Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Can someone explain this one to me?

For the past two-and-a-half years, one of my jobs has been in a psychiatric hospital. Now, I promised myself years ago that I would not set foot in one of those places again, but...I needed a job, and they were hiring. In general, I love my work there: I meet with psychology graduate students (they are doing the actual work with patients) to discuss how best to provide therapy to patients, to brainstorm how to help people, and to teach students specific therapy technique. And what troubled me in the past wasn't the patients--people are people, and I typically enjoy the interactions--but the system, which gives people powerful meds and sends them back out without really teaching them how to cope with their illness, without the supports many mentally ill people need.

In the 20+ years, the system hasn't gotten any better, unfortunately. And that is fodder for another post.

But what really, really gets me is the smoking. And not even the patients' smoking; they are bored and wanting to belong and smoking is the only way they get to go outdoors (obviously not for the fresh air, though). Most of the places they have spent their time have been smoky (ever been to an AA meeting or Partial Hospital Program?). Many of these folks are so damaged by life that they almost seem to have no choice over what they do or what happens to them.

But it's the employees' smoking that just presses every button I have (you work in mental health and you can't come up with a better way to cope?). Actually, it's any smoker I have to deal with in public. I was in Target the other day and I had to sprint out of several aisles because other customers reeked of cigarette smoke and I was becoming nauseated and unable to breathe. I resent having to roll up my car windows on a nice day because some driver near me is hanging their cig out of their car window. Honey, if you don't want to breathe that stuff, what makes you think I do? (I'm tempted to get a bottle of room fragrance and spritz it in their direction.)

My tolerance for smoking has just plummeted as I've gotten older. I know part of it is my allergies; my sense of smell is more acute and my eyes water more easily than in the past. I fully admit a large part of it is having a child who is a cancer survivor; it just angers me that my innocent child who did nothing willfully wrong, who was raised in an environment that was as healthy as I could make it, had to suffer...and yet some adult purposefully puts carcinogens in his or her body and then sues because they get cancer? Who held a gun to the person's head and forced them to light up? Who shoved the smokes into their mouth, threatened them with harm if they didn't inhale?

As a behavioral scientist, I learned that behavior is purposeful. And I think of the other substances that humans "use and abuse" which are not vital to life. I can understand alcohol use...there are some health benefits to wine in moderation; in excess, alcohol disinhibits behavior, so that anxious people feel confident, depressed people feel social (or sleepy, which is also an escape). Maybe not the best strategy, but an attempt to self-treat one's uncomfortable emotions. I don't condone the use of street drugs, but for many people they serve to escape the emotional pain of abuse or loss or depression; again, not the best approach, but I can see the purpose. Caffeine? Mixed research on the health benefits, but in general enhances cognitive performance. Again, purposeful.

But putting burning sticks in your mouth (especially logical during Philly summers, when the temps top 90F, with humidity to match), with the result that you smell like a mildewed basement and you increase your risk of diseases?

If someone told you that smoking would make your penis or your boobs fall off, would you still do it? (It's called peripheral vascular disease and breast cancer, and the risk of both increases with smoking). If someone told you that you are being manipulated and ripped off by the tobacco companies, that they have deliberately added chemicals that increase the addictiveness of cigs, would you still smoke? (They do; it causes consumers to freebase nicotine.)

Someone PLEASE explain the purpose of smoking. Because I just don't get it. What does smoking DO? How does it help? And why aren't you smokers angry enough to stop?

1 comment:

  1. You have it good in the States--I can't even go out to eat (not that it's affordable around here!) in Switzerland without being completely revolted by second hand smoke and exposing my daughter to it. And now they find out that it's not only the actual smoke, but the RESIDUE that is also toxic. Great, even if you're not actually smoking around me, you still expose me to a multitude of cacinogens.

    One last point--other vices that you have mentioned only hurt the user (OK, yes, an alcoholic can get into a car and have an accident and a heroin user can kill for a fix). Smoking adversely affects everyone.