After hanging out a while at my wife’s parents’ house, eating cake and playing a round of hide-and-go-seek with her niece and nephews, my wife and I said our goodbyes, loaded up our dog’s crate and strapped the little guy into his car harness, and started home.
While my wife and I chatted and listened to the second disc of one of Garth Brooks’s live albums, something my mother had said repeatedly after she found out I’d started smoking came to mind.
My mother is soft-spoken, a woman of few words, so when she does speak, her words carry. About quitting, what she said was this: if you can manage to quit smoking, you can do anything.
This is Part Two of what I hope will be a four-, possibly five-part series.
Get caught up checking out Quitter – Part 1.
I couldn’t — I can’t — shake this. I’m challenged, encouraged, and cowed by the slippery slope of her logic.
On the one hand, I can’t deny the effort and the will it took me — the effort and will it takes anyone — to quit such an anxiety-inducing, all-consuming habit like smoking.
But to think that one challenge is like another, and that beating one challenge equips you to beat the next, beat them all…
My mother had both seen and felt the damage smoking could cause a person, a family. Her father had smoked, and her mother. Both had suffered for it; her mother had died of smoking-related complications when I was too young to remember her.
In a way, my mother had built up her professional life almost as if to try and prevent others from having to endure a similar fate. Part of her work-related duties as a nurse involved teaching courses on blood-borne pathogens and — you guessed it — smoking cessation. She would sit in the glider chair in our living room rocking like crazy and repeating out loud the points she would address in her next lecture on the ills of smoking, the inevitability of its ruining your life and the lives of those who depended on you.
She used to bring home pamphlets and tell about how some of her coworkers and the men and women in her courses managed to stay quit.
One man kept an unopened package of Marlboro Lights on his person at all times — in the pocket of his shirt or his inside jacket pocket, the two places he’d stashed his smokes when he’d been a smoker. On the cellophane he’d written the date he purchased the pack, to remind himself when he’d quit.
I didn’t get this at the time, but I figure now that this man’s trick was so effective (he’d been quit twelve years at that point — three years longer than my wife, two longer than me) because it forced him to keep having to recommit to quitting each day. Keep the enemy close; face your fear; confront your demons. Keeping the pack meant he could smoke easily, at any time. He had to decide again and again not to, welcoming temptation in like an honored guest, courting it.
Back then, I didn’t often think long-term. Maybe I should have been more focused on where I was headed. Maybe I should have committed to writing in a blog like this one back then. For that matter, maybe I should have stayed with soccer when I was in high school rather than whiling away the hours hoping the garage band I was in might find a way to click and get moving.
But I didn’t.
If anything, I courted the idea of myself as one in the midst of continual change.
Especially pained; therefore special.
In high school, I wasn’t the brightest, fastest, or the most gifted; the problem was, I thought I should have been each of those things. I kept slipping, tumbling into the gap between expectation and reality. I quite soccer to rock out with my band mates. I quit rocking out with my band mates — we all quit, my band mates and me — when writing songs and finding our own way to groove turned out to be time-consuming, grueling work.
To top it all off, I’d allowed myself to become hopelessly over-committed to the girl I was dating at the time, so much so that we wound up terrorizing each other for the better part of two years.
All the while, I smoked. Half a pack a day or more.
Maybe I quit on all those other things, people, and pursuits, because of the way smoking made me feel. Hooked, agitated, subservient. There’s nothing life-affirming in any of that, in any addiction of any kind. Smoking leaves you feeling winded and finnicky. One’s patience, commitments, self-respect — and one’s fingernails — hardly stand a chance.
And I carried this habit with me to college, along with all the other habits and insecurities I’d nurtured.
At one point, it might have been sophomore year of college, I had a listening recorder hooked up to my chest. I feared I’d developed heart palpitations. Arrhythmia. Stress-related, possibly symptoms of depression. The device looked like a mini-cassette recorder wired to two patches a specialist had taped to the front and sides of my chest.
The physician who taped the listening nodes to me instructed me to write down everything: every cigarette I smoked, every shift in mood, every time I ate or drank.
In the car on the way back into town, I remember listening carefully to the sounds my heart was making each time I inhaled; if I held my breath, my heart’s beating slowed and deepened, causing panic to rise in my chest like a wave.
All of it went onto the tape. I didn’t write down my experiments holding my breath in the journal, though.
When I walked into the country club where I was working at that time I carried the recorder in my hand like some symbolic plea for sympathy.
As that day lengthened, at some point I remember realizing that, when the doctor compared my activities log with the recording of my heartbeat, he’d see a correlation between rhythmic irregularities and the times I’d logged smoking each of the five or so cigarettes I let myself have while hooked to the machine.
One of the last memories of my grandfather, my mother’s father, was of the man clutching an impossibly thick coiled tube in one hand.
He was standing in his kitchen, sharing with my mother and me how annoyed he was. The coiled tube was in part the cause of his annoyance. One end was attached to an oxygenation machine a home healthcare technician had installed in an out of the way corner of my grandfather’s living room. The other end was fitted to a two-pronged plug my grandfather had to keep up his nose for the better part of each day until his lungs could recover enough of their own ability to extract oxygen from the air.
The tubing trailed like a tether through the rooms of his home. He described its length to us in yards.
We both had our devices. We both had my mother chasing after us with irrefutable proof smoking would at least make our lives less enjoyable and at most kill us.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to see in myself the same strength my grandfather exhibited when he kicked the habit. The way he was tethered to that oxygenation machine symbolizes the way he had to face down his addiction: by confronting it head-on from a fixed position. He couldn’t change his lifestyle. He was who he was.
While quitting is quitting, and worthwhile no matter how one achieves it, I believe my mother’s argument that quitting could empower me makes sense only if I had quit under circumstances similar to those that fired my grandfather to quit. Instead of finding inner strength and endurance, I moved home for six months, then flew to England for six more. I gave up for a time living in the pages of books or inside my own head — a lifestyle mostly fueled by a steady infusion of nicotine — and took up playing soccer and earning money serving guests at the country club.
In short, I changed who I was. I ran. I wasn’t running away; I was becoming someone new, someone who lived in a way that precluded smoking. Growing up, maybe.
Still, I was running, distancing myself from the kid with all the confidence issues. I struggle against the occasional fear that one day I’ll discover there’s more weakness than strength to be found here.
Image Credit: “Why have you abandoned us?” by mendhak. Flickr. Commercial use approved by the CC.