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Observations

The Bargain of a Lifetime

Quitting smoking was an errant stroll through a maze—and I was the rat

“My name is Whoever, and I’m a nicotine addict.” That’s how it would go if I belonged to Alcoholics Anonymous or was a drug abuser in a rehab program. Kicking cigarettes, though, is a quirky and largely lonesome affair, despite the social and health pressures and a growth industry of proclaimed solutions. To my continued amazement, here’s how it began and ended for me.

I was 19 years old and thoroughly alarmed that I had bolted from my Texas hometown and joined the Marines. One of the few breaks we boots had was when the DI—drill instructor—stood us at ease in two lines outside our Quonset huts and said, “The smoking lamp is lit.” We who didn’t smoke got to hit the asphalt and do pushups until the lamp was out, and it seemed like it sure took them a long time to smoke those things. The C-rations that I encountered later in my training had little packs of American brands with three or four smokes in them. So I took the path of least resistance; in my first chance at a geedunk (code for commissary) I bought a pack of unfiltered Camels, because those and Lucky Strikes were what the DIs smoked. Semper Fi.

Flash forward eight years. I’m a bachelor living alone in a duplex across the street from a railroad right-of-way. I’m up to two packs of Marlboro Lights a day and hating every one of them. I’ve tried enough times that I know the drill—make it past the first four days of heebie-jeebies, and I’ve got a chance. I’m disgusted with myself. I come home from the newspaper job at night, jerk the pack out of my pocket, twist it around until they’re all broken, and throw it in the weeds across the street. (I also try not to litter anymore.) An hour later I’m out there clawing through the Johnson grass and am back inside smoking one that’s bent and torn, smoke leaking out of the paper as I suck on it.

I find a product that I try to take with a milkshake, because the pills feel like they’re burning a hole in my stomach. Those pills are no longer on the market.

But after countless attempts, it finally works.

Fifteen years clean—it’s crazy. My wife and I are roving around Spain and France, having great fun while I’m researching a book. She smokes, and I worry about her, but I can’t blame her for my actions. The wine’s flowing, the food’s great, everybody seems to smoke in Europe, and the cigarettes smell and taste better. I start fooling around at night with John Players, an English brand, and a Turkish brand with a smart crescent on the filter. Dumb as dirt.

Three years later I’m back up to two packs a day and hating every nail in the coffin. A doctor tells me my lungs already show a trace of emphysema. In the newspaper I keep seeing these ads for one-night cure-all seminars, $38 at suburban motels—results promised but not guaranteed. The therapy is mass hypnosis. I don’t see those ads anymore. I suspect lawyers may have discouraged them. But, I think, what’s to lose?

It’s a large and diverse crowd in the motel ballroom. The therapeutic team collects the money first. In uncomfortable chairs we suffer through an hour of absolute psychobabble. The speaker gives us a break, tells us to go smoke the last cigarettes in our lives if we want. People are pouring out of there, and at least half of them don’t come back.

When we reconvene, the psychobabbler is our hypnotist. He tells us to get as comfortable as we can. I choose a place on the carpet, take off my shoes, wriggle my toes. The lights go down. Presently he’s saying, “Visualize a rat. A big white laboratory rat in a cage. Then you notice there’s a spigot above the cage. A drop of brown liquid forms on the rim of this spigot. It is pure, 100 percent nicotine. It grows and grows.” (I’m thinking: Give him credit, he is a storyteller.) “And gravity finally tugs the drop loose, and it splashes on the lab rat’s back. The rat writhes in absolute agony.”

When the lights go up the hypnotist asks us by show of hands how long we think we’ve been “under.” I guess 20 minutes and am surprised when he says with an air of mystery and drama, “An hour.” He wishes us luck in our healthy new lives, and as we’re pouring out of there his assistants are holding up CDs or DVDs and yelling, asking us to buy those ongoing safeguards. No chance; we’re out of there. As I walk to my car in the parking garage, I’m thinking: I’m going to go straight to that pack of Marlboros I left on the console and smoke one. But I don’t.

The night passes, then three or four days, then a week, and at some point I throw the pack away. Then one night I have this exceptional dream. It’s an Indiana Jones adventure movie. At some point in this dream I step out of the chaos, saying, “This is just too much excitement. I’ve gotta have a cigarette.” I go through the whole routine, tapping the filter on my old Zippo lighter, and I’ve got it in my mouth when this voice says, “Wait a minute. You’re not going to smoke that cigarette. You can’t smoke that cigarette. You’ve been hypnotized.”

And I suppose I was. It’s been 20 years, and I’ve never given smoking one of the things another thought. It was a $38 bargain.

——————–
Jan Reid is an Austin writer. His most recent book is Let the People in: The Life and Times of Ann Richards (University of Texas Press, 2012).