I leashed my dachshund/demon this morning, Nikes laced up tight and proper, and prepared for our long-running ritual: A 12-minute walk around the neighborhood. We walk regardless of the elements—and it's as much for me as it is to keep Blaze, an aging and occasionally ill-tempered hound, somewhat less deranged.
The jaunt's final third finds us ascending a somewhat steeply pitched sidewalk, then 'round a corner and home. Today, I paused briefly at my driveway's edge, ignoring Blaze's confusion, admiring the view of the mountains and overtaken with a sudden realization: The relatively normal function of my lungs.
I wasn't panting, wheezing or doubled over.
Fifteen days ago, this was not so.
That's when I quit smoking. Again.
SFR savants will recall a cover story I wrote in 2013 for this newspaper about my foray into vaping—and what was at the time the burgeoning phenomenon of hobbyist-level e-cigs.
I vaped for a few years and, for a time, believed my health improved. Slowly, though, the sound of my bedtime breathing came once again to resemble a '73 VW bug struggling to start on a cold morning.
So I quit.
Then I started smoking. Again.
Sometime in late 2016, I ran completely out of gas during exercise that would leave a moderately healthy human unfazed. I flashed on the possibility of a heart attack. Off, then, to the doctor, who furnished me with the diagnosis that has long been my destiny: mild COPD and emphysema.
I hail from Kentucky, see, so it's safe to say I've been smoking a very, very long time. Back home, in the first grade, young tots were not given a box of No. 2 pencils, a primer on healthy living and a pat on the head. Instead, we were handed a hard pack of Marlboros and a bottle of Maker's Mark and told, "Here, kid, support local industry!"
I've been burying family members from emphysema since before then—half a dozen so far, at current count. Among my earliest memories, when I was 3 or 4, is when my paternal grandfather came to my parents' home to die, dull hospital-green oxygen tanks in tow. Precocious, inappropriate journalist-to-be that I was, I asked him one day what it was like.
"You know how when you dive into a pool and start swimming across, staying under water for as long as you can?" he rasped. I nodded as if I did. "It's like that, only, that moment when you finally come up for air—that perfect, full moment—never comes."
He was 62.
I was 42 and light change when the pulmonologist gave me the news about my lungs, which cannot recover because of the disease. It can be arrested, however, and I can maximize what capacity remains.
A few days later, I started smoking. Again.
My self-destructive streak is quite well-known among the many souls who've encountered me through the years. I struggle in myriad facets of living as an adult, often happily dropping the match on things I care about. But in the physical well-being department, I've been a conscience-free, ninth-century warlord. Far from the body-as-temple adherent, I've treated my corpus as rusted-out dumpster that could never be destroyed.
My history of self-improvement is also dotted with somewhat staggering feats of accomplishment. I've belly-crawled out of far nastier pits than nicotine addiction to become a competent—if not respected—reporter and editor, a homeowner and, most recently, trimmed my golf handicap all the way back down to five after several years of not touching a club at all. But by the latter part of last spring, I was laboring to breach that pool water my grandfather had warned me of so many years hence, even with the help of an inhaler.
So, I quit smoking. Again.
This time with the aid of a medication that, while admirably blunting cravings for a smoke, induces end-of-the-world-type anxiety and dreams that place the unlucky user in the middle of nightly medieval battles that would make a Game of Thrones screenwriter blanche.
I consumed these cursed pills for 90 days and didn't smoke. For 63 more, I continued the streak.
Then, I started smoking. Again.
(Yes, Dear Reader, you may ask: "Why?" Here's my answer: Because I'm a Kentucky boy, and we smoke, dammit.)
This time, it got ugly fast. I visited family in Florida for Christmas and could barely walk across the living room to deliver my niece a present. But I went out back every 90 minutes or so to painfully choke down another American Spirit.
I returned home and slogged through the neighborhood streets with Blaze every day for a few months. By late March, I was stopping halfway up the hill every morning and hoping to not pass out.
Blaze is 15 or so, naps far more than he used to, and was embarrassed that his walker couldn't make it 30 more steps. So, a month ago, I got back on the crazy-making meds. A dozen days later, I quit smoking. Again.
I'm officially out of the prognostication business after watching Tiger Woods fly a golf ball 340 yards after spinal fusion surgery. So I'm not interested in saying whether it's gonna stick this time.
But I'm a New Mexican now, having lived here 16 years. With that, I believe, comes the singular phenomenon associated with this place, which I have described thusly: We wake up every day with an entirely unwarranted sense of optimism.
So, I will say that by the time you encounter this essay, I will not have smoked for 16 days. Beyond that, if you see me out back of the SFR offices on Marcy Street puffing away, feel free to shout a word of encouragement, throw a pipe wrench at me, call me "Fake News" or some combination thereof.
Know this, though: I'll quit smoking. Again.
Proctor is contributing editor at SFR and leads The Justice Project at New Mexico In Depth.