Tuesday, July 06, 2004

A Chimney in Recovery

I have a confession to make. I am a smoker. A heavy smoker. I've smoked for 35 years. I switched to a pipe for awhile, and even cigars for a brief time, but I've never given up smoking. I really enjoy tobacco. But I know it's time to give it up.

I made a promise to someone close to me that I would stop smoking some months ago. I've not quite accomplished it yet. For a few days, I'll cut way down. But I've never stopped (I'm intentionally using the term "stopped" rather than "quit," thanks to some insights shared by Mumcat).

I've tried to figure out what the attraction is to this nasty habit. I even wrote a little poem about it once;

Ill-begotten bastard
Of past Englishmen's greed
Robber of breath
Comrade of death
You force me, vile habit
To feed my craving need
That captures some of the emotion surrounding stopping this ingrained behavior, but is really an avoidance technique, I suppose. Wasting time writing a poem about it makes me feel like I'm doing something constructive concerning the problem.

Other than the enjoyment of the taste and the ritual, combined with the physical addiction, why is this such a difficult vice to surrender?

A few things come to mind. It's my reward system. I can remember so many unpleasant jobs that I managed to get through by simply telling myself, "Get through this, and then you can have a nice smoke."

Then there is the layer of insulation a cloud of smoke provides. It creates a barrier between me and others. The message is, "Leave me alone; I'm smoking."

There's another thing that I think makes this habit difficult for me to release. It has to do with memories from a time in my life when tobacco was highly valued.

The state of Oregon sent me to McLaren School for Boys on two occasions. It was, and is, the state reformatory. When I was there, it wasn't too bad of a place. It consisted of about eight cottages; each one holding about 30 to 50 boys. Each cottage was designated by county, meaning that the residents of my cottage were mostly boys I knew from school or the street.

The staff were very gentle with us, as long as we stayed within the rules. There were no fences, although I've been told there are now. The school was situated in the middle of a valley of plowed fields stretched out as far as the eye could see. Since we were all placed in the custody of the school by the courts, we could not leave. The plowed fields functioned as our fence. If a boy did run off, there was a security team consisting of about eight guards with half a dozen Dodge Darts with radios that would head out to track you down. They usually brought the boy back. He would spend about a week in Benson Hall, the isolation facility, and then be returned to his cottage.

Since we were all minors, tobacco was contraband. Of course, almost all the boys smoked anyway. Our currency was smuggled tobacco. "Tailors" were worth their weight in gold. Most of us rolled our own, from pouches of tobacco we had smuggled in. We lit them with a small square of flint torn from a matchbook, and a match which had been peeled in half.

There were other ways to get a light when in a pinch. I saw one of the boys in our cottage wrap a metal bread bag tie around a comb, forming two prongs, which he wrapped with toilet paper. He then took the comb and shoved it into an electrical socket. The toilet paper burst into flames. The lights dimmed for a moment as well, alerting the staff that someone had just gotten a light in this manner. I don't recommend trying this, btw.

We had an understanding with the staff in our cottage. There was a large tiled room in the cottage that contained the showers, sinks, and toilets that we called "the flats." During certain times of the day, the staff would not enter the flats, as they knew we were having our morning/afternoon/evening smoke. Since there were only three toilets, only three boys were allowed in the flats at a time. We formed "toking groups;" groups of three that shared their tobacco resources, and smoked together.

My two "residencies" in this "school" totaled about one year; a little over seven months the first time, and about four months the second time. Within that year, I only got in serious trouble twice. Both incidents involved tobacco.

The first one occurred when I got up one morning, got my "flat's pass," and walked in to find a staff member leaning against one of the sinks with his arms folded. This was not one of our regular staff, but a substitute who was filling in for someone who had called out. He didn't know about our "understanding." I wasn't going to get my morning smoke. I blew my top, and called him an s.o.b., and probably a few other things I can't recall. That got me put in Benson Hall for the morning, in a padded cell no less. When the same staff person came to escort me back to the cottage, I apologized during the walk, and that was the end of that incident.

The second bit of trouble involved a common problem when you put a bunch of boys together who have a history of juvenile delinquency. Someone stole a pack of my toking group's tailors from our hidden stash. We happened to be really low on tobacco at the time, and losing that pack of tailors really hurt. We found out who did it; this rather large boy with a reputation of being a bit of a bully. As was the norm, one of the members of our toking group was a "hard guy," a boy who had a reputation for fighting. This was to discourage such robberies. All this guy had to do for free tobacco was protect our stash. Our "hard guy" turned out not to be as hard as we thought. When he confronted the thief, who admitted to the act, and refused to return the treasure, our guy backed down.

I saw red, and confronted the bully myself. Not only did he refuse to return the tailors, he called me a "little punk." I charged, fists flailing. The staff broke it up. I got sent to Benson to cool off for a few hours. But we got that pack of tailors back!

Anyway, a long story to make the point that in my mind, tobacco is something worth taking many risks to enjoy; it's even worth fighting over.

Is it really? Of course not. But unwinding the convoluted patterns of this habit, involving physical addiction as well as psychological dependence, is a quite daunting endeavor.

I know I can do this. I know I must do this. But must I do it today?


UPDATE: Neil offered a link to a good article from The Church Times by the Revd Dr Giles Fraser; Just One More Cigarette. Here is just a piece of it, with which I can identify more than I want to admit;

So strong is the hold nicotine has over my life that it warps my logic. Consider the following, all of which I have believed:

1 I will not be able to think or write without a cigarette.
2 Smoking preserves a vestige of bad-boy credibility in my safe, middle-class existence.
3 Being a smoker makes me more approachable as a priest.
4 Smoking will make me thinner.
5 Smoking is so bound up with my identity that if I give up, I will no longer be me. My demons tell me that without cigarettes, I won’t be clever, sexy, cool or confident.

Like sin, the wages of smoking is death. My grandfather died of lung cancer at 50-something. Giving up begins with the existential drama of facing one’s mortality. Rarely has my inner life been so intense. Yet, to my shame, it took half a packet of fags to write this piece. Karl Marx was right: the point is to change things, not just understand them.

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