Friday, April 29, 2011

Giving Up Smoking

It seems appropriate, somehow, on this royal wedding day, to tell this story.

Nearly seven weeks ago, I observed my fourth anniversary without cigarettes.

And I can tell you, from personal experience, how brutal that experience can be.

Now, let me say that I believe that giving up smoking is a worthwhile goal and should be encouraged whenever someone tries to achieve it — because for anyone who is trying to free himself of the addiction to nicotine, there can be no experience that comes closer to resembling hell on earth.

Yet few TV programs have attempted to realistically present it — and even fewer have succeeded.

But tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of what I think is one of the better TV episodes to realistically (albeit it in the exaggerated manner of a sitcom) address the ordeal of giving up cigarettes — and, appropriately, it came from Frasier.

Frasier was always extremely good about exploring the human condition — all of the protagonist's training and experience in therapy, I guess — and giving up smoking is an experience that more and more Americans have in common.

But smokers have had to wade through a swamp of nonsense to get to the point where quitting could be appreciated for the truly difficult thing that it is.

When I was a child, it was a common misconception to believe that smoking was merely a habit that could be "kicked" if the smoker only displayed enough will power.

But that was wrong. It made smokers feel guilty for not being able to give up smoking when, in fact, it was (and still is) an addiction that, in most cases, requires a doctor's assistance to defeat.

For more than two decades now, smokers have been aware of a more realistic appraisal, that the addiction to nicotine is tougher to shake than heroin — and I haven't heard anyone suggest that beating heroin addiction is simply a matter of will power.

Nevertheless, Frasier (the program, that is, although the character occasionally contributed to the perpetuation of those myths) trotted out all the cliches about "habit" that non–smokers have used for years and years to needlessly shame smokers for their powerlessness over nicotine.

The premise of the episode was that the new owner of the radio station — an elderly self–made man with health issues — was engaged to Frasier's agent, Bebe, and wanted her to give up smoking during a three–day period when he would be out of town.

(Now, as any smoker who has tried to give up tobacco will tell you, that is not something that can be done in three days. For most smokers, it is an ongoing process. I haven't had a cigarette in four years, but there are still times when I wish I could smoke one, and there have been times when I have come perilously close to backsliding.)

Bebe wound up in Frasier's custody for three days, and his mission was clear: Cure Bebe of her smoking or else.

It was decided that the only way to make Bebe give up smoking cold turkey was to keep her in Frasier's apartment where everyone could keep an eye on her.

But Bebe's struggle with cigarettes had unhappy consequences on the rest of the household. Reformed smokers Martin and Daphne fell off the wagon, and Bebe tried to resist Frasier's reverse psychology.

A harrowing time was had by all.

But everyone got through it — and Bebe almost got her geriatric groom, but there was a bit of a mishap on the wedding day. The groom had a fatal heart attack as the couple walked down the aisle, and Bebe, despite her best efforts to bluff her way through the vows, didn't get to inherit his fortune.

But she did get to continue smoking.