Nuclear War Makes Me Smoke
The herbal cigarettes taste vaguely of artichokes. I've got a tiny pile of those hand-rolled combos by my right side and a tall glass of spring water sprinkled with 30 drops of Smoke Stop herbal extract -- "set according to the moon phases," the label triumphantly reports -- at my left. The ashtray -- a peach-colored foot-shaped ceramic job that I picked up in South Dakota a few months back -- sits poised just within arm's reach, an oasis amid a pile of Xeroxes, old newspapers and unpaid bills. A bright yellow-orange, lamentably child-proof lighter lurks nearby.The careful preparations are procrastinatory rather than instinctively anal-retentive. An excruciating task -- self-imposed but nevertheless fearsome -- awaits my engagement, and my clenched abdomen and foggy head don't seem quite up to the challenge.Before I join the work-station paraphernalia for a disciplined orgy of productivity, I retreat to my bedroom, pull down the shaky Venetian blinds to block out the early afternoon sunlight, create a cushiony seat composed of seven or eight pillows backed by the sturdy bedroom wall and sink in. The peaceful whole-tone scales of the second movement of Ravel's piano concerto roll softly into the room as I close my eyes.I imagine the muscles in my neck going slack, my arms and legs relaxing spontaneously. I see myself walking up a long, well-lit flight of stairs, with double doors opening onto a sparse but thriving and achingly beautiful garden, lined by cool, damp stone walls and covered by pillow-textured moss. I picture myself lying down in a clump of moss circled by tall smooth stones. I am safe, I tell myself. I am loved. I am not a smoker.I repeat that last phrase as I come to and stride confidently toward my computer. Weakness begone! Down with craving! cries my energetic subconscious. I take a seat to begin chronicling my -- successful or unsuccessful -- attempt to quit smoking.It's been a week since I launched into this latest effort to become tar- and nicotine-free. Over the course of those seven days, I've: * been hypnotized twice; * ingested extracts of lobelia, wild yam, gentian root, chamomile, valerian root, scullcap, red clover oatstraw and more; * gnawed on a trio of non-burning synthetic cigarette-shaped cigarette-flavored oral fixation substitutes; * drunk upwards of nine gallons of spring water; * smoked several herbal joints of lobelia, colts foot and mullen root; wrapped a blue rubber band around my wrist to be yanked upon each nicotine craving; * spent an hour immersed in NoSmoke, a video game and software program designed to punish nicotine users; * turned down an offer to have 10 needles poked into my left ear... And smoked 11 cigarettes.It's that 11-time moral and personal failure which makes the hours that lie in front of me so crucial, and so daunting. If I can get through a long, hot afternoon of writing about smoking without having a cigarette I'll know I'm on my way to joining millions of righteous reformed addicts, with clear lungs and a clear conscience.There's one big glitch in the whole stop-smoking kick: The harder you try to quit, the more you think about smoking. That's why conventional and holistic and expert wisdom says you can't quit unless you really, really want to. I do. Really, really want to, I mean. Or, at least, I really want to. Or, at least, I want to the way I want to do any number of self-affirming, health-oriented, non-cancer-causing activities like, say, running or becoming a vegetarian or being perpetually kind and gentle to the people who love me. Do I want it enough to change my life around? That's a tough one.Sure, my chest aches when I wake up in the morning and the periodic flashes of intense pain through my heart muscles are none too pleasant. My lungs burn after less than a minute of any aerobic activity other than walking or screwing and I heave and ho when I walk up a flight of stairs. My once-toned thighs are beginning to spread from lack of physical exertion. (Why exercise if it's so painful?) And the ashy residue of heavy smoking forms a film over the dashboard of my car and most surfaces in my apartment.But quit? Lose one of the few consistent pleasures in what is otherwise an obviously bleak existence? Put myself through what is allegedly one of the most consistently frustrating experiences known?Well, I'll try it. But, I'm warning you, no massive displays of self-control here. I'm looking for the easiest way out...I decide that my 24th birthday -- a simultaneous reminder of both my mortality and the nagging suspicion that I've still got time to reform myself -- should be the ritualistic moment of cessation. In preparation for the grand gesture, I make a stop at the local natural food emporium. Wandering through the medicinal-smelling aisles, hands shaking from a food-free morning of coffee and cigarettes, I search doggedly for that quick fix, that magic herb that will cleanse my body of six years of chemical inhalants and restore me to all-natural health.The herb section on the second floor proves to be ... a start. Resident herbalist Kerry Dunnack takes a quick glance at the vial of Smoke Stop herbal extract -- 10 to 30 drops in 4-8 ounces of spring water -- that I've selected for my cleansing venture and gives her qualified approval.The chamomile, scullcap and valerian root in the New Moon mix are "nervines," she explains. They're going to help calm my nerves and "feed" my nervous system. Red clover will help clean my blood. Oatstraw will join the scullcap and valerian in bringing me peace. Cayenne and prickly ash will help my blood circulate. Ginseng will give me energy. And the kicker -- lobelia -- will flush the nicotine and chemicals from my body as if they were mere bacteria.Dunnack looks so healthy -- reddish hair, reddish cheeks, gentle voice -- that I have to trust her. She also offers up a homemade recipe for pseudo-cigarettes: 1 part mullen leaf, 1 part colts foot and 1/4 part lobelia. She warns me to buy a cigarette-rolling machine so that I don't get arrested for smoking a joint and sends me on my happy, healthy way. I'm feeling so good, so optimistic, that I light up a cigarette as I zoom away in my car.But herbs alone do not a reform make. Back at the office, I make a few phone calls to area hospitals to find out what they do. One local hospital has a stop-smoking plan for pregnant women. I briefly weigh the plusses and minuses of becoming pregnant for motivational purposes and decide that the program is not for me. (You think I jest, but many's the time I've heard women say they couldn't stop until they got pregnant -- and been jealous that they had a good excuse.)The next hospital I call proves more accessible. Although its program isn't up and puffing until Sept. 30, I manage to wrangle an interview with Sherry Griefzu, a patient care manager in oncology, who heads the hospital's quitters club. When I arrive at her office, she's busy on the phone putting together the next week's nurse rotation. It gives me time to study her: rosy cheeks, cheery smile. Not a smoker.She hangs up the phone and turns to me. "You don't look like a smoker," she says, reaching for the bag of props she uses for the classes. I preen happily. I've got her fooled.Apologetically, she explains that she forgot to bring the diseased lung tissue that she usually shows to the nicotine addicts under her care. I assure her that it's quite all right -- I'll use my imagination -- and we move on.Her white tote bag is full of delicious accouterments for the soon-to-be-nonsmoker: a pack of non-matches that opens to reveal a tiny note pad for writing down smoking impulses; a fake cigarette pack, containing a roll of mints another phony pack of matches (minus the tips) a light blue elastic wristband proclaiming that "I choose to be in control" designed for self-slapping at those moments when you aren't; and a flavored (mint, not cigarette) toothpick to chew on. She also hands over a pin sporting a joyous-looking teddy bear, courtesy of the American Cancer Society: "I've Just Quit Smoking. Please Bear With Me." I am either unwilling or unprepared to put it on just yet.Griefzu teaches the Smokeless program, an eight-week $100 course in massive behavioral change that doesn't offer any guarantees or easy outs, just eight once-a-week group smoke-out sessions, a cheesy warning that "prestigious medical institutions have determined that Smokeless is dangerous to your cigarette habit" and a series of booklets describing the seismic shift about to take place in your life."You actually have to turn your life upside down," Greifzu says in the brisk but gentle tones of an off-duty aerobics instructor. "If you usually wake up and reach over next to you for a pack of cigarettes, sleep on the other side of the bed. Don't frequent bars. Don't eat certain foods. Don't be with friends who smoke if it triggers you to smoke."The book goes on: "Change your morning routine"; "Change your work area and the times of the day you do things"; "Change the way you drive"; "Change the way you talk on the phone"; "Take a walk instead of a coffee break"; "Sit in a new place at the dining room or kitchen table..."In addition to requiring the reformation of every habit you've formed up to this stage of your adult life, the pamphlet for week #1 includes dozens of negative reinforcers, featuring a set of less-than-subtle signs with instructions to photocopy them and paste them up where you'll see them: "Tobacco is a filthy weed that from the devil does proceed. It drains your purse, it burns you clothes, and makes a chimney of your nose"; "Smokers have everything -- Cancer, emphysema, heart disease"; and, my personal favorite, "Little Orphan Annie's parents smoked." Also suggested, if you want to make your own signs, are "What color are a smoker's lungs? -- Toblacko" and "Old whatshisname smoked." Also on the list of negatives is the "Butt Bottle," a heartwarming personal collection of a week's worth of cigarette butts, available for your smelling pleasure.I'm beginning to think that minor exposure to nuclear radiation might be preferable to the task at hand when I hit the last page of the booklet: "Stressors to Consider," reads the title above a checklist of potential smoke-inducing situations. Here it is, I rejoice secretly. My list of excuses. "Lack of leisure time." Well, I could use a few extra hours to really hone my pool-playing abilities. Check."Putting things off." Yeah, that one too. It's somehow tied to "what your boss expects of you," but I'll figure out the connection later. Check, check. I have to rule out marriage, divorce, separation, duty to family, "jealous people," "injury and illness," "speaking to a group" and "death of a friend or loved one" out of a decided commitment to total honesty.And then I see it, about halfway down the first column. "Nuclear war," the list offers as an option, with ample space for a check mark if your worries about a manmade apocalypse contribute to your nicotine habit. That's it, I realize. That's been the problem all along.Nuclear war makes me smoke.Whoa. This is deep. I need a cigarette.Given the magnitude of the issues I'm dealing with, no mere behavioral modifications will suffice. Since I am personally incapable of preventing nuclear war, I decide to search for more spiritual solution. Frank Bellizzi, a hypnotherapist with offices in Hamden and Rocky Hill, seems to have an answer that really gets to the heart and lungs of the problem: I don't need to stop smoking. I need to stop wanting to smoke."For most people, the absolute worst way to attempt to deal with a smoking habit is through the use of willpower. ... Hypnotherapy does not work at achieving the strength to resist," says a pamphlet that I pick up on my first visit. "It is designed to eliminate the desire. Instead of giving up something that a person enjoys (a sacrifice), the individual's goal is to be rid of something that isn't wanted -- a much more agreeable position psychologically."Much more agreeable indeed. No pain but gain. I'm ready to go under. Over the course of the three sessions that follow, I discover that if I can only imagine myself as a non-smoker, I may eventually actually maybe someday become one. An initial two-and-a-half-day nonsmoking stint sets a six-year record for my blackened lungs. It could be the liquidated herbs helping out, but my body's been fritzing out so badly I couldn't tell you if they've contributed or not. One day -- and I'm going to chalk this up to the hypnosis -- I even forget about those oh-so-pleasant, oh-so-seductive rods of tobacco.For most patients, Bellizzi prescribes four one-hour hypnosis sessions over the course of a month. But since I'm not a heavy smoker -- and since my article is due much sooner -- we decide to condense the timeline. Three sessions in one week, take a break, one more about a week later.Bellizzi's place is your above-average shrink's office: comfy leather chairs, a few plants here and there, sloping ceilings punctuated by two open skylights. It's a little hot that first day, so we turn on the fans and set to work. From what I can tell, I'm just supposed to relax. One of the pet peeves of most hypnotherapists is the idea that they're in control of your mind, Bellizzi confesses. Not true. You can wake up anytime you want to. You have to choose to go under. Just wanted to say that at the outset.I choose to do so, getting settled in the cushy recliner and closing my eyes as I stare into, yes, a spinning white disk with bold black swirls on it. (Bellizzi informs me that the disk is mostly for the sake of the article; often he doesn't use it at all.)The good doctor counts backward from 10 to 1. He tells me to breathe deeply. He tells me to relax my neck, my arms, my legs. No problem.Bellizzi's voice offers steady, quiet instructions, aided in smoothness by the New Agey relaxation tape in the boom box. "You are more relaxed than you've ever been," he tells me. "Feel a wave of relaxation flowing over your body."My arms and legs are beginning to feel like dead weights. I can't lift them any more than I can close my mouth. Or, rather, I can but I choose not to. Or, rather, I choose not to move, except to give the occasional flick of the tongue to the pool of drool that's threatening to drop from my gaping lips.Bellizzi's voice tells me that I'm looking at a flight of 10 well-lit steps with double doors opening at the top. The double doors, he says, open on to "the most beautiful place you have ever seen." OK, I'm there. I'm curling up and falling asleep in the sunlight. Oh yeah.Then he launches in. "Beverly, you have chosen not to be a smoker. That is a choice you have made. Starting today, you will never smoke again. You have become a non-smoker. You have made a healthy choice and you're excited and happy to have made that choice. You have no desire for a cigarette. When you see other people smoking, you do not want a cigarette..." And he goes on in that vein for about 10 or 15 minutes.I find myself surprisingly able to push aside the expected internal voice -- "Yeah, right, I'm not a smoker. Who the hell told you that?" -- and just go along. The only major conscious intrusion comes when Bellizzi tells me to think back ... back to a time before I was a smoker ... back to how healthy and happy and proud I felt then...That takes me back to memories of high school. Healthy? Proud? Happy, for chrissakes? Enough said.The hypnosis does work. For a few days. Until Saturday night. At a bar. At the beach. Escaping from a weekend of family togetherness. Doom.Let's be clear that I don't blame my significant other for my personal failures. But it really would've been easier not to smoke a cigarette that fateful Saturday night if this person were still a virulent nonsmoker. Unfortunately, my friend has fallen and shows little inclination to rise up again to the status of nonsmoker. Buying cigarettes, hoarding cigarettes, glancing enviously at other smokers when they're puffing and you're not. All the signs are there -- even the "I can stop anytime" syndrome that is the mark of pure addiction.I smoked. I admit it. Don't know if it's because I forgot to ingest my herbal remedy, or because I failed to self-hypnotize my wavering conscious into submission, as Bellizzi instructed, or maybe I should have been chewing bubble gum or maybe nicotine gum or maybe it's just a matter of self-control or perhaps I just really really really wanted to smoke. But I did it. So there. It's been a bumpy ride from that point on: Sunday brought another round of smokes -- four or five as I wound through a tearful Relationship Discussion. Monday was three. Tuesday, miraculous day, saw only two. (Probably related to 11 a.m. hypnosis session.)Wednesday... well, Wednesday I'm writing. Wednesday is now. According to my hypnotist, my herbalist, my therapist, my exorcist and my ophthalmologist, Wednesday is the day I must renew my commitment. Wednesday is the day to gaze at other smokers and cry with Xena-like strength and fury that I am stronger than they! Wednesday is the day to immerse myself in hypnotic visualization, to create a full-length subconscious movie of myself as a non-smoker! Wednesday I will become a new person! Wednesday I will look deep within myself and ferret out the demons that caused me to smoke those 11 odorous, socially obnoxious, carcinogenic, enervating, annoying...Eleven? Did I say eleven? So sorry. Make that an even dozen.