I sat on the examination table, calmly, expectantly, with my legs dangling over one side. I tried to remain perfectly still as the doctor listened to my breathing, to my lungs, with his stethoscope. He was Asian, with a pleasant face and a warm, friendly bedside manner that made me more trusting and believing of the things he was about to tell me. He was young, too, and seemed to glow with secret medical knowledge and expertise.
“Well, you don’t have bronchitis,” he stated as calmly and matter-of-factly as if he were telling me the time of day. Then he continued, “You can’t stop coughing and you can’t get over your cold because you won’t stop smoking.”
It was as if as he was saying the words, I was coming to the exact same realization. I’d felt sure I’d had bronchitis, and needed an antibiotic to cure this odd feeling of general malaise, a kind of constant pressure in my chest cavity, the breathlessness of a person advanced in years, and a persistent cough that had lingered for weeks.
“As a woman, smoking is the single most destructive thing you can do to your body. You’re increasing your odds of cancer in any part of your body—and for disease, in general—exponentially, just by smoking cigarettes.
“It’s like this: think of a scale.” At this, he gestured with his hands as if weighing things of differing weights and trying to balance them. I watched him attentively. I listened carefully. I believed every word. It was as if he’d been sent to me deliberately, to deliver this message – that’s how strongly I believed what he was saying.
“There are pre-cancerous cells in your body. As long as you continue to smoke, you are feeding these cells. And you never know which cigarette is going to tip the scales in favor of the cancer. The best thing you can do for your health is to stop smoking.”
And right there, right then in that examination room, I made the decision to quit smoking. I don’t remember that doctor’s name, or even the hospital he was affiliated with, but I remember that in that one visit, he changed my mind. Permanently. He changed my life.
“Take a deep breath in,” he’d said. “Now, exhale.” I did. “Do you hear that wheezing sound?” I’d heard it, and I’d been horrified. I was too young to be wheezing, and too smart to keep up a habit that was slowly robbing me of my ability to breathe.
It was wintertime or close to it, and soon it would be New Year’s Eve. I went out of that office a changed person and looked at the world and the people around me with a fresh, new perspective. I set New Year’s as my target date and came up with a plan. I would buy one final carton of cigarettes—at that time I think they were Marlboro Menthol Lights, which came in a simply-designed dark green and white box with bold, black lettering—and I would smoke the entire contents of the carton, all twenty little green and white boxes, between that day and until the clock struck midnight on the last day of the year 2002. Then I’d be done with smoking forever, the nasty, filthy habit.
I already hated smoking in enclosed spaces because the smell of old, stale cigarette smoke stuck to my hair and clothes disgusted me. I knew it was a bad habit, knew it stained my teeth an awful yellowish hue, made my breath smell bad, and I was always afraid that my pretty pink and brown lips would turn black, like those of the mother of one of my friends in middle school.
So. Setting my mind to it wasn’t difficult—not nearly as difficult as it could have been had I actually found the habit the least bit attractive.
When New Year’s Eve came, I was at a party with my sister and four or five other friends, one of whom was a much heavier smoker than I was at the time. Anyway, I had smoked only about half the carton and had several packs left over, so I planned to smoke as many as I could and simply throw the rest away, come midnight. And that’s just what I did. In all the time I’d been an off-and-on smoker, beginning my freshman year in college at age nineteen, I don’t think I’d ever chain-smoked as many cigarettes as I did that last night of December, 2002. I’d put one out and light up another one, knowing midnight was approaching and I’d never allow myself to smoke tobacco again. Ever.
I didn’t like being a slave to a drug, a habit, or anything else in life. Nothing in this life, I’d firmly decided, would have mastery over me. It was this slave-master relationship that repulsed me so. It could be no other way in my mind. Midnight came. My hair and my pretty black dress and my mouth and my skin all reeked of smoke, and I threw the carton in the trash with the unopened packs still in it.
“You threw away perfectly good cigarettes?” my friend—the one who was a heavy smoker, had asked. She looked at me in disbelief. “You could have given them to me!” I looked at her, smiled and shook my head. She wanted me to keep smoking with her as much as I wished for her to quit along with me. We’d both already said as much—truth veiled with jokes and smart-aleck comments, but truth, just the same. But, no. I hadn’t wanted to contribute to anyone else’s demise. It was symbolic, what I did with throwing away those unopened packs. I was liberated.
The party ended. It was 2003—the New Year had begun, and all its newness and promise and endless possibility was spread out before me like the stars of the Milky Way. It was the wee hours of the morning; dawn was still hours away. I stepped outside, into the coolness and stillness of this New Year. I marveled at the beauty of it all, the night sky, filled with the stars of my new founded freedom. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the cold, Georgia air.
I knew it was going to be a good year.