I’ve enjoyed two separate smoke-free years in the past decade, and both times was surprised at the advantages. The oysterlike globs of phlegm stopped appearing, I no longer spat blood at regular intervals throughout the day, and the walk up to my apartment stopped feeling like an endurance contest. My chronic asthma even ceased to feel quite so life-threatening. Although my plan to eat a cake for every wanted smoke soon had some adverse effects, even the dentist chimed in with congratulations. Never had not doing something seemed so active.
But after a year, a day, or an hour, I always start up again, baffled at my joyless self-destruction. With everything to lose, and nothing to gain, I sign on for the five-hour Easyway seminar on the afternoon of Saturday, December 9. With that, I abandon my heroes: Tom Stoppard outside Lincoln Center, Kiefer Sutherland saving the world in between takes, the inveterate Jack Nicholson, and Johnny Depp, who once joked (paraphrasing Denis Leary) that he looked forward to a tracheotomy so that he could smoke two cigarettes at the same time. And I cast my lot with a tamer crowd: Gwyneth Paltrow, Christy Turlington, Mayor Bloomberg, and the avid nonsmoker Adolf Hitler.
Once O’Hara has the room lighting up, he starts. As we smoke, O’Hara drills into our minds that we do not like smoking. The room smokes back at him, and he goes on: Smoking does not alleviate boredom, aid concentration, or help one to relax. He makes his case convincingly, and the 25 of us agree. There is no pleasure involved in taking a drug that does not get you high, that costs a fortune, and that either kills you or severely affects your health. We puff and we nod. On the contrary, smoking is a cunningly designed trap that constantly causes you to feel deprived from the last cigarette you smoked. You receive no boost at all from smoking, you only relieve the withdrawal symptom from the previous cigarette. And the appearance of the relief perpetuates the illusion. The relief you feel when you smoke is the way nonsmokers feel all the time. And that, in a nutshell, is it. That was Carr’s eureka moment back in 1983.
O’Hara asks everyone in the room when we most like to smoke. We shout out our favorites, and he writes them on a makeshift blackboard: after a meal, after sex, after a plane ride, after working out, after holding a screaming infant for four hours. One by one, he dispenses with the idea that we actually enjoy any of those cigarettes; we are merely alleviating the feeling of deprivation, perpetuating a vicious circle.
The spiel is leavened with facts and statistics. He informs us that what tobacco executives refer to as “nicotine-delivery devices” mete out between .5 and 2.5 milligrams of nicotine at a time, a dose “expertly engineered to make you want 21 cigarettes a day.”
Slowly we begin to think of ourselves as nonsmokers, pitying those still caught in the trap. Everyone is still smoking, but we’re also patting ourselves on the back for our clever, life-enhancing decision.
The talk is also expertly engineered, gearing up with identification, empathy, and stabs at humor. We’re willing to agree with everything he’s said, partly out of desperation, but also to get to the meat of the matter—how do you actually stop? Five hours is a long time to listen to anyone, but slowly the tone and wording change, and we begin to think of ourselves as nonsmokers, pitying those still caught in the trap. Everyone is still smoking, but we’re also patting ourselves on the backs for our clever, life-enhancing decision.
Four hours, twenty minutes, and a full pack of cigarettes in, it is time for our real last-ever cigarette. The act comes and goes with little significance, and as I look around the room, there seems to be a sense of relief. (Whether it’s over the fact that we’ve finally quit or the hope that O’Hara might actually stop talking, I can’t tell.) We all throw our packs and lighters into a little trash can. We close our eyes to make a commitment to ourselves. We are instructed to be happy. Another hour of encouragement passes before we leave, including a period spent sitting in darkness with a visualization exercise that has something to do with a garden, a waterfall, and clean, fresh lungs. We are congratulated, and the room exits very quickly.
I spend precisely 48 hours feeling surprised at how effective the afternoon has been. Then I’m punching the cabinetry. I check in with Anthony, who started again almost immediately. He feels strongly that that session was all about chain-smoking you into a state of sickness; he’s angry, and he feels betrayed. He calls O’Hara and tells him that he wakes up three times a night to keep smoking. O’Hara responds that in seven years he’d never heard of such a thing and offers to honor the money-back guarantee. Anthony rages some more: “There is no easy way to stop smoking!”