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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why quitting tobacco is the hardest thing a writer will ever do

By Ted Slowik

Of all the lifestyle changes since the near-fatal heart attack six weeks ago,  quitting tobacco is the most difficult.

Taking meds to lower cholesterol is a no-brainer. I have no problem eating less and healthier--I don't even miss sweets and fats. I now accept an hour a day of exercise as necessary. All this has helped me lose 30 pounds and live healthier.

It's hard to lose weight and not smoke at the same time. Tobacco isn't just a physical addiction, it's a behavioral one. Smoking is social, and most of the jobs I've held include a high percentage of cigarette smokers: restaurant worker, newspaper reporter and editor, musician, publicist. Writer.

Being a writer caused me to identify myself as a smoker of a pack a day for the better part of 30 years. I didn't identify with Hollywood movie stars who smoked, or rock stars. Nonsmokers and nonwriters won't understand this, but there are a few cultural references that illustrate the depth of the addiction.

In the story "Misery" by Stephen King (a two pack-a-day guy for several decades) the protagonist treats himself to a single cigarette upon completion of writing a novel. How's that for incentive? Smokers can relate to the willingness to move mountains to get a fix.

In "The War of the Roses," the ex-smoking character played by Danny Devito keeps a single cigarette enclosed in a glass case until he famously breaks down and smokes it.

That's how it is with smokers. I feel great for not having smoked for weeks, but the temptation is always there. You'll be cruising along just fine, not even thinking of smoking for days, weeks, months or even years and suddenly, out of the blue, the craving will hit you. And it's more intense than any craving you've ever known, for say, chocolate, or White Castles, or alcohol.

I've quit before,  lots of times, including last year for several months because poor circulation almost cost me a fingertip. Quitting is easy; not starting again is hard.

As a writer, smoking helped me think and solve problems. People like Tom Robbins understood this, as shown in this excerpt from his novel "Still Life With Woodpecker":

“Three of the four elements are shared by all creatures, but fire was a gift to humans alone. Smoking cigarettes is as intimate as we can become with fire without immediate excruciation. Every smoker is an embodiment of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and bringing it on back home. We smoke to capture the power of the sun, to pacify Hell, to identify with the primordial spark, to feed on them arrow of the volcano. It's not the tobacco we're after but the fire. When we smoke, we are performing a version of the fire dance, a ritual as ancient as lightning.”

Another writer who inspired my passion for smoking was Kurt Vonnegut. Here's what Time magazine said when he passed away in 2007:

"I've been smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes since I was 12 or 14," he told Rolling Stone last year. "So I'm going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, who manufactured them. And do you know why? Because I'm 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me."

Yes, tobacco use is a slow form of suicide. And for generations it was socially acceptable. Now, we understand the health risks. When I started smoking, you could smoke in offices, in restaurants and bars, in music venues and ballparks, just about anywhere except church and a few other places. Nowadays it's more difficult to smoke, and frowned upon. I was at a party a couple months ago where I was the only smoker. It felt weird.

I'll try my best to not become a militant ex-smoking asshole, but there are no guarantees in life. Even though I nearly died because of smoking I want a cigarette now and several other times a day. That doesn't mean I'll have one, or any of the crappy nicotine substitutes that simply replace one addiction for another. I just mentally put it out of mind and force myself to think of something else.

I won't condemn people who continue to smoke. I'll look at them wistfully and think, "I used to do that." That's who I was, but it's not who I am. It took a heart attack to get me to quit this time. Hopefully it's for good.