Many years ago I had a man named Mark (not his real name) join one of my smoking clinics. Mark came to me on the first day of the clinic and told me how he had recently added an addition on to his house and one of the rooms he added was a home office. Mark lived in a suburb about 20 miles from his office in downtown Chicago. Mark had the luxury that he didn't really need to go to his downtown office much and could do most of his work from home. He was nervous though because his home office was more than just his office--it was also his smoking sanctuary. Mark had small kids who were allergic to smoke and his wife didn't want Mark smoking around the kids. Since the kids were never allowed in the office anyway, Mark agreed only to smoke in that one room of the house. The office had in essence become his smoking room. He had only had the home office a short period of time now but the relationship seemed deeply ingrained.
When Mark was telling me about the new home office smoking room he confided in me that he was really scared to go into the room for he was sure it would be too powerful of a trigger and cause him to smoke. I told him he should go into the room quickly to overcome the fear but he said he just wanted to give it a few days before he attempted it. I figured I would let it go, thinking it would actually be good for Mark to get the additional experiences of driving to the city and working with other people proving to himself that he could deal with the outside world and still maintain his quit.
Mark never brought up the home office smoking room again during the clinic and I had basically forgotten about it too. Mark completed the clinic and sounded great at graduation. I figured he was on his way to a complete smoke free life.
A couple of months after the clinic was over I was following up Mark's group on a Saturday morning. Actually I had talked to him numerous times over the two month period but this conversation took an interesting twist. While on the phone Mark had said something about his office downtown and for the first time since I met Mark I remembered his concerns about his home office. I asked him if he was still going downtown much or mostly working out of his home office now. All of a sudden there was an awkward silence on the phone. Mark kind of hemmed and hawed for a while and said, "Well, this is kind of embarrassing to admit be I actually haven't gone into the home office yet."
I quickly said, "Mark, are you telling me that you have been driving 20 miles to and from work every day for two months because you are afraid that if you go into your home office you are going to smoke." He said yes, but it was worth it. He loved not smoking. Not smoking was great. So while driving 40 miles a day was a tad inconvenient, it was worth the effort since it was helping him to save his life.
I agreed it would be worth driving 40 miles every day if it were necessary in order to sustain a quit and thus saving his health and his life. The problem was that it was not necessary--Mark could work in his home office and just not smoke. To that Mark replied that the association was just too strong and his quit was just to valuable.
I asked Mark if he had a phone in the room in question to which he replied, "Of course I have a phone, it's my office." I said, "Mark, I want you to go into that room and call me back at this number." Now it took some real effort for me to persuade Mark to go into the room and to call me back. He was scared for he was totally convinced that being in that room was going to undercut his quit but Mark eventually goes into his office and places the call.
So I start a conversation of small talk with Mark, making a point of checking the clock at the beginning of the call. I knew some of Mark's family members and friends, and I started asking him questions about these people and making a real concerted effort of never broaching the topic of smoking once. Now I know most of you reader here have only gotten to know me from my writings and have never seen me live and talking but I can assure you that if you talk to any of my family members or friends, or especially to my clinic graduates, they will all attest that I can talk for hours on end even though I have nothing really important to say. I purposely engaged Mark into a half hour conversation consisting of absolutely nothing important--just small talk.
A half an hour into the conversation of small talk I abruptly blurted out, "Hey Mark, you have been in your home office now for 30 minutes. Have you thought about a cigarette once." Mark started laughing. He realized what I had done, getting him into the room and talking his ear off just to show him that he could be in the room and on the phone and not need to smoke. I think Mark instantly realized that his fears were unfounded.
I saw Mark last year, for the first time in probably fifteen or twenty years. He had now been smoke free for over a quarter of a century. We didn't really talk about smoking issues much either. It was no longer an issue in Mark's life. I just did my obligatory warning about never getting overly complacent, pointing out to him that over the past four years I had two people who were once 35 year ex-smokers who lost their quits. He was still well aware of what we taught in the clinic and was still totally committed to never take another puff.
As most people who read here have probably noticed, they have started saving lots of money since they have quit smoking. I suspect Mark had also saved a small fortune. This may not have been the case if we had not had our little conversation that Saturday morning. For if we had not talked that day Mark may have been driving an extra 200 miles a week, plus paying for parking for a quarter of a century. I don't even want to try to do the math of what these additional expenses would have cost. The fact is that they would have been totally unnecessary. When a person goes 25 years smoke free he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that everything he was able to do as a smoker he can now do as an ex-smoker. This is a crucial lesson for all to learn.
Putting off facing certain activities triggers will likely prolong the stress, anxieties and fears that you will not be able to overcome the specific situation without relapse. All people who quit must realize that all you did as a smoker you can do as an ex-smoker too. All it takes is proving it to yourself one situation at a time. You can continue to live your life and get through all events with your quit intact as long as you always remember to stick with your personal commitment to never take another puff!
Edited August 13, 2012 to add following related video: