Orange Post-It Notes Quit Smoking

The Quitters

Three conversations about quitting in the past day has got me thinking on the topic.

1. The guy was in tough shape—hospitalized, breathing hard and in some pain. The doctor was as blunt as a guy trying to save a life can be. “It’s simple. You have to quit smoking. Now. You have to lose 80 pounds, Starting today. If you don’t, you won’t be on the transplant list. And you will die. Do you understand?”
Like a hard slap across the face the words took the breath out of him. A pause. Then a soft exhale. The shoulders slumped. The answer was given not in words, but in attitude. He was dead in three months.

2. This story is about five years old. He was doing his second stint inside. Dealing drugs…about two months left on the sentence. From a family of habitual offenders, he was simply living down to what others expected of him. Not even 25 years old and the bet among the staff was that he would spend the majority of a probably short life wearing orange jumpsuits and eating off trays. It was after eating off one of those trays as he was being transported from point A to point B that he told the guard, named TJ, what his plan was.

Prison guards are a wary and jaded lot. The fear and adrenaline eat away at you because you’re never sure if and when some prisoner is going to pick that day to blindside you with a sucker punch or whatever heavy object is handy. They are suspicious and rightly so, but sometimes a conversation sticks with you and TJ remembered it well:
“TJ, they set me up. I was going to haul 10 pounds going one way while they hauled 100 pounds going the other way. They squealed on me so the cops would be distracted.” This part of the conversation is old stuff. Most inmates have a story about someone else being responsible for them being there, but this time the story took a turn. “But you know what? I did it. I was hauling 10 pounds. I knew it was illegal and I did it anyway. I am the reason I am in here. But you know what else? I am never coming back.” TJ shrugs and ends the story. “And he was right. I never saw him again.”

3. Alan is sitting with me at coffee. I am telling him about the peculiar phenomenon I see at funerals: No one ever mentions whether the person smoked. They talk about drinking. They talk about drugs. They talk about abuse. They talk about suicide and diabetes and every other kind of contributing factor, but they never talk about smoking. I’m wondering why this is, and Alan says, “Yeah, I used to smoke. I quit 20 years ago when my daughter was born. I looked at the pack I was smoking, soaked it under the kitchen faucet and never smoked another cigarette.” Impressed, I asked if he had tried to quit before. He laughed and waved his hand, “Only about a thousand times!”
And I realized something. It’s not about the habit or the weight or the crime. It’s about the quitting. 

Life can be a bully and Life can be a liar. It punches us in the face like a bully stealing lunch money. And while we’re bloodied and stunned, it offers us something to dull the pain. And if we take it, Life punches us even harder and laughs. “You fool! You took what I offered to dull the pain, and now it’s back and worse than before!” And we sit on the ground and try to get back up and we get hit again and fail again and try again and fail again, and then finally we make a decision. Are we done fighting? Are we done trying to lose the weight, quit the habit, change the lifestyle? Or are we just going to sink into the ground, beaten?

I think the reason people don’t mention smoking at funerals is not about the smoking. It’s about the quitting.

I myself still spend days struggling on the ground looking up at this bully called Life. And there are days that I stay on the ground and say the heck with it. But so far, I’m still getting up. So far, I’m trying new strategies, thinking new ideas that will allow me to punch back and even win. And I am happy to say I even got in a few good licks during 2019 and God willing, this next year will be the best ever. Because as TJ and Alan taught me—it’s all about the quitting.