On Saturdays, I often use this space to go off-topic, leave books and publishing behind for a day, and turn my attention in other directions. Enjoy.
It was cold outside the community hospital, as a small crowd gathered near the door. Guys in parkas, women in long coats and hats. Looking around, we all had one thing in common: every person was pulling on a cigarette, blowing smoke into the frosty air.
A woman cracked the door open and told us it was time to start. We marched down to a basement room with folding chairs in rows.
The woman told us how it would work: There would be a half-hour introduction to the program, then a break. At the break, anyone who wanted to leave would be able to do so. If you stayed, you had to pay the $40 when you came back for the main event.
It would be a mass hypnosis session. We were the desperate, the people who couldn’t quit by themselves. The woman calmly told us she was confident we would walk out of the hospital that night as ex-smokers, free from the death grip that nicotine had on us.
I looked at Jill, and wondered if I looked as skeptical as she did. I certainly felt that way. We were trying to get pregnant, and quitting smoking was key to the plan. If Jill got pregnant she would have to quit anyway, so here we were.
But mass hypnosis? Are you kidding me? I didn’t “believe” in any kind of hypnosis, let alone a session with 40 other people sitting in folding chairs in a dim room in the basement of a hospital in upper Westchester.
But these are the things we do for love, for family. At the end of the introduction we were told to go outside for the break, and then come back if we were ready to be part of the program.
The bunch of us trooped up the stairs and out into the frosty air. I think I smoked about 4 cigarettes in 8 minutes, getting faintly sick. Eventually the moment of truth arrived, and back down we went.
The lights were dimmed and we were introduced to the use of a pendulum, a bit of string with a weight attached. It was part of our take-home kit.
During the hypnosis we were given encouragement and new programming about our smoking habits. The key instruction was an absolute: “There is no such thing as an occasional cigarette.”
Home we went with our little pendulums which, as I recall, were lost within 24 hours. But we also got a cassette tape to listen to at night, just before falling asleep. There were other materials, but this was the basic setup. The $40 program.
We dutifully helped each other through the first day, constantly reminding each other that “There is no such thing as an occasional cigarette.” It was our new mantra. We made it through the first day, and put the tape on that night lying in bed. The audio was the product of a Mr. Green. That was his only identification. The label on the tape was green.
Mr. Green’s calm and healing voice talked, relaxing and guiding us through a kind of meditation. The thing I remember best from this tape was Mr. Green’s advice, after relaxing your body and getting into a receptive state, to “just let go.”
For some reason this advice exerted a real pull on me. After all, at the end of a day, aren’t we filled with the stresses of the day, the responsibilities, the appointments, phone calls, emails, deadlines? We have to be on top of so many things, staying in touch, keeping on schedule, watching the budget. It was like some very humane gift from a benevolent diety to be told it was okay to “just let go.”
And so I did. I can’t remember every making it far past this instruction to “just let go.” Somehow the letting go put me in such a peaceful place I just dropped off to sleep.
Night after night we repeated this ritual, and night after night, hearing those words from the kindly Mr. Green—and I had started to think of Mr. Green in very sympathetic terms—off I would go into dreamland. What was on the tape after that point was a complete mystery to me. It might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
One morning Jill told me she had managed to stay up until the very end of the tape. Excitedly, she told me that Mr. Green had revealed a “magic word” that would somehow protect you from the desire to smoke, that would activate his hypnotic training and put a powerful tool in your hands to make your effort to quit smoking a success.
I was energized by this news. A secret word? Help to succeed? I wanted to know, too. Jill had trouble making it out, but she said it was like “ketzel.” Ketzel? What the heck is a ketzel? I had to hear it for myself.
The next couple of nights became a war between my desire to hear the fateful word, to get the rest of Mr. Green’s instructions and his secret, and my body’s desire to “just let go” and say the hell with it.
Finally, with great effort, I succeeded. I made it to the end of the tape. I listened in anticipation as Mr. Green neared the completion of the talk. He advised us what to say when the feelings started to bother us, when the desire for a cigarette became almost too strong to resist. He said, “Just say c…” Damn, it was faint, too faint to make out. I rewound the tape and cranked up the volume. At this point I just didn’t care that Jill was fast asleep, or that the tape player was about to blast Mr. Green’s honeyed voice into the dark room—I had to hear that word.
Finally, here it came. “… so Just say CANCEL.” Cancel? That was it?
I guess that Jill, in her sleepiness, had simply misheard Mr. Green. Just say “cancel,” he meant, as a way to talk to your own subconscious. Tell your unconscious mind to “cancel” the request for the cigarette. Lots of types of training use a similar technique of reprogramming yourself to change a habit.
But no magic, no secret word, just a simple way to talk to yourself.
Of course, by this time we were a week into the program, had spent a whole week without a cigarette. Was it the hypnotism? Once you’ve invested seven days of not smoking, that’s serious. You don’t want to go back.
And it worked. We both quit smoking with Mr. Green’s help, and Jill has never had a cigarette again. A few years later I had to go through the pain again, and a few years later, go through it one more time before I finally got off the drug.
But we’ve never forgotten Mr. Green. Nor have we forgotten the night outside the hospital in the cold, chain-smoking cigarettes and the smoke mixing with the frosty air, or that we actually could be hypnotized en masse in a room with 40 other people. And sometimes, out of the blue, we’ll just say “Ketzel!” to each other, and then it all comes back in a flash.
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