By Mark David Blum, Esq.
In Greek Mythology, some say that when the great warrior Achilles was born, his loving mother Thetis wished to make him immortal, and for that purpose she dipped him in the waters of the river Styx. But others affirm that she, without the knowledge of the child's father, put the babe in the fire by night in order to destroy the mortal element which Achilles had inherited from Peleus, while anointing him with ambrosia during the day. But when Peleus saw the child writhing on the fire, he cried out, thus preventing Thetis from accomplishing her purpose. Thetis threw the screaming child to the ground, and left both husband and son, departed, never to return again. Paris alone, or aided by Apollo, wounded Achilles in the heel with an arrow. Achilles died of the wound.
In the Second Millennium, to refer to an ‘Achilles’ Heel’ is to identify a particular weakness or fatal flaw in something otherwise invulnerable.
Achilles had his heel. I have my butt.
Recently, I, the great warrior, embarked on a quest to heal and find the Fountain of Youth (or at least recapture what is left of my life). It was time to quit smoking. The decision had been made. All that was necessary was simply to stop smoking and buying cigarettes.
The battle plan had been simple enough. Do not smoke. No cigarette has the control over me to force itself into my hand, hoist itself into my mouth, and produce flame to ignite the passions. ‘Addiction’ is not a disease; you cannot autopsy a body and point to the place where the addiction disease exists. Instead, it is a learned behavior reinforced through environment and other factors. But no drug or external factor has the power to make you do something you decide to not do. It really is a matter of ‘just say no’ when it comes to not using.
Alas, if that were the end of the story. Just because the theory of ‘addiction’ is not one of disease, nevertheless there really does exist a phenomena of dependence and overwhelming craving and desire for substances or effects. It can be powerful; overwhelming to the point of near-death. At times the body can become physically rewired to require a substance to sustain life. Altering lifestyles and blood chemistry is not simple with human beings.
First on the list of cures for addictions of any kind is ‘maturation’. People grow up, grow old, and get sick and tired of doing something. Very few of us live at 45 like we did at 25. It is not that we are “too old”; it is just that we have moved on in our lives. You see it everywhere; people quitting smoking, drinking, or heroin just by stopping. (As an aside; Alcoholics Anonymous does not release their success rates, but at last look their success rates were about 5%. The success rate for quitting drinking on your own is likewise about 5%).
As for me, though sick of smoking, I enjoy smoking. Doing so gives me certain pleasure and provides me certain benefits that make the cost and grief worthwhile. Most likely this is so because after more than 25 years of smoking, my body has grown accustomed to cigarettes and my body’s chemistry has adjusted itself to the act of smoking and the ingredients ingested. Lined up end-to-end, after smoking several hundreds miles of cigarettes, the act of lighting up a butt is just as much a part of me as my skin.
Every smoker knows how far you will go to get your fix and how bad it can get. Because of that, we all cover for each other. Many of us know the feeling of searching ashtrays, garbage cans, and streets for butts big enough to smoke. ‘Jonesing’ will make you do things you would never confess except to another smoker. My own personal favorite story is the time I was hospitalized with an acute asthma attack following an illness. Laying in the hospital bed, barely able to breathe and with an oxygen mask on my face, I made the nurses help me up every 2 hours so I could go down to the patient lounge and have a smoke. They were so disgusted with me. I always had this vision of having a tracheotomy as a result of smoking and then continuing to smoke through the pipe.
There is an unwritten code amongst smokers around the world. You will not see such phenomena anywhere else or with anything else. For smokers, a total stranger can walk up to you and ask for a cigarette, and though you may grumble and groan, you will not hesitate to share. Even the person who wouldn’t give a quarter to a starving homeless child on a below zero morning, will cough up a butt to any stranger who asks. In places where nobody will even give you the time of day, they will not hesitate to stop what they are doing and light the cigarette you just bummed from them.
This experience is not my first attempt at the stop-smoking thing. Quitting smoking is something smokers do a thousand times in their lives. Sometimes it happens by choice, sometimes by circumstance. We have a friend who was diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer after she started coughing up blood one day and got very ill. Obviously she quit smoking (though why at that stage I don’t know) and went smoke free for a year. When doctors later learned they had misdiagnosed her and all she had was some kind of unheard of but serious lung infection, she healed. I am pleased to report she back to her 2 pack a day schedule.
We quit smoking every time we extinguish a butt. The actual chemical dependence and subsequent withdrawal lasts only a short time … a couple of days. It is the habit that takes the rest of your life to resolve.
When I first met my bride of now 17 years, she was at first shocked when learned this new cute guy she was dating was a smoker. She made up her mind she was going to get me to quit. Having done so successfully with prior partners, I was going to be just another success story. Well she tried sending me to psychologists and hypnotists. Doctors prescribed me Zyban and Xanax. We sat one night and slowly and methodically used scissors to snip to shreds an entire carton of cigarettes as a ceremony to ending the habit. She would sit on me as my body convulsed through the withdrawal. I battered her with anger and frustration.
Have you ever owned or seen a lazyboy recliner chair? You know … the big overstuffed reclining chairs in which fat Dads like to roost? I owned one at about the time this major stop smoking offensive was going on. After all the drugs and therapy and love and help, one evening … day 13 … it was game over. In a fit, I dragged the chair into the bathroom (not an easy chore) and proceeded to destroy that chair with my bare hands. I ripped off the material, gouged out the padding, and cleaned it down to the frame like a nicotine-crazed piranha. When it was over, my Princess came over, put her arm around my shoulders, and said I should perhaps think about resuming smoking again.
‘Pain’ is not a stranger in my life. Physical pain and psychological pain are old friends. Over the years, life has brought me experiences in pain that beforehand I would not have believed I could survive. A lot of that pain I have brought upon myself. I have slept in dentist chairs, survived combat, and played some games you don’t even want to know. I could probably give birth to triplets out of my ass and not even break a sweat. Yet nothing in my life experience even approaches the level of pain I experience from quitting smoking. It is indescribable and insurmountable.
When I travel and am not going to be able to access a cigarette for long periods of time, I am relatively calm and can deal with the pain of withdrawal. Simply by focusing on the clock and knowing at a time certain, I am going to be able to smoke again, peace is found. Once while flying coast to coast but having to change planes in St. Louis, the airport was in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. Planes were stacking up. The delay in the air was so bad that we kept flying to Oklahoma City to refuel just to fly back to St. Louis and get back in line. What should have been an hour and a half flight from New Jersey to St. Louis turned into a 14 hour fiasco. It took two stewardesses, my fiancée, and seatmate Garret Morris (of SNL fame) to keep me from chewing through the hull of the plane.
The light at the end of the tunnel is not there when you are quitting. As long as you may have to go between butts; the comfort of knowing that next butt is going to be there is enough to give you life. When there is not going to be “that next butt” or when I simply do not know when it is going to be, the sheer panic and pain set in. My gut gets knotted and my stomach muscles will convulse and seize. Though I can fight it and go on so that nobody can tell, the pain is constant and builds without relief.
So here I am again … back to butt sucking after a failure to quit. Sucking fags is so “70’s”. My medical situation though healthy is reaching borderline in some areas. I am frankly sick of smoking. I am done. Yet, knowing as I did, I chose a different approach.
Rather that face the demon, perhaps just reducing my smoking significantly by not having them around but smoking them when I can find them was intended to, over time, wean myself down. The principle goal was to not buy cigarettes and not have them around. Ninety nine percent of all the cigarettes I smoke are on impulse and not based on any physical need.
So, over the course of days, I got to play Santa Claus. As I ran into friends and acquaintances that smoke, I bought them all packs of cigarettes. My idea of smoking a new brand called “Yours” (available at the Onondaga reservation) was accepted and the plan was in play. The first day was relatively easy. By day three, all I could think about was when I was going to get my next cigarette … who can I bother? Even though I knew help was on the way, the time in between was spent plotting, planning, and staring at the clock. When I was at one friend’s house and left, I took with me one cigarette that I would save for when it got real bad. As I was pulling out of his driveway, I ended up in a snow bank and after shoveling a half-ton truck out of the snow with my bare hands, I found that the cigarette had broken badly in the process. The pain of seeing the broken cigarette far outmatched the pain, cold, and misery of having just hand dug a truck out of the snow. You bet your ass I smoked that broken butt.
I refuse to take drugs. It is not my intention to substitute one dependency for another. Tranquilizers are not the answer. Besides, I really hate the feeling of being “drugged”. It is why I do not generally drink alcohol. At the same time, I focused on other aspects of my life such as diet and exercise and was determined not to let food take the place of my burning butt. By day four, I was a total bastard. The pain was not that severe because here and there, I was finding the drug. It was the panic, the fear, and whatever else is hiding behind that cigarette that was making me ill. I couldn’t live with myself and I know those around me were likewise struggling. It would be cruel and abusive to allow my own shortcomings to cause pain to others; especially those closest to me.
So, on day five, I bought a pack of cigarettes.
The bottom line from this whole experience is that my butts are my Achilles’ Heel. They are the one character flaw and personal weakness I cannot overcome. Only death is going to heal me. It is going to be my destiny to be a living and dying example to my children and theirs that smoking is not a way to live your life. Whatever demon creeps behind the dam being plugged by those butts is too much for me to handle.
Perhaps one day, like Achilles’ I will meet an Amazon who will whisk me away to the an Island or the woods, hold me captive with strong ropes and a gag, and maintain me prisoner until this devil is exorcised from my soul. Yet as fate will have it, my death will not be from petite morte but I envision a long slow painful experience as the damage I have wrought upon me consumes what remains.
My butt is my Achilles' Heel. Ain't that a kick in the ass.
Though I am always the warrior, I remain mortally wounded. I shall continue to do battle and advance the Lord’s work. In time, perhaps I will be forgiven my sins and be allowed to be free of all my demons.
Can I bum a smoke?