I had my first cigarette at seven years old hidden behind a garden shed sucking crudely on a brown cigarillo my friend Paolo had nicked from his dad.
As we passed the increasingly soggy-ended stogie back and forth, suppressing fits of eye-tearing coughing and gagging for fear of getting caught, it wasn’t the waves of hot and cold nausea or acid-stomach vertigo that grabbed me; it was the sheer badness of it. It was wickedly adult and joltingly real, and for a kid who really wanted to be able to influence his world, that was good enough.
Twenty five years later, at 32, my immune system tripped its trigger and started beating the crap out of my hingey bits. The inflammation of undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis flit randomly from joint to joint with accompanying pain that drained the life out of life and effectively marked the end of ‘Old Life; The Time When Stuff Just Worked’ and the beginning of ‘MEDCON 5: 3 am. Meetings in the War Rooms. NOW, SLEEPYHEAD!!’
About at that point I began wondering how I had unleashed this on myself. Not just wondering, but churning with recrimination and remorse.
Just which of my vices or excesses had broken my system so? Surely it wasn’t just your common-or-garden self-abuse of young adulthood that did this because my peers weren’t dropping like flies? Was it some chemical or gas ingested while in the military? Creosote fumes from the railroad ties I was working with? Cadmium fumes from the socket wrench I was misguidedly smoking weed through?! There were enough obvious culprits without having to worry it was my laundry detergent or mold in the walls.
The Naturopath I consulted heard my brief tale of woe and then scribbled in silence on a notepad for 15 minutes. Tearing it off and handing it to me she said: “When you have done 80% of the things on this list, come back and see me.”
I looked down at the full page of doctor scrawl as she ticked off what amounted to quitting everything I ingested except rice, skinless chicken, broccoli and water. A regimen of IR saunas, yoga, no deodorant, detergent, etc., etc. My eyes glazed over a bit.
Notably missing from the list was coffee and cigarette breakfasts and beer dinners punctuated by meat and potatoes… Not even the healthy sodas like Hansen’s or Blue Sky…
I was sunk before I started. She might as well have said to jog up Everest because it wasn’t going to happen. Just tackling the first half would take me about three years, I figured, and I wasn’t sure the ciggies would ever go. I mean…I was down to the ‘lights’ despite puffing full time for 15 years, and that was pretty good, right?
Fast forward another 15 years… I’m getting old fast, growing that puckered and papery old-man chicken skin and I’m only 47. Coughing that hack-hack smokers cough with brown loogies all the time. Yup. My dirty bad-boy creature comfort, hack-hack. Shopping, hack, movies, hack-hack, hiking, cough-hack-cough, sexytimes, hack-hack.
The final straw was breaking three ribs in an accident. I felt inappropriately old and not really capable of getting better, each cough and hack like getting stabbed in the torso, pain piling onto pain. My body was tired, system depleted, stretched, limping.
Enough. If I didn’t change something pretty radically I was not going to live a long and happy life. Or a long and unhappy life either, for that matter.
So the day arrived, live or die; choose… and the ciggies had to go. I lined up a therapist for the emotional crash that I was afraid might happen. (It did.) And a friend showed up and showed me how to juice and make smoothies as a way to cleanse and get my diet on track. Just getting the green and red juice down at various times and trying to drink the requisite water was a huge distraction from the nicotine craving. Keeping the fridge full of a variety of juices was time consuming, but a worthy ritual of self-care in the shitstorm that is “cessation”.
I broke down a lot. I don’t mean that I smoked; I mean that I cried for the least reason, and I had many large reasons in my world. I sobbed. I sniffled. I railed at it all. It felt like a cheese grater had gone over my soul and that life was not worth living this way. If I had to smoke and die young, so be it.
But one urge at a time I did not rush out and buy smokes. One excuse after another I did not let myself down. One 16 oz. jar of juice at a time I turned my life around.
Day 57, and counting.