Today is exactly twenty years, eight months and five days since my last cigarette. This happened after 16 years of heavy smoking, struggling to quit, getting a few days or a few weeks and then relapsing and getting full-on addicted immediately and feeling ashamed and demoralized.
I started to smoke because I heard I’d lose weight. And I did! At first. My mother smoked heavily while I was in the womb, and I wondered if this explained why the little buzz of nicotine felt so wonderfully familiar and comforting, from the very first time I smoked. I used to stand outside and hit my cigarette and think to myself, “God, I love smoking…” Cigarettes were my way of taking a break, collecting myself. They were my antidepressant and anti-anxiety and anti-anger and anti-grief medicine. They gave me just a little extra distance from a threatening world, which is something like strength.
Attempts to go without a cigarette used to make me feel so wretched and depressed, the only SANE thing I could do to save myself was to smoke again. I smoked when I was sick, I smoked when I visited my mom while she was dying of lung cancer, I smoked while I was spraying bleach cleaner on a moldy wall and inhaled the particles. I put myself in danger, smoking outside bars at night. I tried to hide my smoking with constant tooth brushing and hand washing and wearing a “smoking jacket.”
Smoking played a role in my development of my reactive airway, and probably in development of Grave’s disease too. When I received radioactive iodine as treatment, they said don’t smoke but of course I couldn’t not smoke. I was a physical wreck when I got that treatment — all my muscles wasted, stressed out, spiritually eroded, working but broke and feeling alone in the world.
About that time I visited my stepdad in Tucson, just spending the night before entering a one-week silent retreat I’d booked, just outside of town. I was so ashamed because he’d just cared for my mom AND his own mother, one after the other, while they died of lung cancer, and then HE got cancer, very serious cancer, and was in the early days of his rather miraculous survival.
He isn’t the type to lecture, but I had a pretty good idea how he would feel about my smoking, and I didn’t have the heart to do that to him. So sitting on the back steps of his house I had one last cigarette, and planned to try one more time to stop.
The following day I entered the silent retreat and had very little to do. I participated in the prayers that took place there, sort of like an anthropological exercise, since faith was very alien to me back then. I often threw myself face down on the bed and cried, hard. I hiked in the desert, alone, at sunrise and sunset — the only times it was cool enough. I wrote my inventory, meditated, and prayed very desperately each morning and evening: “Please stop me from smoking.” And then: “Thank you for giving me this one day without smoking.” I got through that first week. A delicious feeling of healing was taking root inside. I left the retreat but stayed at my stepdad’s house for another week, and my brother helped me to start strengthening my muscles again, paddling in water with a floatation belt
I spent three days driving back to Berkeley via highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra. It’s the most beautiful place on earth and I always feel good there. It was late spring, and there was a mix of warm sun and lightning and streaks of grey rain moving across the Owens Valley. Something was different.
At home I found I had the strength to REALLY give myself to the inventory and meditation, and kept at it twice a day, religiously. I stopped drinking alcohol. Even though it was never a problem for me, it was a trigger for my smoking. More days went by, then months. My prayers were able to move on from “Please help me not smoke” to other hopes and needs (“Please let me have a family!”). I continued writing and meditating. Within two years I met someone, and became pregnant with my first child. Then a few years later, our second. Smoke free pregnancy! After eight years, with a lot of trepidation, I tested alcohol, and indeed, I did not smoke.
Today, I have not had so much as a slip or even a craving. When I quit, I was using nicotine patches, if you care. But I’d used patches (and gum, hypnosis, classes, etc.) many, MANY times before that and could never bear the overwhelming cravings, and just HAD to smoke again. Even when the doctor told me to stop. Even when I came to sense death and feel dread in every drag I took from a cigarette. No one except a heavy smoker could ever possibly understand.
I’ve had a few miracles in my life but there is always a scientific explanation, so you know, whatever. Except in this case. There is no scientific explanation for that fact that one day, my desire to smoke was removed. If this is possible, anything is possible, and this knowledge completely changed the direction of my life.
Last year the doctor told me I’m approaching “no elevated risk” for my lung health. How about that. Some tough girl.