My parents were smokers, and I said I would never smoke. Then came high school and teenage rebellion, so I tried smoking, but I was always athletic and it never really took root.
After high school, I joined the military, which had a strong smoking culture at that time. It was a social thing -- taking a break with a friend and having a smoke. I continued smoking until my late 20s. When I quit, I got athletic again and ran four marathons.
I started smoking when I was a bored and lonely 17-year-old irrigating alfalfa fields in Utah for money and reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for enlightenment. I smoked watching magpies splash in the ditch, and for 20 years I kept sucking those nasty things for reasons of self-loathing and distraction, and mainly because I couldn’t stop. In 1996, just before my son was born, I put a lid on it. I wasn’t going to contaminate my babies with second-hand smoke. And it wasn't hard to figure...
Then, in my mid-30s, life got rough. In a period of 6 months, my mom died, I went through a divorce, and I suffered a bad back injury. I self-medicated with alcohol and fell into the habit of smoking again. I smoked in the morning after coffee, after meals, and when I felt stress, like after getting a bill in the mail. Before I knew it, my half pack a day turned into a pack a day.
For my 40th birthday, I convinced some friends to do something challenging: Get in shape and climb California's Mount Whitney, which is 14,494 feet. I was going to the gym but I still smoked. When we climbed Mount Whitney, I developed high-altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal condition where my lungs filled with fluid and I was gasping for air. I don't know if it was smoking-related, but I have a hard time believing it wasn't.
After that trip, I continued smoking, though I tried to quit. My mom had died from cancer, and my dad had emphysema. I didn't want to be like them. For me, an athlete caught in the body of a drinker and smoker, I realized I wasn't in alignment with my values -- a commitment to health and fitness.
I started changing my habits. After work, I stopped going to the gas station where I bought beer and cheap cigarettes. Instead, I went directly to a yoga class before heading home. I stopped drinking because beer and cigarettes went together for me. Instead of having a cigarette as a reward, I'd do something physical instead, like 20 push-ups. I collected my smoking money and put it in a coffee can. At the end of the month, I'd reward myself with a gift like new running shoes.