Smoker’s Cough and the F Train

It’s one of the warmest months in the Bay Area, and somehow I’ve developed a pretty nasty lung infection. Doctor says it’s “light pneumonia”.  I didn’t know pneumonia came in the “light” variety.   It’s kinda like:


Kind of fitting, that it falls on the 2-year anniversary of my quit smoking date. Possibly as a stern warning from the universe, of the things that may befall me, if I were ever to go back. I don’t really talk very openly about quitting smoking.  The people in my day to day, knew I was doing it, they saw me go through it, but I never really told most people about the experience both, the inner experience of being a smoker, as well as walking out of it, but I figured, if this might help someone follow the same path, why not get it out there?

In 2006, I had all my closest friends write me a letter, telling me why they wanted me to stop smoking. I used this as motivation, to keep me off cigarettes, when I moved to Kenya, leaving my pack at home. I figured I would to carry the weight of the words, and cumulative time it took to write those words down as a large enough dosage of guilt, I mean… accountability, to keep me from getting that Philip-Morris fix. However within a few months of my return to the USA, a couple of shots of tequila, and a bad day at work, and behold, we’re pack-a-day buddies once again.

I might as well have used their letters as rolling paper… Yeah, I’m really good at this guilt thing. I’m Egyptian!

September 5th 2012, I decided I would smoke my last cigarette. A year before on that same day, I arrived in Oakland, CA, stepping foot into my new home, in the Bay Area, and I certainly did not see that coming. I don’t really talk about why I quit, and how it happened, but maybe it’s the rediscovery of this blog, and the curiosity of whether or not I’m still able to gather my thoughts and put them up on the digital screen, that I find myself here, drinking a medium cup of hibiscus tea, and typing these words out. But I am hungry.

In summary: I quit smoking and gained 30 lbs.  In that exact order.

To truly understand this, and I think smokers and ex-smokers will totally relate when I say, you have to understand the relationship I had with cigarettes. It was the reward, I got, basically for living. Just finished a meal?....Good job, Paul!  Just sat through one of those EXTRA long 2 hour 30 minute movies? Dang, that was some serious movie watchin’, brother!  The way you just sat there and followed that plot, and all those twists and turns!    And don’t get me started on flights.   Yeah, we know BOS to JFK was only 1 hour, but you held your own.  Stored that tray table like a champ!  Oh, shit, TSA took my lighter… 

My favorites were the ones after long jogs, oh even after the 2009 BAA Half Marathon.  Yeah, it was that serious.

The tough part, though, was the guilt.  I went to bed every night knowing that, if I got sick, and by sick I mean…  life and lung damaging illness… that it was my fault.  I would to have to look people in the eye, and take responsibility for the fact that I not only did this to myself, but I gave my tithe to the all-holy tobacco industry to do it.    A book given to me, that took me about 4 years to read, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Alan Carr, was what finally did it.   I’ve tried all things.   Patches, gums, inhalers, hell, I moved to NorCal where a smoker is pretty much a social outcast (except for some reason once I quit smoking, it felt like everyone around me picked up the habit).   This book, may have saved my life.   Why? . All things start in the mind.  Every sandwich you ate, every person you kissed, every shot you drank, every encouragement you gave, started with a thought. How we see the world, will affect how we live in the world.  And this book gave me a new perspective on this habit of mine.

The instructions are:   don’t finish the book until you’re ready to stop…  and don’t stop smoking until you finish the book…  and that’s why it took 4 years.  There is one chapter, where you’re instructed to smoke your last cigarette.   Essentially I did this: I took two days, went into the woods, and read and smoked, and read and smoked, and chewed on each chapter as if it was manna on my tongue, nourishment, wisdom, I was determined to change my mind, and therefore change my habits.   And I would not read that last chapter until I was ready.  I sat in Tilden Park, up in Berkeley, I walked around Lake Temescal in Oakland, and sat at the riverbank, as I smoked that last cigarette, and I kid you not, it was pretty much the most disgusting thing I had every tasted, because if you really allow yourself to let the words of those pages sink in, you become very conscious of what you’re doing.   And that’s what it took for me.  It was a journey of, “no cigarette today” after “no cigarette today” after another…  Until those daily choices to not buy a pack or take a puff, strung into weeks, and then months, until I just stopped thinking about it.

They say that smoking affects the emotion centers of the body.  If you believe in energy centers, they say the heart chakra is most affected.  And it’s not like there’s this magic ball of green energy in the center of your chest, but whether it’s the chemicals, or the habit itself, the symbolism is perfect.  We draw in clouds of smoke into our chest, where our hearts sit.  Making everything in there a little less transparent to others, and even to ourselves.   It’s one of the reasons people are known for being moody, and irritable.  But it’s not just that, it’s also an extreme sensitivity to all emotion: joy, anger, sadness, laughter, etc.   The clouds have cleared away, it’s nothing but flesh: lungs and heart.    Let’s just say, a few weeks after that last cigarette, I was raw, to say the least.   I feel bad for anyone who got on my bad side during that time.   Oh man, that pedestrian who walked too slow in front of my car…    that poor grocery clerk didn’t separate my chicken in a plastic bag…    to you i apologize most of all.

So a few weeks after I quit, I found out the author of the book I had read, had passed away.  Would you believe I reacted as if I had lost my best friend???  I was sitting on my couch just objectively looking at myself and almost laughing at the ridiculousness of the intense disturbance I felt for losing this person I didn’t even know, and not only that, he’d been dead for about 10 years!   Luckily this phase passed, and I can, again, watch The Notebook without flinching.

So there ya have it.  I can’t run as far as I could when I was smoking, but that’s because my ankle has gone to hell over the years.  I probably could have run a marathon before.  But I write this, in case something here, can resonate with someone who’s in those shoes, who might wanna stop smoking, or just pretty much understands what that journey is like.  It was one of those difficult things, that reminded me that with enough focus, perspective, and determination, most things are possible.   So, I’m taking that with me.

And if for some reason you see me with a cigarette in my mouth again, don’t make a big deal of it, you don’t wanna get on my bad side when I stop smoking again.

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