Dear Closet Smoker,

clos-et smok-er n. one who hides his/her smoking from everyone or one who smokes openly with one social group while hiding it from another

I don’t normally target my posts to such a narrow niche, but I feel this topic warrants more attention than it gets. If you are a closet smoker, I know you’re going to read this. If you’re smoke-free, give it a read anyway. You might find some words of encouragement for your own struggles or those of loved ones.

I quit smoking nine years ago last month. No, don’t applaud. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t me. It was the right decision, though, and I still try to celebrate the anniversary each year.

Prior to my final quit date, I tried over the course of a couple years to kick it. Everything but acupuncture and hypnosis, I tried it. I tried the gum. ($25 box of Nicorette vs. $3 pack of smokes? No contest.) Rationing cigarettes into envelopes. (I was forever “borrowing” from the next day, thinking I’d somehow want fewer then.) Rolling my own to make it more difficult. (It did slow things down a bit, but I had a couple pipes around and just ended up stuffing the tobacco in those and “going all C.S. Lewis.”)

I didn’t smoke everywhere—just in my apartment, restaurants that allowed it, with friends who also smoked or tolerated it, and in my car, unless I was headed to class, church, family or to be with friends that wouldn’t have approved. I hid it from a lot of people. Or thought I did. I suspect I was extended more mercy than I know.

I was pretty meticulous in hiding my smoking. I’d get up, smoke two or three cigarettes, then take a shower, get dressed and head to class/church/wherever I couldn’t reek of smoke. If friends were coming over, I’d Febreze all the fabrics in my apartment, open the windows and burn a scented candle/incense. I always had breath spray/gum/mints on me somewhere. I washed my hands regularly (smell a person’s fingers if you want to know if they’ve been smoking). I even avoided having things like fleeces or wool clothes out when I was smoking; they absorb smoke like crazy. If I were going somewhere for some time where I simply couldn’t smoke, I’d buy a box of Nicorette and smile and chew my way through. This is not a How-To Guide to Secret Smoking—if you do it, you’ve no doubt got your own tricks—but an example of the lengths I’d go to to hide mine.

Generally speaking, I got away with it. No one ever confronted me about it, whether they suspected or not. I was a functional closet smoker. And I was a hypocrite. If you’re a closet smoker, I hate to tell you, but you’re a hypocrite, too. It’s not just that it’s unhealthy, malodorous and, especially in Chicago, quite expensive ($7-8/pack!). It’s that you’ve split yourself.

If you know me, you know I’m not a harsh person, so please accept this as firm, loving exhortation. Not only will you feel better, smell better and have more money in your pocket, you will have INTEGRITY (in-teg-ri-ty n. an undivided or unbroken completeness or totality with nothing wanting). There’s nothing like the freedom of having nothing to hide. Try it. You won’t regret it.

So you say that you’ve tried it or are trying it and it’s just not working. You can’t quit. Yes, you can. The thing is, though, that you can’t do it on your own. I won’t recite the 12-Step liturgy here, but it’s true that you’re powerless. Here’s where you can find the power:

1. Pray. No, really. Tell God why you love smoking and how it makes you feel. Then tell Him that you desperately want to quit, but that there’s still a part of you that really doesn’t want to. He’s the only one who can get at that root and give you the strength to take the next steps.

2. Seek professional help if you can. It could be informal meetings with a pastor, talk therapy or even prescription medication like Wellbutrin (just not anything that has nicotine). The more axes you hit this addiction with, the better.

3. Tell your friends and family—even (or maybe especially) those whom you’ve hidden your smoking from. Nothing like raising the stakes to keep you motivated.

4. Break off any social activities where you’re likely to be tempted, at least for a couple years. I’m serious here. This is a little easier with smoking being prohibited in so many places now, but it can be super tough. Friends who are true, though, will stick with you and applaud your effort.

5. Quit cold turkey. It’s really the only way. I’ve never known anyone who’s been able to taper off of nicotine. It’s going to suck going through it, but it doesn’t last forever. You will survive.

The last step may seem unimportant, but it’s critical for long-term success:

6. Celebrate. For the first month, celebrate every week. For the first year, celebrate every month. Beyond that, celebrate every year. Thank God for bringing you through. Enjoy your new-found health and integrity. Think of all that effort, sacrifice and the sheer number of days that have piled up in that Recovery Account and measure it against the fleeting temptations that will come. You will truly find it easier and easier to say “no.”

If I can pray for you or encourage you in this area, feel free to contact me directly and I’ll do my best to be another ax at your disposal.

Grateful ex-smoker,