Every time another October goes by I heave a sigh of relief and offer prayers of gratitude that I am no longer addicted to nicotine.
It was Oct. 15, 1986, that I butted out my last addictive cigarette. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had prepared for six weeks in advance, cutting down, drinking gallons of water, psyching myself up and developing strategies for coping with cravings. On Oct. 16 I headed out to St. Peter’s Abbey for a four-day retreat.
During those four days I attended every prayer service and mass that was available, and spent the time between walking the abbey grounds, my rosary going like a chainsaw. I also went running every day, exhausting my lungs so that the idea of smoking became painful. I bathed frequently, for you cannot smoke in the tub. I wore out two pairs of shoes, and I think I did permanent damage to my knees with all the unaccustomed exercise. I lost weight alarmingly.
It was a late harvest that year, and as I walked I was aware of the combines working the fields around the abbey. I came to know every path through the woods. I befriended the bees that were still working in their hives, and became intimately acquainted with the Marian shrine on the north side of the abbey grounds, in among the evergreens.
On the south side, I saw Father James Gray feeding the chickadees in the early morning outside his hermitage. There was another hermit on the grounds, living with his dog in a one-room hermitage near the graveyard. The dog was vociferous; though I passed it 10 or 20 times a day, it never got used to me, and would bay and bellow like a crazed hound every time I came into view. I ignored it. I ignored Father James as well, thinking he had better things to do than talk to a suffering ex-smoker experiencing his first freedom in 20 years.
Certainly I had better things to do than to stop and pass the time of day with a holy man. I was too much on edge, experiencing the moment as I had never quite experienced it before. Every part of my body was reacting to the withdrawal of this essential drug to which it had become accustomed.
Quitting smoking was a liberation, though. No longer would I have to worry about running out of cigarettes. Never again would I have to pat my pockets to make sure I had my pack with me on my way out. Never again would I feel like killing something because I had run out of cigarettes.
Oddly enough, my quitting smoking had very little to do with health reasons. My motivation was more practical: I wanted to hold my daughters with no fear of burning them and without their having to smell the pungent odour of cigarette smoke on their father. I wanted to bend over without smoke drifting up into my eyes. I wanted to breathe freely. I wanted to complete a task without stopping every few minutes to light another cigarette. For smoking took up an awful lot of time. I figured I was spending at least half an hour a day doing nothing but smoking.
After six weeks of not smoking, I went downtown and bought a leather-bound Jerusalem Bible with the money I would have spent on cigarettes. After a year I went to Britain for three weeks on the money I had saved. And all the time I clung to the sacraments like a drowning man, going to mass daily, sometimes twice on a Sunday. My rosary was my constant companion.
The cravings faded after a time, and then they became so weak that they were easy to resist. Still, now and then, I feel the old yearning erupt and I want a cigarette. On occasion I have given in to it, only to be reminded how unsatisfying the whole process is. It really is a losing proposition.
Smokers smoke not because they enjoy it, but because they don’t enjoy the experience of not smoking. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy, feeding on itself. The body becomes dependent, the mind even more so. But I am living proof that quitting is possible — and “living” is the operative word there. I am alive and free, and I thank God for it every day.