TALKING TO SMOKERS

How does one have a conversation with  smokers about their addiction? It’s really hard. Just a mere mention of someone’s addiction, any addiction, is dangerous. When you stick your neck out, you can get your head verbally guillotined. I know. My sister would get so angry if I said anything about her smoking. Occasionally, I would dare to gently broach the subject with her, but she would tell me to shut up. There was no overcoming her resistance.

She continued to smoke right up through her long decline and horrible death by lung cancer.

I get very upset seeing people smoke because so many of my family and friends have died from cigarette-related diseases: lung cancer, throat cancer, heart attacks. Cigarettes have broken my heart many times, so I am far from dispassionate about the issue.

I KNOW how hard it is to give up cigarettes. I managed to do it in 1971 after smoking for years. It was one of the toughest things I ever did. Cold turkey. No patches back then. For me, the physical withdrawal was easier to get over than the emotional attachment I had to them.

Cigarettes deaden us even before they actually kill us. They create a dull haze that smothers sensations and emotions. When I stepped out from behind that smoke screen, I unleashed a lot of fire inside me.  But, in facing my feelings, I became more fully and completely alive. It was excruciatingly difficult, but oh so worth it.  It helped me to quit when I woke up to the fact that I was being completely controlled by that addiction. That little white stick had me by the short hairs. I got really mad about that. Then it occurred to me to quit for the same reasons I started: that I would be more sophisticated, glamorous, and fashionable—but as an ex-smoker.

Some people are lucky. Once they decide to quit, they just do. My mother and my aunt were like that. I wasn’t. When I finally managed to give them up, I knew how dangerous it was to toy with this addiction, so I vowed never to touch one again, or to allow myself to be lured by that insidious thought, “Oh, just one won’t hurt.” I have known people who, after giving up cigarettes for years, pick one up, smoke it, and get hooked all over again.

A very dear friend of mine is a long-time smoker. She has many reasons why she doesn’t want to give them up—like, “I’m too old. I’ll get fat.” When she said, “And, besides, I love smoking.” I wanted to scream, “I LOVED SMOKING TOO! NOBODY GIVES UP SMOKING BECA– USE THEY HATE IT!!!!!” But I didn’t. I managed to say that quietly.

Horribly, she keeps on smoking in spite of the fact that she suffers from COPD, a lung disease caused by cigarette smoking. It is so severe that she has been visited by EMT crews five or six times over the recent years. Suddenly, she will slip into a terrifying state of being unable to breathe, becoming so weak she can’t even call for help. Fortunately, she wears a panic button around her neck. She pushes it, responders come and rush her to the hospital where doctors and nurses fix her up enough to send her home.

After these frightening episodes, she gives up cigarettes until she gets over her fright, and then starts right in smoking again. It makes me weep. One might ask, “How could she keep on smoking?”  Like my sister, smoking doesn’t make her a bad person. She’s a lovely, generous, intelligent woman. She has just been cruelly snared into one of the most powerful addictions on earth. Unfortunately, like my sister, she has made it quite clear to me that she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Yesterday I got an email from her. She was in the hospital again. She had had another COPD episode. How awful. I phoned her when she got home and managed to say quietly, “Barbara. Is there anything you can do to prevent these attacks?”

“Well, I could give up cigarettes, I suppose.”

The topic was opened. I continued carefully. “You know I love you. I would do anything in the world to support you to give up cigarettes.” We were able to talk about it for a bit. I told her that the way I finally was able to give them up on the fourth try was to understand how evil cigarettes are and that everything about them is a lie.

Of course, she knew that the advertisements years ago lied: “We’re going to make you more attractive and glamourous. You’ll be sexy. Every man (or woman) will find you irresistible. You will be sophisticated if you smoke. Start smoking now.” We had all believed that back then. We had seen doctors recommending certain brands. She might even have glimpsed the ad with Ronald Reagan smilingly holding up packs of Chesterfields or heard  the ridiculous nonsense that menthol cigarettes would be better for you. We had both started smoking before learning that every one of those advertisements was a dastardly lie. It took some time, but the truth was finally exposed that cigarette smoking had led to and would continue to lead to the deaths of untold millions.

Even though, eventually, companies were forced to stop those advertisements and print warnings on packs, smokers continued to smoke, because, by then, we were all addicted. The lying ads were gone, but those demonic little white sticks continued the lies in their own way: “Hey! Don’t worry. You’re not going to die from me. Really. I’m your best friend, I’m there when no one else is. I lift your mood when you’re feeling down. I calm you when you’re upset or excited. I’m always there for you. I make you feel better in every way, don’t I? And isn’t it great that I help you keep your weight down? Mmmmm. You love smoking me, don’t you? Let’s relax and hang out together. I’m your go-to good feeling. Don’t worry about that cough. Grab a light. Inhale deeply, because, baby, you NEED me. And, like the song says, ‘You belong to me.’”

Of course, no one hears that soft, seductive voice, because it is too buried in our addicted brain where we are also oblivious to the fact that we have become co-conspirators with cigarette companies in the mission of our murder. We sink into a hideous death while they get rich. Our loss doesn’t matter because there are always more potential addicts. Here’s their latest policy: “We’ll give cigarettes to children in poor countries. Eventually, they’ll pay for them even if they don’t have food. It’s an entirely new, money-making market!” The whole business is so ghastly, it’s beyond comprehension, really.

I told my dear friend that she must view cigarettes as so awful and nasty that she will not even touch one. She must hate them and see them for exactly what they are. I emphasized again how much cigarettes lie to us in order to trap us into this hideous addiction.

And then an idea occurred to me based on what I knew about her. “Barbara,” I said, “Cigarettes lie to you in the same way Donald Trump does. Think of them that way.”

She laughed. “No one could hate Donald Trump more than I do.”

“Fine!” I said, “You need to hate cigarettes even more than you hate him and his lying ways.”

Listen. If I thought she loathed Hillary Clinton as much as she does Trump, I’d encourage her to use that. I don’t care. It’s way beyond politics for me. I just hope that stirred her to action.

Later, I met some friends for dinner. I told them how despairing I was that I was about to lose yet another person I loved to cigarettes. They commiserated and I was gently distracted by other topics and delicious food.

When we left, I saw a woman standing in front of my car smoking a fucking cigarette. She was lovely—blond, well-dressed, but standing there alone, puffing away. I guess my one glass of wine had stripped away the few inhibitions I have left at my age. I walked right up to her, looked into her blue eyes and said with as much tenderness as I could muster, “You have to stop smoking.”

She looked a bit startled and said, “Nobody has ever said that to me before.”

We talked some more. And, then to my horror, she said that three health professionals had told her that she was too old to stop. “That’s crazy.” I said. “Every day you don’t smoke, your body heals. It’s that simple.” Then, on impulse I went through my spiel about how cigarettes lie to you–“like Trump,” I blurted out daringly, having no idea what her politics were. But it perked her up. She declared with vehemence, “How could any intelligent woman with any sense at all have voted for him!”

I didn’t get derailed and countered with, “How could any intelligent woman with any sense at all continue to smoke?” She sighed, nodded, put out her cigarette and left. Who knows? Maybe I made a difference. Maybe if smokers were approached by strangers who said quietly, “You need to stop smoking.” Maybe….someday, there would be a tobacco-free world. What a beautiful dream.