Posts Tagged ‘smoking’

The presence of me

May 21, 2011

I wonder where our old ways of being end up after we have let go of them?

We all have habits, attitudes, and personas that we embrace and reflect, calling these features our “personality.” Some people cling to their personality no matter what the cost even when it does not serve them well, but others of us only tolerate our ways of being until something better comes along. Life demands growth. Some of this growth is manifested in physical changes, but most of it is a remodeling of our internal structures out of experience, necessity, or enlightenment. Who we were one moment ago is suddenly awkward and out of place. We discard the facets that no longer fit.

I used to smoke cigarettes. And I wasn’t casual about it either. I was a deadly serious smoker. Two packs a day for 16 years. When I was 28, my life circumstances congealed into this mass of complication that made smoking uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unnecessary.

I was serious about quitting, too. It took me four years and all sorts of experimental new behaviors before I knew I would never pick up another cigarette. I was six months into being a nonsmoker when the realization hit me that I was finished with cigarettes. I no longer desired to inhale smoke and nicotine, nor did I miss twirling a cigarette between my fingers. I knew my withdrawal and adaption to being a nonsmoker was complete when I no longer felt as if I was going to strangle any person who looked at me crossways. At that moment, I discovered that the old wives’ tale was really true: smoking does stunt your growth. I was happy to embrace the new non-smoking me. The me who I became then has lived life in a way that the smoking-me never could have.

But I still wonder where that smoker person I used to be ended up – the one who never went anywhere without cigarettes and a Flick-your-Bic lighter. And where is her cousin . . . the one who walked around flexing her fists and making red-hot eye contact with anyone who dared speak a contrary word?

Are they waiting in some kind of life antechamber for the next unsuspecting soul who requires a method to make it through adolescence? That is why I started smoking in the first place. The high school I went to was more of a teenage zoo where the teachers and principal were sometimes worse than the students. Smoking put me inside a crowd where most of those nitwits did not want to venture. I needed to cope and smoking-me came into my life. Her cousin came along to reinforce her presence. Anytime I did not have a cigarette when I wanted one, the cousin would twitch and snarl until I fed her some nicotine.

I have no desire to ask them to come back, but their absence makes me wonder: what other ways of being am I ready to say goodbye to? And because life is ruled by the third law of Newton’s physics: to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction, I have to believe that there are other me’s waiting for me to invite them into my life.

Okay, this blog is already too long and I have digressed in three different ways. More to explore in the days to come – I need to visit that antechamber and meet me.

©2011 by Barbara L. Kass


Slippery Places

June 15, 2010

Warning: this is a long one (about 2 pages single spaced). It is a composite of my experience attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings as an observer for the class on substance abuse I am taking at Loyola. I need to turn it in on Friday. Feedback is welcome. BK

“Are you in the program?” His voice booms across the room. He looks like an aging California surfer: blonde hair slicked back, skin the color and texture of hide leather, and blazing blue eyes that challenge my presence.

“No,” I say, “I’m Barbara. I am here to observe.”

“Observe away,” he sweeps his arm across the chairs in front of him. “You should be in the program. It works.” He pokes himself in the chest. “Forty-five days. I never thought it could happen.”

Of course, I say to myself as I sit down, all of them would think I am addict. Why else would anyone come here?

“I know you,” a woman squints at me. “I’ve seen you before. You ARE in the program!”

“No, I am not,” I tell her. More people file into the room. Some of them take notice of a new face. Others appear oblivious.

Everyone finds a chair. They squirm restlessly as if being still is impossible. One reads the 12 Steps. Another reads the 12 Traditions. The leader of the meeting is a dark, somber young woman.

“Each person has three minutes,” she locks her gaze on me. “Say your name, that you are an addict and, if you don’t want to share, just say ‘pass.’ We will go counterclockwise around the table and then move to the back rows. We start with you.”

She points to an elderly man. He looks about 70. He might be younger, but his illness has aged him.

“My name is John and I am an addict.”

There is a chorus of “Hi, John” before he continues.

“I am very aware of the slippery places in my life. I know I have to avoid bars. One drink and the whole game is over. I have an infection, and I had to go to the doctor. He gave me an antibiotic, which is okay, but then he asked me if I wanted something for the pain.” John pauses, staring at his hands. I notice his fingers are trembling.

“I said no, but it really bothers me. I never thought about my doctor being a slippery place,” he says softly. “That’s it. Thanks.”

“Thanks for sharing,” the chorus fills the room.

Around and around it goes. One woman admits to being only two weeks into her third recovery, having relapsed twice. A man describes being offered oxycontin by a co-worker even after he told the co-worker he was in recovery. When they get to me, I say my name and that I will pass. I do not say I am an addict.

I am a misfit among these souls. Alcohol puts me to sleep and I dislike being out of control of my mind. I abolished my addiction to cigarettes over 20 years ago. Slippery places no longer provoke a need for nicotine. But, it is not the same. There is something different happening here.

Another meeting, another time, a sea of faces who I will not soon forget. Children come with their mothers making babysitters nonessential. I wonder what the children think, what the impact will be on them. It is not my place to ask.

A young man apologizes for his twitches.

“I’m only two days sober,” he explains, “this girl invited me out to a bar a while ago. Months ago. Okay, a year ago. I only had one drink that night. But then I had another a couple of weeks later. And then another after a few days. Then, I started using again. Two years I didn’t use. Two years! All it took was one trip to a bar, and that’s all down the drain. This time I’m going to stay clean. I hate withdrawal.”

Slippery places.

A young woman with tattoos covering her arms, her bare midriff, her back, says she is having a rough time. Her daughter is about five years old and sits next to her contentedly licking a Tootsie Roll Pop.

“I need to find a sponsor. One here close by. I can’t be without a sponsor for very long. I’ll start using again.”

Slippery places.

These are lives balanced in a delicate, precarious cease fire. They might have quit their drugs, but they have not quit their addiction. All they are doing is NOT doing the drugs or the drinking. Very few talk about coping skills when life gets hard or when they find themselves sliding into the slippery places. The warning is out there. The way to cope with the slippery places is to just not go there. Meetings are the place to go instead.

As a counselor, I would require it. Proof-of-attendance slips are available. Loneliness is a slippery place for addicts. Being with others, making safe connections, having a sponsor, being a sponsor, and making oneself accountable to others helps build confidence and self-reliance. An addicted person needs exercises that help them say “yes, I can make good choices.” Regardless of the endless stories of relapse, those who shared gave testimony to their own self-worth and the desire for another chance. Addicts are the only people who can grant themselves second chances.

The meetings give addicts autonomy over their own treatment and recovery. No one is telling them what to do or how to do it. No one is prescribing anything. The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions are ways of being in the world. How a person chooses to integrate and reflect those steps and traditions is a way of becoming who one truly is.

If I could give a recovering drug addict just one thing, it would be to help him or her find a way to be finished with addiction. Being finished does not mean that a person could have a drink, or pop a pill, or snort anything ever. Being finished means that the person is free of the desire, the need, the compulsion, and the constant struggle to avoid slippery places. Slippery places are not just bars or people or events. We all have slippery places inside of us in our thoughts, our emotions, and our responses to life.

The difference is that my slippery places will not take me outside of myself or my life. For recovering addicts, slippery places can end their lives. None of us can control the slippery places. The only part we can control is what we might do when we start sliding.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass