As we look with hope for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, “what now?” is the big scary question. We all know that the pandemic has made things worse in so many ways, and cigarette smoking is one of those things that has gotten worse. 

I see people smoking more, fewer quitting, and with all the challenges we have, too little attention to how smoking hurts our mental health. This is a big deal, because hundreds of thousands of people will die from smoking this year — just like every other year. I know all this firsthand, because I’ve been in a personal battle with both smoking and depression for years, and I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

I started smoking at the age of 15. I was a rule follower back then. I don’t think I ever skipped class, but after school I did all sorts of things that I probably shouldn't have. I smoked with my friends and I smoked at parties and I smoked in coffee shops. I continued to smoke in college and kept on smoking afterwards.

Today, if I could talk to my 15-year-old self — I don't know if I would have actually listened — I would point out that this thing that seems fun will actually lead you down a path of self-hatred. The times that smoking makes you feel good will be heavily outweighed by the times that you feel physically sick or sad. And I see that now, after a year of this pandemic, more than ever.

The nicotine that you inhale from smoking cigarettes not only makes you addicted, I’ve learned from a friend who is researching addiction, but your brain actually gets anxious until you light the next cigarette. No one should be hooked on that when all of us are struggling in one way or another with everything that has been dumped on us.

The first time I tried to quit, I was in my 20s. My partner at the time helped me quit, and that was great. Those were good years. But, after a while, I moved to Chicago without him, for my first teaching job. The stress of that job and the transition drove me to start smoking again.

After a few years, I moved back home with my parents, who don’t tolerate smoking, so I quit again. They had good reasons: My father's parents were heavy smokers and both passed away from their addictions. For me, I knew cigarettes were bad, and they weren’t helping my mental health at all. I still felt depressed and anxious.

So I quit, got my act together, moved out again, but then I ended up in a toxic relationship. Again, I secretly started smoking, because I couldn’t figure out how to handle the stress of not knowing what to do with my life. I think that's the really evil part of cigarettes. You get so addicted, and cigarettes become your outlet for coping. For some people in certain circumstances, lighting up is one of the few parts of the day where they might get alone time.

Last year, I married someone healthy for me, got a great teaching job, but I had started smoking again. And then, when the COVID cases started piling up, I decided it was past time to stop. While other smokers kept puffing, I just became sick of my own patterns and behavior. I saw images and videos of young people on ventilators and read about hospitals that didn’t have beds, with lines of people waiting outside on gurneys. I knew then that I had to quit. I don't want to die, alone in a hospital in California, without my husband or family around.

Fewer people are trying to quit smoking these days and it’s because of COVID, of course. Quitline calls have dropped 27 percent, and cigarette sales are up. It’s crazy. But now, as we start to climb out of this pandemic, there’s no better time to quit. The resources are out there, free and available, but it’s up to each one of us whether to take that first step.

Everyone defines “freedom” for themselves and sees that word very differently. But, if you are addicted to something, are you really free? When something is so overpowering that you can't say no to it? I have made a choice, to be done with cigarettes, because this brings me closer to what freedom now means to me.

Today, I don’t go through the cycles of self-hating and depression that I did when I was smoking. “What now” for me has so much potential. Today, as I consider post-pandemic life, I feel better, my mood is better, and my outlook is much more positive. I am working hard to be the person that I want to be. And that ideal version of myself is smoke-free.

Katie Rodgers is a teacher in Oakland, California who spoke at a national press event announcing the declining number of smokers seeking cessation help during the COVID-19 pandemic. A former smoker, she quit for the third time in July of 2020 as the pandemic worsened.

Published on May 17, 2021