I recently had an e-mail from my old friend Lynn about our upcoming high school reunion (okay, I’ll ‘fess up, it’s our 50th): “Now if I could just drop 15 lbs without giving anything up… And the reunion is a few days after we get back from our September vacation so I don’t see dropping a few last minute pounds then. MOST of the time I’m very accepting of myself the way I am. Wonder what reunion anxiety comes under in the DSM.”
I’m attending not only that reunion but also the reunion of high school I’d have graduated from had my family not moved away just before I entered the 9th grade. So I have a double dose of it.
In fact, this is the second time I’ve written about an upcoming reunion. The first time was thirty years ago, when I wrote an article about my 20th high school reunion for a newspaper Sunday supplement (remember newspapers?) that started off with the statement that I’d bought a new outfit and dieted off 5 pounds for the occasion.
Some things never change.
As I recall, the lines after the one about dieting went something like: “Burst your buttons, teachers. Eat you hearts out, boys.” That’s the impression most of us want to make on the people we knew back then (and who still, in our minds, look like nubile, fresh-faced cheerleaders and lean, muscular quarterbacks – not like the face we see in the mirror, and possibly not like “they” looked even back then). And that hope, I think, gets at the root of Lynn’s implicit question about the source of the anxiety that so many of us suffer in connection with our upcoming reunions: We’ve set a standard for ourselves that will be difficult for anyone more than a few years past graduation to meet, especially if we’ve calibrated that standard to our high school ideas about beauty.
If you’re a former smoker and concerns about weight were part of your smoking dynamic, the thought of seeing the prom queen or your old boyfriend may spark second thoughts about the decision to quit. Don’t go there! If you’ve read Life After Cigarettes or followed this blog, you know that even if you gained the typical few pounds when you quit smoking, you’ve still come way out ahead in the appearance sweepstakes: No more cigarette burns on your clothes, no smell of tobacco smoke in your hair, no nicotine-stained nails and fingertips, whiter teeth, and fresher breath. If you’re a longer-term quitter and this is your twentieth or thirtieth reunion, not your first or fifth, you’ll have fewer wrinkles, less gray hair, a less gravelly voice, and a more feminine body shape than the prom queen who continued to smoke. If it’s your fortieth or fiftieth reunion, you’ll probably have noticeably more energy and you’re less likely to be stooped over from osteoporosis.
You may also be thinking: How will I feel when I’m thrown back in with the crowd I always smoked with? Will I be tempted? Am I in danger of relapse?
Studies of smoking relapse crises have identified a variety of circumstances in which relapse may occur. Although many are associated with negative states like depression or anger, a substantial number are triggered by social situations involving other smokers, eating, and especially alcohol consumption. So your intuition that temptation lurks in social events like reunions – or weddings or anniversary celebrations or holiday parties – is indeed correct.
How you confront that challenge turns out to be even more important than whether you actually experience withdrawal symptoms. There are three types of response you can make to ward off the danger of relapse. First, there are behavioral strategies. For starters, try to go easy on the food and alcohol. Sit at a nonsmoking table. A little exercise is a good distractor so be the first one to hit the dance floor. Second, talk to yourself. Stay focused. Enjoy the sensation, unavailable to smokers, of being able to hone in on a conversation without having your attention frayed at the edges by the niggling urge to smoke. Think about how much better you’ll feel tomorrow morning if your first waking thought isn’t, “oh, no!“ Impress your old schoolmates and teachers by radiating the beauty and confidence that comes with being in charge of your own life, not by falling back into those old destructive patterns. Finally, if like my friend Lynn, who has been smoke-free for many years but not completely nicotine free, this may be a Nicorette moment. Forewarned is forearmed, so go prepared.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.