For the first part of my life, until I was in my fifties, I was addicted to cigarettes and coffee. I rolled my own drum tobacco, and drank up to five pots of French Roast coffee with half and half and two teaspoons of sugar, per day. I rolled about half a pack a day, which is about forty thin cigarettes of very strong tobacco.
When I had my first of four heart attacks, in my early fifties, I sat in the car of the landlord, friend, enemy, and fellow writer, about to get out and earn my rent with him by helping him rearrange his collection of storables in a Berkeley storage facility. It was early Monday morning, as is typical of heart attacks. When it began all that I could do was swear, and cry, repeating my chosen word, ‘F–k”, and staggered it with the word, “ S–t!”, as the tears ran from my body, as if to escape before the end and flee back into the freedom of the air.
In my mind I saw a vision. I saw the destructive part of me, symbolized by a Puma or a Lynx, having finally caught a caribou, which had failed to outrun it. The Caribou symbolized my creativity, my innocence, my love of life, while the Puma symbolized my fears and my desires for death. I saw in that moment, that fear and self destruction had won, had out run creativity and love, and I was being brought down by the neck to my death.
I repeated the mantra, S–t, and then, re-realizing how stupid I had been, “ F–k!”.
Those two animals changed into a single one, an elephant, who placed one foot on my chest. In a moment, he placed the next front foot on my chest. A moment later, the first hind foot was carefully placed on my chest. And then, the last foot lifted and placed on my chest. There the elephant closed his eyes, and waited for me to die, as I was nearly incapable of breathing. By this time, I was being brought first to one hospital, which did not take emergencies, and then to the other, which took me in, determined that I was having a true heart attack, and saved my life with a single shot of blood clot breaker. Three days later, and sixty-seven thousand dollars poorer, I was released, and handed my life back in a frosty blue plastic bag.
Upon being released, I tried to go about my business, when a few days later a friend came by. We went to the waterfront to sit a while. It was windy. I loaned her my coat. That act of kindness gave me pneumonia, as I was still so weak from the heart attack. That, all in all gave me a total of two more weeks without smoking. When I recovered from pneumonia, I understood that I needed to change my life totally.
From this realization, and with the help and support of my partner Surja, who is a health practitioner, I understood that I needed to quit smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, eating red meat, cheese, salt, sugar, and start to exercise. In other words, I had, in fact, died, and this was to be my new life. I was to become the person I hated the most. I was to become healthy.
In making the leap from proudly reckless to social sore thumb taking care of myself, where at dinner parties you say no to the second glass of Merlot, 1973, where you decline going out for pizza with a warm smile to replace it, where you pretend that you are not now nor have ever been a full blown Sicilian who not just thinks that food is love but has had that truism pinched into the very shape of your face, to say, Whoa, wouldn’t that be great, but I have to say no, to a cup of coffee, French Roast, at an outdoor Berkeley Cafe with a friend who loves to talk with you about what you love to talk about, and when people on the street who haven’t fifteen cents say, Big guy, have a smoke? And you have to say, I don’t smoke, sorry, sorry to cheese grated on spaghetti, sorry to sugar in tea, sorry to half and half and ice cream, sorry to cheese burgers, hamburgers, steak, and sorry to an after dinner cigarette, and oh yes, hold the salt please, I like my food tasting like nothing at all, thanks, when all of that is realized for keeps, you start to know that you have had a major life change. You have been dragged over to the other side of the equal sign, and everything that used to be positive is now negative, and everything that was so unbearably negative is now the thing you must prize.
Also, you have entered a place where you are at risk of loosing friends whose relationship was hinged upon those addictions. This means that you have lost a lot of friends, and will be getting to know people you preferred to avoid. From now on you will be sitting at the healthy table in the school cafeteria, with the funny kids who like themselves, and don’t wear only black.
I will tell you now, that it is far easier to quit everything you love at once than it is to quit one thing only. This is because of a string of associations that connect them all. For example, it would be extremely difficult for me to just quit smoking cigarettes, while still drinking all that coffee. Therefore, I decided to quit everything at once, so that, at least for a while, I would not be at an outdoor cafe having coffee to begin with. Also, there was something more heroic about taking it all on simultaneously, than there was to having endless little battles with cigarettes, then coffee, then pizza, then cheese-Danish, —you get the picture.
Coming from a guy whose idea of getting healthy was switching from a jelly donut to a glazed twist, I had to seriously deprive myself. I needed an insight that would get me through. I dwelled upon it, thought about it, wrote about it, played with it, slept on it and chewed it until at last, I realized that the entire concept of addiction was false. I had found the secret pathway out of any addiction that I truly wanted to break. Since I had come to the conclusion that I wanted to live more than I wanted to live a certain way, I had the first ingredient to over-coming my addictions. I want to.
I began to see that there was no such thing as a chemical addiction to cigarettes. If there were such a thing as being chemically addicted to nicotine, then I would never sleep at night. I would wake up every twenty minutes, and smoke a cigarette. This would be my night’s activity. But, in fact, I did no such thing. In the morning, it was a favorite joke among addicts to say, gee I lost eight hours of smoking. I have to make up for it. This humor covers an obvious lie.
When I realized that chemical addiction to nicotine is a cover up for something else, I was able to ask myself exactly what a nicotine fit was. I studied it. I let myself feel it. I gave myself nicotine fits, and waited with them, trying to understand their actual source. Then I spotted it. I saw it happen. I saw what was giving me a nicotine fit.
What creates the illusion of a nicotine fit is when one self definition gets into a power struggle with an opposite self definition. This creates an unnerving, crawling sensation throughout your body that is most unpleasant and anxiety producing, as you are right up against a hot barbed wire fence of identity, trying to tear down one fence and construct another, without the power turned off.
To be more clear about this. People get withdrawal symptoms from any addiction when two opposing self definitions go into battle with one another. To have the part of me that is a non-smoker, try to over power the part of me that is a smoker, creates a nicotine fit. This nicotine fit stops instantaneously when you choose one side or the other!
This is a significant realization for anyone who thinks that they are struggling with chemistry. Food addicts are not addicted to carbohydrates, nor drinkers to alcohol, nor heroine addicts to heroine. All addicts have one common addiction. All we addicts are addicted to a self definition of being addicted to that substance! We Identify ourselves as an over-eater, or a cigarette or pot smoker or a heroine user, as the case may be!
The discomfort is the same, varying only in intensity, but exactly the same. It is the sparks that fly within us when a power struggle takes place between the non-addict identity and the addict identity.
This withdrawal anguish vanished instantly upon recognizing this truth, and choosing one side or the other. If we genuinely want to quit something, we choose to energize the non-addict. If we have not yet decided whether we really want to make the change, we choose to energize the addicted self definition, but in both cases and all cases, we have our hands upon the switch that eliminates the pain of withdrawal.
This is difficult news to hear. It is much easier to believe that we are in a battle with some ferocious force that controls us and makes us helpless to it. It is silencing to understand that there is a simple decision to be made each time withdrawal from anything appears. If we stand there for one second and reaffirm to ourselves that we actually are not involved with that struggle, we are not addicted and never have been, “We don’t smoke”, we make the switch to a non-addicted identity, and the withdrawal symptoms end. It is withdrawal from an old identity, indecision about whether we want to let it go, that gives us the anguish and never is it anguish from the lack of substance we think we crave. We are addicted only to an idea of ourselves.
End of Chapter 6
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