"The world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It’s a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power."-Chomsky

"The trouble with self-delusion, either in a person or a society, is that reality doesn't care what anybody believes, or what story they put out. Reality doesn't "spin." Reality does not have a self-image problem. Reality does not yield its workings to self-esteem management." -J.H. Kunstler

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."-Dylan

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Big Quit

With everything I've written and said about Don Quixote and a commitment to self-honesty, an ironic thing happened. With all my scathing self-righteousness, I quickly became further disgusted with myself in one area in particular. Smoking. Specifically, the empty talk and proclamations that I was "gonna quit." "Gonna" seeming to always be the operative word, rather than "quit." "Words are important." (Shut up Andre. I get it.)

Always "gonna." When might that be? Was I waiting for C.O.P.D.? Perhaps deep down I enjoyed spending $10 for a pack in New York City? No. I even managed to convince myself upon leaving Bash Bish State Park that I just "wanted" a cigarette...after "patching-up" and going 24-hours without one. "Well, no shit you wanted one, fool! You're an addict!" With my new-found focus on "self-delusional awareness" I could now say for certain that this and every other excuse was utter bullshit. Not that it took a genius to figure it out; I still remember Chris's smug look of amusement.

The final insult to injury... literally... was in Boise, and it happened to be photographed. My 16-year old nephew, Ben, and I somehow got into a friendly wrestling match. While it's essential to stress that I did NOT lose, at the end I was on the verge of cardiac arrest! Not only was I unable to breathe, while I had him pinned on to the floor, (despite what you may hear otherwise, he WAS pinned- squirming futilely, not unlike a roped steer), I literally felt ALL of the energy in my body drain out through my feet! What the hell is that? That, and the fact that even in my emaciated state, I still had him by 10-15 pounds and struggled due to poor conditioning was a cold smack in the face.

I told Lynette or Dave, right there, (after 10-minutes of loud wheezing) that this was it. I WAS quitting. I got the same look I received from both Ben & Brad in Ohio when I told them I'd be hitching to Boise to see them: "yeah, right!" And, I still remember Chris's smug look of continuing amusement at Bash Bish.

When November began, so had my plan. It was time to just shut up or do it. I've tried to quit several times using the gum (nearly had a heart-attack after chomping on it for an hour... not realizing that's a no-no!) and the free-patches. The only things that have worked? Boot camp and a well-timed case of the flu. Taking cigs out of the equation. The flu immediately followed my aborted bicycle tour. Aborted for reasons similar to Ben, except entailed cycling my then 190-pound ass and my 85-pound bike/gear up Colorado mountainsides. Another story for another time, but that quit lasted for a month or two, then found me progressively smoking "one or two" more-and-more, until I finally gave up upon our return to New Mexico to play "radio" with Skippy the Super Douche.

I've regretted re-starting since that job ended, but nicotine's a motherfucker. People who have never been addicted think it's so simple, and when they say, "Just don't LIGHT them!" I wanted to inflict harm. If only it were that easy. It becomes a significant part of your psyche; part of who you are; especially after 23-years. (Yes, Einstein, I'm saying I was 6. This isn't math class; keep reading.) Even when you quit, it can be like losing a good friend, and that "urge" to smoke never really goes away although it does become manageable. It's like a mental scar; a lifelong rude reminder, and that's what the urges eventually become: persistent reminders of how powerful nicotine really is. The brain reacts in much the same way it reacts to heroin, and that's why people will continue to smoke while hooked up to ventilators, knowing full well that it WILL kill them if they don't quit. Some people would rather smoke than live. Or, perhaps it's better to say they would rather die than quit. Either way, it IS that powerful.

I knew ALL of this going in, and to my credit had been gathering weapons to add to the arsenal when/if the time came. During our time in Michigan this June, I talked with Brian about the prescription drug Chantix, since he had quit two-years before and raved about how it had worked for him, despite still living with a smoker. Having been he and Joey's roommate for nearly a year, after first working with him, I know how he loved his cigarettes! When he described how the drug works, it made sense. It simply blocks the receptors nicotine uses in the brain, while triggering a tiny stream of dopamine. Dopamine's the chemical the brain produces, in massive quantities, when you're smoke or drink (among other things.) Its effect is a sense of euphoria so addicting that lab rats will literally starve themselves to death if dopamine is an alternative to food. They would rather die than quit. Dopamine's fascinating, and there's a reason NO A.A. meeting is ever likely to be smoke-free.

Chantix may be a wonder-drug, but it is also expensive! One requiring a prescription, which meant an out-of-pocket doctor's visit; the Vagabond, Inc. HMO is a bit thin on coverage! This is where October and these notions of self-delusion, became a powerful and ultimately continuing & essential asset. Plus, seeing the cost, playtime was over! I was forced to ask myself IF I wanted to quit at all, and if so, why I hadn't quit yet. The flimsy excuses were no longer working because I knew they were excuses. Funny thing about self-awareness: it's not always convenient. On that Tuesday 11/3, in a moment of motivation, bravado & haste, I called the office Joe had suggested and luckily got an appointment for that Friday, 11/6. That was the first big step but the smokes were far from done with me, and how clever they can be!

The next day I found a laptop on Craigslist. A brand-new HP "desktop replacement!" 4GB RAM! Upgradeable to 8GB! Dual Core Processor! Windows 7! 17" screen! It.. was... fucking... perfect! It even came with the receipt, so if I wanted a different one I could return it; the last computer I'd need for years and would cost more than $200 less than it was new! I sent an email, offering $100 less than he was asking, thinking there's NO way he'd bite. He bit.

There was no way I could afford to get both the laptop AND the Chantix, so I quickly rationalized that if I spent the money on the laptop, it would force me to quit smoking on my own! THAT surely would be better for me! It would teach me something and Pfizer would get none of MY money! I quickly agreed with my inner Rationalist, and at 6pm that very evening I picked up my shiny, spiffy new laptop. It WAS perfect.

It was re-sold the next morning.

Shortly after picking it up I came to realize what I had done. I had created my own little delusion; my own special narrative. I knew damn well that if I canceled that doctor's appointment I'd still be puffing away come July... still talking about how I'm "gonna" quit. When I realized what I was doing, I literally told myself to shut the fuck up. ***It's a bizarre feeling to be disgusted with the outdated and antiquated voice-of-habit- in your own head! I wanted the laptop, was afraid of what it would take to actually quit, and the computer was my habitual excuse to avoid it. Simple. Disgusting. But, a glorious sight to behold from an outside perspective!

I immediately called Laina to see if her co-worker was still looking for a computer. She quickly called back to say that Katie, the woman I had been house-sitting for, wanted one and asked me to bring it in to show her. She liked it (of course... it WAS perfect!), and that night I had recouped exactly what I had paid, losing nothing yet gaining some invaluable insight in the process... and into myself for once. That theme would continue.

I was a bit concerned about getting the prescription that Friday morning, and felt a little dirty about "asking my doctor if Chantix was right for me." I haven't been to a doctor in at least 15-years (probably much longer) and was NOT eager to take part in the drug-dealer charade. Plus, the cost was ridiculous considering what she was doing: asking & answering questions then writing a prescription. The process was painless and before I knew it I had my coveted salvation pills. I later chatted with Brian & Fast Joe (he used to work for Pfizer) saying thanks and asking more questions about the drug and its creepy "Quit taking Chantix IF..." laundry list. I laughed realizing that the drug's side-effects sounded awfully similar to nicotine withdrawal! How the fuck would you know if the drug's making you psychotic... or it's the jonesing for a smoke?!? Silly Pfizer.

The morning/night regimen started that Friday, 11/6. You continue smoking through the first week, supposedly to let the drug build up in your system, but I noticed effects almost immediately. First, the almost metallic taste to the smoke. Plus, I was smoking like a chimney; not getting my usual buzz. That Sunday, I felt what were later seen to be my first withdrawal symptoms, despite still smoking... albeit less. The symptoms? I was a raging prick. Unpleasant? Sure. Expected? Absolutely. A general change in demeanor? Not likely. That theme would continue.

Luckily, Katie and her husband had unexpectedly needed to return to California again, so I had another week house-sitting; one that coincided perfectly with the quit. My first dosage increase was Monday, and early Tuesday I noticed (and later in the day finally identified... with an ironic laugh) more severe withdrawals. The identification was hindered, again, by the fact I was still smoking, and a bit freaked-out by the "You may go apeshit!" warnings from Pfizer! I wasn't going apeshit; I was withdrawing. The drug was obviously doing its job, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do to stop it now. Even if I chain smoked, it wouldn't matter. After I came to understand what was happening that was a HUGE help. The gun's chamber was all but empty.

The rest of the week at Katie's was calm, quiet, and boring. I played on her (what had been my) laptop most of the time, and ate. I began to count my cigs, and had gone from 12-18 down to 3-4 a day, and they were simply out of habit. A persistent habit. On Brian's advice, I signed up for the online "Get Quit" program that's part of the purchase, and as my (their) quit date approached with Friday, the fact that this was real began to set in. I knew damn well I wasn't quitting Friday, and didn't bother to try. It was as though I knew a friend was leaving, never coming back, and I wanted another day with my pal of 23-years! You may surely laugh, but I'm not kidding!

Saturday was my quit date, and after dumping the rest of my loose-leaf tobacco in the toilet with much fanfare Friday night, I did well on Saturday while somehow failing miserably at the same time. I decided to drag Laina to see 2012, both out of a perverse interest in seeing the world end and killing 3-hours in a place I couldn't smoke. However, the movie had sold-out. This was the day after my final dosage increase, so I was a special kind of menstrual. Being pissed off at the sell-out quickly escalated into just being pissed off at Santa Fe in general, then to anyone who looked in my general direction, which led onto "The Fuck It Express": smoking the final pack, which had been left at the house when I went to Katies. No one said this would be "easy" even with the drug; this was a punch in the gut to remind me.

Lighting the first cigarette on that Saturday evening was accompanied by an old, familiar, exiled and unwanted friend: the shameful, self-loathing and disappointment of failure. This time however, my awareness of the delusions & the narratives went to work. I was actually able to identify something very important, and something that should serve me for a very long time: The old-habit of escaping into excuse filled self-destruction when internally things inevitably become challenging. There were similarities between this moment and buying the computer earlier in the week: the flight instinct. This was an intensely interesting moment because it was old, yet persistent THINKING at work, something I thought I had sequestered securely away, only to witness it again on full display: naked!

Like picking up a cigarette was a nagging habit, so was this mental reflex.

I could see it, but didn't fight to stop it. I absorbed it, felt it, and focused on what had happened and what running to that cigarette meant. I smoked that cigarette with quite a cranky scowl, and perhaps  would have kicked a puppy had one been present.

I smoked normally the rest of Saturday night. At about 11:00, I was ready for bed and had a decision to make. By then, I'd had the time to process everything that happened throughout the course of the day and could clearly see, now, that just knowing the tobacco was at the house had given me all I needed to first fabricate, and then direct my little drama all the way from "Sold-Out" to "The Fuck It Express." Self-serving delusions? Alive & well in Santa Fe.

I was right in my Quixote assessments. We will conjure up anything to fit the narrative! But realizing that and fighting them in reality is like fighting the ego: a constant battle only made possible (far from "made easy") by awareness.

Knowing this, it was time to ask myself a very simple question: "Todd, are you going to keep finding excuses to smoke despite the fact that, if you do, it will kill you?" With that, the cigarettes were no longer killing me. I was. Nicotine was no longer the cast as the villain of my self-destruction. I was. I finally "owned" it.

I stepped outside, had one final cigarette with NO fanfare, then, silently and alone, dumped the rest of the full pouch into the fire. There was no sense of grandiose euphoria. There were no accolades or self-congratulation. I just sat there, watched the tobacco and the package symbolically burn away, and went to bed.

The first day, 11/15, was of course the hardest but also the most rewarding. All the ready-made excuses went out the window with the first full-day. Then again, and more so, with the passing of that first week. Laina and I finally succeeded in seeing 2012 in all its apocalyptic glory on Day 1 which helped immensely, as did the unwavering support she offered throughout-despite dealing with a cantankerous prick. I can't overstate how important it was to have someone to talk to!

Later in the week, I discovered that there were a plethora of things that kept me distracted. Writing for one. Imagine that! I managed to physically write more in that first 10-days than I had combined since February. The urges to smoke were still there but, again, I made an effort to own rather than avoid them, and it's worked. They've steadily decreased in frequency & intensity, and are now little more than pesky reminders. There was such an incredible surge in energy after a few days (when the carbon monoxide was gone), that I actually started running...and I hate running! It almost killed me the first day, but has gotten easier as my lungs and heart have been recovering. I just feel progressively better...and it's nice not to spend money on those things.

I know it's been only 19-days at the time of this writing. I also realize...it's been 19-fucking days! Those who know me know exactly what I mean! What's important is that the nicotine addiction is gone, taking with it any real excuses to smoke. The mental scars, the reminders, may always be there to some degree. Looking back, I have the mistakes I made with my '06 quit to learn from: allowing myself the (at-first) occasional cigarette. Looking forward, it's in my hands and the decisions I make. The addiction's been contained, so there are no more excuses other than compulsiveness, self-destruction, or plain & simple stupidity.

I guess I was "gonna" quit after all. "When might that be?": November 15, 2009. This, partnered with the powerful self-assistance from these introspective "October Rants" has once again provided a powerful new tool in dealing with these oft-problematic Quixotisms: Self-experience making tangible an organic yet, until then, only abstract theory.

As in August, this apparent "down-time" where I often appear lost in "idle reflection" and engaged in (as Chris called it) "cave thinking" rather than seeking out adventure and treasure in far-off lands, has begun paying real dividends, beyond the imaginary, anecdotal trips to band-camp.

Oh, as for the nagging thoughts of hubris and/or arrogance? Label me what you like, but it's only hubris if I'm wrong.