This is not a unique story. You’re not about to read anything new, or touching, or out of the ordinary. This is a common story about a simple commitment that thousands of people make every day, and thousands more fail at. The first card I used, I kept. It was a commitment I was making to myself: I was going to quit smoking. Just those two words “Quit smoking” in red ink perched in the corner of my computer monitor.
I’d tried before. I made promises to my father, a lifelong smoker, and my mother, who has had to worry over him. Both of my parents have recently lost siblings to health complications brought on by smoking. I made myself sincere bedside oaths to the rhythm of breathing machines and medical monitors. In time, these became somber graveside offerings which faded like their floral counterparts. I read books, listened to seminars, started quit-pacts with friends. Nothing was working. I succeeded only in burning bridges and bruising friendships with my erratic moods and behaviors. The constant cloud surrounding me, the haze in my room, the film on my windshield was all a clumsy metaphor for the depression over my consistent failure.
You’re probably expecting me to tell you how this little card saved my life. I committed, I succeeded, I quit. I won.
It’s not that kind of story either. I lost the card on my monitor. It showed up again a few weeks later, bent and frayed. I put it back. It yellowed over time. I eventually had to rewrite it on a new card when the original decayed beyond usefulness. I used the edge of it once to scoop up some ash I’d spilled on my desk and had a good laugh at the irony.
There was always a reason to start again. I always had some excuse to keep on puffing away.
I work in a high-stress job. A pretty common sight; an under-staffed IT team with fairly oblivious management. Most of the “computer guys” I’ve known smoke. My dad worked in IT and cigarettes helped his problem-solving process. He would always chain-smoke through projects at home, whether he was building a new PC or installing a printer cartridge, the first two tools we needed were an ashtray and lighter. That’s just part of being a fixer. Everything we touch in a day is broken, and that begins to wear on you. It’s expected that we find some outlet.
Smoking helped me write. Any period of writer’s block could be cleared with a quick cigarette or three. I got clarity, wit, even inspiration from the little things. The days I tried to write without smoking, I’d find myself collecting my notebook from behind the dresser once I rejoined the fold of creative addicts. It was part of my process. I even wrote a few favorite characters with smoking addictions for a little vicarious fix. The visceral, palpable imagery in those scenes is probably some of my best work.
Some days I find myself crippled with social anxiety. I’m mostly an introvert, but I love my turns of social activity (This is something often misunderstood about us introverts. We can actually be very social creatures, we just need to recharge with a long walk, or a good book, or a Netflix binge.) I’m one of those socially inclined introverts, but other people have expectations so on days I didn’t feel like putting in the effort, I smoked to face my friends. Originally I started smoking as a social habit. It let me relax and talk comfortably with people. Without it I became panic stricken at the approach of a waiter or bartender. God forbid a stranger try to strike up conversation. “No, please, wait. I’m not ignoring you. I’m trying to slow my breathing enough to form a response. My heart is flooding my brain and I don’t remember any words right now. I’m just staring blankly, aren’t I?” Then, finally out loud: “Smoke?” with a nod to the door. And I could be human again.
Excuses. Justifications. There were always reasons to continue.
(Aside: For anyone seeking encouragement, these causes all have viable counters. I was just blind to them. The stress of my job was being compounded by my addiction. When I was denied my vice, even temporarily, every task became a herculean feat. The writers block I suffered was created by my smoking, not resolved by it. I couldn’t concentrate because my body was screaming for a fix. Of course it felt to me like the cigarette helped me write, but I was really just pushing the roadblock along with me, rather than getting it out of the way. And my anxiety? Nicotine again. Have you ever met a constantly calm addict? You cannot have any peace with yourself, or anyone else, so long as you see yourself as incomplete.)
I always had good reasons and new methods for quitting. But this always ended in this deadlock. Every reason to quit was countered with a new crisis. An old friend skipped town on a loan. My ex brought her new boyfriend into my favorite bar. On my most successful three-week quit, my roommate left his job unexpectedly and I became an unemployment supplement. On and on. It’s always something, and I could always make a new excuse.
I guess this is where the card comes in. It wasn’t the reminder. It wasn’t the promises made. It wasn’t the guilt seeing the card day in and day out. It was the reason. The best reason, and ultimately the only reason that mattered. This was a reason I couldn’t justify my way out of. “Because I said I would.” That is why I’m writing this account to you. The card is perfect. Printed on the bottom, in the far right. You can’t write anything after that. You can put something before, but the last word is going to be “because I said I would.”
I’m quitting, because I said I would. “But this deadline–” Doesn’t un-ring the bell. “That party is Friday, you know you’ll cheat.” Then I guess I won’t go. “You’re going to fight with that pretty girl over nothing.” Then let’s hope we can repair it. I’m done with this.
I wish I could say it was because of the promises I made to friends and family. I love you, I thank you, but that wasn’t enough. I wish I could say it was because of the losses we suffered over the past few years. That would give some redemptive meaning to the tragedy, but sitting across a bedrail from death couldn’t scare me out of it.
I quit because I said I would.
And you know what? It worked.
Lord, did I have a rough couple of weeks. Anyone who tells you it’s easy is lying. I was miserable and hard to be around. I missed some deadlines. I skipped a few killer parties. And I absolutely fought with the pretty girl (who, it turns out, is also beautiful and patient and kind). There’s still the odd crisis that I want to burn down, but this feeling that I can trust myself again, the knowledge that I am a man of my word is a better fix than a cigarette ever was. I was wasting my time fighting excuses with reasons and back again. It was all words and mental exercise, and that’s why the balance never shifted. I didn’t need a better reason to say I would quit. I had said it enough times and enough ways. I needed to stop talking about it and act.
This is a lesson I’m so glad I have learned. Thank you for your part in this, even if it was only a 3.5 x 2″ part, it meant the world to me.
And the best news? I still have a stack of cards to fill, and I know that whatever I put on them I can do. Not because of the card; because I said I would.