Mantras, visualizations and sunflower seeds fire the imagination in an edgy battle against an ugly habit.
Thursday, January 25, 2001
Hypnotherapist Kathy Howley doesn''t really use a pendulum--but she keeps one on hand, just in case.
My mouth tasted like crap, my clothes stank and I was short of breath. All the time. I was spending in excess of $1,500 a year on cigarettes. It was never far from my mind that my father died of lung cancer. So did his sister and father. And my mom''s dad died after years of sucking on oxygen tanks, trying to draw air into his emphysema-racked lungs.
But none of that mattered. The first things I wanted every morning were to take a leak and smoke a cigarette--not necessarily in that order.
I''d gone cold turkey the two previous times I''d quit smoking. I was clean for more than six years the first time and about two years on the second try. So I knew I could quit, at least in the short term.
But I also knew the crawling-out-of-my-skin feeling, where I wanted a cigarette so bad that I couldn''t sit still. I knew about the little voices in my head, the ones that spoke up about a thousand times every day: "It''s time for a smoke," "A smoke sure sounds good," "I think I''ll go have a smoke." And I knew all the furious little arguments I utilized to deny those cajoling voices.
I also knew that the voices would change tone in a couple weeks, growing more seductive, trickier. They''d encourage me with things like, "Cool. You''ve got it licked. It''s OK if you have a cigarette every now and then. Go ahead. Moderation in all things, even abstinence." And even if I made it past the two-week or four-week mark, what then? I knew I could fall back into the habit even after years of being smoke-free.
For me, at least, quitting cigarettes is a nightmare. So this time around, I decided to enlist the help of a hypnotist. Why a hypnotist instead of The Patch?
I don''t know. Maybe because I was impressed with that stage hypnotist who comes to the Monterey County Fair every year. I figured if he could get some sad-sack to wander around on stage thinking his butt fell off, it shouldn''t be too hard to get me to stop reaching for smokes.
On a Saturday morning, less than a week into 2001, I find myself headed to the home office of certified hypnotherapist Kathy Howley. By the time I get to her office, I''m a little jittery.
The first thing that Howley tries to do is to have me relax--not a condition easily achieved by a control freak who''s jonesing for a smoke and who is a little nervous about "going under." I cross my legs, fold my hands and sit on the couch with all the supple grace of a cigar-store Indian.
"That''s comfortable?" Howley asks. "You can lie down if you want."
"Um, yeah," I mumble. Comfort is a relative thing, and this sitting position is far more comfortable than, say, hanging upside down with my head in a bucket of lye. "OK. I''ll do that."
There I am: stone-cold sober, in full control of all my senses, and I''m already obeying her suggestions. You''d think that would bode well for the hypnotism itself. And you''d be wrong.
If you poke around on the Web, looking for info on hypnotism, you''ll run into declarations that the more intelligent you are, the easier it is to hypnotize you. Whether that''s true or not, it''s a great marketing gimmick. Given my rich hoard of brain cells, I knew I''d be hypnotized by the time Howley got to the "ting" in "You''re getting sleepy."
In reality, I have trouble following Howley''s simplest suggestions.
"Imagine you''re in the mountains," she encourages, coaxing my conscious mind to visualize trees, sky and, eventually, the sun. But the best picture I can conjure is a sort of syrupy, swirling, indigo blue pattern.
And if my mind is too weak to comply with Howley''s request, my body is downright treacherous. First I start coughing. I try to stifle it, but the tickle in my throat is maddening. I cough. My throat tickles some more. I cough again.
"Your coughing just makes you more relaxed," croons Howley.
Cough. Hack. Stomach growl.
Yeah, stomach growl, too. Loud. Like an enraged bear.
Cough some more.
"Would you like a drink of water? Feel the water relaxing you."
What I am is embarrassed--no, humiliated. All I''m thinking about is whether I''m going to cough again and wondering what my stomach is bitching about.
"Visualize a ray of sunshine entering your head..."
This is supposed to be relaxing? What the hell was I thinking? If I had a pack of cigarettes right now, I''d smoke ''em all--at the same time. It would be best if I just sit up and admit that this isn''t working, apologize and slink back into my hole. It''s embarrassing, I should just cut my losses now.
Just about the time I''m ready to give up on the whole process, I realize the coughing has stopped. More than that, I''ve kind of lost track of time and Howley''s still over there babbling something about me being a non-smoker.
I knew the crawling-out-of-my-skin feeling, where I wanted a cigarette so bad that I couldn''t sit still. I knew about the little voices in my head, the ones that spoke up about a thousand times every day: ''It''s time for a smoke,'' ''A smoke sure sounds good,'' ''I think I''ll go have a smoke.''
"Yes, that''s right, I said you''re going to continue to be a non-smoker. Because that''s what you are, a non-smoker."
Yeah, right. Whatever. What I want to know is why I''ve quit coughing. Then my brain takes off on another tangent about how my throat often tickles to the coughing point when I''m nervous, and how smoking usually calms the tickle, and... I''m drifting.
"Imagine a pack of cigarettes, a life-size pack of cigarettes. It has legs and arms. And a head with a face. It''s the face of the person you dislike the most in the world and that person is shaking their finger at you, telling you that they control your life..."
Oooohhhhh, yeaaaahhhh. That''s so surreal that I can visualize that. But I''m a little surprised at the face that pops up. I''d never before thought about who I disliked the most. Which sets my thoughts off on a whole different tangent, none of which have anything to do with what Howley is talking about.
"Water. Waterwaterwater...non-smoker...red. Every time you see the color red ...non-smoker..."
I hear myself snore lightly. Have I been asleep? Am I going to sleep? Another embarrassment, but I don''t really care.
"I am going to start counting backwards...when I reach one, you will open your eyes, feeling relaxed..."
By the time Howley gets to one, I open my eyes. And I feel relaxed. But am I really a non-smoker?
Brain Pan Mantra
Will I smoke again?
I don''t know.
I do know that Howley won''t be happy when she reads that last sentence. A large part of what she tries to do is to implant positive thoughts. She''d be happier to see me write, "I''m a non-smoker and I''ll never smoke again."
It''s sort of the opposite approach from Whatever Anonymous. If I were a poster boy for hypnotherapy, I wouldn''t be a recovering cigarettaholic--I''d simply, and emphatically, be a non-smoker. Instead of taking things one day at a time, a person makes a commitment and, with the help of the hypnotherapist, enlists the aid of the subconscious brain.
That''s the whole point of the hypnosis session, in fact. First the hypnotist tries to distract or preoccupy the subject''s conscious brain--the part of the mind that''s judging what''s going on and figuring chances for success--to get it out of the way. By inducing a subject to concentrate his or her attention on a visual, a sound or a movement, the hypnotist is distracting the conscious mind long enough so that some quality time can be spent with the subject''s subconscious.
At the risk of making hypnotism sound like voodoo, what a hypnotherapist strives to do, bottom-line, is put the subject into a trance. Just as a shaman of yore beat a drum to create a repetitive pattern of sound while the patient focused on a campfire or candle, Freud vocally soothed his patients while having them watch his pocket watch sway back and forth, back and forth, as they get sleepy, very sleepy...
As Howley points out, anyone who''s ever pulled into the driveway but can''t remember a damn thing about the drive home, has been hypnotized. While the conscious brain has been lulled with the familiar task of driving, the subconscious has been having a heyday.
With the conscious brain out of the way, the therapist then tries to influence the workings of the subconscious, feeding it suggestions and helpful little tidbits. In my case, Howley made the suggestion that every time I saw the color red, I would be reminded that I was a non-smoker, thereby strengthening my resolve. Similarly, water--whether it was running down the sink, the street or my throat--would be my ally.
To further empower my conscious resolve to quit smoking, Howley also gave me instructions on ways to have a word with my subconscious, including some simple self-hypnosis drills and a mantra that I''m supposed to repeat 10 times each night just before I go to sleep.
Of course, all the work with the subconscious is pointless if the conscious mind hasn''t made a decision to cooperate. The subject has to want to modify whatever behavior--whether it''s overeating, smoking or something else--before the subconscious can come to the conscious mind''s aid. Hypnotism won''t do a damn thing if a person doesn''t want it to.
In talking about hypnotism, Howley is firm and quick in noting that hypnotism is not a cure-all. It''s not like taking a pill that will induce a specific chemical reaction to combat an illness or condition. There''s an art involved for a therapist to find what techniques and suggestions will work for each individual patient.
In fact, the highly individual nature of hypnotherapy has made it difficult to conduct controlled research on its effectiveness. Every person represents so very many variables, that it''s virtually impossible to create a clinically accurate control group.
Howley says that almost everything about hypnotism--from its overall effectiveness to the limits of its potential--is crying out for more research. Failing that, we''re left with anecdotal evidence from individual case studies.
Just in the Nicotine of Time
I''ve quit smoking before. The first time I quit, I was inhaling more than two packs of Marlboro Reds every day. I was clean for six or seven years before a trip to New Orleans cured me of my non-habit. By the time I got around to quitting the second time, I was doing about a pack a day of Marly Lights.
A couple years later, a confluence of stress factors sent me to seek the comfort of my smoky little nemeses.
By the beginning of this year, I was back to a pack a day. Camels, non-filtered--the hard stuff.
So I have a pretty good idea what I''m up against in quitting, both short and long term. Although I can''t predict what will ultimately happen, I am encouraged by the quick side results of the time I spent with Howley.
The first couple of days are usually an agony, both physically and mentally. At first, it''s just your brain suggesting it''s time for a smoke. As the hours wear on, however, your whole body gets into the act, demanding a nicotine fix. You can suck on as much candy, eat as many sunflower seeds, or chew as much gum as you want, but it just isn''t the same as a cancer stick.
This time, after my visit with Howley, the first two days were almost easy. Although I frequently got the urge to smoke, there was no pitched battle, no agonizing about whether to act on the urge: I thought about having a smoke, and then I just said no. And that was the end of the discussion for 15 minutes or so.
But Monday was more difficult. I was back in the office, where stepping outside for a smoke had acted as a form of stress management, a reward for accomplishing tasks, and as a quiet time to think deep thoughts. My whole being was howling for a smoke by mid morning.
Taking deep breaths, as Howley had suggested, helped infinitesimally. The tote-sack of sunflower seeds helped occupy my hands, mouth and brain. ("Jeezuss, look at all these sunflower seeds. I wonder how many sunflower seeds I''ve eaten. I wonder how many sunflower seeds it would take to poison a person. I wonder...") But mostly it was just a matter of toughing out the day.
I couldn''t tell if the hypnosis session helped in any measurable sort of way.
Tuesday, the fourth day, was weird. The cigarette craving wasn''t anywhere nearly so bad, but I ate like there was no tomorrow. By 1pm, I had eaten 16 Oreo-style cookies, a 12"-by-12" piece of beef jerky, a bowl of soup and a roast beef sandwich. I had washed it all down with a quart of coffee.
Things settled down through the rest of the week. I had cigarette urges, but no cravings.
Until Friday night.
I broke down and started bumming cigs at the fourth bar. And the fifth.
But I woke up on Saturday morning feeling pretty good (except for the hangover). No craving for cigarettes over the weekend, nor through the following week.
As I finish writing this story, it''s been a day shy of two weeks since I first met with Howley and, with the exception of that boozy Friday night, I haven''t smoked.
It feels good. Not only has it given me a boost in the energy department, it has also goosed my self-esteem.
And the bastard on the cigarette pack who was wagging a finger at me, asserting control over my life? It feels pretty good to extend that person my middle finger, turn my back and walk away.
We''ll see how far I get.
Kathy Howley may be reached at 883-4633, or online at www.hypnotherapy-tapes.com.