Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Perfect Stranger

During a recent book signing I had a surprising encounter. It was one of those instances when a person approaches out of the blue and directly asks an unexpected question in way that can almost be seen as confrontational. Personally, I find it rather shocking when a complete stranger addresses me directly about something that I could never have expected, especially when that perfect stranger seems every bit convinced that I can magically clarify what appears to be a delusional obsession of his own. I know I am not alone in these odd occurrences. In fact, anyone who lives in a manic urban area can expect such encounters with astonishing regularity while out and about on the streets. I can almost hear someone sarcastically say, “Isn’t the world a wonderful place.”

So you may envision the setting, I was sitting at a table with a small stack of my books that I was hoping people might be stirred with interest to read. However, this being a gathering of a number of writers, and since I was far from being the top of the bill and more of the bottom of the bucket, I spent most of my time offer hearty smiles as a line of browsing eyes casually passed me by. Then suddenly a guy marches directly up to me and demands an answer, “Is this about poker?”

Since the famous card game of poker hadn’t crossed my mind, even in the most whimsically way, while I composed my recent novel, I was inclined to deny any association and offered a sterile response of “Not really.” Perhaps I had thought my answer would be taken as a point of consideration, as if I was saying, “Not really, but you can imagine it to be whatever you want.” In reality though, my statement came out like nothing more than a splattered flat “No.”

Immediately, I realized that I should have considered my answer a little more carefully before reflexively blurting my response. I hadn’t noticed that while the man charged toward my table and as his abrupt question attempted to pin me to the chair, he had also been reaching to pick up one of my books. My negative response abruptly stayed his hand and I watched as he withdrew back into himself.

A shocking thought crossed my mind, “Am I actually turning someone away?” After all, he did approach me and his inquiry was the most attention my book has received the entire day. I may have not considered the card game while I composed the novel, but this doesn’t mean that the contents of my novel and the game of poker are completely unrelated. For one, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a book or a deck of cards, they’re both nothing but ink and paper unless someone’s interested.

Suddenly it struck me that I had just been dealt a card myself and the card was definitely wild. I had to decide whether I was going to leave that wild card a joker or whether I could make it an ace.

Before the man could turn away, I casually tugged his sleeve with a calm statement, “Well, it’s not directly about poker, but in many ways it is very much like it.”

This seemed to have caught his attention and I adjusted myself in the seat to prepare the delivery of my pitch as he sharpened his view by squinting his eyes and squared himself in preparation. “Let’s say you have a regular Saturday night poker game with your buddies. You’ve had this poker game for years. When most every aspect of your life is managed with the greatest sense of responsibility as a devoted husband, a loving father, an upright member of your community, a reliable employee of the business where you have worked for decades, you cherish the chance this game gives you for release as you let the wheels of fortune drive you along for a relaxing and refreshing night each week. And through the years this game has become a refreshment in your regular routine as invaluable as a good night’s sleep.

“Then one week, you and your wife are having an argument. Who knows, maybe there was an eruption of some underlining tension that had been building between you two all week. It’s nothing unusual. We all have times when we’re rubbed the wrong way. It’s no surprise that this rubbing is often done by the person to whom we’re the closest.

“But this Saturday, you’re determined to go to the game and she’s determined to make you feel miserable about it. You two fuss and there seems to be no hope in reaching any resolution. Every word each of you says only aggravates the other more as you two both antagonize some unsettled irritation that mysteriously lurks behind each of our lives at times. Finally, you decide you’ve got to get out of the house, so you walk outside, maybe even slamming the door which makes the tantrum feel all the more foolish. Then you jump in the car and back into the street.

“Of course you feel bad about the spat and you both know each other well enough to suspect she probably feels the same. In your mind you can even see her fiercely fuming and brooding on the couch while you’re gunning the engine down the highway. You both know it’s nothing but a lover’s quarrel but you both feel a little bit alone when you break away like this because these breaks leave you both feeling a little exposed.

“You try shrugging this off though. You know going back home right now would only fill you with a dejected sense of defeat and you convince yourself that you’re still interested in the game. You look forward to losing the sourness that has settled in your mind with the shuffling of the cards and the boisterous camaraderie between your buddies.

“The game doesn’t go as you had hoped though. There doesn’t seem to be a single hand you can win. Most of the time you’re dealt nothing but garbage, then the few times you have a good hand, you only find that someone else has something better.

“Then, when you’re considering dumping another twenty dollars to buy more chips, even though you know you’re just throwing money away at this point, your cell phone rings and it’s a call from home. None of your friends can hear the conversation, but they can tell from the relieved expression on your face that your wife is sweetly coaxing you back home. You may have been losing at cards the entire night, but you realized you still have your treasure and when you walk away from this losing game, you’re returning to the greatest happiness you have ever known.”
I pause for a moment to let the story settle clearly in his mind then add, “I don’t know if you’ve ever had a poker night like that, but if you have, you will love this book.”

And then I quietly think, “Isn’t the world a wonderful place.”

Garrett Buhl Robinson

Thursday, April 29, 2010

How I quit smoking

After hearing I quit smoking one of my mother's friends asked if I would write a letter explaining how I had liberated my life from this insidious addiction. After sending her this letter, I asked her if she would mind me posting this for others to read and she gave her gracious consent. If you know anyone who is trying to quit or wants to quit smoking, perhaps this may help.

Dear Friend,

To begin I want to commend you on your desire to quit smoking. Although quitting is a difficult task, I assure you that it is possible. Most importantly, when you do quit, you will be able to enjoy an accomplishment that will truly benefit your life and you will feel this unmistakable benefit with each and every cleansed breath. You will no longer be filling your lungs with smoke, but rather with the sparkling clarity of the sky. Also, upon quitting, your body will immediately begin to heal from the damage caused by smoking.

The most important and absolutely essential tool for quitting smoking is your will. You must not only have the desire to quit, but also the willingness. I assure you that you have this willingness. Quitting smoking is difficult but much of this difficulty is simply the cunning tricks of the addiction. As you learn to recognize the addiction’s insidious tricks and address them, you will be astonished that quitting is far easier than you may have expected.

The psychological barrier is the initial challenge you must overcome. This psychological barrier is composed of your thoughts that tell you that you cannot go without a cigarette, that you need a smoke after a meal, that you need a smoke after dropping the kids off at school, that you absolutely must have a smoke after your meeting with your boss, etc. This “need” you feel is simply a ruse of the addiction. Although smoking may have become a large part of your daily routine, it is not a natural part of your life. Removing the deceptions of the addiction you will realize that you are not forcing yourself to quit, you are allowing yourself to quit.

Also, when you stop smoking, you will quickly begin to realize the truly magnificent joy of regaining control of your life and your well being. Through years of smoking, we surrender ourselves and our health to cigarettes. When you quit smoking you will begin to feel the amazing sensation of liberation. You will find that quitting smoking will be one of the greatest triumphs of your life.

Yours Truly,
Garrett Buhl Robinson


When I decided to quit I was immediately stricken with a sense of fear and anxiety. I felt I was departing from a long time friend and reliable associate. Smoking was a companion. It was something with which I could share my time. It was my accompaniment through life that applauded my every accomplishment. It worked with me as I struggled through various jobs and tasks. It was my comforter when I was lonely. I even felt it was conducive for contemplation when I drifted into moods of thoughtful consideration.

I feared that by departing from this relationship I would leave myself vulnerable and exposed. Smoking gave me a sense of camaraderie with other smokers. It was a shield behind which I could easily retreat. It gave me a sense of security. It was a means of escape from the threats, boredom and tedium of life. Anytime I felt unsatisfied or distressed, in fact, any time I felt anything at all, I could whisk myself away on a wisp of smoke and drift into the stable arrangement of a familiar habit. In reality though, I learned that cigarettes were not protecting me; they were withholding me from enjoying life to the fullest.

As we both know, this sense of security smoking gives is a deception. As soon as I lit a cigarette, it seemed I was mashing and extinguishing its smoldering tip in a dirty ashtray. I might wonder: “Where did that cigarette go?” but I knew, that cigarette was burnt to ashes and to the muck I coughed up from my lungs. Then all those issues and problems I had tried to escape resurfaced. Worse still, the delays in addressing them by smoking had resulted in those meddlesome issues accumulating more complications. So what would I do? I would simply light another cigarette.

Eventually not a moment would pass in my wakeful day without tobacco calling for my attention, demanding I divert the course of my life to incinerate another cigarette as I incinerated myself. Through this, I realized tobacco was dominating my life. What I had thought many times to be my comforter and protector, actually had cunningly ensnared and enslaved me.

Before I stopped smoking, I truly could not imagine my life without cigarettes. I couldn't imagine waking up in the morning without immediately having my first cigarette of the day. I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly enjoy a cup of coffee if I didn’t have a cigarette to go along with it. In any event or engagement, one of my first thoughts was making sure I had my cigarettes with me and had figured some escape plan so I could slip away for a smoke.

Whether I acknowledged it or not, cigarettes were the biggest priority of my life. After using tobacco for 28 years, the activity had become so interwoven into my life, I had become completely deluded into believing that smoking was essential to my very existence. I was identified as a smoker. I had been using tobacco for 28 years. People expected me to smoke and I did smoke, as often as I possibly could.

You may feel the same. If you do, you are in for a wonderful surprise. When you quit, you will realize that your association with smoking was absolutely unnecessary. In fact, you will be puzzled how you had every felt any differently. What had seemed to be an essential part of your day to day life, will instead appear as what it truly is, that is completely unnecessary and insidious. There will be no question in your mind that smoking is nothing more than a waste of time, a waste of money, and most importantly a waste of good health. Where initially you may feel you are abandoning a faithful friend and subsequently suffering a loss, you will soon realize that instead you are achieving a victory. Instead of surrendering your time and your health to cigarettes, you are regaining control of your life.

When I quit smoking, it was not my first attempt. Through my previous attempts, I found a great deal of insight into some of the problems which arose and compelled me to revert back to the habit and addiction. If you have attempted to quit before, it is important to remember the situations which caused previous slips. From these previous experiences, you will be able to anticipate the temptations and through mentally preparing yourself, you will find yourself standing on firm footing and avoiding those pitfalls in which we have all slipped before. One key for me was realizing and reminding myself that those situations would pass and most importantly, the cravings that would accompany them would also pass. Then by resisting those cravings and allowing them to pass, I would find that I remained, as well as my intact dignity, self-assurance and most importantly, the good health I was regaining.

When I crave a cigarette, it is easy for me to remember what I liked about smoking. However, what disgusted me about smoking doesn’t immediately come to mind. It was very important for me to remind myself consciously, even if I had to speak to myself out loud, all the reasons I had decided to stop smoking. Then reminding myself of the reasons for my resolve, the notion to smoke would fade into the distance and I would turn my attention back toward the positive direction of liberation I had chosen.

Quitting smoking is one of the most rewarding choices I have made in my life. I realized that I was constantly choosing while I smoked, but every time I smoked, I was making the choice to surrender my life. When I chose to smoke a cigarette, I was choosing to die. Realizing this, I decided to set a date to quit. When that day arrived, I decided that I would make a different choice, I had decided that from that day onward I would choose to live.

My Method

Before I begin to describe some of the methods I utilized to quit smoking, I strongly recommend that you inquire about techniques in acupuncture and/or hypnosis. I did not utilize these myself, but I know a number of people who have and found them immensely helpful. Several of these people even said that the techniques had completely removed their urge and cravings to smoke.

When you decide to quit smoking, the cravings are definitely the challenge, as you are fully aware. After all, if we didn’t have a compulsion to return to smoking after we decide to quit, it certainly would be much easier to walk away from tobacco. What you must keep in mind is that you can overcome the cravings. They are a challenge, but every time you resist the craving, you strengthen your will and bolster your resolve. More than refusing to smoke, you are accepting an improvement of your health, you are providing yourself with the ability and opportunity to enjoy more of life and more of your family and friends.

When I decided to quit, I formulated a plan. Quitting smoking might appear to many people as simply flipping a light switch and perhaps it is. However, I wanted to make sure that the switch was never flipped on again. I wanted to unscrew the flickering bulb from the socket. I wanted to cut the power from the circuit completely. I wanted to pull the wires and patch the walls so the switch was not only absent, it was completely forgotten.

I was determined that when I flipped this switch off, I would never smoke another cigarette again. And this is how it must be. I was not pausing from my habit. I was not trying to fool myself into believing that I could cut back, that there was a safer way to smoke. I was going to stop smoking completely and I did not want to smoke another cigarette for the rest of my life. I was going to quit for good, for my own good and this is what I have done and this is what you can do too.

Divide and Conquer

To begin, I divided smoking into two parts -

1. The chemical addiction to nicotine
2. The mechanical/repetitive activity of the habit

From this, I decided to quit smoking by employing the classic “divide and conquer” strategy. I decided to eliminate the first part, that is abruptly stopping any nicotine from entering my system. I would even hold my breath when I walked through areas where other’s smoked. Then I would maintain some semblance of the second part, that is the mechanical/repetitive habit.

Of note, this is the opposite to how many people attempt quitting. Most of the aids to quitting smoking administer nicotine into the body through a means other than smoking, for example the nicotine patch and nicotine gum. Thus the chemical addiction is maintained with hopes of disengaging a person from the habitual and repetitive activity of smoking.

My reason for inverting the typical strategy seemed most suitable for me. Although I felt the addiction, it was something within me, it was embedded in the bewildering distance of molecular biology. The habit, however, was something very tangible; the habit was a engagement of my life that I experienced every day and that I found comforting.

The means by which I maintained the repetitive actions of the habit are very simple. Smoking is a hand to mouth mechanical movement. This is a repetitive activity that had become engrained in my thought process. It had become as regular as my breathing and my heart beat. I learned that I could satisfy this physical function by converting it into something healthy and enjoyable. I began munching carrots, eating pistachios and licorice. These activities provided a soothing distraction from the shock of the chemical withdrawal. Munching upon these treats allowed me to maintain this repetitive action which was essentially the habit of smoking, but while not smoking.

Set a Date

Then I set a specific date to quit smoking. I cannot remember specifically how many days I had set this date in advance. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks though. I definitely do remember selecting July 1 because it is an easy date to remember and thus through time it was an easy reference to remind myself of the length of time I had chosen to liberate my life.

When I set the date to stop smoking, I also decided to tell a few people my intention of quitting. I saw these people on a daily basis and I knew they would take note of my intent. This gave me an additional incentive to quit smoking by preserving my pride. I anticipated a sense of shame and humiliation if they saw me smoking again. Of course I recognized this as a psychological ploy I was utilizing to trick myself into quitting, but this can also be used in a different way. These people can also serve as an invaluable support group. This is something anyone quitting smoking should consider. There are many distresses that can erupt in one’s life, especially when quitting smoking, and in these moments, instead of turning back to cigarettes, it is much better to turn to a friend.

Also, the night before I quit, I made sure I had smoked all the cigarettes in the pack. If I threw the pack away without smoking all the cigarettes, I might have a lingering sense of incompleteness or wastefulness. Instead, while smoking the last cigarette in the pack I consciously acknowledged that I was in fact smoking my last cigarette for the rest of my life. I even allowed myself to enjoy it while keeping in mind that those enjoyable qualities were far outweighed by the detriments.

I had made a firm decision that I would no longer pollute my life with tobacco. The opportunity to regain control of my life and regain my health and well being were prizes that awaited my resolve and they were prizes I had decided I would no longer deprive myself. With that, I took pleasure tossing the crumpled and emptied pack into the garbage, wheeling the trash can to the curb, turning away and leaving that nasty addiction behind me as I walked back into my home. I will tell you that after I did this, I hadn’t even returned to the door of the house before I thought of smoking again. But when I felt this first craving, I told myself that this craving would pass and I would remain.

After doing this, I retired to my bed to sleep. I found a definite advantage to smoking my last cigarette just before my regular time when I would settle to sleep for the night. When I woke in the morning, I had already gone without a cigarette for eight hours. I had found through my previous experiences that the first 48 hours without a cigarette are unquestionably the most difficult. I would often feel cravings to smoke almost constantly during these first two days. I also knew that when I made it through the first 48 hours, the cravings would begin diminishing, and they do diminish very quickly. At the time, my immediate challenge was making it through those first 48 hours

I had no problem sleeping through as much of these first two days as possible. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to sleep because one symptom of nicotine withdrawal is insomnia. This can be difficult, but it too does pass. As I remember from previous attempts at quitting, as I awaited to slip into the refreshment of sleep I would find myself thinking about the worst possible thing, that is smoking. I did not know how to avoid the problem of insomnia, but what I used to handle it was simply to count the numerous benefits that I would gain by not smoking. I would add up the amount of money I would save. I would think of the health benefits I would enjoy, such as walking up steps without losing my breath and avoiding the stale smell of smoke permeating my clothes and my life. In these contemplative moments I was always struck with the astonishing insight that there really is not one single rational reason to smoke. On the other hand, the reasons for not smoking are as innumerable as the stars in a clear and cloudless night sky.

Divide and Conquer Again

As mentioned before, I realized from my previous experiences that there is a noticeable difference between the first 48 hours of not having a cigarette and all the time following.

The first 48 hours were very intense for me. During these first two days, I experienced the greatest difficulties in quitting smoking. What I noticed though, the physical cravings only last a few seconds. I could psychologically prolong them, but if I let them pass they would. When I felt my life lurch and even lunge for another cigarette, I maintained my composure and reminded myself the cravings would pass and they did.

Also, I found myself experiencing a heightened sense of irritability. There are always the typical frustrations of day to day life, but during this time, they were particularly aggravating. The key was not allowing myself to use them as an excuse. I continued reminding myself that those nagging, prickling, prodding, insistent and even agonizing urges to smoke would pass.

You may find the first two days as difficult as I did. If you do, remind yourself that every time you refuse the cravings, they are weakened and your will is strengthened. Every time you choose not to smoke, it becomes easier. Keep reminding yourself that the cravings will pass and they will. Don’t dwell upon them. Let them pass and they will. And as they do pass, you will find yourself affirmed with a pristine will in a state of cleansed clarity. And best yet, you deserve this and as you emerge triumphant through this adjustment, you will have earned this clarity.

After the first 48 hours, I noticed a significant drop in the intensity and frequency of the cravings. This was a definite relief. I no longer found myself regularly thinking about smoking and resisting the urge as I broke the routine and addiction that had entrenched itself in my life. Instead, I was forgetting about smoking. As the nicotine left my body, so did smoking leave my thoughts. The smoke was literally being cleared from my mind.

Although I am sure you too will greet this as a welcome relief, you must be very precautious too. Although the cravings will be less frequent and less intense, they will still arise at times and don’t let them surprise you and catch you off guard. You may even find yourself thinking at times, “I could really use a cigarette now.” But don’t be deceived by this. In reality you would only be allowing a cigarette to use you and once you decide to quit smoking, you are deciding to never allow cigarettes to pollute your life again. Remind yourself that those cravings will pass and your cleansed life will graciously remain.

I certainly hope you will find this helpful. The key point is that you must realize that you can quit. I have done it and I have witnessed numerous others do it too. Plus, not only is it possible, you will find it to be one of the most rewarding and gratifying accomplishments of your life.

Conquering the Cravings

They will pass - The cravings are very brief. Generally the physical cravings will only last a few seconds. Do not psychologically prolong them. Allow them to pass and they will.

Keep Busy - the more you think about other matters,
the less you will think about smoking. Busy work, like cleaning the house, is a great mental diversion, while also serving as a symbolic act of cleansing your life.

Smoking is absurdly illogical - Smoking is a distraction of your focus from positive pursuits of your life. Smoking damages your health. Don’t allow cigarettes destroy you. Allow yourself to live.

Remind yourself that you truly do not want to smoke - It is easy to think about why you want to smoke, but instead of this, make a conscious effort to remind yourself why you don’t want to smoke. Then allow the craving to dissolve in your dismissal of them through your affirmation of yourself and your health.

Rely on your friends - Form a support group of non-smokers. There are many distressing instances that can erupt in one’s life, especially when quitting smoking. In these moments, instead of turning back to cigarettes, turn to a friend. Your friends want to help you and they will be overjoyed at the opportunity to do just this.

You are stronger than cigarettes
- Your life does not depend upon cigarettes. However, cigarettes depend upon you. Without smoking, tobacco would simply be a uncultivated plant. The cravings are not from you needing a cigarette. The cravings are from the cigarettes needing you. The dependency is theirs. The dependency is not yours. You are stronger than cigarettes.