I smoked for twenty-eight years. Since I was a solid pack-a-day guy for more or less that entire time, this translates into ten thousand, two hundred twenty-seven packs (including leap years).
You’d think by that time I would have had enough.
Which was exactly what I thought: Enough. It had reached the point where I felt pretty sure that if this kept going, it would kill me. (After all, it had killed my mom.)
And so, one day in July, 1999, I decided to quit.
Here was the situation:
I was in the midst of a difficult divorce. Our two young boys were going back and forth between her place (ten-thousand-square-foot house on a twenty-one mountaintop acres overlooking the city) and mine (tiny apartment in the outskirts of said city). This was the day the boys were coming to stay with me. It was also my first day in a brand new job as editor in chief of a major national newsstand magazine, and because the first draft of our cover story had been a disaster, I now had one day to redo it myself.
Today. The day my kids were coming.
The day I was quitting smoking, after twenty-eight years.
So, yeah: stress.
As the Lloyd Bridges character says in that great Zucker brothers comedy Airplane!, “I guess I picked the wrong day to quit sniffing glue.”
Except here’s the thing: there is no “wrong day” to let go of a destructive habit or pernicious addiction (two phrases that mean the same thing). There is no hard day. There is no ideal day. There are only three things:
- the addictive habit
- the fleeting moment
- the absence of that habit
They say thinking about quitting is easy, but quitting is hard. In my experience they have it exactly backwards.
As it turned out, quitting wasn’t hard. Not hard at all. What was hard was thinking about quitting. Because you could do that over and over again, for days, for weeks. You could wallow in the idea, agonize over it, come at it from a hundred different angles, strategize about it, indulge in it.
Thinking about quitting: you could stretch that out for years.
But actually quitting? That you cannot stretch out, not even for a day. You can’t bask in it or drench yourself in it. There isn’t time. Because it takes less than a minute, and then it’s over. History.
Here is when the actual quitting occurs: during the three or four seconds it takes to crush out the last butt. I remember mine. I was sitting in a little wooden kitchen chair on my front porch in Crozet, Virginia. I’d decided to make this the final smoke, the last hurrah, and to enjoy it as it departed. I did. Then I crushed it out. Over. (This was sixteen and a half years ago; haven’t had one since.)
At that point, if I’d wanted to process the experience any further, I’d have had to get myself back into the place where I was able to start thinking about quitting again, which would mean I’d have had to start actually smoking again. You see how that works? Complex, yet seductively logical. Devious. And delusional.
Quitting is turning a switch. No more. Thinking about quitting: now that’s a drama.
As you may have already suspected, all of this is not purely about quitting cigarettes. It’s about quitting anything.
For example, certain thoughts and beliefs.
For most of my adult life, I have labored under the crushing and near-constant weight of this thought:
“I never have enough time.”
Deadline. Big book project. Correspondence. Other possible projects. Family. Kids. Multiple responsibilities. Never enough time.
In my adult life I smoked about 204,540 cigarettes. I wonder how many times I smoked this thought: I never have enough time. I’ll bet I’ve sucked that declaration in through my mental lungs, consciously or not, ten times that often.
That’s more than two million repetitions.
I was worried that smoking would eventually cut my time short — and meanwhile I was already doing exactly that myself, in my head, two hundred times a day.
- Stress is addictive.
- The more you are in survival, the less you are in creativity.
- The more addicted to a given experience you are, the more your soul falls asleep.
Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me while listening to him, which I also jotted down in my notes:
- Indulging in a simmering resentment is the same thing as smoking a cigarette.
- Thinking “I’ll never be able to…” is the same thing as smoking a cigarette.
- Telling myself “I don’t have enough time” is the same thing as smoking a cigarette.
At one point we were asked to bring up a limiting belief we had, and then given a meditation exercise that concluded with our positing and experiencing the opposite belief. I immediately chose “I never have enough time.” Asked to write down the opposite belief, the positive one, I wrote:
I have all the time in the world.
I liked the feel of that. Ever since, it’s been soaking in. I do notice myself slipping into the addictive thought pattern and, like quickly straightening one’s posture every time one finds oneself slouching, immediately remind myself of it.
I have all the time in the world.
When the retreat concluded and I reviewed my notes, I read that line again — and laughed out loud, because I suddenly realized it reminded me of something. It reminded me of the day, back in September 2014, when I wrote the last page of our manuscript for Bob Beckel’s memoir, I Should Be Dead. Reminded me of that a lot.
The book is a memoir of addiction and recovery, enslavement and liberation. I had a blast working on it, and I still remember the exhilaration when the book’s very last line popped into my head and spilled out onto the page.
Here are the last six paragraphs (emphasis on that last line added):
There was a time when life was a constant struggle, when I would often find myself consumed by anger, or indignation, or fear, or anxiety.
These days, I mostly just find myself at peace.
It drives some of my friends crazy when I say that. Others just laugh. I can understand why. Most people who know me from television, or from politics, probably see me as combative and argumentative, the last person they’d describe as “peaceful.” Yes, I disagree with my colleagues, sometimes vociferously. But I don’t get too caught up in any of it. Life is too precious. I say what I think. And then watch the world go by.
So what comes next, once my leg is healed? At least one more chapter, I think, perhaps several more. As to what’s in those chapters, I’ll have to wait and see.
I’ve got all the time in the world.
I knew that thought seemed familiar. I was already thinking it more than a year ago — enough to make it the punch line of an entire book! And now it had finally bubbled up to surface as a personal imperative. After thinking “not enough time” for decades, it was time to let that one go.
So there it goes.
Call it a “New Year’s dehabituation.”
Here’s to a fantastic, amazing, delicious, fulfilling 2016 — and all the time in the world.