The Human Condition:

Self-Control and Commitment – March 11, 2012

True confessions time. I’ve experienced two great changes in my personal life—or perhaps I should say “physical life,” because each change had nothing to do with the “personal” or “spiritual” me, were nothing to do with love, work, philosophy, or politics, but rather involved personal habits and health. The changes are instructive, I think, because they involve habits with which many educated and enlightened people are now wrestling.

I started smoking as a freshman at the university. I chose a pipe because, as a bookish lad, I believed it fit a certain scholarly, thoughtful, British-tweedy, semi-aristocratic image I rather admired.1 My parents, both lifetime heavy cigarette smokers, could not really object (except when I occasionally lit up a cigar in the house), but I knew they were disappointed. I continued smoking after graduation and through my first couple of jobs. As an avid reader, aspiring writer, and then a copy and technical editor, tobacco helped my body relax (“narcotized” is the word, I think) and focused my mind for long stints—often hours at a time—of juggling words in one form or another.

Note that I started smoking about three years after the first of the Surgeon General’s reports on smoking and health in 1964. I was aware of the report and its warnings, but I was young and immortal: cancer, disease, and death were bogeymen of the distant future, after many pleasant years of contented smoking. But in the early 1970s, and after moving to health-conscious California, I began to find my smoking habit a bit inconvenient: not so many of my co-workers smoked, more public places were putting restrictions on smoking, people I respected were turning up their noses.2

All the beliefs about pipe smoking being less harmful than cigarettes are false. By then I wasn’t just puffing but actually inhaling, and it was a far richer, denser, more tar-laden smoke. I was also consuming about an ounce of tobacco a day, which I reckoned as somewhere between one and two packs. And, truth to tell, I was feeling poisoned. My body knew this habit was not good for me, even if my brain still liked the stuff.

I tried several times to cut down if not quit. I could stop for a week or so, then find an excuse in a moment of work pressure or anxiety to start back up. Note that at the time there were fewer organized cessation classes available, and weaning aids like nicotine patches were still in their infancy.

During college and for a few years after I had neglected my teeth, as young people away from the organized lives and gentle reminders of parents often do. By then I was also finding the tar buildup inside my mouth, which no amount of brushing could touch, distasteful. I made an appointment with a local dentist and went for a cleaning and checkup. He spent an hour with pick, probe, and scraper removing the tar, all the time muttering under his breath. And it hurt. But I walked out of the office figuring I had another seven or eight years of relatively clean teeth before the tar built up again.

I did go back for a checkup six months later, and it was the same routine: scrape and mutter. “Does that hurt?” “Well, yes …” “Good!” When I walked out of the office that day, I thought, “I’ll show him. I’ll stop cold and, the next time I come back, my mouth will be clean.” Silly damn thought, based on my peevishness toward a medical professional who was only doing his job.

Somehow, making a silent commitment—about which the doctor never knew until many years later—worked for me. It became a commitment to myself. I stopped smoking cold that day and never picked up a pipe again. In a few days’ time I noticed that the brown rime around my nostrils from the inhaled smoke went away. I no longer had little burn holes in my shirts from falling ash. The air smelled better both outdoors and in my apartment.

About a week after quitting, I was assigned to edit a mammoth project at work: a multi-volume engineering report on an iron ore mine that involved many revisions, huge stress, and hours of overtime. I never once used the workload as an excuse to light up. After surviving six months of that stress without smoke, I figured nothing else in my life would work as an excuse. Then I met Irene and the war was over.3

My second bad habit was drinking. Again, my parents were regular drinkers, each consuming a couple of martinis before dinner. I didn’t drink at all while still under age,4 but when I turned 21 (legal age at the time in our state) I went to a favorite bar with friends for beer. Later, as I established my working life, I kept alcohol—a six pack of beer, bottles of whiskey and vodka, two or three kinds of wine—in the apartment to drink in the evenings. Although my wife was not a smoker, she too enjoyed a beer in the evening and didn’t object.

As with smoking, the dangers—delirium tremens, liver damage, disease, death—were far down the road and of no concern. I had learned how to dose myself in the evening before bed with aspirin, vitamin C, and plenty of water, so the hangover in the morning was manageable, other than a certain lurching unsteadiness until I’d had coffee and breakfast.

This habit continued for a dozen years longer than the smoking. In time I was regularly consuming a bottle of red wine each evening, or the equivalent in beer or—sometimes, rarely—shots of a brand-name hard liquor. I was always able to function at work and never drank during the day. But still, I was feeling poisoned, and my body knew better than my brain. I was thinking about quitting, and one time I managed to stop drinking for a whole six months. But then I sold my first novel and had a glass of wine—two glasses, actually—to celebrate. By the end of that week I was back to my bottle a night.

This continued until I went in to the doctor for a minor medical problem—a nothing, a sebaceous cyst—but as it had been several years since my last visit,5 I had to fill out a medical history form. One of the questions was “How many drinks do you consume per week?” It gave the standard equivalencies among beer, wine, and hard liquor.6 Still, I had to count on my fingers to tot up all that wine. Even giving myself a free night, when I didn’t drink the whole bottle, the total came to 28 glasses.

The doctor asked, “How long have you had a drinking problem?” I started to say, “I don’t consider it a problem”—and stopped. That kind of denial was one of the warning signs I had been brooding about. It was a moment of insight, like the dentist scraping away at my teeth. The doctor also tested my feet with a huge tuning fork and described “peripheral neuropathy.” Here was a danger—not being able to feel where my feet were and when they struck the pavement, an embarrassment for someone who prided himself on his karate skills—which wasn’t reserved for the distant end of life but looming in my face right now.

I left the doctor’s office and decided to surprise him by never drinking again. Unlike smoking—which is a “do it” or “don’t” proposition—drinking involves daily choices and temptations. What goes well with this food or that? What to sip in the evening after dinner? I discovered nonalcoholic beer, sometimes even nonalcoholic wine, but mostly consumed (and still do) oceans of Diet 7-Up. I quickly adopted a rule: “Don’t put it in your mouth.” I could have desserts with denatured alcohol, like plum pudding and rum sauce, but if a liquid, any liquid, contained alcohol and came in a glass, spit it out.7 I’ve been sober ever since. In fact, sobriety has become precious to me.

Although I greatly respect Alcoholics Anonymous and the good work they do, the twelve-step program was never for me. I’ve been a convinced atheist since I was a teenager. Surrendering my will to a “higher power”—however I wished to conceive of Him/Her/It—was inconsistent with the universe I knew. The human mind is the most advanced and evolved system within a couple of parsecs of this place, so my worldview requires me to rely on it. And since I’ve never been very good with authority figures, I had to rely on myself.8

Much as I respect the mind, I also learned a valuable lesson from both episodes of quitting: “The mind is a monkey, and the body wants its candy.” Tobacco and alcohol reach parts of the nervous system that are far below thought and memory, actually down at the chemical and somatic level. The craving is a hunger, like the desire for food or sex. When the body is accustomed to its daily or hourly dose of nicotine and alcohol, it responds with an unreasoned craving. And in this case, the mind is quite willing to go along and invent excuses.

“You’ve had a really hard day—you deserve a drink!” “You had a really good day—let’s celebrate with a drink!” “There’s a half bottle of wine in the fridge—shame to let it go to waste!” “There’s still a glassful left in that bottle—shame to put it in the fridge!” “It’s my birthday … my wife’s birthday … somebody’s birthday …”

The patter, the urgings, the excuses go on and on unless the mind has already made a decision, an override, a Rule That Cannot Be Broken: “Don’t put it in your mouth. And if it somehow gets in there, spit it out.” Reaching that decision, making it final and not just a preliminary Good Idea I Really Should Try, is the life change. After years of false starts, of trying to cut down, and making short-term—almost trial—efforts, a person really must get serious, dig in, and make a rule. After that, quitting is actually easy.

I still have one more mountain range to cross. After years of eating as I liked, eating everything I wanted, eating according to patterns I established in my twenties and thirties—and watching my weight rise by 10 to 15 pounds per decade—I now have to do something. Twenty years and thirty pounds ago, I tried Weight Watchers for a couple of months. But that turned out to be a roomful of people sitting around for an hour each week talking about food—healthy, nutritious, lower-calorie food, yes, but still an obsession. That looked to me like a dead end.

Over the years I’ve kept up—more or less, now and then, on a journey covering hills, plateaus, and valleys—with the same Isshinryu karate katas that I learned way back at the university. Karate has become my built-in, default-level form of cardio exercise. The only trouble has been that, on the days I do a workout, I’ve been rewarding myself with extra food and treats. So while my heart is strong and I’m relatively limber, the pounds don’t go away. But the karate exercises are something to build on.

I need it, because my body mass index has now gone into dangerous territory. In the past year or two I’ve been experiencing minor troubles with foot and ankle swelling, which recently became to a condition that involved clotting in my surface veins, which led to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. So, “someday” is now here. Immortality is now out of reach. And I have to start taking seriously everything I put into my mouth, not just the tobacco smoke and the intoxicating beverages.9

I can do it. I did it before. The mind may be a monkey, but it’s the only thing I’ve got to work with.

1. Mostly from the movies coming out of the World War II era that preceded mine and seemed very adult, including Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. And yes, at one time I owned a calabash—dreadfully heavy thing, poor draw, and no way to set it down once lit.

2. And the woman I was eventually to meet and marry was a dedicated non/never-smoker. If I had shown up at her door with my dirty habit (“Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray”), we never would have finished our first date.

3. Oddly enough, for years afterward I occasionally had what I call “smoking dreams.” In the dreams, which might involve any kind of activity, I would be smoking again. I would feel bad about it, but there it was. Only as I started to wake up would I realize, “No, that’s wrong. I did quit . I don’t smoke. I didn’t go back to smoking.”

4. Unlike some students I knew, who finagled a false driver’s license to go drinking even as freshmen. This seemed like too much work and risk to me—but I hadn’t acquired the taste as yet.

5. Remember, I was still relatively young and immortal.

6. For the record: 12 ounces of beer equal 5 ounces of wine equal 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

7. Once, at a social function, I picked up a glass of champagne by mistake, thinking it was my usual sparkling cider, drew in a sip, spit it back into the glass, and put the glass behind a fern on a side table. Life is full of little victories.

8. However, I will admit the irony that in giving up first smoking and then drinking, I was relying on the implied authority of medical professionals. But they were the catalyst that led to the decision to stop, not the actual strength behind making that decision a permanent part of my life.

9. As a woman I know who struggles with her weight once pointed out, if smoking is a “do it” or “don’t” proposition, and alcohol is something you can choose to drink or not, food is a basic need, and it all has calories. Every day is a struggle for the weight-challenged. There’s a decision to be made about every donut in the coffee shop display, every piece of candy being offered on a co-worker’s desk, every item on the restaurant menu. This is the fight that goes on and on. The “Rule” must hold for the rest of your life.