Diary of a Quitter

Nicotine is as addictive as heroin, they say. So I figured if acupuncture has helped get junkies off dope, it'd be good enough for me and cigarettes. In deciding to go the holistic route, I opted for a deluxe health package: not just acupuncture, but chiropractic work, massage therapy (as well as glandular, reflex, and heat therapy), herbal supplements, and even nutritional counseling. After all, probably a third of my life is gone, and while I might not be old, I'm not young anymore either. Why not turn myself in for a major system overhaul, since I was concerned enough to quit smoking? Strangely enough, as the weeks passed and I triumphantly became more and more a nonsmoker, I simultaneously became less and less willing to surrender wholeheartedly to holistic health. It's not that I'm skeptical about its methods or benefits--on the contrary, its basic principles make a lot more sense to me than those of Western medicine, and if they made infomercials for acupuncture I'd definitely go sit on the couch and chat with some has-been about how well it worked for me. However, putting body, mind, and spirit into balance, which is the goal of holistic health, can be quite a juggling act. It entails a lot of sacrifices and commitments, major changes in habits, and focus; and while some of its benefits can be dramatic, many of the effects are of a subtle, long-term sort (and therefore, virtually imperceptible to those who like their gratification instant). It could probably be said that I'm too lazy to make such changes, or that maybe I fear the potential for "failure" in taking them on all at once. I disagree. In thinking things over--one of the tenets of holistic health is that the patient actively takes part in her treatment and makes decisions regarding her health--I came to the conclusion that I would really dislike a pure, holistically healed version of myself. But it took me a while to achieve this bit of enlightenment.Third Day I talk to a long-distance friend on the phone who has just entered his fourth month without tobacco. We exchange those optimistic proverbs that recent quitters and their supporters like to share, but then he begins filling me in on some of the horrors ahead. The nic fit I'd had that morning, the first really bad one, was apparently nothing. There are horizons of ugly behavior I can't even imagine yet. I will want to throttle people in the checkout line at the grocery store (true). There will come a time, he claims, when I will feel an inexplicable need to call up old boyfriends (sort of true). I will begin to cry for no real reason (true). I will develop new little tics to replace the smoking ritual, such as chewing on pens (true), and will also have to take up some kind of exercise. Ugh, I think. Yoga, which I love for one reason because it doesn't involve huffing and puffing, would apparently not suffice. So a couple of nights later, when the nicotine cravings can no longer be sublimated with Nirvana's "Negative Creep" or Sonic Youth's "Dirty Boots" (anything with really obnoxious guitars, as long as it's played at top volume), I find myself phoning a friend and desperately suggesting a walk around the lake. The instinct is right: The fresh muddy smell of an early spring evening and the dodging of puddles from the lake's overflow are a fine, even somewhat enjoyable distraction. My friend, an ex-ex-smoker, graciously refrains from lighting up and instead chats about her months spent on the wagon (she was also susceptible to spontaneous weeping). But I guess that in the same way recovering alcoholics cling to their cigarettes for dear life, I sense I'm in danger of trading the cigs for a fitness fetish. And the vision of myself as a spandex-clad jogger, pacing my way resolutely around the lake with bouncy tunes on my Walkman, is almost as unappealing as nicotine-stained fingers and ashtray mouth. Not that I should worry. I've never been considered all that athletic, despite my occasional delusions to the contrary, which have resulted in several well-intentioned and eventually abandoned exercise programs. I'm hardly alone in this, either: We may be growing ever more obese as a nation, but Americans are probably more obsessed with health and fitness than any other people on earth, most of whom aren't affluent enough to have high cholesterol, let alone worry about it. But this country has always been the place where people could come to reinvent or improve themselves--seeking, if not a balance of body, mind, and spirit, then that triple ideal of being healthy, wealthy, and wise. While the prospects for the latter two have somewhat diminished, the first is still at least reasonably attainable. As the Evian ad says, "Another day. Another chance to feel healthy." Nevertheless, I was somewhat skeptical when the doctor promised that I was going to feel better than I had in years; and when, during another treatment, he explained that some of my recent hyperactivity was due to nicotine withdrawal, but mostly it was natural energy. "There's a whole new you inside that you're discovering," he said brightly. There's no doubt that improved health has positive effects on the psyche and vice versa, but I hadn't been feeling all that terrible in recent years, and I didn't particularly want to discover a whole new me. Aside from smoking, I didn't think I had a lot of pressing or torturous problems with the old me. Apparently, however, self-transformation comes standard with the holistic health package. I filled out forms on several occasions during my treatment, answering questions about various shades of my physical and emotional being. It seemed as if every item I checked off--not wanting to be around people, having trouble sleeping, craving sweets--meant that I was failing some kind of test. Granted, the characteristics were written in lay terms so that doctors could try and pinpoint serious or chronic problems in people and link them to a physical source; but even if they were only "mild" and not "chronic," I saw them as strikes against me that needed to be rectified, pushing me toward some supreme ideal of health .But who can say what is the correct ratio of sociability to solitude?16th Day I may be resistant to exercise, but I'm very much looking forward to my prescribed massage therapy sessions--especially since a friend described the effect. It's as if you've had an extremely arduous workout, he said, but of course you've just been lying on a table having someone else push your muscles around. For half of the first session I'm on my stomach, my face resting in this padded ring that looks like a small toilet seat. Being in that position soon makes my nose start to run, and the massage therapist periodically stops her work to hand me a Kleenex. She predicts that the nutritionist, whom I'm to see the next week, will get me off dairy products straight away. That will help my sinuses a lot, she says. I consider whether the trade-offs--no Gorgonzola cheese, for instance, in exchange for fewer runny noses--are worth it. I tell her that I've been eating less dairy over the years anyway, but she informs me that even a little is enough to muck up your system. I roll my eyes, which are still hidden by the toilet seat. I want to start squirming when she starts in on my upper back and maybe even scream when she gets to my, ah, gluteals. Instead I remark gosh, this is really hurting. Frankly, she says, she's not even working the muscles that deeply. (At my next session, a different therapist would explain to me that the pain could be a buildup of toxic emotional baggage-type stuff. Was I spanked as a child? she asked. No. She couldn't offer any other reasons, but I wondered if toxins don't build up from simply sitting on your ass a lot.) Toward the end of the session I proudly inform the therapist that I've skipped my morning coffee in order to relax better during the massage. I'd like it if you didn't have any more caffeine the rest of the day, she says, but instead drink lots of water. I'm already doing the recommended six to eight glasses a day, so not even one cup of joe? I protest. She sighs. It's my choice whether or I want to let my body get rid of the toxins and heal itself. I jokingly suggest a compromise--a cup of decaf for every three glasses of water--which she doesn't seem to find very amusing. She does pay me an offhand compliment, I guess, by noting that I don't reek like her clients who are still smokers. Perhaps the massage isn't as blissful or rejuvenating as I had hoped because I went in with a bad attitude, but I get the distinct impression that I am a bad person undergoing treatments in order to become good: not just smoke-free, but dairy-free, toxin-free, tension-free. (At one point it is suggested--and I shouldn't take this the wrong way--that I sit in a "lazy" manner.) It's as if all these aspects of my health are somehow indicative of my general virtue, and I'm not measuring up. Whereas religion used to guide people through life, health has become the new moral compass for many: Things that used to be right or wrong, good or bad, are now "healthy" or "unhealthy"; at their worst, situations, relationships, and even people are described as "toxic." And when it comes to parsing the damned and the saved, look at any personals ad section and compare the number of those seeking someone religious to those desiring someone who is "fit," "trim," or "athletic," who "enjoys working out," is "drug-and disease-free"--and, of course, a nonsmoker. It's not surprising that as people's spiritual lives have diminished in recent decades, Soloflex and Susan Powter and nutritional supplements have come to fill the void. If you look at it in a Catholic sense, striving for perfect health offers up the possibility of absolution and the restoration of purity--if not innocence--in exchange for a whole lot of upstanding behavior. It also requires adhering to a distinct and detailed body of rules, rituals, and regimens. Our dour Puritan forebears provide a model for another subset of health nuts, who are dogged by particularly strict, sterile, uncompromising, and even hostile attitudes in their pilgrimage toward flawless health. At my college, the polar opposites in women's athletics were the rowdy, raunchy rugby gals, whose main goal was to consume as much beer as possible, and a small group of incredibly fit loners, whose approach to exercise seemed quite grim. It was as if they were trying to purge some kind of demon with seven-mile runs or a few hundred laps in the pool (and considering that compulsive exercise has been identified as a type of bulimia, perhaps for some of them it was a purge of sorts). I always thought they might get a better catharsis by getting blubbering drunk with a couple girlfriends and having a good crying fit. The body may well be a temple for the soul, as many religions decree. But to me a pure body, one that's been flushed of toxins both chemical and emotional, is not a Taj Mahal--it's more akin to those houses I visited as a child that were kept immaculate, either by friends' moms or by cleaning women. They were eerie, strangely depressing places, and I always felt uncomfortable in them. I could never understand why people wanted a house that looked as if no one lived in it.22nd Day The massage therapist was right. My consultation with the nutritionist is indeed a turning point, though not in the sense she meant. First I take a test that involves turning a yellow strip of pH-sensitive paper dark blue by putting it in my mouth. When the nutritionist does the same, his strip does not change color at all. I have apparently flunked the test. The blue indicates that my system is in what he calls --permanent overdrive?: I don't know how to relax or stop thinking. My body is in a continuous go-go-go state, reacting to overstimulation by indiscriminately firing off protection mechanisms. Even though I sense that he's describing a condition not uncommon to Americans, there is something frightening about this small but vivid demonstration, in which my favorite color suddenly comes to mean chaos and discord. I thought I'd get points for going to yoga class twice a week and a big bonus for being a vegetarian, and while some mild praise is offered, I can tell this guy is not much impressed. In fact, he remarks that some of the most unhealthy people he sees are vegetarians. And looking over the record of what I've been eating the last few weeks--one dinner consists of chili, cheese popcorn, and raw chocolate chocolate chip cookie dough, all consumed pretty much simultaneously--it's hard to deny that I am one of them. So we quickly get down to the nuts and bolts of my diet. I need to start eating tons of vegetables immediately, eat more whole grains, and eliminate, for now at least, caffeine, alcohol, and yes, dairy products. This is in order to undergo a 10-day cleansing program, during which my body will rid itself of still more toxins by way of herbal supplements, lots of spring water with lemon slices, and a diet whose only leniency is "all the fruit, vegetables, or salad you wish." Once I'm clean and clear I will have allergy and blood tests done. My ambitious attitude begins dissolving into anxiety as I picture all the discipline required to be nutritionally righteous for a week and a half. But it's the eventual realization that this guy is asking me to lay off caffeine, just three weeks after parting with cigarettes, that makes me truly upset. No can do, I finally say. We end up making a compromise, whereby I will work up to these dietary restrictions over a month's time, then have my internal herbal scrub-down. I'm still depressed, however, partly because I feel like I should be in high spirits. The truth is that I'm not looking forward to discovering a bunch of new food allergies, or becoming someone who rejoices at discovering a remarkably tasty kind of spelt bread. Or who meets friends for coffee, but only at places that offer soy milk to put in my herbal tea. Who enjoys miso broth for a snack, instead of giving into cravings for Pop-Tarts or Velveeta Shells'n' Cheese. Leaving the clinic, I notice a poster in the reception area that hadn't caught my eye before. "Health Is," it says, and then this list: life fulfillment; the total absence of symptoms and disease; excitement; being alive and alert; feeling good all over all the time; being totally together, mentally and physically; total normal body function; total accomplishment, unlimited creativity, completion, and fulfillment--on every level; the expression of a fully productive and organized existence; happiness and harmony with yourself, your family, and neighbors; being sensitive to your own needs and the needs of others, in order to better yourself and your community. All my fears are suddenly and neatly summed up. I see that absolute health is not just a grueling prospect, but fundamentally wrong. Crazy, even. Assuming it were possible to achieve this state of being, the immense effort it would take would force you to become a pain in the ass to everyone around you. Indeed, can you imagine anyone more boring or annoying or just plain scary than someone who fits the above description? Moreover, as an artist I once interviewed said about recovery groups, in the end you'd be left with all the personality of a Hallmark greeting card. I doubt that anyone, even holistic health practitioners, pretends that such a human does or can exist; rather it's the desire to strive for that state of equilibrium, to avoid all that's potentially "unhealthy," that's so disturbing. Besides, a Hallmark version of oneself pretty much requires a Hallmark view of the world, a place of watercolored wildflower fields and soothingly smarmy sentiments. The expectation--or at least the wish--that we should be able to walk through life without ever getting shit on our shoes is a fantasy that could only have come out of America. Which can explain a lot of things, one being why news anchors cheerfully obsess over pleasant weather, acting like it's a personal affront if the days to come are anything less than 70 degrees and sunny. It also points to why Americans have such phobias about not just death, but aging. There are a stunning number of anti-aging books these days, including the best-selling Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. Author Deepak Chopra's ideas are linked in some ways to spirituality (tempered, of course, by discussions of quantum physics) but no doubt much of the book's appeal lies with its title, the quite literal ideal of being ageless. Beyond holding out eternal youth, it implies a more direct denial of all those things that come with age: experience, regrets, and responsibilities, as well as wisdom, perspective, and memories. Chopra insists that "We all intuitively want to get rid of discomfort" and promises that "[i]n its true nature, life is comfortable, easy, unforced, and intuitively right." So if you're relieved of the burdens that prevent your life from attaining its "true nature" and are blessed with, as the poster said, a "total absence of symptoms and disease," then just what's left? A friend suggests that what I'm really afraid of is that getting body, mind, and spirit in sync would leave me in a creative vacuum. And true enough, the idea of health as "unlimited creativity" is both galling and suspicious to me. I recently talked with a painter about how she knows when a piece is done. She described a process of searching, of trying a series of things, most of which don't work. There are mornings when she wakes up totally depressed because she knows a particular painting needs something and doesn't know what that something is. It hangs over her all day. Eventually there comes a time when, as she put it, she doesn't feel a need to walk up to a painting and change it anymore. It's finished. She's happy. Then it starts all over again. I'm pretty sure she wouldn't say her work is "the expression of a fully productive and organized existence," and I'm certain that "being totally together, mentally and physically" would kill any desire in her to paint. If health is equilibrium, then creativity is imbalance: Even if art is an attempt to make life a little less off-kilter for oneself or for others, art does not heal. It helps us get by.23rd Day The day after the nutritional consultation, I engage in what is no doubt a bit of self-sabotage, consuming two beers and half a pizza for dinner, then going home and making coffee as an antidote to the beer. I intend to do some work, but wind up feeling like shit and sleeping hardly at all. By the next afternoon, following a yoga class and an acupuncture treatment, there's some serious conflict going on. Somewhere between relaxed and exhausted, peculiarly buzzed from the acupuncture and utterly nauseous from the night before (not to mention lightheaded from having not yet eaten today), I can only drag myself home and pass out on the couch. My doctor once commented on how amazing it was that the human body could subsist on a daily diet consisting of little more than, say, a muffin, popcorn, and Coke. I find that fact more hopeful than horrendous. Even as certain habits, healthy and unhealthy, become an integral part of one's identity (which is why, silly as it sounds, there's such a sense of loss and even despair in giving up cigarettes), our bodies forgive us all kinds of atrocities, intentional or accidental. Obviously no one would ask for carpal tunnel syndrome, back problems, or cancer, and only stupid people find glamour in things like heroin addiction, but there's a degree to which an "unhealthy" body is one that's been marked by its experience in the world. There are, after all, women who've refused breast reconstruction after a mastectomy, out of a desire to remember what they went through. Conversely, a body in perfect health is well-insulated from the world, like those Victorian ladies whose porcelain complexions never saw the sun, and whose selves were equally shielded from anything in the world that was deemed improper "unhealthy" for them. If there's a sense in which an obsession with health is self-limiting (not to mention annoyingly self-absorbing), then it might also follow that such a quest is only tempting fate for a backlash. What the psychologist James Hillman said about mental health--"the madness wants to be let in the room that it has been excluded from"--also applies to physical health. Five pounds on most of us is no big deal, but it spells the end if you're a supermodel, or just aiming for their gazelle-like proportions. Jim Fixx, the famous marathon runner, dropped dead from a heart attack, and there was Len Bias, the basketball star who collapsed in 1986 from his (purportedly one and only) indulgence in cocaine. As I read it, the very fact that they were in so-called perfect health meant that their bodies, like expensive, finely tuned sports cars, couldn't handle the slightest something gone awry. But you've got to have something, which is what my friend, the ex-ex-smoker, said when I told her I was supposed to stop drinking coffee. Taken to its logical limit, however, holistic health would dictate that you can't have any of those "somethings": drugs, alcohol, fat, meat, caffeine, dairy, cigarettes. Or sleepless nights or staying in bed all day or binging on TV, for that matter. Not only are they bad for you, but they upset that crucial balance of body, mind, and spirit.58th Day I tell the doctor that I'm not going to embark on the nutritional leg of my holistic health journey. I am curious to see what a 10-day detoxifying diet would do to me (OK, for me),but piling on more regimens of denial so soon after giving up cigarettes is simply impossible. He strongly recommends that I keep on trying to make the dietary changes. Which I do. I'm dealing with vegetables quite often--trying to enjoy rather than obsess over them--even as I drink more coffee than I used to. Caffeine, in fact, seems to be the only thing between me and cigarettes sometimes. It would make a great and ironic ending to announce that I've started up smoking again, courting death in the prime of my life and all that. That'd be a pretty heavy sacrifice for the sake of a story, I realize. And don't I know just know how delicious it would be.

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