Smokers breathe in support online

St. Petersburg Times - St. Petersburg, Florida

by Sue Landry - June 22, 1999

"Nic fits" are stifled by chatting, at any time of day, with those who can sympathize.

One morning in May, something made John Polito type "quit smoking" into his computer and hit the "search" button.

Up popped a bulletin board where people trying to quit post messages to each other. Polito started reading the words of encouragement and help from people fighting to overcome their addiction.

Then he posted a note of his own.

"I want to compliment you on what you are doing in here," the South Carolina lawyer wrote. "But I'm afraid it's too late for me."

He had smoked two to three packs a day for 29 years, he wrote, and had tried to quit so many times he had lost count.

"I'm going to die a smoker," he wrote.

Messages poured back from people telling stories of their own struggles with addiction and encouraging him to try again with their support.

Polito, 44, said he was so overcome with the "compassion and understanding" that he cried. Then he put aside the cigarettes and started spending time on the computer instead.

"The first few days I quit, (my family) was really supportive, but they've never been addicted to anything in their lives. They want you to behave normally and not get so upset and frustrated," Polito said. "On this (bulletin) board, these people know everything you're feeling every single minute. They're going through the same things."

This is the modern way to kick the habit.

"I could not have done it without the Q-net," said Donna Kampen, 51, referring to the name users affectionately call the QuitNet, one of several quit-smoking sites on the Internet. "I was on probably three to five hours a day for the first month, possibly eight hours per day the first week. I received so much encouragement and help from people on the list."

About 400 messages are posted on the QuitNet bulletin board every day, said Astrid Dretler, project manager for Join Together, a Boston non-profit organization that helps support the site.

"The traffic is immense," she said. "And that's without any marketing or promotion."

Suzzanne Hennig has smoked half her life, since she was 15, and picked up her first cigarette because "it was the cool thing to do." She quit three times, but alwayswent back. This time, she is finding help online through the Quit Smoking Co.'s bulletin board.

"You just don't feel so alone," said Hennig, who lives near Ontario. "Yesterday, there were a whole bunch of people who were having a bad day. I was back on this morning and they all seemed to make it through."

Users say the computer support groups offer a lot that can't be found among family and friends or in traditional community groups.

You can post anonymously so people feel they can say things they might not say to friends. It's there when the urge hits; you don't have to wait until the meeting time. And there are lots of people facing the same problem.

"This is immediate. This is 24 hours a day," Hennig said. "If I'm having a really bad 'nic fit' and it's 2 a.m., I can get on there and I can read somebody else's post and I can put one on."

Sometimes there's even someone else up at 2 a.m. who might want to talk. Most of the quit-smoking sites have chat rooms, too, where participants who are signed on at the same time can talk to each other directly.

Debra Hall remembers one night in a chat room when everyone was exchanging song lyrics to pass the time and keep themselves thinking about something other than a cigarette.

"It's like being in a room with people talking and reminiscing," said Hall, who lives near Fort Lauderdale and had been smoking as much as two packs a day before she quit a month ago. "Even on the bad days, the worst days, going to the Internet was my savior, talking to other people."

Hall is 43 and has smoked since she was 15. Even her job as a registered nurse wasn't enough to convince her to quit. She decided she needed to stop after she started having panic attacks, which can be set off by nicotine.

Like many people trying to quit these days, Hall had some help. She used nicotine patches. Other use medications now available.

But breaking the addiction still is very difficult, and Hall says the support from others she found through her computer was a tremendous help.

"I don't think I could have made it without it," she said.


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