Fire, but no smoke: How Liz O'Connor quit the cigarettes for good
Puffing cigarettes used to be Liz O'Connor's habit. But things have changed, and now making cakes is her passion. She tells Joy Orpen how, thanks to the support of a special programme, she was finally able to stop smoking
Liz O'Connor (53) is a consummate artist. However, you won't find oils or pastels in her palette. You won't find clay or bronze nearby, either. But what you will see her working with is yards of sugar icing and some unusual tools. That's because she's a cake artist, and a very accomplished one at that.
Liz has spent most of her life mixing, kneading, baking, decorating and icing cakes of all descriptions. Her love affair with sweet things officially began when she went to work for Mannings Bakery in Coolock, as a 14-year-old. But if truth be told, it was Liz's mother who passed on the ability to bake well to her youngest daughter; this extremely capable woman from Waterford had to feed her nine boys and five girls, and from all accounts, she did it with love and much skill.
"She was just brilliant," says Liz.
So there was a sense of rightness about joining the bakery at such a young age. "I loved it from the start," says Liz. "I didn't even mind working Saturdays. During the week, we were busy with the commercial side of things; but on Saturdays, I might get a chance to ice cakes. I used to jump at any opportunity that came my way to learn new techniques, to try out something different."
Eventually, Liz graduated to doing more complicated tasks. And, like the proverbial sponge, she soaked up as much information as she could. Today, this divorced mother of two girls is preparing to start up her own cake-making business. She believes the first step in this process is to establish a public profile. So she has been entering competitions such as those run by the Dublin and Cork Sugarcraft guilds, and she has been winning awards in the skills categories. However, she says her most notable award so far was achieving bronze at the Cake International held at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham last year, for her wedding-dress confection.
"It was a huge happening," says Liz. "I do a lot of networking through social media, so it's great to meet up with some of those people at these events. I also learn a lot from the demonstrations. I just cannot wait to go back."
Although Liz has decades of experience in making cakes, she is convinced she needs to have her skills formally recognised. "So far, I've done three modules with Decobake and they have earned me a Master's PME Diploma," she says. "I'm working hard to build up my profile as a baker and cake artist."
In fact, it was her love of cakes that finally prompted Liz to do one of the hardest things she has ever had to do, and that was to give up smoking.
She, like many people at that time, was already addicted to nicotine when she started working. "My mother smoked, but she gave them up," explains Liz. "With nine lads around the house, she would have had a hard time keeping her cigarettes to herself."
Nonetheless, from the age of 13, Liz spent her hard-earned cash supporting her habit. But, two years ago, she decided she had finally had enough.
"The smoking ban was there, and as time went on, they were making it harder and harder to smoke," Liz says. "You began to feel there was something wrong with you if you smoked. Cigarettes were always on my mind. It was the first thing I thought about in the morning, and the last thing I did at night. I used to roll my own. If you didn't have tobacco, it was a big drama; or say you had tobacco and no papers; then that was another drama."
Quite often, Liz would stop whatever she was doing to sit down and have a cup of tea and a fag, and that could take quite a while. At other times, she had to go outside to light up, because she just wouldn't risk exposing her three precious grandchildren to cigarette smoke, and she certainly wouldn't dream of polluting the air in or around her lovely cakes.
However, going outside for a cigarette would take at least 10 minutes, and that could happen many, many times a day. The cigarettes were not only damaging her health and costing her lots of money, they were robbing her of her valuable time as well.
Then one day, a very helpful woman at Doras Bui, a resource centre in Coolock for single parents, told Liz about a course called We Can Quit. This programme for women is offered by the Irish Cancer Society in partnership with the HSE, the Blanchardstown Area Partnership, the Northside Partnership, Doras Bui, Lloyds Pharmacy and Touchstone Pharmacy, Mulhuddart, to help people give up cigarettes.
"It offers free nicotine-replacement therapy, a weekly cessation group and one-to-one support," explains a spokesman for the Irish Cancer Society.
When Liz discovered that a course was about to start at the Beaumont Recreation Centre, she jumped at the chance. "Even though I had tried and failed to give up before, I had a very good feeling about this programme," she says.
Her first session began on a Wednesday, when she still had half a packet of tobacco in her bag. She says that participants were told they could quit at any date that suited them during the 12-week course. Liz decided to give up when her tobacco ran out. She made that half packet of tobacco last until the following Sunday, and she hasn't smoked a single cigarette since.
"There were five or six girls on the course," Liz explains. "They had someone talk to us about nutrition, another person talked about fitness, while another explained about cigarettes and the effects of smoking. It really was a great course, and the support from the other girls was brilliant."
Liz says she used to think smoking relaxed her, but she now knows that's not the true story at all. She says the anti-smoking author and activist, Allen Carr, explained it best, when he said it was like the relief you get when you stop banging your head against a wall.
"You create the conditions for craving a cigarette," says Liz. "The so-called relief lies in satisfying that craving. In other words, it's a false relief."
Liz is absolutely thrilled she no longer smokes. Her only regret is that she didn't stop sooner. She says it wasn't that hard when it came to giving up. But she cautions, "You have to want to quit; you have to stop hitting your head against the wall. In other words, you have to stop lighting up.
"But it most definitely can be done; there's lots of help out there. I will never, ever smoke again. And that's a great feeling."
For more information on We Can Quit, see cancer.ie/we-can-quit For information on other anti-smoking programmes that are run by the HSE, see quit.ie
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