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Personal Recovery Story: Joanna Free: Buttkicker

Issue 21

No Need to Settle

It was the summer of 1969. There were things I didn’t understand, couldn’t make sense of, and at 12 years old, didn’t have the perspective to understand.

Perspective is powerful.

Lacking that, what I did see was substance use as a way to deal with things that didn’t make sense. Somehow using substances did make sense.

On that hot summer night, I said, “I want a cigarette and a drink.” In that moment, an adult to whom I turned for care, shelter, and other fundamentals of life, became a source for these things too. My cigarette was lit, my drink was mixed, and I was off and running.

By the age of 14, I spent my lunch money on cigarettes as I approached a pack a day. The cigarettes I didn’t smoke became currency for other things: food, other drugs, camaraderie. I couldn’t imagine fun without tobacco, and eventually couldn’t imagine life without it. Regardless of whatever other substances I used or didn’t over the years, from alcohol to weed to hash to LSD to speed to cocaine, tobacco was the through-line.

The first time I tried to stop smoking, I was just 16. Angry at feeling controlled by cigarettes and by an industry I was coming to understand cared less-than- nothing for my health, I resolved to get free.

The withdrawal… it scared me.

What was especially scary was feeling like I was 12 again. I didn’t last a day before I bought a pack and gave up. I didn’t even try again for more than a decade.

I could tell you the story of my relationship—relationships—with any and all of the other reasons I’m now in recovery, though the toughest was tobacco. I know not only the date of my smobriety, I know the time.

September 13, 1990 at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Leading up to that date and time, there were many attempts—so many I lost count. Quit dates came and went. There were workshops, classes, and many meetings of mutual support with others who sought that freedom and other kinds of liberation. There was also a growing stack of books as I sought, again, to make sense of something that made no sense to me: why was this so damn hard to kick?

Then someone said, “Why don’t you stop setting quit dates? Just see how long you can go.” So I wrote down the date and time each time I set them down. When I’d pick them up again, I’d write about what I’d learned. This way, relapses became lessons—less shaming.

Someone else said, “What if you saw it as a challenge instead of a loss? You like a challenge, don’t you?” (I do.)

The language we use to talk about our relationship with smoking was also keeping it in power, and me powerless to get free. I started using different words.

A word that’s always set me off is quitting. I may be many things, but I am not a quitter, so I needed to change that up. A friend in one of my support groups used the word butthead because we’re so damn stubborn. I liked that. Then one day, someone said, “I heard you quit smoking,” I said, “I’m not a quitter—I’m a buttkicker.” It stuck.

I like buttkicker and buttkicking because it describes a process of kicking, of taking back our lives, and kicking, edging the butts out.

I felt free and cool using tobacco as a kid but by the time I was in my twenties, the sense of freedom was gone. I didn’t think about kicking until I was in my thirties, when it became a kind of quiet, private obsession that I shared with very few. Now I’ll talk about it with anyone who’ll stand still and listen.

I’m a buttkicker—out, proud and grateful.

It took a lot of support to help me stay on a path of freedom: HP, mentors, friends in mutual support communities to walk, talk, rant, cry, and laugh with. A Buddhist nun and others taught me about meditation. There were so many healthcare professionals that I worked with over the years to sort things out. I’ve experienced many forms of healing, from cognitive behavioral therapy to Reiki, chiropractic care, acupuncture, EMDR, to tapping…on and on.

Because I’ve worked in the field of mental health and addiction recovery for many years, I enjoy trying out different forms of healing work to see how they can help me grow my life, and what I can recommend to others. It’s amazing how many of these things are available to us now for free or for a small fee. Recovery centers (there’s probably one close to where you live) are great sources of information, free mutual support groups, and other resources. And even if there isn’t a recovery center close to you, there are probably meetings you can access via Zoom.

We don’t need to settle for things like tobacco anymore.

There’s so much more available to us now than there ever was before…resources our parents and grandparents couldn’t even dream of are ours for the seeking, and the asking.

We need each other. I think that’s a good thing.

Joanna Free
Joanna Free
Joanna Free is the (grateful) author of BUTTKICKERS: Twenty Ways to Leave Tobacco and a (proud) writer for Journey Magazine.

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