In the fight against a drink: When your brain and your body fight for your life

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In 1977 I smoked my first cigarette in the entryway of the United States Post Office in Fairmount, North Dakota.

I was 14 years old.

Twenty-two years later I smoked my last cigarette.

I was 36 years old.

By the time I quit smoking I was up to four packs a day.

I finally quit because my body decided that it was either me or the cigarettes.

I have missed smoking every single day of my life since then.

When I say that I finally quit because my body decided it was either me or the cigarettes it is important to understand that explanation very clearly.

I didn’t want to quit.

I loved to smoke!

I loved the feel of a brand-new pack of cigarettes in my hand.  The process of tapping the top and the bottom on a table to firm each precious occupant of that package together was more habit than it was thought.

Opening that pack, with the cellophane wrapper coming off and the red strip that one tore to remove it is a sound I can still hear today.

Then, filter in my mouth, my nicotine stained fingers in front of me, the sound of a match and the burning of the end of that cigarette was my body’s signal that help was on its way.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Poison in.

Poison out.

Quitting smoking was the most important thing I ever did in my entire life to ensure that the rest of my life was my own.

My body knew that.

My brain did not.

My brain fought the effort.

It did every single time I tried to quit.

It reasoned and rationalized.

It promised me that if I could just cut down to a couple of cigarettes a day all would be good.

Or, maybe just a pack a day.

Maybe, just maybe, if I only smoked at certain times of the day and night I would be fine.

Time and time again my brain convinced me that I would be sad, angry and depressed if I quit smoking.

I needed to smoke, my brain told me, because it kept me sharp and it calmed me down.

If I quit smoking I would be alone.

My body fought back.

It put me in the emergency room so many times I lost count.

My brain couldn’t override the signals that my body kept sending it.

Instead of being able to rationalize and reason that I wasn’t having a heart attack, my brain succumbed to the mimicking of symptoms from my body and I would find myself in an emergency room with another doctor telling me I wasn’t dying – yet – but if I didn’t quit smoking I would.

My brain was so dead set against quitting smoking that minutes after an angiogram ordered by my doctor to see if I had the early stages of heart disease proved negative I lit up a cigarette outside of the heart surgeon’s office.

Finally, my body won.

My brain lost.

I am now 54 years old and haven’t had a cigarette for 18 years.

On September 5th, 2017 my body told me that alcohol was doing something to me that I could no longer ignore.

Bloated, tired, aching and finding myself enjoying all of the same patterns and routines that came with smoking I decided to try something.

I decided to not drink.

Since then, except for a couple of drinks I had at an event 30 nights after September 5th I have not had a beer or a cocktail.

I can feel the same battle between my body and my brain.

I can also remember the first time I took my first drink.

It was 1977.

It was in the basement of a friend’s home in Fairmount, North Dakota.

I remember pouring Whisky into a glass and sipping it.

The biting liquid going down my throat, burning at first, and then, settling into my stomach, the warmth that came with it and the floating sensation that nearly immediately lifted me up.

I looked at my friend.

I smiled and remember, to this day, what I said:

“Damn, I think I like it!”

I was 14 years old.

Forty-years later I still like it.

Too much, I am afraid.

It’s not that I haven’t known for a long time that I drink too much.

My body has known for a long, long time.

So, too, has my brain.

It is the brain that tells me why I can’t quit.  Why I shouldn’t quit.

My brain is my enemy when it comes to my body.

It always has been.

It still is.

I’m fighting this beast right now.

To be honest, I haven’t decided whether I will have another drink in my lifetime.

I like how I feel after having gone so long without one.

I also like how I feel when I have a drink.

I have struggled with the idea and notion that I have a drinking problem.  It wears me out to contemplate it.

Because it makes me feel weak.  It makes me feel like a victim to myself.

As though the reason I drink belongs to something other than myself.

It doesn’t.

I own it.

I also own the choice as to whether or not I will ever drink again.

Right now, as I write this, I am thinking about the post-race celebration we will have after our annual Fall50 Relay Race in Door County Wisconsin.

Tonight, after our team completes its 50-mile journey we will gather in a hot tub and pass around cups of champagne to celebrate and recount the day’s fun and adventure.

Should I have a drink?  Should I not have a drink?

I don’t need anybody’s permission either way.

That’s my choice.

Untold justification and rationalization is already under way and has been since 4:30 this morning.

But, I am no longer tired and weary from that battle between my body and my brain.

I feel, and I believe this is my body talking and not my brain, that some corner has been turned in this effort.

There is a very, very long tunnel ahead of me.

I can’t tell you that I have seen the light.

But, in my hand, where there was once a cigarette, holds hope.

Hope that I control the light for the walk into the tunnel.

I hold the power to turn it on.

I hope.

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