Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Come-alongs

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The diffuse glow of light retreated into a cloud bank and hightailed it to a far off, more needy place. It was another piece of evidence that nothing was going right. He’d tried to ignore his mounting dread of another morning garbed in grey, then the afternoon battered with rain. But sunshine had won one round at noon before scurrying off, gave a generous showing as he stood outside the building door. He was trying with all his might to not smoke, partly because it set a bad example for clients, of course. But it was his only actual personal resolution of the new year. You’d think he might manage it–this was an addictions treatment clinic, and by now he knew a few things. But he advised himself that if bleak skies continued–honestly, that was likely– he was entitled to comfort of old habits.

Just standing outside, perusing the neighborhood with its abundant shivering trees was a solace but it could be completed by a smoke. Actually, it was the only reason to stand beneath a water-laden awning soon to unload, in the way of people at the doors. He should go around the corner; there he could take get in one deep, potent drag and he’d be good for the afternoon. He’d be able to work better.

Bargaining: he knew how this went. Bargain until one thing wins, the other loses.

“Hello Rick, catching cold yet? Waiting out the urge?” A quiet, clear voice. “Don’t  worry, the best is yet to come along.”

Marianne swayed past him with a chuckle and quick wave, graying curls bobbing as if pleased to see him, as well. He responded in kind with an exaggerated yuk-yuk but his shorn long hair had nothing to add. New clients had often thought he was one of them, so it was time. Oddly, when he was in treatment twice, himself, he’d been clean cut, stood with shoulders squared and was often mistaken for staff. That was nearly two decades ago. Much had rearranged itself, not only his physical presentation. He rubbed his head to warm his scalp; should have put on his waterproof Aussie hat.

Marianne paused to peer back through the glass door, a flash of concern unsettling her open face and since he’d watched her enter, Rick smiled, authentically. Only she knew he was trying to beat nicotine addiction. At last. He had to tell her. Only she knew how dicey the holidays were, with family far away; that he’d decided to not go see his egregious father and overachieving sister. Only Marianne knew much of anything worth knowing, he sometimes felt. About the clinic, city, people’s innermost beings. And she was the office systems manager, far too loyal to the organization. Everyone looked to her, but it had taken her well over a year to get to Rick. Not that he’d been her project–she’d been friendly, as she was to all. He’d believed he’d sniffed out a wanna-be counselor behind the warm eyes–that made her suspect. They each had their roles; there was no time to waste. He was polite, too pressured to chat. He sure didn’t need another bleeding heart-listening ear at him. Not when he was surrounded by four good plus one fake and three slightly-to-more-askew ones in his team room. He had his own issues but he tried. What a business, addictions treatment. Love and aggravation, that was his feeling mash up.

Marianne couldn’t help herself. She was responsive and caring by way of deep instinct, not by trade. Nor education. Or even personal need. Everyone relied on her at some point. Well, Tommy, his cynical teammate, thought she was sentimental “to a fault, unfortunately, and prone to mistakes on office orders, and way too forgiving of our crazy clients.” The two men had cynicism a bit in common, but even Tommy at moments noted Marianne’s peaceful influence on the milieu. The hypercritical guy often taunted Rick with: “You have fully succumbed.”

“So what?” he’d say and then shut up.

Rick reached for the pack of Camels, then pushed them back into the pocket. He should have thrown them out. He should have bought a bag of hard lemon candies, should have not had three cups of coffee before lunch. But this was the way of things. Good intentions and follow-through about 75% when on a persistently positive streak.

He took in a a few refreshing lungfuls of winter-rainy air and re-entered the workplace: quiet to chaos in the crowded lobby.

“Hey man, you gonna sign that shelter voucher for me or not?’

“Rick, lookin’ good, we need to talk!”

“I’m here on time, why are you late? Lunch that damned good?”

“Rick, I can do that UA now…”

He made a beeline for the interior locked door, swiped his ID, then made for his desk. It was true, he was ten minutes behind schedule. Not too bad; he’d be there late, anyway.

At his desk in the white square cubicle he opened his files and got busy. Voices migrated over the air waves: therapists discussing a case, another on the phone persuading a client to call his lawyer since he had no say on assault charges. Tommy cursing his computer again. The man had a wicked sense of humor but the cursing started to clang and scrape inside Rick’s head after a few hours. The man was five foot five but had a voice like a cranky giant.

Documents opened on his screen, he focused again. Relief. He hummed to himself, an old Nat King Cole song. Though he jiggled his leg until it vibrated. Did he have chocolate? He pulled out a drawer. None.

“Tommy, easy, all will be well,” he advised over the cubicle wall. He could shape his voice to be as soothing as needed.

“Rick, you’re a bona fide ass, your computer always runs fine and mine is on the blink twice a week.”

“You likely broke it to get a premier set up. New one due soon?”

“So you say. Next week. Cope with my snarls as I do with your innocuous humming. What a duo over here, before you know it we’ll be doing a routine at the corner bar!” He screeched out a phrase of some rock song. Another therapist launched a wad of paper at him; it missed Tommy and landed on Rick’s desk.

Rick moaned, picked up his ringing phone. Two urinalyses right now, check. Then five clients in a row. Group lecture late afternoon, another in evening–what was his topic this week? Had to find one that kept even him awake. Home by 9:30. The voice mail light blinked red. He  got up, strode to the office front.

“Man, I can’t go and if I can’t go I just can’t go. That’s the gist of it!”

“Sorry, that’s a positive. Or you can drink another glass of water and wait it out, Jazz.”

She turned her narrow, taut but deeply dimpled face up to his and the smile became a scowl. “Hey, why do you always have to give me a rough time? Been clean 2 months now, nothing’s going to mess things up, got me a spot at the tent park and probation is going okay.”

Her bony body barely filled her long sleeved, black t-shirt and sweats. She owned just a fleece hoodie as far as he knew, now tied around her waist, spotted with raindrops or food or other mysterious things.

“You’re a champ so let’s keep it that way for you and the PO. I know you hate the observed UAs so do what you have to do each week and all is well. Right? Right!”

He held out the clear bottle again. Her pupils looked too small. She held out a plastic cup for more water.

“You on edge this week, you tweakin’?” She turned, cup up to lips. “Turn it down, Rickie.”

“Thanks for the advice, Jazz. Let the desk staff know when you’re ready.”

“I know the drill.”

Rick restocked a few UA supplies in the deep closet before getting the next client when he felt rather than heard a swish of something. A skirt? The uniform was clean jeans or khakis if you dressed up.

“Rick?”

He looked up, eyebrows drawn. An unknown face. A mass of hair swept back and far below that a skirt, long, bright. Dark eyes that reflected florescent light so it was hard to read them.

“Marianne pointed you out to me earlier. I have a stack of UA forms here.”

He took them, nodded at her, studied the new form.

“So you know, I’m Nell. Just started yesterday–took over Jud’s position up front.”

“Nell, good to meet you. Good luck.” He got busy again. Not because he loved tidying things but because looking at her made need to pull back. Too much to take in without staring from a distance.

There was that swish again and then muffled voices from the lobby beyond. The room felt cooler and bigger; had it been warmer before? He shook his head. He was going through nicotine withdrawal; it made him a little nuts. On the way back to the team room he glanced over at the front desk. Nell and Marianne were in a huddle; the older woman lifted her head as he passed. He called the next UA recipient. And then another showed.

Back at his desk to check voice messages. Three o’clock. and time for client Ray with two DUIIs, a broken front tooth from his last car accident.

He got to his office, sat at his desk, turned on the desk lamp with bright green glass base and soothing illumination. He’d brought it from his basement, a forgotten treasure of the past. Opened the file and got ready for Ray, a man he might personally like if he wasn’t so deeply alcoholic, angrily resistant. The man had nearly killed two people. But Rick wasn’t paid to like clients, just educate and support them on the road to better health.

Then: Nell who? Where did she get that amazing–is that what he thought of it–skirt? That hair was shocking. Stop. Why did he care? Rick was so far off women that he felt like he had dug a cave in the mountains and set a ring of fire at the entrance to ward off trespassers of the female of the species. He’d not be found off guard. He was a loner since Laura. It suited him fine.

He went to greet Ray but instead found Jazz walking back and forth before him, causing two people to cast her a look of irritation. Ray was asleep. Or hung-over. Or drunk– please not today.

“Jazz, you ready yet?”

“Come right along,” Marianne encouraged as she slid past him, out the door with her (overdue) lunch bag. “Rick is one busy counselor.”

Come-along, he thought, that was her trademark refrain. Everything in her view needed to come along– move forward. Or, it was that something good would come along–sooner or later– if that is what was sought. That’s what she told him whenever he voiced a complaint. It could almost put him to shame some days–that persistent optimism. Her own life was not an easy ride, widowed young, raising a granddaughter alone. And yet, the open heart. That’s why she should counsel and he should ….try something else, maybe. But what?

When could he take just one little drag of a stubby Camel? There was a rooftop terrace of sorts where they could eat lunch or take a break–he could smoke up there if he was fast. he thought of the view of the block, the sky. But incoming calls jangled the air. More life and death calls. He readied himself and beckoned the live wire that was Jazz.

******

At home everything was as usual, thankfully. Snarfy greeted him with a jump up, a lick and happy yelp. He let him out back and heated leftover chicken and veggie  soup that had been made from leftovers the night before, and also poured a cup over the dog’s kibble.

It had been Laura’s job to let Snarfy out and feed him; she’d gotten home first. A graphic designer, she went in at 7:30 and got home by 4:30. He slept in until 8:30 and got into work at 9:30 doing the four, ten but more like twelve hour days. She always felt he should tackle housework early in the day or run errands or pay a few bills, not just slumber away. But when he got home he was so keyed up, he couldn’t sleep until 1 am or later. He’d slip in, move toward her aromatic warmth, and she’d usually mumble about cold feet so he’d back off. Stare at the ceiling awhile. Try to catch up with the Post or CNN on his cell phone. The ceiling morphed as traces of failed light crisscrossed the deserted space; it soon gave rise to a wilderness of faint possibilities. He liked watching it all unfold or pause, and eventually he’d fall asleep when he wanted to wake her, show her. But Laura never deliberately studied ceilings, to his surprise. Too “prosaic”, she said, which he had to look up. He had thought it was a design term.

It might have been his work and differing hours, her cool, tidy art taking precedence and his counseling so all-consuming. Her formal education, his street smarts. But in the end it felt like boredom. Rick, bored with her nagging and avoidance; Laura, bored with his resistance to her ideas, so many feelings. With their lack of willingness to do something innovative, insightful, fun to change it all.

Five years and done. That was four years ago. She’d left Snarfy; she didn’t have a natural affinity with dogs. The right thing isn’t always comfortable but in the end, it’s still right. For Rick, liberation was right, being alone, too.

The soup was still good. Netflix had a good mystery series on, so Snarfy and he sprawled on the couch. Snarfy’s fuzzy triangular ears were pricked at the whistling winds as they swirled around oak and evergreen treetops, rushed along the back fence, awoke the tubular chimes and their sonorous callings.

He’d be halfway content if not for the smoking dilemma. But he’d had a dream in which his father shook a finger at him, told him to “dial it down” and immediately Rick thought of smoking, steaming hot lungs: bad for him. As it had been bad for his father, gone ten years too early at least.

Snarfy licked his bowl clean and Rick rinsed their items in the kitchen, put them in the dishwasher. This was when he missed smoking most, after a meal. Like the final portion of the meal, or a commentary that tied it all up. A delicate branch flew by the wide window, then a thicker one with pine needles. The rain could become black ice overnight. Maybe the clinic would close–a pleasant thought and unlikely. But as he turned out the light above the sink and ambled to the couch with Snarfy trotting along with him, her olive-toned face, those deep eyes robbed him of that idea–he wanted to go in tomorrow.

So you know, I’m Nell.

He reached for his lighter, flipped it over a few times, thought of the Camels. Leaned forward with both arms on his knees, undecided, then lit a half-burnt Christmas candle, a now-droopy, snowy pine tree. Turn down the heat, Rick; don’t be lured by stuff you don’t need. Just be calm.

******

“And when you click there it will take you to the other client portal and that data you need… oh, morning, Rick, how’s it going with the resolution?”

Nell glanced his way as her boss spoke, eyes sliding down to his feet as she crooked a couple fingers in greeting, then got back to the screen.

He peered over his reading glasses at her. Couldn’t Marianne keep his smoking battle to herself? She must think he needed a mother–he had a very nice one in New Hampshire, thanks, anyway. He couldn’t help but love that she asked, anyway.

“Morning, Marianne, Nell. Feeling pretty alright.”

Nell turned in her chair slightly and looked at him full in the face. It jarred him so that he spread his feet as if to gain better purchase. She was alert, pale lips a little tight, mind at work. She hesitated, then opened her mouth a little, took a breath. Conscientious person about to offer not so great info.

“Jazz’s UA results are in.”

“Not a good feel to that.”

She pointed to his mailbox so he snagged the sheets, took them to his desk in team room. There it was. Positive for cannabis and opiates. His held breath shot out. How could she? But, then why not? Picked up the phone, dialed her cell number, waited for the voice mail recording.

“Jazz, I need you to come in ASAP for another UA.”

He hoped that would get her in fast, as it was a probation violation. Jazz was running out of the last of good luck. She knew the consequences: more jail time. She should not try to run this time.

The day flew by because there was much to do; he was good with tightly packed schedules, worked faster and better. There were too many UAs on a day when he needed to prepare for two new groups. he stopped thinking of the Camels in his jacket even when he felt his head might explode. He popped a lemon drop in his mouth, walked a bit. He sneaked out for a very fast, late lunch and when he returned, there was Jazz yakking with Nell as if this was a social call. Rick noted Nell was the congenial sort, encouraged brief conversation, a good thing with clients as it gave her insight. Some sleuthing might be accomplished if she was willing to share information. Like who looked high, who seemed more depressed than usual, who was antsy or angry.

When Jazz showed up, they sat in his office. She crossed arms over her chest. Noting he saw this, she then let them fall casually at her sides, hands resting on the chair’s arms.

“You want to show me your arms?”

“What? No.” Jazz narrowed her eyes at him. “You crazy? I’m not doing heroin and not here for show and tell. But I can take another UA any time you want.” She roughed up her thatch of fading burgundy hair.

The defiance, the feigned outrage made her face fiercer, hints of worn beauty barely visible under makeup. She had been at all this a long while. She knew what was expected, what the cost was, what her life could be or how it would end. It had been fifteen-plus years of using and she was a hard thirty. Lost two children, lost partners, lost any facsimile of a what passed for any normal life. They’d worked together four months and she had become less wary of him, even relaxed at times–until now.

“Let’s go, man, prove me wrong.” She flipped her hand at him.

“l’ll get Melissa to accompany you.”

“Observed UA? Really? I hate those–can’t pee–I’m good, I tell you!”

“Not according to this.” He handed her the red-lined results.

“No way, no way! I got four months, I go to those stupid meetings, come to your groups and therapy, I’m even eating again–you know this!”

The words torpedoed out; he had to make himself not pull back, glad the spit didn’t hit him.

“But the truth is indelible, Jazz, there’s nothing for it but to test again and hope this one is less toxic, anyway. Then we need to talk without any bull. And I have to call your PO.”

“Right on, Rick! Nothing like screwing with my life! You got the wrong sample or you got a bad reading, I’m clean as they come!”

“Jazz–” He silenced the words: better not catch you with bought urine.

“No Jazz this, Jazz that…I’m just outta here. Idiot cops or keepers, all of you!”

She stood so fast the chair knocked sideways, teetered and righted itself, then she was gone down the hall.

“Jazz!” he called as softly as he could but she cut off his attempt with a chop of her hand. He followed her a way until she rounded a corner.

“Gone. Damn.”

He said this to himself but Nell, returning to her desk, heard him and watched Jazz go.

“But not gone for good?”

He rubbed hard at his forehead. “Unless she ODs again and doesn’t wake up.”

Rick wanted to run after Jazz, ask her to please stop using, please stay alive, please tell him what happened. But he never did that, it was the client’s choice. Sort of. So he suddenly wanted to smoke. He broke out in a cold sweat, leaned against the file room doorjamb.

“Hey, how about coffee in the kitchen?”

“I just need to pause and let it go…well then, okay, yes.”

They sat there without talking a moment, inhaling the fragrance of a fresh brew, sipping. Rick suspected she was jeopardizing her new job by taking such an unscheduled break– another staff was in the front office but, still, her chair was empty. He tapped fingers on the table, then stopped, jiggled his leg. His closely shorn head felt chilly, itchy. Smoke, just smoke that cigarette, he heard in his head. He wished he still had long hair that covered him up more.

“So, you have a dog?” she asked, lighting up. “I just got a mutt, a really good one. Named Sukie. Training isn’t so fun, but worth it. She’s a good buddy and smart.”

“I like that name. Yeah, my Snarfy is an old border collie. He likes to laze about, follow me around, answer my questions.” She laughed. “Plays Frisbee with me sometimes.”

Five minutes, ten minutes, and he had her face memorized, voice etched on his brain. Her hands flushing the air like birds, translating words into more good stuff. Hair wound in a turban sort of thing. And another skirt, skimming booted feet.

He got up, smoothed sweaty hands on his jeans.

“Thanks, I guess I needed a mental health break.”

She cocked her head at him but shyly.

He asked, “You in recovery, too…or is that too personal a question?”

She nodded but preceded him through the kitchen’s opened door and aimed for her desk. “Have to get back to work. Oh, I like your socks.”

He stood in the hallway and stared at his feet. He’d worn two different socks, one faded navy and one grey with red squiggles and he hadn’t even realized. And was she in recovery or had he been direct too soon?

Tommy rushed by, hands thrown up in the air. “What a fashion plate! You’ve sure got what it takes, ole boy!”

Melissa passed, a hand clutching her phone. “Still not smoking?”

“Does everyone know?”

“Of course!”

“Yeah, then.”

“Kudos!”

Then moving at her own cheery pace came Marianne, arms stuffed with manila files.

Tommy roared past from the opposite direction. “Aren’t we way, way beyond the Stone Age, Marianne? Can’t we eliminate actual files now?”

“Come along, Rick, can’t dawdle, groups to lead, people to lift up,” she said.

“I may not be your man. I’m in serious need of rejuvenation. By the way, are you now my supervisor? All the free advice you keep giving me!” He held out his arms in wonderment.

She affected looking aghast. “Who suggested that? Is there a raise? Naw, just an office manager. But Jazz is almost begging to see you.” She trundled on then spun around, almost losing the stack. “Rick, you know you’ll do what you do so well. You’re genius with tough ones. Success is relative, more to come. And be very good to Nell; she’s a keeper here.”

Rick switched direction and followed. One more time, that’s all it took, another try with Jazz, another hour to stay smoke free, another chance to reconsider the beauty of surprises. He’d been ready to sneak out, light that cigarette, set fire to his own cravings–and who knew what else? It felt like this, the nicotine withdrawal: repeated small implosions, risk of explosion. Bam. He breathed through his nose as if meditating–if that even worked.

Did she like soup, he wondered–because that was a specialty, making something simple, bringing out flavors and goodness from little to nothing. He’d learned that out of necessity but while it was useful it also generated happiness deep inside him. He liked life simplified; it offered more meaning to him.

He swung open the lobby door and found Jazz slumped in a chair, tears snaking down her cheeks, marring thick rosy make up, tears gentling her face despite deep lines and scars from years gone so bad she had nearly quit living.

He squatted, hands folded.

“Jazz, come along with me, let’s go have a talk, okay?”

“Why not,” Jazz sniffed.

After she wiped her face, Jazz grabbed the sleeve of his shirt, didn’t let go. He did not shake her off. She’d never come with need so naked. He appreciated that aching humility that felt like shameful defeat. He was careful with her. And Nell, savoring pieces of tangerine at her desk, noted that.

The Heart Chronicles #15: Running Out of Steam and Truth-Telling

There are days when there seems to be a lot less energy than needed to accomplish what seems to be more. I have thought of that often the past week at my work as an addictions and mental health counselor: the eleven hour days, the pressure to produce billable hours and, concurrently, my desire to provide excellent services to my clients. There is the need for compassion that reaches people even with limited contact, hope despite the statistics for addicted persons,  clarity of clinical judgment despite the daunting complexity of human beings. 

At the end of each day I facilitate most of my educational and process groups. I spend a few moments alone preparing if I don’t have another appointment. And if I am tired out I start to brace myself for angry or listless clients (while knowing there are those who will be accountable, attentive). They may have received a DUII, a PCS (possession of a controlled substance), an assault, theft or menacing charge. There are those who are referred for treatment due to Child Protective Services intervening in their lives. Others come straight from prison. And there are some who come to addictions treatment of their own accord, sitting up front where they can better listen and put their stories on the table. They have had enough drinks and drugs, financial ruin, relationship failures, anxiety and depression. Enough bottoming-out unhappiness.

There was a moment this week when I was too weary to do much but pack up my tote and go home but I had more work to keep me. Something had once more jarred me from dreaming the night before. I had explored the contours of the dark, the scene outside my window (night birds fluttering and calling; clouds drifting past stars; rooftops; one lit square in the house next door) and the mostly mundane but occasionally inventive thoughts and images in my mind. Two hours or more had passed before sleep returned.

So, I picked up my clipboard with the group roster on it, checked again my materials, grabbed pens and erase board marker–orange this time–and trudged down the hallway. It looked longer than usual, hunched clients lining each wall, some eyes raised to greet me, others peering at their phone screens. My feet moved right along although my legs felt leaden and a dull headache threatened. I reminded myself I didn’t have to be wise, brilliant or a grand entertainer. I did have to be committed to the information I presented, open to hearing what was spoken to me in response (as well as holding steady under fire), and ready with caring and laughter. As I unlocked the door to the group room, I took a breath and welcomed each person with a smile. I was, in effect, “on stage” much in the same way I had once been when I played my cello, sang, danced, acted. Only now it was my intention to offer options for life in spite of the ever-present possibility of jails, institutions, and even death for any person who entered the room. 

They chatted a bit as I prepared the board with information. And then I turned to them and said…nothing. I looked at the hand-out I had and tossed it on the table; it suddenly bored me as much as it would bore them. I had a small moment of inspiration.

“Let’s talk about the drug so many take for granted as an old friend, an easy fix, a perfectly legal drug–and it is not alcohol.”

No one responded at first, then I heard some chuckles and murmurs. “You mean, nicotine?”

There ensued a long discussion about how many times people had tried to quit, how two out of fourteen had managed to succeed in staying quit for many years. How they hated to love it, but love it they did. The first rush of nicotine entering the bloodstream as they inhaled. The feeling of relief after having waited for a couple of hours to enjoy one cigarette. Nicotine just went with alcohol, weed, meth–fill in the blank with  your own choice of passion/poison. But there was the pain of withdrawal, leaving them sleepless, sweaty, anxious and agitated.

And then the words spoken by one woman in the corner: “But I’m not ready to quit yet. I’ve  had to give up drinking and using the other drugs for this treatment but I can still smoke and not get arrested!”

Laughter erupted. Ah yes, the thrall and misery of addiction to nicotine, one more drug our culture somehow tolerates.

Then a young man called out, “But you wouldn’t know about that or any other drug, so how can you understand? How can you teach us about this stuff if you don’t know about it first-hand?”

Now, this was not a startling question. In fact, I hear it a couple dozen times a year. Some people want me to show my battle scars, my badges of survival of something big, trot out a sad story, one in which I emerge a brave heroine of sorts or at least a reasonably educated and seasoned survivor.

And the truth is, I could do that as well as many. I didn’t get to that room without a few side trips. I have spoken to larger groups about many things. So, I suspect I might be able to capture their attention. But my answer is always the same.

“What difference would it make in the long run? I’m not that interesting a person–this sure isn’t about me. It is about you. Your quality of lifestyle, your choices, your story. Your chances for a more deeply satisfying life. A life that includes more rather than less of all you love. And you know what I think about enjoying life–crucial! And possible, even when clean and sober.”

And then–I was just that tired,  just that weary of one more client challenging me that I forgot my rule of privacy–I said, “Well, I did survive a heart attack at age fifty-one. And the only known major risk factor I had was smoking cigarettes for thirty-five years. That, and having once been very ill with a dental infection, which can also affect your heart, by the way. It can happen to you, too. Those nicely packaged, expensive cigarettes can get you when you least expect it. That moment can change everything you’ve ever known and counted on. And getting back up on your feet isn’t so easy.”

I almost kept speaking, so important to me was the need to communicate: Stay alive. Be careful what you fall into on bad days or adore on the others. But I was getting ahead of myself, in the process nearly forgetting my role. My tale belonged to me, not them. I sat down.

There was silence for a second with all eyes on me, and then came a few questions–what did it feel like? How did I deal with that? But quickly I regained control and the focus was returned to them. One man, looking much older than he was and not quite as fortunate in his prognosis, spoke simply. He talked about his heart disease, his continued use of nicotine and alcohol, and tears choked his voice. Sorrow filled that room and with it, kindness.

The group went well. As I said good-night I noticed they were easier with me.  Some thanked me for letting them know something more of who I am.  My headache had started to recede. I was still feeling the “pinches” in my body resultant of exhaustion but also, well, contentment.  Someone in that room would think twice or more about the next smoke. Maybe finally quit. I was almost sure of it  and that was good enough. So instead of working late as usual,  I headed home. Tomorrow would bring more chances to learn or recall something good, like the enduring value of authenticity.

The Heart Chronicles #6: Becoming Hospitable

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.