I have not always been at home in this construct of bone and sinew, and there have been times I have even angrily questioned whether it might be extraneous for the pursuit of some of my dreams. Of course, reason tells me this is foolish but pain and discomfort can sometimes win the argument. The truth is, though, if I were to lose any of my five senses, I could continue on, but the brain is clearly crucial to processing information, to the evolution of this one thought. It is the complex command center for all autonomic responses that tether me to this habitation within which I live. So I can’t do without all these parts despite my complaints.
Still, it has not always been a very hospitable place to reside. I am sure it is the same for others despite my feeling of uniqueness at times. Illness and injury, traumatic experiences, random deprivation of biological needs, loss of love or comfort, the stress of making a life amidst pressures real and imagined: we suffer during our lifetimes and our bodies pay. And most of us recover, bit by bit. But there are some of us who early on develop, then practice, behaviors that gradually malign the well-being we have. And we don’t know what we are in for until it is too late.
I can recall the first time I smoked. I was walking along a residential street with a neighbor who was a few years older than I was. She was looking intently at the gutter and stopped, bent down and picked up a half a cigarette butt. She straightened it out. I was fascinated, then appalled when she lit a match to the stubby end and inhaled. I wondered what drove her to do such a strange thing. My parents never smoked (or drank) and I could think of no one else I personally knew who did so. But she puffed a few more times, then offered the glowing, smelly cigarette to me. I might have walked away or laughed it off. But there was something in how she looked–as though she knew something I didn’t, something dangerous but worth it. She was pretty, she was smart, and she was something else: tougher than me. I shrugged and put it to my lips, breathed in just enough to cause a paroxysm of coughing. I fought the desire to fall onto the pavement in a dead faint. I was fourteen. I stopped visiting my neighbor–I concluded she might be a little too old (or tough) for me to be hanging around with and I wasn’t up to it.
I was sixteen when I smoked again, thanks to B. We were in his car along with two other couples, on our way to a party after a football game. I watched the smoke curl up from his lips, then re-enter his flared nostrils. B. put the narrow burning column to my lips and I inhaled gently, then coughed. It wasn’t so bad as I recalled. He handed me a package of Kools and said I could keep them, as he was now going to smoke Camels, filterless. I put them in my coat pocket and felt the terrible thrill of having contraband in my possession. The next week I met my best friend and we bought a cup of bitter coffee in the dingy back booth of the Circle Cafe. We each lit up a Kool. It was surprisingly minty and took my breath away. I felt witty and wild with that cigarette dangling from my fingers, between my lips. My parents would be shocked but I ignored the anxiety that sprang up in my conscience. My heart raced, and I talked faster. I finished the whole thing. We lit another. And so it began. I became a dedicated smoker within a year, despite being a figure skater, a swimmer with pretty good swan dives, a singer with aspirations and a devotee of the great outdoors. It was 1966 and I was ignited with the desire to be free of the mundane and bourgeois. I wanted to be a writer. Didn’t all writers smoke, at least? Maybe I would have to live a secret life.
So time passed and what came is not this story. But around age 40 I felt I had gotten too thin, too tired from raising a big family and working full-time but was still dependent on daily coffee and smokes. I was burning the candle at both ends, just as many women I knew. I decided to quit smoking. After three days I called my mother. “I am going to have a nervous breakdown if I don’t smoke,” I said.
“Have the breakdown but don’t smoke,” she said, laughing.
Not finding this funny, I smoked again. But I weight trained and became very strong, gained more stamina and energy with the muscle mass to prove it. Alcohol was deleted after it took more from me than it gave. Before long middle age was carrying me forward on a wave of confidence and improved health. Or so I believed.
By 1997, my heart had developed the habit of racing whenever I walked up a couple of flights of stairs. The doctor said it was all in my mind; I was well enough “except for menopause and the garden-variety anxiety that women often get at that time”. I felt humilated by his disbelief but was placed on a low dose of atenolol to slow and steady my heart rate. I was still smoking as although the doctor had advised I quit, it hadn’t seemed crucial. The medicine helped a bit but as the years passed I knew he was wrong. Something was haywire, yet nicotine and caffeine remained staples in my life, as familiar as bread and chocolate, music and books. They were my selfish indulgences.
In February, 2001 I’d had enough. I quit smoking cold turkey. I experienced withdrawal symptoms that kept me awake and sweaty, made me angry and tearful. I called my mother, who was ill, and told her I was going to have a nervous breakdown again giving up cigarettes. She repeated what she had said in 1991 but without the laugh. Three months later she died at age 92, and before she did, she asked me to promise I’d never smoke again.
That September, I had my “heart affair” in the woods, and was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. I had no significant risk factors for having heart disease at age fifty-one. I ate healthily overall and was not overweight; I was physically active and mentally engaged in life. But there were four angiograms and two stent implants over the next eighteen months. There was mortality pure and simple staring me in the face, and not for the first first or last times.
The cigarettes that snared me with their illusion of brazen allure…were they to blame? My cardiologist, Dr. P. never told me this. But only I really knew how I have lived in this body, the ways I had neglected or mistreated it. Guilt trailed me as I nearly lived in cardiac rehab exercise rooms. In time it diminished, then was gone. But what we do to ourselves marks the terrain of our bodies and beings, then patiently awaits our attention. Taking those Kools was only one of several misguided decisions I made but wisdom comes at a price, I have heard.
I saw my youngest daughter, Alexandra, today. She excitedly told me she has been nicotine-free for a year now and she feels good. She’s the age I was when I gave birth to her.
“I’m proud of myself. In fact, I think it’s great I did this!” Then she turned to me. “I can’t believe you smoked as long as you did. I can barely remember it. I’m so happy you quit. Good for us.”
The best I can do now is make living amends to this miraculous vehicle that carries me around. I am making it as hospitable a place as I can, a body in which to dwell with respect and thanksgiving. It’s trial and error. I’ve learned a lot about being friendlier toward myself and feel more welcome in this body than I have in years. It all works out better and is more enjoyable if we can get comfortable within this patchwork cloak of human life, become our own intimate allies. Welcome back, I told myself as I got healthier each day; welcome home for the duration.