Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How Santa Claus Stopped Smoking

Yep, that's me



       I ended my smoking habit with almost breathtaking swiftness.
       This wasn't a planned assault on my disgusting addiction.  It was an intervention by forces beyond my conscious control.  In short, I got so sick, I had a lung infection so severe that I was given a view into what my future would be like if I didn't quit smoking.  It was terrifying. For once in my life I made a rational choice; I put away the tobacco and stopped smoking.  I got nicotine patches.  That part of the process, the nicotine withdrawal, is seldom a great problem.  Patches work.  Gum works.  A person can get off nicotine without too much difficulty.
          The other part is the hard part.  The body rhythms, the daily self-soothing, the hand to mouth nipple sucking, the inhale-exhale, the whole gigantic gestalt of what goes into a smoking addiction, the social rituals and emotional processes...that's the gritty work of quitting a tobacco habit.
          And there were the feelings.  Our emotions are seldom under control, they're like the weather, they just ARE.  But my god, the experiences I had during this awful month were like a roller coaster without the fun.  It had the emotional contours of an amusement park ride, one of those ultra-modern devious twisting machines.  Instead of pleasantly thrilling chills there was just the terror, intense despair, claustrophobia and a hundred other nasty feelings.  All of these feelings had been laid under provisional control and masked by smoking.  Now they were naked and pulsing, bare nerve endings of horror, and I was experiencing them.
          It wasn't brave of me to do that...I had no choice in the matter, so how can I call myself brave?  Had I  attempted to smoke I would have all but lost the ability to breathe for several minutes. If you have asthma, a lung disorder, or are prone to panic attacks, you know that being unable to breathe is the most terrifying experience in the universe. 
          I consider myself incredibly lucky, or blessed.  I probably had pneumonia.  I didn't go to a hospital.  I called my doctor, explained the circumstances, and was given a course of antibiotics.  I survived and healed thanks to modern medicine,  a resilient body, the grace of God, and the tender loving care of my wife.
          The rest of the story can be told by relating what I call "The Santa Claus Incident."
          Every year in December I have a little job.  I  dress in my Santa Suit and hand out gifts to three and four year old children at a Montessori pre-school. On December 14 at five thirty p.m,  I was scheduled to appear in a big class room with about fifty kids and their parents.  I would pretend to have just dismounted from my sleigh as I walked through the door. I would boom "HO HO HO!" and spend about an hour  having my picture taken with each child as I dispensed little packages provided by the school.
          At ten o' clock that morning I was reaching for my phone, with great reluctance, to cancel my appearance.  I was in no shape to be Santa Claus.  I was exhausted.
          The phone rang before I could dial the number.
          It was the school principal.  "You're coming, aren't you?" she asked anxiously. "The kids are looking forward to seeing you so much!  I got nervous and wanted to call and confirm."
          "I don't feel very well," I said. "I've got a little cough, but don't worry, I'll be there.  See you a bit after five, right?"
          "Oh thank you thank you thank you!  Wonderful!  We're so looking forward to it."
          What else could I do?  Santa doesn't get pneumonia.  I would soldier through, I would do my best. 
          I had been sick for about two weeks and thought I was on the healing part of the curve.  I was wrong about that.  I wasn't contagious, but I had another two weeks to serve in this particular zone of Hell.
          My wife dropped me off near the door that I customarily use at the back of the school.  As she went to park the car I had one of those attacks: the breath left my body and the next breath wouldn't come.  I put down the box with my costume, spread my legs and told myself the attack would pass.  There was nothing else I could do but fight for breath. I don't know how long the gasping lasted.  It was no more than three or four minutes, but those can be very long minutes.
          It passed.  I started to breathe.  I pulled myself together, found the school principal and went to the dressing room to work the transformation from air-sucking sick man to SANTA CLAUS HIMSELF!
          A Santa Claus costume is a torture device.  It's hot. It's constricting.  Between the wig and the beard there's window about four inches in diameter through which I can see.  The beard and mustache almost completely block my nose and mouth.
          I had been doing this little holiday job for years but in my condition I wasn't prepared for the  shock of being inside that all-consuming outfit. 
          I walked into the class room, managed to go "HO HO HO, MERRY CHRISTMAS!" and crumpled onto my special throne.
          Then a tsunami of children raced towards me, screaming with delight (minus a few toddlers hanging back, cringing with terror).  Behind the kids, the parents were firing their cameras and I-phones, smiling and laughing.
          I had a pure unmitigated panic attack.  I couldn't breathe.
The fake white hair was teaming up with my congested lungs.  My airways were completely blocked.  My heightened sense of claustrophobia was thrown into overdrive.  My field of view was constricted to a couple of inches.  I was wearing gloves, boots, a hat, a red fuzzy tunic, a wide leather belt and big baggy red fake fur pants!
          The impulse to get up and run was overwhelming.  Yet, I couldn't do that!  What a predicament!  Then the kids surrounded me and the ritual had begun. My decision had been made for me.
          If I was brave at all throughout this month of madness it was in that moment: that refusal to run in the face of panic.
          I had that two seconds in which to leave.  I could have thrown up my hand and said "STOP!  I CAN'T!"  Well, I doubt I could have spoken at all.  I was panting and trying to squeeze breath into my lungs and then I had a giant hacking cough.  A huge wad of phlegm exited my lungs at high velocity and stuck immediately to the inside of my fake beard, which then attached itself even more firmly to my chin.
          I could breathe again.  I could hang in there, talk to the kids, pose for the pictures, get my pay check and go home. Which is what happened.
          The worst of it was over but I will never forget the raw unchecked emotion that rampaged across my psyche. 
          I realize that something profound has taken place within me; I've been given a second chance, a dispensation, a grace.
Some immense force, something from WITHIN, turned me upside down, shook me hard, then set me back down....smoke free.
          I am deeply grateful.