LETTING GO—In Practice
By Loretta S. Downs
It took me seven years to quit smoking. Seven long manic years of alternately suffering and celebrating from the day I acknowledged my desire to stop until I finally did. Christmas Day 1992 is tattooed on my mind.
Cigarettes were a part of my life. I picked the first one up when I baby-sat for my sister’s children. She and her husband smoked. Didn’t everyone in 1959? There were ashtrays holding remnants on the kitchen table, the coffee table, the bathroom counter, and the bedroom dresser, calling to us.
Guilt was always part of smoking. I had to hide it from my parents until the night during my junior year when dad came home around 10 PM from a father’s club meeting at my all-girls Catholic high school, opened a beer and lit a cigarette. I sat down at the table next to him and casually lit one too. I was freed from guilt.
I smoked a pack a day for years. Breakfast was a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Lunch meant cigarettes. There were cigarette breaks and cigarettes with dinner and cigarettes all night long until I smashed the last one out in the ashtray on the nightstand.
The first time I quit was motivated by the increase in price from 25 to 30 cents a pack. Then I got a raise and the price was less motivating. I kept smoking.
Coming of age meant I could start to drink alcohol, and that went with cigarettes like jelly and peanut butter. When I couldn’t smoke while I drank, I’d just eat more until I gained 10, 20, 30 pounds and I would start smoking again.
I could not give up smoking. Every time I did I felt like I was doing just that, giving up something I wanted, I needed. I tortured myself. Smokers were sympathetic. After a few drinks and a basket of bread, they’d edge their pack across the table near my hand so I could help myself.
Sometimes it was funny. I could make people laugh until they wet their pants with tales of how low I would go to get a cigarette. I would bribe waiters—even at the finest restaurants– when the wine would weaken my resolve. When a pack was up to $3, I would whisper, “Can I buy a cigarette from you for $1?” They’d always give me more than one.
What had to happen in order for me to stop the madness was to accept that I did not want cigarettes in my life for no other reason than that. When they became too much trouble to hold on to, like a love gone bad, I let go of wanting Mr. Smokes. I was free.
In my years of yo-yo dieting, I would add larger sizes to my closet as I added pounds, and then merrily discard them as soon as I lost weight, with no regard for the poor return on my investment. Letting go of the symbols of my failure was easy.
I’ve realized this is a game I play with myself, bluffing and hoping the guy sitting across from me won’t have the winning hand. He is Death and I am playing against a pro.
There will be the many stages in which my body will change in ways I cannot predict and I will be forced to let go of so much more. I will have to let go of doing everything my way and doing it alone. I’ll be confronted by a disease that can’t be beat, the need to use a cane, then a walker, then a bed, and then my grave.
Even though I will be letting go of everything I can touch and hold, I intend to keep a firm grasp on the spirit of the woman within me. The woman who baby sat her sister’s children, who got educated, who had the good sense to stop smoking when she did, who danced at fancy parties in elegant gowns, ran races, practiced yoga, received awards for her butterfly garden, loved, and lived.
I will hold on to all of the person I am until the day I say it’s time to lay down my cards, let go, and set myself free.