For a person with a moderately good education, keen intuitive insight, abundant knowledge about and access to health care, the question is raised, “How stupid can one person be to continue smoking for forty-one years?”
Since the first introduction of tobacco onto the North American continent, it took over two hundred years for the United States Surgeon General to make his first report on the dangers of smoking. When Surgeon General Luther R. Terry presented the report, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General, in 1964, the research that had begun in the 1930’s had culminated in the advisory that there was a “70 percent increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers.”
I began smoking in 1968 at the age of nine-years-old. At the time, my mother kept a pack of cigarettes in the refrigerator, from which she took an occasional drag. She was very nearly a non-smoker; however, not quite. To my young mind, it was so rare that she smoked, she would never remember how many ciggies she had smoked and would assume she would forget one of those times. In the retrospect of a multi-decade smoker, I realize now that each and every stick is accounted in the mind of the periodic smoker. It appears Mom assumed Dad, who had a brief history of smoking, took a periodic puff himself.
I bought my first pack from money I had earned working for my father at eleven-years-old. I walked to a distant store in south Dunsmuir and told the cashier that my mother wanted a pack of Parliaments, her brand. I had written a note in my best forgery of her writing requesting permission for me to purchase them for her. A mini-criminal in a town of 2,400 residents.
Kharma reared its ugly head when, at about that same time, I wanted to be as cool as the singers in the movies and on television. My mother was at work with my father this one summer day. I took a cigarette out of its pack, lighted it, and set it on the edge of the piano over the keys. As I played a cool, jazzy piece on our piano, the cigarette, in all its round construction, rolled off the ledge and landed on what I thought were its ivory keys. My error was in that the keys were actually made of plastic and melted under the tiny fire-cherry that descended from on-high. The blackened pits it left in the keys sent me into an emotional tailspin. I began crying, knowing my mother would have my hide for this transgression. I finally summoned the wherewithall to figure out that if the keys were plastic, perhaps they could be cleaned like Tupperware. I got a wet cloth and wiped the holes so they were, at least, no longer black.
Although my mother was always so aware of everything around her, to her dying day, she never mentioned those pits in the piano keys. I, of course, never brought them up either. This cigarette-caused injury can still be seen today on my fifty-plus-year-old piano that continues to reside in my home, a constant reminder of that day nearly four decades before.
My father was a pharmacist with whom I helped deliver oxygen to former and current smokers suffering from emphysema and lung cancer. My birthmother and her father both suffered from emphysema and chronic bronchitis. My former mother-in-law died of lung cancer. I worked for the California Department of Health Services in the Director’s Office in the 1980’s during the Proposition 99 funding for the anti-smoking campaign. In fact, I actually reviewed some of the print materials for that campaign.
I admit those are some significant credentials for a rampant non-smoker. What does it say that with that huge background, I’m still smoking?
It’s not that I don’t understand about addiction. My family has suffered with alcoholism, myself included, drug addiction, food addiction, sex addiction, gambling addiction, and many other very challenging issues. Yet, here I am, a half-century into my life and still I pick up these poisonous, paper-rolled tobacco products for passionate consumption.
It’s not as though the media is inundating my consciousness with tobacco ads. They’re not even legal for the most part. It’s not like the information isn’t out there. My health maintenance organization, Kaiser, sends me regular literature on how to quit smoking, as does my personal physician. This is my daily choice all on my own.
The one time I truly made an effort to quit, I ended up poisoning myself by swallowing the mucky goo being evicted from my lungs. We always called it lung butter. I write these words with all their disgusting images attached to clarify just how awful that period was. I nearly died of phlegm-induced gastroenteritis.
When will enough be enough? When will I stop smelling like a filty ashtray? When will I allow my clothes to carry the aroma of dryer sheets and not burning ashes? When will I be free of this life-ending addiction.
The truth is that the diagnoses of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and early emphysema, with their accompanying medications, have all been presented to me as current fact. Ta da! I have successfully followed in the sad path of my ancestors. After a mild heart attack at twenty-eight and two strokes in my forties, I still have not mustered the strength to quit. I do not blame anyone else for this, however, since this has been my doing alone since adulthood.
The worst part, for me, is the knowledge that under my tutelage, all five of my children began smoking. Even my granddaughter was affected by smoking when she was born prematurely from what I believe to be partially due to my daughter’s smoking.
As a teacher of vocal music, my example to my students is poor in regard to proper vocal health. They all know that I smoke and I am fully aware that my actions have had a much stronger impact on them than the horrifically vivid lectures I gave on the dangers of smoking.
Perhaps, today’s message is a statement that I am close to the switch being thrown toward a cigarette-free existence. Perhaps, this is simply a drowning man’s panicked gasp. We’ll see.
For now, however, I’m going out to my lovely poolside lanai for a cigarette. Stupidly sad, huh?