I planned a big party to celebrate my acceptance, and smoked as much as I wanted that night – then stopped as of the next morning. It sucked, too, because my last cigarettes weren’t even mine. I ran out too close to the end to make it worth buying another pack, so I bummed a few off someone at the party, and THEIRS were the last ones I ever had.

To make matters worse, I’d done all kinds of research into quitting, and thought I’d set myself up for success, but it turned out that the information I had was only part of the issue. I don’t think even now addiction is truly understood, let alone withdrawl. Nothing I saw online prepared me for the acute depression, for example. Not one mention of it. I had the patch ready in case I needed it, but that only helps with cravings, not all of the other crazy things that happen to your system when you’re going through severe withdrawl.

The other thing that sucked was that, for months prior, I’d cut down to the lightest cigarettes I could find, so that it’d maybe be a bit easier to stop smoking completely if I happened to get into school. But the first step of the patch contained way more nicotine than I’d been ingesting, so it actually ramped me right back up to higher doses than I’d been used to. I could feel it in my veins, I thought. And it gave me crazy vivid dreams.

A few weeks later, my partner decided to cheat on me fairly publicly, and then break up with me not long before school started, so there went my financial and emotional support system out the window. Luckily I’d loaded up on student debt that I’d hoped to not need. Poor timing much?

The bets were on as to whether or not I’d cave and take up the habit again, but to my mind that would be failure, and I suspected my ex would love to see me fail, so I kept not giving into temptation, which I’m sure also saved many lives.

Also, I’m stubborn as hell sometimes.

Now, keep in mind that I really loved this habit I’d quit, and my reason for quitting was simply not to be a hypocrite. It wasn’t for my health, it wasn’t because it was too expensive, it wasn’t for my own good nor the good of anyone else. It was ONLY so I could face the children each day in class. As well, I got very depressed very quickly, and not being able to smoke felt not only like a punishment, but a punishment I deserved. In that sense, it was easy not to break down and buy more, because not having them made me feel bad, and in my mind, I deserved to feel bad.

So, there I was – alone, unbearably sad, my self-esteem the lowest it had ever been at that point. Trying to teach children. I started drinking more and eating more, so I packed on an unimaginable amount of weight in a very short period of time, and have the stretch marks to prove it. Hell, I have pictures to prove it. I almost flunked out of school a few times, but knowing that failure would also make my ex happy, I hung in there, too. I took on another shift at work, and all but maxed out all the lovely credit I’d been handed as a student. Hating myself pretty much every minute of every day.

But hey – at least I wasn’t a hypocrite.

I haven’t had a cigarette since that day, except for one accidental inhale when I’d only meant to pull it into my mouth to help out a friend. I was drinking at the time, and even though it was years later, habit still kicked in. My body still knew the motions automatically, and I knew that if I ever did have one myself, I’d be back to a pack a day in no time. And who can afford that, really?

Do I feel better as a result of quitting? Not really, no. Am I proud of myself? Meh, kind of, I guess, but more in that it was one more way I made my ex wrong about me. And I’m told nicotine withdrawl is actually harder to go through than heroin, so there’s that. Don’t worry, though – I can’t afford a heroin addiction, either. It does seem that I am always a little addicted to something, though. I tend to just temporarily quit something long enough to get it out of my system, and then pick it back up later, just to make sure I still can. I don’t really want to quit anything else I love forever, though. The very idea makes me sad. I can cut way down, and even quit temporarily – but for good? No thank you. That feels like punishment, too, and I don’t wish to punish myself that way anymore right now.

I likened the whole experience to getting out of a bad relationship. You know they aren’t good for you, and that your physical and emotional health is suffering as a result of such toxicity. But against all rational argument, you still love them, and even though you’re technically glad you got away, you really do miss them quite a lot.

Then, every time you go anywhere, you get see them with somebody else.

On The Need For Mental Health Reform

So, back in 2008, a guy named Vince Li got on a Greyhound bus and, seemingly out of nowhere, started stabbing the young man sleeping next to him, 22-year-old Tim McLean.  Li would go on to sever his victim’s head, show it to the horrified passengers who were huddled on the side of the highway, and then not only remove other parts of McLean’s body, but eat them, as well.

In court, Li was found not criminially responsible for the crime, and sent to a high security psychiatric ward.

Less than 8 years later, he has legally changed his name and is preparing to live on his own again.

I have to say, I am really struggling with this whole thing. On the one hand, I understand that mental illness is a legitimate reason to not be held responsible for committing a crime. On the other hand, this man took the life of another, and while he may be feeling better now, the other passengers, the bus driver, the trucker who stopped to help, the police on the scene (one of whom has since taken his own life) and most of all, the friends and family of Tim McLean, will carry this horror and loss with them for the rest of their lives. I’m just not sure how I feel about someone causing – deliberately or not – so much pain and suffering to others, being able to just move on and live out the rest of his life.

I think this whole scenario serves to highlight the many issues and problems with the way mental health is handled, both in this country and possibly around the world. I think, even though great strides have been made, at its heart, we still don’t really know what to do, what to think, or how to feel. We can couch our thoughts into PC wording, or spread clever memes and hashtags on social media, but I am not sure anyone actually has any real understanding of how best to deal with mental health issues. I’m not sure it’s even possible to really understand, not for those suffering, and not for anyone who is not.

It’s not that people aren’t trying hard enough. I think it’s just such a vast and complex issue overall, and the fact that mental health is completely intangible, and invisible – we can’t touch or see the problem itself, only the external effects of it – that all makes it even more impossible to truly get a grasp on. In addition, actual focus on mental health – in terms of the wider public, at least – has really only come about in recent years, comparatively speaking. We hear horror stories of drilling holes in skulls to release the demons within whenever someone had a headache (along with pretty much anything that happened in asylums around the turn of the 20th century or so), we shake our heads in dismay at tales of electroshock therapy and the mishandling of postpartum depression. Even the effects of addiction and withdrawl haven’t been fully investigated and treated as of yet. There’s still so much more we don’t know or understand than we can claim to have a handle on, and that’s kind of terrifying, if you think about it.

We have procedures and punishments for those who break the law outright, deliberately and knowingly. Those have changed a lot over the years, too, as we learn more about incarceration and rehabilitation. We aren’t sure what to do with the criminally insane – those who seemingly can’t be rehabilitated and released back into the wild (aka civilization), so we keep them locked up indefinitely, for the safety of themselves and others.

But we have a very vague line drawn where accountability and responsibility is concerned, and that is part of the problem. We agree that some people shouldn’t be punished for crimes that they can not be found criminally responsible for. But…what can be done, instead? Can justice still be served if the offender can’t ever be held accountable for his or her actions?

Li claimed he’d been hearing the voice of God for a good 4 years before “God” told him to kill Tim McLean. There’s zero point in trying to find the logic in it. Like, God also said “Thou shalt not kill” – there was no caveat in that statement. And did God also tell Li to eat parts of the guy he’d been instructed to kill? To defile the body and cut pieces from it to put in his pockets? To show the head of his victim to the other passengers on the bus once he’d removed it? Did God create the aliens that he wanted Li to save the rest of us from?

Did God tell him to carry a big-ass knife around with him, just in case?

We’ll never know any of that, because we weren’t inside Vince Li’s head, and if we were, everything would make sense to us, because that’s how mental illness works. You see one thing; the rest of the world sees something else entirely. Everything you see is real, whether it’s actually there, or not.

In that way, reality is subjective.

So, basically, to Vince Li’s mind, he did nothing wrong. He was a hero, in fact, saving us from aliens, or whatever.

At the time.

But what about now? What does he think and feel abuot what he’s done now that he’s medicated and doesn’t hear voices anymore? His condition is currently not curable, so he must remain medicated for the remainder of his life. And there’s nothing to say that his treatment won’t need to be adjusted in the future to remain effective, so hopefully he’ll be closely monitored for the rest of his life, too, since he won’t be able to determine on his own if his reality is slipping again.

And that’s the thing, really, because who can tell? In the days and weeks leading up to the murder, no one noticed anything wrong or different about him. He’d been hearing God’s voice for 4 years, and apparently no one could tell anything was amiss. So how do we, as a society, know that we’ll still be safe even when he’s back out in the world, living on his own?

We don’t.

Maybe it’ll be fine, and he’ll never do anything like that again. But guaranteed there’s more people out there listening to the voice of God speaking to them and only them, every day. And no one around them can tell. There will always be more people slipping, and breaking from reality. There will always be crimes committed for which the perpetrators are not criminally responsible.

I realize that we can’t just lock everyone up and throw away the key, or hospitalize them until they die. I understand that, in this case as in many others, Li is and will continue to be closely monitored, even when he’s on his own.

But I think we need to find a better way. Some way to not only research and find new methods of treatment, but to also see that a better sense of justice is served. What Li did may never seem real to him, but it’ll never be anything but real to those who suffered as a result of his actions. There needs to be some form of punishment, some price to pay. Some attempt at atonement for crimes committed.

And not just in this case, nor just in cases where there is an added criminal element. We need to do better for mental health issues overall. Even something that seems simple from the outside – depression = sad, so therefore sunshine, laughter and hugs are the cure – is more complex to the person living with it, and to those around them who are affected by it. Hugs can sometimes be the cure for sad, but being sad isn’t the same as being depressed. Being sad is a mood. Being depressed is a condition. Hugs won’t cure depression any more than they cure a broken arm or a ruptured spleen. And that’s how we have to start thinking about mental illness in general. We need to treat it the same way we treat physical illnesses – as something that’s actually not all in our heads.

Even though it technically is in our heads, but not in a way that can be brushed off as irrelevant or easily remedied. It’s not something that can be quantified nor understood, even by the sufferer.

It’s a physical ailment of the mind.

As for when there is a criminal element involved…I just don’t know. There needs to be something in between institutionalization and rehabilitation/release. At least for the length of time a mentally competent person who’d committed a similar crime would receive in a court of law. Something that would allow for closer monitoring of the individual, as well as further research into the disease, the hopefully both understand and treat it better. Like a halfway house, but with stricter controls, medical and therapeutic monitors and less tangible access to the outside world. We don’t allow murderers out on unaccompanied day trips and the like while they are serving their sentence; the same should really hold true for those who kill while suffering a break from reality. The act is the same, the accountability is different, the punishment should be somewhere in between.

I think that might make it easier to determine what punishments would best suit others, too, like those who commit crimes of passion, or while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Addiction is itself a mental illness, and while someone may commit a crime while they weren’t entirely in control of themselves as a result, there is still a price to be paid.

They always say the punishment should fit the crime. I think the real problem is that we’re slowly realizing that the issue is not nearly that clear-cut; not so black and white. It’s a series of complex layers that we’re only beginning to dig into.

So maybe the way we deal with it should have several layers to it, as well.