Rumer Willis is sharing how she learned to put out her cigarettes once and for all.
The actress and singer, 32, says it was an emotional and "really difficult" experience to finally kick her smoking habit, a decision to which she recommitted while being stuck at home with her entire family during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Empire star tried her first cigarette when she was a little girl: "I remember being 12 or 13 and seeing TV shows or films where younger kids would be smoking and it was so cool and elicit and I wanted in," she tells PEOPLE.
By 16, she was smoking regularly, and by 25, she was trying to quit. Willis, who is working on a new campaign with Nicorette, says she finally realized she needed to prioritize the health of her voice.
"I was doing a musical and everyone around me were just such good singers and I just kind of had this moment where I went, 'There's no way I can keep up with these people if I don't quit smoking,' " she says. "So I went around the corner and bought some Nicorette patches and I just was like, 'I got to do this. I don't have an option.' "
Still, Willis says it was hard to stick to her goal as friends continued to smoke around her.
"It was recommitting every day to what's more important to me: Is my voice more important or smoking more important?" she adds.
But she didn't have true success with quitting until she found "confidence" in herself. And, she says, "I didn't want to be dependent on anything."
"I think with any addiction, whether it's smoking, food, shopping, substances, people, you're trying to cover something up," she says. "You're trying to satiate that moment where you're feeling uncomfortable. I think when you can get to a place of confidence inside yourself when you don't need that crutch to move through that uncomfortable moment, is a huge part of what has been really helpful for me."
Willis admits it's been "extremely difficult" during her time at home amid the pandemic because "when you don't have work and you don't have distractions, you're forced to sit with yourself."
She confesses, "I definitely had moments where I had a few cigarettes because I just wanted an escape," she said, adding that she has since decided to kick the habit completely.
"I kind of had a moment where I said, 'You know what? I've been doing so well and I've come so far with this, I don't want to backslide and pick this up again,' " she says.
Plus, she had her family to lean on.
"I was able to spend four, five months with my entire family: my mom, my dad, my sister, Scout and Tallulah, and my baby sisters, Evelyn and Mabel, my stepmom — and we were all together in the same house," she says. "And we got to have lunch and dinner with each other every day and talk and spend time and connect and be in nature."
Willis used the time to reflect. "The ability to pause and slow down and really kind of take a moment to reevaluate what’s important to me, what are my priorities. That’s time with them that I never would have gotten," she says.
Willis is joining Nicorette's new #StartStoppingShoutOut campaign, where she and other celebrities will record personalized video messages to encourage smokers to stay motivated on their journeys to quit.
"I love what Nicorette has done with #StartStoppingShoutOut because they have the things that help for the physical addiction, but I think this is a great way to help with the emotional side of it, which can be an even bigger component than the physical side," she says.
As for advice for those still working toward becoming smoke-free, Willis says, "Be gentle with yourself."
"It might take a little while and you might not do it perfectly," she adds. "But I think once you're ready to make that choice for yourself, I think it gets easier."
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