10 Years Smoke-Free

Cathy ZielskeCZ Life44 Comments

Frogtown, St. Paul, 1989.

This is not a cool photo.

Taken in my then boyfriend Dan Zielske’s bedroom on one of my visits to see him back when I still lived in Texas, I had one goal in mind: look cool.

By the hipster visual standards of today, it kind of IS a cool photo. I mean, hell, there’s no Instagram filter on this, people. That hazy look you see? Pure, American-grade tobacco smoke courtesy of a Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra Light Menthol.

Sweet Jesus.

Yesterday was my 10th anniversary of quitting smoking for good. I knew it was coming as the anniversary coincides with St. Patrick’s Day but somehow I didn’t really think to reflect on it until the day was upon me. I can still remember that first day back in 2006. I knew it was time. I was 40. I was thinking about cancer a lot. I was tired of having my life ruled by the schedule of an addiction.

I also had an impending trip to New Zealand to teach at a scrapbooking convention and knew there was no way in Hell I was going to make a 14-hour flight smoke-free. At least not as a pleasant, functional adult.

It was time.

That March morning 10 years ago, I planned to stay anchored to my bed with sweets, snacks and television—whatever I needed to make it through the day—and I told Dan he was fully on kid duty. I was officially out of commission.

But then he had someone call in sick at the coffee shop and off he went for the day.

I broke down and sobbed. There is NO f#cking way I am going to be able to do this!

But I did. I don’t remember quite how, but I did.

Then I made it through another day. And then another.

And here we are 10 years later.


Addiction is insidious. There’s no other word I can think of. It might be cigarettes. It might be alcohol. It might be drugs. But addiction is insidious.

I think people look at smoking and think, sure, it’s disgusting, it smells and it’s bad for you and everyone around you, but it doesn’t affect lives in the way that alcoholism or drug addiction does. I would agree with that statement, with a caveat: it did change the way I lived my life. It changed the way I parented. It changed the way I presented myself publicly. And it turned me into an Olympic-caliber liar.

I kept smoking a secret from as many people as I could. From my parents. From my in-laws. From many of my professional colleagues. From my kids. I built my days around when and where I could smoke. And it was at times an exhausting task.

For many years, when I worked a corporate job, while my employers knew that I smoked, I don’t think they realized that every time I was acting like I was going to run an interoffice errand, I was actually heading up to the rooftop smoking area where I stashed my smelly winter jacket year-round to pop out into the frigid Edina, Minnesota air to get that nicotine circulating in my system.

At home, I would sneak out to the porch or the garage every  hour on the hour, coffee in hand, mumbling quickly to the kids that I was taking the trash out. I would take the trash out 6 to 10 times a day. I wonder if the kids thought, “Our carbon footprint must be insane!”

In a further effort to keep it hidden from the kids, I would be less physically affectionate with them until I had a chance to wash my hands, brush my teeth and throw a spritz of perfume on. Just so they wouldn’t smell it.

There is real pain and regret in this for me… that I would prioritize my addiction over giving my kids warmth and affection with no limits. Just because I didn’t want them to smell it. Just so I could maintain an illusion. What a waste of incredibly precious time all in the name of protecting my addiction.


But once I got through the first few weeks, life looked different. No more lying. No more avoiding those beautiful kid snuggles and hugs until I’d washed my hands and brushed my teeth. That alone was the reward that kept me going. That I could stop pretending I wasn’t a smoker.

Because I wasn’t anymore.


So here’s to 10 years. There have been times when I have looked back at that 11-old-girl who decided to try smoking and felt a real sadness for her, that she would feel the need to fit in and belong so desperately… that she was looking for something in choosing a risky behavior to fill whatever hole was there. That addiction took hold before she really understood what was happening. Part of me wishes I could go back and shake the shit out of her… but I owe it to her to simply understand.

Now do you wanna see what is a cool photo?

That’s what I’m talking about.



Cathy Zielske10 Years Smoke-Free

44 Comments on “10 Years Smoke-Free”

  1. #1

    Something to be proud of. It sure isn’t an easy thing to do (I know) but it sure is worth it. Looking forward to a similar post at the 20 year anniversary.

  2. #3

    Well done!! I marked 20 years this fall, but I still get a craving every once in a while. That tells me that the addiction is exactly what you called it: insidious!

    1. #3.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Congrats to you, Rosie! There are still moments, rare though they may be, where I say “Man, I wish I could join in” but I know that is not possible for me. At all. Ever.

      If I did, I’d be back at it in no time.

      1. #3.1.1

        I feel exactly the same way. I could never be an “occasional smoker” that’s why those moments are so strange and a little scary.

  3. #4

    This is a very moving post. I am not a smoker myself. I would maybe smoke one here and there in my college party drinking days, but never caught onto the habit. I always said I would never kiss anyone that smoked but that changed almost 4 years ago when I reconnected with a man from my past. He is a smoker. It would be the one thing I would change about him. I have encouraged him to stop many times. I don’t think he realizes the things that would come about from stopping. I am going to have him read this. Maybe it will give him that extra push he needs. Thanks for sharing.

    1. #4.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Something to keep in mind about smokers, and I say this from MANY years of experience: no one can make them quit. It truly has to come from them.

      Every year, on the National Smoke Out Day, I would just smoke more in protest, thinking, “You can’t tell me to quit, American Lung Association.”

      I truly think for me, it was something I knew I had to do, but I did it a little begrudgingly. You know? It really did take me a few years before I could look around and say, “Okay… I’m good like this.” Which sounds so crazy, but… it’s true.

  4. #5
    Kim Smith

    Congrats on reaching this milestone and knowing that you’ll reach others as well! Quitting is one of the hardest things to do and you did it! Be proud of your accomplishment!! I am proud of you!

  5. #9
    Kay Gregory-Clark

    Congratulations, Cathy! I watched my dad die from COPD, and as I write this my husband and I are waiting for results from a CT scan he had this week—after pneumonia and 2 X-rays in the past month showed “new spots” since his previous tests. He has tried and tried to quit smoking, sometimes for up to 2 years, but he always goes back. The 2-year period was after he had to have a stint installed in his heart after a very-near heart attack and the doctor got in his face and told he had to quit because that is what caused his problem. He, too, didn’t want me to know—he smoked out behind the barn or garage! But let me enlighten all of you smokers—it IS detectable to those close to you! You can stay outside to air yourself and clothes off. You can wash your hands. brush your teeth, whatever method. Guess what—that smoke stays in your lungs! Your loved ones will smell it if you kiss them (especially your partner). I was one who said I would not kiss a man who smoked either, after my dad died. But love does funny things. So now I wait with him, scared to death of what those “spots” on his lungs might indicate. So Cathy, congrats again—and thank you for for this post!

    1. #9.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Kay, that’s some heavy stuff, for sure. I am sending positive vibes.

      There is a part of me that knows: if you told me I could smoke and live until I was 90 with no complications… I would probably do it again. There is a love for it that is hard to describe to non-smokers.

      But already, after half a lifetime of smoking, I have no idea what repercussions I’ll face in the coming years. True, when you quit, the body does some amazing things in terms of regeneration, especially in the lungs. But damage has been done. Life has potentially been shortened.

      I think more life is more important than any addiction, but your addiction will tell you otherwise. 🙂

  6. #11

    Congratulations on 10 years!! 19 for me and I never even think about it anymore. Seriously. In fact, my anniversary passed in January and I didn’t remember it until I saw your post on Facebook. Hard to believe that something once ruled every second of my life and now I never think about it. So proud of you and me and all of us quitters!!! (We smoked the same cigarettes.)

    1. #11.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Honestly, I too, do not think of it very often anymore. But sometimes something will trigger it and then I think, “Oh right… that was something I USED to do.” 🙂

  7. #12

    So many profound thoughts on addiction….the denial, the untruths, the excuses, etc. SO happy that you are ten years free of this unhealthy habit/addition. Congratulations to you…and to your family!

  8. #14

    It is a great feeling isn’t it? I’m only 3 years into it and I’m so much happier for it. It also made a liar out of me. That is what I hated most of all.

  9. #15

    My 73 year old mom smoked for 30 years and has been a non smoker the last 20 years. Recently she had a lung X-ray and they found three spots in her right lung. Then came along a PET scan and last Friday a lung biopsy. We are waiting for the results but she has been told more than likely it’s stage 4 lung cancer. We are all hoping the doctors are wrong of course. Proud of you Cathy, for quitting and to those of you that smoke now, please quit for your health.

    1. #15.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Wow, Cheri… hoping for a positive outcome. This is still something I have to realize can be part of my future.

      Yeah, people should try to quit, but I know better than anyone that you can’t tell a smoker to quit. They have to want it or it just doesn’t work.

  10. #16

    Congrats and well done! My husband started smoking when he was 12 and I’ve never smoked. My parents smoked growing up so I was used to it, somewhat. They never smoked in the house. One August day my husband announced he was quitting and I was leery since he had tried a few times in the past and the mood swings had been awful. But I wanted to be supportive. He had finally made up his mind. I think it was Aug. 2008 and he hasn’t smoked since. Now his a triathlete (Olympic and sprint distances) and he loves to be active.

    So happy for you and it’s a great accomplishment!

  11. #18

    In April it will be 6 years for my husband and I. I smoked for 17 years before that. I am very proud of myself, of us. I rarely miss it but occasionally it sneaks into my mind. My step mother still smokes and I can’t stand to go to their house anymore. The smoke fills the house, even if she doesn’t have one lit, and it makes it hard to breathe. I wish that she would quit too. She coughs all the time, doesn’t feel good, and now she has her first grandchild on the way. But, you can’t make her. She has to do it for herself.
    Good for you! Thanks for sharing your feelings on this!

    1. #18.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Congrats, Jodee. And I think that would be very hard. I am not sure if I could go into a home where someone smokes. I did it once in the past ten years and it was awful. It was all I could do to not just keep my hand over my face.

      As part of my sneakiness… I never smoked in my home. (Well, I did in my first home when Dan and I first got together) but not in the home I’ve lived since then. However, I would smoke in my car, an old Honda Civic… man that thing smelled like an ashtray.

      I also never smoked when I was pregnant or nursing. Somehow, that was a no brainer. But all other times? Yep. I smoked.

  12. #20

    Congratulations to you, Cathy! I don’t usually respond to blog posts (except for a chance at a giveaway, haha), but this is such an accomplishment, I had to reach out and and tell you how excited and proud I am that you have been able to do this for both yourself and your family! Kudos to you and to the support you provide for others.


  13. #21
    Jo Blackford

    As a New Zealander, I’d just like to say, I’m glad our being in the middle of nowhere across a massive ocean gave you a reason to quit!
    My mum quit before I was born but my dad smoked for several years after (despite my being a sickly asthmatic child… sigh). He told me that he decided to stop when he was in Seattle on a business trip (which is where I live now). He just decided each time he wanted a cigarette that he wouldn’t have one and didn’t think so much about never having one again. Perhaps being out of routine in a new place helped. The normal triggers weren’t there.
    I think that there are two types of smoking addicts though – my parents were addicted to the nicotine, but I don’t think it was love at first puff. Mum started smoking to be cool, but it never really agreed with her and she said she “came out of a fog” when she quit. But I have friends who took their first puff and instantly felt great, as if they’d finally found what they’d been looking for. Even though they quit long ago, smoking will never disgust them the way it does my parents. They are always vaguely tempted to go back when they smell it or see a group of smokers out at a bar or party. It sounds like maybe you were the latter type of addict, in which case, brava! 10 years smoke free is truly awesome!

  14. #22

    This was a truly meaningful post for me. I smoked heavily for ten years until the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I quit completely for another 10 years, and then I had one – and then a few – and then only when I drank. Soon I was looking for an excuse to drink so that I could smoke! I also hid smoking from my kids. Your description is so dead on. A big source of shame for me was knowing that my teenage daughter probably knew about the smoking but was too ashamed of me to bring it up. Only last year did I truly give it up. It was in some ways easier because I was a one or two a day smoker, with less of a physical addiction, but the fact that it was only so few cigarettes lulled me into the idea that it wasn’t hurting me. But it was – because of the hiding more than anything.

    1. #22.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Beverly, I did the same thing after I quit smoking when I was pregnant with Aidan. I stayed smoke free for two years, then would start by having one with a drink. Then I was looking for reasons to drink and I was SO not a drinker. It snowballed from there. Not the drinking, but the smoking. 🙂 Good for you, woman!

  15. #23

    Ditto to what so many are saying…the few smokes a day or week and the lying, washing hands, being nervous my kids would smell it and judge me. Going on vacation and throwing all of the hiding out the window and smoking right in front of them. Shame. I’m done with all of that now as well. Why bother with all the headache when I wasn’t even a “real” smoker.

    Congratulations! I hope I can continue to find ways to live healthier and be a better role model for my kids. Cutting back things here and there, trying hard. Thank you as always for your honesty. ##

  16. #29
    Sharon Kanniainen

    Congratulations Cathy! I just celebrated 23 years as a non-smoker this month. It was really tough for me to quit. For years I had “wanted to want to quit” but never got past that point. One day when I was staying with friends in Phoenix, out of the blue, I quit and I haven’t smoked since. Something shifted and it took.

    1. #29.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Wait, is this Mrs. K? 🙂 Oh, my kids’ very first teacher!

      Well congrats to you, too. All those years I would come in for conferences? I made sure I didn’t smell like smoke. So glad to have left that behind.

  17. #30

    As kids (and later as adults), my sister and I tried on several occasions to talk sense into both our parents, and encourage them to quit. Didn’t happen. Years later, my Dad died of ‘complications’ from throat cancer. This is after years of hiding (and thinking he was doing a good job of it) the smoking from his second wife (and everyone else really). A couple years after that, my Mom died of lung cancer.
    As a kid I had Asthma, and had to take some gawd awful tasting medicine, just to be able to breathe, in our home.
    None of this was enough to help my parents overcome their addiction. And as a teenager, we helped family friends farm their tobacco. Nasty stuff, on so many levels.
    After 30+ years as a Respiratory Therapist & RN, I hate to tell you how many people (patients & their families) I’ve seen suffer, & die long, slow, horrible suffocating deaths, mostly due to smoking.
    I don’t know if it’s those connections I have, or the Grace of God, but I’m SO thankful I never got started. Because, insidious it is. And while I hate it with a passion, my hat is off to anyone who breaks the cycle!
    Congrats on the anniversary! I bet Dan, Aidan, & Cole are just as thankful you’re celebrating 10 years!! WTG!!

    1. #30.1
      Cathy Zielske

      Sorry for your losses due to smoking, Robin. Truly.

      I used to say, “Oh, I live my life with no regrets.” Ha. That’s a line for sure. Smoking is one of my deepest regrets, among many.

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