Two years ago, my husband did the hardest thing he's ever done. Something so difficult, so traumatic, so impossible that many people live and die never managing to do it.
And we did it with him. Never think that something this hard affects only the person involved. If anyone has ever brushed up against the monster of addiction, you know that the whole family goes into the shredder with him.
Jim smoked for more than 30 years. He came from a family where smoking was as natural as eating or drinking, from a region where 23 percent of adults smoke, well above the national average. It was part of him long before we met the first time, before we re-met years later on the book tour.
It's not like he didn't know it was bad for you. You can't grow up, live or breathe in the United States without knowing that cigarettes and nicotine are unhealthy. We can shift it onto vaping as much as we like, and it's still just muting the impact of an unhealthy, expensive habit. But the addiction was strong, strong enough that he was up to four packs a day and seemingly helpless to slow or stop.
He had tried several times to quit, once lasting a few months before he picked it back up. Sometimes it was stress, sometimes it was rationalization - "I'll just be a social smoker." Funny thing about an addictive chemical: it makes you lie to yourself.
Part of it was the money - Jim estimates that he spent well over $120,000 on cigarettes in his decades as a smoker. And once he moved to Illinois, the cost went up - a pack of Marlboros in Illinois is now $13. Now multiply that times four packs a day times seven days a week and apply it to a job earning less than $10 an hour. The long-time nicotine use took its toll on his mouth, and half his teeth had to be pulled and replaced with partial dentures.
He tried e-cigs before there was a vape store on every corner and we had to order them from Hawaii (no kidding). He tried switching to Black-n-Tan cigars, those hideous twigs on the convenience-store counter next to the register. He tried cold turkey.
We did all the things we read in the stop-smoking literature: picked up graphic photos of cancer-riddled lungs and taped them to the walls, stocked up on lollipops and gum. I remember watching Jim and my son searching the patio and garden outside our old apartment hunting for every last cigarette butt left by Jim or our neighbors, because when he was quitting, he would smoke anything he could see, including someone else's crushed-out butt left on the ground. Addiction.
It's hard to describe the emotions I felt watching him in the throes of a nicotine fit, his whole body shaking and convulsing, in physical pain and trying not to cry, my arms wrapped around him and wishing I could take just some of that agony away from him, take it on myself if I must, if only it would ease such terrible suffering.
Time and again he would slip back. Sometimes a coworker offered a cigarette during break and he just didn't have the strength to say no one more time (and by the way, thanks a lot, guys). Sometimes those cigars right by the register just spoke too loudly. And then he would come home smelling like smoke, and of course I knew he had slipped again, that it all would be for nothing. And he would feel like shit, and I would be heartbroken. Rinse, repeat.
I did not demand that he quit smoking, or set it as a requirement for our eventual marriage. He knew how I felt about it, because heaven forfend I keep my opinions to myself. But I also knew that no one can break an addiction for someone else, even someone they love. It has to come from within, a decision he made himself, or it would never hold.
Two years ago, he quit. For good. This time he used a stop-smoking hotline that provided him with lozenges and patches as long as he called in once a week, slowly decreasing in potency over the course of months so he could be eased off the physical addiction. Whenever he was tempted, whenever the coworkers passed around a pack or those stupid cigars started singing, he would call the hotline, and they'd talk him down out of the tree.
In all honesty, I was skeptical of the hotline's plan. He had been "half-quit" for some time, smoking handfuls of nasty cigars, but wasn't back up to four packs a day. I was afraid that using patches would hook him more tightly to nicotine, flooding his body with it, and it would be harder to break free, not easier. Besides, I remembered a doctor telling me that cold turkey quitters are the only quitters who stay quit, because they remember the hell of it and don't want to go back.
I've never been so happy to be wrong.
We started counting. Days, then weeks, then months. Once he was done with the patches, he still called in from time to time, usually when he'd forgotten how long it had been.
At first he was coughing up the most wretched, awful crap from his lungs that you can possibly imagine. It's like his body was shedding some dreadful internal skin that he had never known was there. His metabolism slowed, and he put on weight. He went overboard on caffeine - his body seeking the stimulus that the nicotine had provided - and ended up in the hospital with wildly fluctuating blood pressure that simulated a heart attack and scared the bejesus out of me.
It was the hardest thing he's ever done, and the hardest thing I have witnessed.
Last week, Jim realized he had forgotten his quitaversary: Oct. 10. It was two years smoke-free, two years of freedom. Two years without spending untold gazillions on little cancer sticks. Two years in which he didn't have to go outside in rain, snow, steaming heat or other unpleasant conditions to smoke, losing 20 percent of his time with the family to the call of the cigarette. Two years in which we didn't have to plan long trips with cigarette breaks, or make sure our romp through Six Flags included stops at the smoking gulags where the addicted huddle together for another drag. Two years without holes burned in his shirts from stray embers or the smell of smoke permeating everything he wore.
There is nothing Jim or I can do about all the years he spent smoking. What is done is done. The money is spent and whatever damage it caused to his lungs cannot be undone. But it will not get worse.
His body was nicotine-free 72 hours after he smoked his last cigarette, but the rest will take longer. By three months, his circulation would have been markedly improved; by nine months, the cilia in his lungs started to grow back. By now, his risk of heart disease, stroke and heart attack are down by half. But it will be eight more years before his risk of lung cancer drops, 13 years before his risk of losing the rest of his teeth drops, 15 years before his risk of coronary disease or pancreatic cancer approaches that of nonsmokers.
You guys know all this. It gets drilled into our heads to such a regularity that we begin to dismiss it - after all, other things are bad for you! Salt and fatty foods, alcohol, texting while driving! So what?
When I think of smoking, I remember wrapping my arms around the man who would be my husband and feeling his entire body shaking in agony, wishing I could take the pain for him.
It was a cruel irony that Jim's two-year quitaversary happened within days of losing our dear friend Shorty. Because of course it was smoking that took Shorty away from us. He and Jim were regulars out on the loading docks behind convention halls, smoking and shooting the breeze during long stints in the dealers' rooms. Shorty died of cancer just before Jim was two years' quit, and we are all in mourning for the loss of our friend. It angers me, because we wanted many more years drinking Everclear cocktails with Shorty.
I am at a loss for how to convince others to go through what Jim went through. It's kind of a hard sell: please, endure horrid misery for weeks on end! Is it worth it?
Yes. I can tell you that Jim's decision to quit was also the best decision he ever made. We found each other late in life, and we owe it to each other to stick around as long as God and fate allow, making up for lost time. He will get many more years to watch his granddaughter grow up, to watch our sons graduate, to finish college, to go on adventures with me and write more books.
We have something to live for. And so do you. Life is worth it.