I had quit smoking so many times that I decided not to use that word ever again and now when I hear people say that they have “quit”, I take it lightly and reserve comment. Quitting is something that you fear, something that you approach slowly and have a plan in place to overcome the odds, the mood swings, the cravings. I had no such thing.
Let me give you some untypical background. In July of 2007 I arrived at Toronto Western Hospital in an ambulance dying of Liver Disease from Alcoholism. I know this because they told me next morning that I had been dying for about two weeks. I wouldn’t have made it through the night if my sister and Mother had not insisted as I lay in my sweat-drenched Queen bed, throwing up repeatedly, that I had to go to hospital. Even then I kept thinking, “if I could just rest” but I went as they say, kicking and screaming. The Chief Physician the very next morning visited my bedside, told me that I was very lucky and that my life was about to change, that is if I wanted to live. There is always the choice, you know? He explained to me that there was the possibility that I may be listed for Liver Transplant if things didn’t improve. He told me I could never drink alcohol again and I thanked him because I didn’t want to anymore. I didn’t know just why but I just couldn’t imagine putting anything stronger than juice or pop down my throat. I still can’t five years on. I am listed for Transplant at this time.
I attended AA following six months of repeated hospitalisations for any number of intense liver complaints where I would go from a reasonable strength on a good day, to collapsing in the blink of an eye. I had yet to understand my liver and what it could and couldn’t do and it had to adjust to me since it was tired and only working at a reported 15% capacity. So some days felt like I was trying to drive up the Alps with only one cylinder firing in an engine without oil and the gasoline reading at E. Through the Spring of 2008 I adjusted my diet to eliminate sodium effectively and substantially reduce potassium. I could no longer process what I needed from these elements and easily discard the rest, and my medications could not balance the effort. That was when I started to become accustomed to “giving up” or eliminating foods and condiments from my plate. I also couldn’t drink too much fluid and was reduced to 1,000ml daily (per 24 hrs). That’s two small water bottles! I learned how to rinse my thirsty throat with water and spit it out in the sink, or how to make half an ice cube feel like a jug of water.
Around this time I attended a 21 day rehab for Addiction recovery and was stuffed into a laboratory of living creatures similar to myself, packed with drama and tears, heartache and regrets. Sixty-five of us, with oversized egos and a penchant for self-serving behaviours unmatched in regular grown-up society. Most of us smoked and even snuck out for smokes, breaking all the rules, risking a day-pass on a Saturday to see children or family or to simply get out. One late evening I was caught outside after doors were locked when I had lost track of about ten minutes and we pleaded our case. The only penalty being a urine test to make sure that no one had made a “delivery” of alcohol or drugs to us just before bed time. It happens. Not everyone wants to be in a rehab facility like I did. While providing the sample in the bathroom with a nurse by my side, the contents of my room and my luggage was once again searched. I was innocent!
I left rehab and was placed in a “sober home” having provided my graduation certificate from my rehab facility. I shared a room with another guy, fighting the good fight, and we had chores and lights out and plenty of rules to adjust to. The deal was simple … don’t break the rules and you can stay for six months…break them (especially by drinking or using) and your belongings will be in garbage bags in the basement readied for your departure as you cram for an excuse. No excuses! Everyone in the house smoked and we could use the back garden or the front veranda. When we were out front our voices were to be kept low and no spitting or swearing or talking to passers-by. We had to be up and out by nine a.m, bed made, breakfast eaten, and showered and ready to attend a course or look for a job or go to AA or CA or NA meetings. The TV in the main room was allowed to be on before nine but then it was turned off and you didn’t want to be found in your room doing nothing.
One day about a month after I arrived I was walking home across a huge park nearby the house. My room was up on the third floor so I decided to light up a smoke just then to prevent having to come back downstairs or just to have it out of the way. I always had a pack of smokes and I would buy them before food if I had to. I had a Zippo lighter that a friend had bought me for my birthday some two years back. I was attached to it. It was my light in any storm. I liked the sound of it clicking open, and the smell of the butane soaked chamber beneath the flint. I like the way I flicked it closed as I drew my first drag deep into my lungs. Not this day though. I realised as I was readying my hands to remove a cigarette and place it between my lips and reach into my pocket for my trusty flame that I did not feel so good at that moment. I felt weak and it wasn’t from being tired or worn out. It was my liver speaking to me somehow telling me that today wasn’t such a good day all-round to push it. This would be the kind of message that would prevent me from going to night time meetings or late grocery shopping. I stopped walking. I looked around the park and noticed, seemingly for the first time, the natural movement of the oasis amidst the pavement thoroughfare. I saw teenagers chasing a Frisbee and young couples pushing strollers. I saw elderly couples walking back from the stores loaded down with bags for the dinner table. I saw lovers sitting under trees or lying down on blankets. I noticed children running in no apparent direction always to return to the centre of their imagined game while ten-year-olds threw a ball over their heads back and forth. I watched the normal cadence of life as it is lived by everyday people, without drama or strife and with a grace that did not pretend that there are no challenges, but in which there was the realisation that everything will be ok, again and again, at the centre of this game of their simple and playful lives.
I didn’t want to feel ill anymore. I wanted to join in and play and run around and laugh … and I couldn’t. All I could do was decide when to light this smoke that was going to make me feel worse and I did not feel like feeling worse. I checked my mind and said to myself, “Is this happening?” and the answer that my mind gave was “Yes”, and I tried a second question, “should I stop smoking?” and once again “Yes”. “Now?” I asked “should I stop now, this moment?” and I looked around and everything was still as it was a moment ago in the park and the answer that came back to my mind was, “Yes”.
I didn’t tell anyone for a few days that I had stopped and I treated each day just like I had learned in AA. That I could last the day without drinking and now I could also last the day without smoking…just one day…it’s not so difficult really. Just one day. I would go to bed at night and think well at least I didn’t make myself feel crappy from half the cigarettes I would normally have had today. After a week I took my cigarettes off my dresser and offered them to the guy that I was sharing the room with and he looked at me quizzically as if to say “you’re not smoking?” and I told him that I had just stopped for awhile because they were making me feel worse. But I knew. I knew that I would never smoke again. Maybe because my mind had changed and my resolve for necessary changes was stronger than it had ever been. I had become very good at giving up old habits and I had already forgotten half the adjustments that I had made in less than a year. I decided to stick with my story that I had just stopped and when my smoker friends didn’t notice that I was no longer carrying a lighter for them, or an extra smoke, it helped me to realise how meaningless that the whole concept of smoking was in the first place. I continued to stand outside in the breaks at meetings in huddled circles looking at the ground between us and shielding ourselves from the cool Spring breeze.
About a week later I was driving with my then twelve-year-old daughter across town and was inadvertently stopped by a routine Police spot check. I handed him my identification on his approach and he asked me if I had been drinking and naturally I answered honestly that no, I don’t drink. As he checked over my name in his squad car I asked my daughter if she had noticed anything missing in the car after I picked her up. She wasn’t sure what I meant so I led her to the answer by pointing out that I had no lighter and no pack of cigarettes. She asked me if I had quit and I answered that for now I had just stopped about a month ago. The officer returned and I thanked him and put up my window. “You’re not going to smoke again are you Dad?” she asked. I looked at her and smiled and replied “No, never”. She said that I should have told the Officer that I don’t drink, don’t smoke, or anything else for that matter. She was smiling from ear to ear … and we laughed because it was funny.
That’s how I stopped smoking.
I still don’t smoke. I still don’t drink …or anything. I am still waiting for a Liver Transplant, and I still smile.