In 1967, 1968 and 1969, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued Supplements to the initial 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on the health hazards of smoking — each of which was publicized and analyzed in every newspaper, magazine and television news program I saw. The cigarette companies denied everything, but of course they would.
By the last of these CDC Supplements, I was nearly thirty-eight and five months pregnant with a second child. At that point, I had been described by a friend as having an eleventh finger. It was not quite twenty years since my second-year college suite-mate had taught me to inhale. Was twenty years some kind of outer limit, beyond which it would be foolhardy to pass? On the morning of June 6, 1969, I woke up very early, thinking I heard a cry from the crib in the adjoining bedroom where our two-year-old boy was sleeping. I got up to see. It was nothing. Then I tiptoed into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, in order to justify my first cigarette of the day. As I sat there inhaling at the scrubbed oak kitchen table next to the stove, it suddenly occurred to me I was going to die of emphysema. I still didn’t know what emphysema was. (Lung cancer I did know about, and couldn’t face.) But I knew emphysema could kill. And if I died, who was going to raise my darling little boy in the crib and the new baby inside of me, whatever gender it turned out to be?
My mother hadn’t done such a great job with me, her only child and a girl. How would she ever be able to handle two, at least one a boy? I hated my mother-in-law. (The feeling was apparently mutual.) There was no way I was going to let her get her hands on my babies and ruin their lives. I had a nice sister-in-law — the wife of my husband’s older brother. But they had very little money and two little girls of their own; I didn’t think she would appreciate two more children to feed and raise properly. Besides, she was religious and kept kosher — which was definitely not for me! I stubbed out the cigarette I was holding, emptied and washed the ashtray, and put the pack away in a high kitchen cabinet.
I don’t think I had really decided to quit forever. I was probably just trying it out, “to see.” Within an hour, I was uncomfortable. I had had to leave the Hungarian therapist who guided me through my first attempt at quitting when I stopped working a month before my first child was born and could no longer pay him. But I remembered everything he had told me during that attempt. I drank water all morning. I took deep and presumably healthful inhalations of air to fill myself with oxygen. Then I bundled my little boy into his stroller and pushed him up and down Broadway for at least two hours in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, clutching the stroller handles as tightly as I could by afternoon because it was getting hard to walk straight without weaving. I tried to chew gum, although I hate gum. (I stayed away from Life Savers, though; this time I was not going to gain weight!)
As I walked, I told myself, “You are not going to die from not smoking. You may very well die from smoking.”
I told myself, “You can get through twenty-four hours. Just twenty-four hours.”
I told myself, “I want to see my babies grow up.”
I told myself, “Other people have done it. So can you.”
Then, when I was too shaky to walk any farther, I went home and drank more water and ground my teeth and drank more water. I was feeling much worse than the first time, five years before, which had been bad enough. That evening, we had a sitter because my husband had been given free tickets to the races. We had never been before, and never again had another opportunity. But all I remember of this interesting event was noise, confusion, and a horrible headache that sliced clean across my forehead as if my head were in an iron vise that someone was tightening as I sat. I told my husband I didn’t feel well. I wanted to throw up, although I couldn’t. It was just as well: there was nothing in my stomach because I had been unable to eat dinner. Even if I had wanted to, I would have had trouble chewing; it was difficult to move my tongue and jaws. As soon as we got home, I fell into bed and slept for thirty hours straight. It was the beginning of the weekend. My husband said later he had tried to wake me but I pushed him away, so he left me alone to sleep off whatever it was. (He thought it was the flu, or a virus.) I have no memory of that. I woke up finally, more than a day later, to urinate. As when I had first learned to smoke nearly twenty years before, my head was spinning; I had to hold on to the walls to get to the bathroom.
I was lucky to have been able to sleep through what was probably the worst of it. Although what came after I woke was still pretty bad. Perhaps not quite as bad as Frank Sinatra rolling on a cell floor in agony when forced to kick his heroin habit cold turkey in Man With a Golden Arm (my one point of comparison). But I was as good as useless for the next eight or nine days. There were no patches, no Nicorette gum, no groups. I had trouble controlling my hands well enough to dress myself and my little boy. Thank goodness he was old enough to feed himself, because I probably would not have been able to hold a spoon steady enough to feed him. I couldn’t type at all. My hands shook on the keys, the letters transposed themselves, and I couldn’t think clearly enough to correct what I had done. I couldn’t read; my concentration was shot. Oddly, I had no appetite at all. I drank peppermint tea, and water, and chamomile tea, and water, and finally had to explain the oddities in my conduct by telling my husband and a few friends what I was trying to do — which I had wanted not to reveal, in case it turned out I couldn’t do it and had the shame of a public failure. Anyone who says a cigarette habit is just psychological is wrong. Nicotine is a drug, and a body accustomed to a drug will protest its sudden removal with physical symptoms. My symptoms may have been more severe than average. But then I had been a savagely dedicated smoker for nearly two decades. None of this selective social smoking for me. Smoking had been my life, and I had now stripped smoking from my life. My whole self was protesting.
After ten days, the physical symptoms began to recede. The nicotine was clearing from my system. That’s not to say that the yearning departed. But I decided I was going to hang on until the baby was born. Just until then. And if the intense, intolerable yearning persisted……Well, we would see.
Finishing meals was awful, because there was no cigarette afterwards. Speaking on the telephone, writing something on the typewriter, talking to anyone on the street or in the park — anything I had ever done that needed to be preceded by a cigarette still needed to be preceded by a cigarette, and now there were all these gaping holes in the course of every day of my life that I had to learn to circumvent. For the next three or four months, I really didn’t do very much at all except not smoke. And cough.
During all the time I had smoked, I never had a smoker’s cough. When I got colds, or bronchitis, I would cough up thick green phlegm, but when I got better, the coughing went away. Now — beginning about ten days after I had crushed my last cigarette in the ashtray — the morning coughing began. I ran to the toilet to spit out what had come up. A large black viscous blob floated on the surface of the water. I fished it out with a wad of toilet paper to examine it. It was that oily black stuff that the crystal filters in cigarette holders used to trap. Tar. Loosening after ten days of not smoking and and beginning to come up from my lungs. That was scary. They said at that time if you managed not to smoke for seven years, your lungs would return to their original pink condition. But I hadn’t realized they would be encased in this disgusting black gunk before that happened. If anything kept me on the straight and narrow throughout the remainder of the pregnancy, it was the sight, every morning, of globs of oily black tar on the surface of the toilet bowl water. Coming out of me!
By the time I went to the hospital for the birth of the baby, the globs were beginning to turn dark grey. There was of course no smoking in the hospital. I came home with my baby — a second boy — and continued my morning expectorations. Month by month, they grew paler grey, but still with coal black flecks in them. I didn’t stop coughing up those black flecks in increasingly pale grey gook until March 1970 — nine months after I had quit.
You might say I was now clean. I wouldn’t have said that. Every time we went to a restaurant or a party and someone lit up, I inhaled the second-hand smoke with pleasure, envy and regret — despite what I had learned about oily black tar in the lungs, and agonizing withdrawal symptoms, and the likelihood that all those lucky smokers at some time down the road could get very sick. It might have been a risk I wasn’t going to take — I still wanted to see my babies grow up — but that didn’t keep the desire at bay. It wasn’t until a full twenty months later that we walked into a room where people were smoking, and I found myself wrinkling my nose in disgust because suddenly I didn’t want that stinky stuff in my nice clean lungs. How dare those people pollute my air?
Twenty months after June 6, 1969 to make me a non-smoker again.
That’s not to say that if I ever had even one cigarette, for some stupid reason, I wouldn’t be back to thirty in no time. That’s not to say I didn’t inflict some permanent damage to my lungs. (They were wrong about the seven years.) I do have mild traces of emphysema at the bottom of the left lung; it showed up when they were doing a CAT scan for something else. In the life I presently lead, it doesn’t limit any activity I might choose to undertake. And hopefully, it won’t spread, or spread far. I also have hypertension, controlled by medication, and a heart that shows some signs of perhaps presenting interesting problems for cardiologists (and me) at some time in the future. But I consider myself lucky. It could have been worse.
Every generation has some sort of particular trial by fire, I suppose. I would hate to be a young person with tattoos everywhere. (Even a non-smoking one.) At some point in the future, that young person will have become an older person, and the tats may have become embarrassing, undesirable, an impediment to obtaining something or other, or just an indelible marker of a fad-crazed youth. They won’t look so good either — on sagging, wrinkled or fat-stretched skin. But that’s the next generation’s problem, not mine.
As for the 18% of adult Americans estimated still to be smoking, what can I say? In four posts, I’ve said it all. Although I might add I realize now there’s almost never such a thing as “I can’t.” I “couldn’t” for myself, but “could” for my children — even for the one still unborn. Their arrival then brought into my life that classic of positive thinking — “The Little Engine That Could.” (After I’d given up cigarettes.) Remember how the Little Engine managed to bring toys to all the children in the village on Christmas morning, even though there was a big hill in the way? “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…..” And by thinking that, the Little Engine could.