This time, I mean it

Steve Hammer

I think I'm finally going to do it this time. I'm going to make one last gigantic push to try and stop smoking.

After being enslaved to tobacco for more years than I care to remember, I've started taking small steps to cut back, and then eliminate, cigarettes from my life.

I've been smoking just about as long as I've been breathing. Both my parents were smokers and I started smoking at the earliest possible opportunity. I've had a good run with it, but now it's time to put them aside.

Every square inch of my apartment bears mute testament to my cigarette addiction. There's the yellowed walls, the ashtrays so full that they periodically spill onto the floor like a volcanic explosion and the pinhole burns in just about every garment I own.

The cigarette stuck in my mouth in the picture accompanying this column is but one of thousands of cigarettes I've enjoyed in my life.

Cigarettes have been around me most of my adult life, first as a mistress and then a lover and then a wife who just won't leave me alone. When I'm faced with stress, I light up a cigarette. When I'm bored, I spark up a cigarette. When I'm happy, it's cigarette time.

I like to think that smoking somehow makes me superior, that I lead a more reflective life because of them, but that's not true. What they have made me is someone with a chronic cough and an expensive habit that destroys my life one cigarette at a time.

It's not like I haven't known the risks about smoking. Besides the incessant and annoying anti-smoking ads on TV and radio, I have watched people close to me die because of cigarettes. My friend and mentor, Harrison Ullmann, died of lung cancer in 2000. A few months earlier, my mother passed away, in part because of smoking.

Yet I have continued to smoke. When I was in the hospital for five days in 2004, I spent much of that time fantasizing about cigarettes. And when I was released, the first thing I did when I got in my car was light one up.

Smoking is a nefarious addiction. You'd rather do anything but give up the habit. In The Master of The Senate, Robert A. Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, Caro tells the story of Johnson's heart attack.

Like me, Johnson loved smoking. His office was full of full ashtrays. He'd light one cigarette after the other in a constant stream. He was up to three or four packs by the time he suffered his heart attack.

It was a lengthy ambulance ride to the closest hospital and it appeared that Johnson might die before reaching the ER. He gave final instructions and messages to his wife and mistress through his doctor.

Finally, Johnson asked the doctor if having a heart attack meant he would have to stop smoking.

"Frankly, senator," the doctor said, "yes."

Johnson sighed. "I'd rather have my pecker cut off," the future president said.

While I disagree with many of Johnson's views, including that one, I can sympathize.

Why cut back now? Well, as in just about every positive situation in my life, the impetus for this change came from a beautiful woman. I was holding my new supermodel friend in my arms the other day and she started sobbing and saying she doesn't want me to die and that she wishes I would stop smoking.

Seeing as how I'd do anything for her, including but not limited to homicide, bank robbery and the clubbing of baby seals, this seems like a relatively easy request.

Other people who love me and whom I love have asked me to stop smoking before, but this situation is different. Paying attention to her words is part of my brain's default factory settings. I have to listen to her.

Day one on the mandatory cutback program was hard. It was a weekend and I found myself constantly reaching for a cigarette during basketball games on TV, while enjoying my first cup of coffee and while daydreaming about supermodels.

I realize how ingrained the impulse to smoke has become. Every significant event of my life has featured cigarettes in at least a cameo role. They have been part of my victory celebrations and have been there during my biggest defeats.

My relationship with cigarettes has lasted longer than any other non-family relationship. Women have come and gone in my life, but the cigarettes have stayed. Cigarettes have never let me down or cheated on me. Their reliability is their biggest charm.

Until now. While my victory over tobacco is far from complete, and the roughest days lie ahead, I'm confident of my eventual triumph. I've never had the motivating factor to quit before now. I've never really wanted to quit before now. I've always said I want to be buried with a carton of smokes and a box of lighters.

If I keep smoking, that funeral will come sooner rather than later. With willpower, determination and a little support, I will prevail and finally let loose the bonds of slavery that cigarettes have caused.

Wish me luck.


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