Jill “Stormie” Zalokar remembers that first puff almost 50 years ago. It hangs like a haunting smoke ring, circling her memory.
She’d just graduated from Forest Hills High School in Ada, Michigan. The following weekend she and some friends from her senior class headed to the lake shore in Grand Haven, where parents had chipped in to rent a house for the Class of 1967 grads.
“I was just being the big showoff,” said Zalokar, now 68. “I got a pack of cigarettes and offered them to people. I thought it was the big, cool thing to do.”
She doesn’t recall where she got the cigarettes. She doesn’t remember the brand. But she remembers the sensation. And feeling grown-up.
“My mom and dad both smoked,” the Kentwood, Michigan, woman said. “My brother smoked. I just thought it was an adult thing to do, so I did it.”
And she kept doing it. Every day. A cigarette became the first thing she’d reach for in the morning. And the last thing she’d put down at night.
“I have always enjoyed it,” Zalokar said. “I never really wanted to stop. Even with all the concerns and alerts of medical problems, I just didn’t want to stop.”
In 1989, when her oldest son turned 14 and she joined the Sweet Adelines female barbershop quartet group, she had a change of heart. She quit. But that only lasted two years.
“I tried again to quit but it never was successful,” she said.
And again. And again.
“You can’t do it until you really decide and get inspired to do it,” Zalokar said. “There’s no sense nagging. There’s no sense suggesting it. Everyone knows it’s not the best thing for your health. You just have to inspire yourself enough to know that you’ve got to stop.”
She can’t explain what happened when she went on a 2013 weekend outing with the Sweet Adelines.
After almost half a century of smoking, she felt different. Driven. The inspiration of which she spoke, struck.
Like a moving song stirs the soul without warning, she knew it was time.
“I was with a group of people that made me feel it was more important to quit than keep going,” Zalokar said. “That’s what inspired me to stop smoking. It’s such a strange thing when it comes over you at just the right time. I can’t explain it. It just happened.”
She quit. No wind-down. No patches. She did use a smoking cessation medicine to assist.
“I really think it was the feeling of knowing in your heart and your own soul that you needed to do it,” she said.
Like the bass part she has perfected in her singing career, the bass line reverberated in her life—and just like that, in the flash of an eighth note, she became a non-smoker.
Her fellow Sweet Adelines supported her, bringing bags of gums, candies and other items to help her through the cravings.
A newcomer to the group inspired her by taking walks around the building during breaks, a time when Zalokar used to smoke.
But even with the support of her fellow crooners, Zalokar felt she needed more. Relapses happen. When you least expect them.
“I just felt that I needed help,” she said. “I didn’t have the confidence in myself to do it on my own.”
Zalokar joined the Spectrum Health Healthier Communities Smoking Cessation program.
She attended once a week for four weeks.
“They encouraged you to share and call each other for support if you needed it,” Zalokar said. “They taught helpful things to do when you’re quitting smoking, like getting more active and having carrot sticks and celery sticks or licorice available. They were all very nice.”
But beyond the tips, Zalokar felt camaradarie.
“The class was definitely helpful because you know you’re not alone,” she said. “I’m not a disciplined person. If I want to eat something or do something or have something and I can financially do it, I did it. I knew I was going to need help. Having other people in the class going through the same thing as you made you feel like you weren’t alone.”
Libby Stern, a Spectrum Health licensed social worker and certified tobacco treatment specialist, said the free four-week Quit 101 program provides education, as well as tips and tools for quitting tobacco.
Participants learn about nicotine addiction, cessation medications, stress management and how to develop a personalized quit plan.
“The quit plan serves as a road map in the quitting process,” Stern said. “Participants create their plan based on what they decide will work best for them.”
For those like Zalokar who have already quit, but may suffer a relapse, Stern said she’s happy to meet one-on-one to provide additional support.
“The best thing Jill did was come back in for support when she had a lapse,” Stern said. “Having a lapse or slip is very common and, unfortunately, people many times just resign themselves to going back to smoking. Jill didn’t do that, which I think does reflect her great motivation and commitment. She came back in and worked on her plan.”
Stern said getting support from a tobacco treatment specialist and using cessation medications can triple the chance of quitting successfully.
“As a former smoker myself, I understand the complexity of nicotine addiction and the challenges of quitting,” Stern said. “It isn’t unusual to make five, six or seven attempts before finally quitting for good.”
Stern said she reminds tobacco users to stay positive.
“There are more former smokers today than smokers,” Stern said. “You can be one, too. It’s definitely doable.”