I was absolutely addicted to cigarettes because my life revolved round them. Once it grips you, you don’t have a say anymore.
Former nurse Gail Difford, 64, who lives in Stalybridge, Tameside, started smoking in her 30s while working in a stressful job.
I was feeling stressed and I thought smoking would help me to relax. I now know it was counter-productive as lighting up might have been a routine, but smoking didn’t relieve my stress levels.
Thirty years later, after suffering frequent bouts of chest infections and bronchitis, Gail was told she was likely in the early stages of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Thankfully, the tests came back negative. She was so grateful for the gift of her health, that it gave her the motivation she needed to quit smoking for good.
Gail, who now works as a drug and alcohol recovery support worker, said: “My background is in nursing, I always knew I wanted to go into a caring profession. I lived in South Africa for many years before moving to England 10 years ago, and I have two daughters and grandchildren.
“I remember my first cigarette in my 30s – a menthol – as I thought it was ‘healthier’. I was feeling stressed and I thought it would help me to relax. I now know it was counter-productive as lighting up might have been a routine, but smoking didn’t relieve my stress levels.
“I would actually sneak out for cigarettes on my breaks and I soon found myself smoking more and more. I would smoke 20 a day, one every half hour. I portrayed myself as a healthy person and smoking jarred with that – but I was absolutely addicted to cigarettes because my life revolved round them. Once it grips you, you don’t have a say anymore. As scary as it sounds, smoking takes away your choice. It’s like any drug. I thought I couldn’t do without cigarettes.
“For a time, I struggled with frequent chest infections and bronchitis. When I was told I probably had the start of COPD, I knew from my nursing background that it would be chronic and progressive. So, when I was given the all clear, it was a real turning point for me and I knew I had to stop.
“I quit smoking in December 2019 and it is the best decision I made. I booked an appointment with my GP, was prescribed stop smoking medication and referred to my local stop smoking service. When my carbon monoxide levels were tested, my first reading was 30, which concerned me. My final reading was 2 – which is much improved. I have regular phone calls with my advisor who is there for me constantly.
“It was tough and I briefly relapsed during an incredibly difficult time in my life, but I reached out for help when I was in a vulnerable place, and came through. I’m so pleased that my daughter and grandson have also been inspired to quit smoking.
“For my quit attempt to be successful, I knew I had to be kind to myself. I took some time off work and rested. I told everyone I was quitting smoking – even the shopkeeper I used to buy cigarettes from. I was excited about the future and I put the money I used to spend on cigarettes away – £400 a month in cash savings! I have saved around £2,500 and believe it is important to reward yourself.
“Before a journey anywhere, I couldn’t enjoy myself – I had to stop every 20 minutes for a cigarette. On a flight, I couldn’t get excited because I just wanted to get out and smoke. I had to keep nipping outside when out for a meal. Everything is an effort when you smoke. Now I can taste and smell better and I have much more energy. I’ve got my life back.
“What I would say to people is: if you do happen to pick up a cigarette again, don’t give up on yourself, accept it and get back on track. We are all human and for many people it takes a number of quit attempts to stop for good. It took the shock of my health scare to make me realise that if I carried on smoking I would be ruining good years of my life. I didn’t want to be in a position where I couldn’t walk up and down stairs without wheezing. The difference to my health now is unbelievable, I’m running up and down stairs! I can go to the gym without getting out of breath. I feel really proud of myself.”