(By Sam Byers)
“The coughing fit that followed was both rapid in onset and utterly debilitating in effect. Within seconds, I was doubled over, leaning on Stella’s garden gnome for support, tears pouring down my face, cords of mucus unspooling from my nostrils and a noise rising up from my lungs that, even as I was making it, disgusted me. This led to further gagging and wheezing, until ultimately, I ended up on my knees in supplication to the gnome, holding up what I hoped was a calming hand to the young mother across the street who, upon seeing me, warily swept her toddler into her arms.“
One central paradox of the smoker’s life is that, despite swallowing an almost comically flagrant deception, most smokers like to regard themselves as pretty smart people. Step outside any bar or restaurant, nip around the back of a conference room at coffee time, and you’ll see them: a bitter huddle of smarter-than-thou smokers, shooting down society’s sacred cows. Want to know how many people died while exercising last year? Ask a smoker. Think smoking kills you? Think again. Every smoker you meet will tell you about their Aunt Jenny or Uncle Steve who sucked back 90 a day and lived to be 100, and even then died only because their houses fell on them. No delusion or hypocrisy escapes the smoker’s gaze. Except, of course, his own.
I say this with some authority, because I was one. From the age of 17 to 32, despite herculean effort, I just couldn’t smoke enough to feel smoked out. The smoker in me, apparently the brains of the operation, sneered at my every self-improving effort.
After I made several pitiable attempts to break free, it became clear that in order to give up smoking, I was going to have to give up being such a smart aleck. And what better way of achieving this than to give in to something I believed I was too smart for? The solution was obvious: I would humble myself through hypnosis.
My session with Stella Knight (the name she uses professionally, she told me) took place at her home in Norfolk, England, on a white sofa in her bungalow’s front room. To the burbling accompaniment of a CD called “Celestial Sanctity,” Stella started in with her patter.
“People think you have to be stupid to be hypnotized,” she said, “but it’s actually the opposite. The best people to hypnotize are the most intelligent ones. You’re going to be easy.”
Aha! I thought. She’s at it already! Look how she boosted my self-esteem a little bit there. Very clever. But look how I spotted it too. Look how astute I am.
Clearly, Stella had never encountered someone like me: so intelligent, so attuned to her every hypnotic deception, that he became as difficult to hypnotize as a stupid person.
“Now close your eyes,” Stella said, “and imagine yourself eating a plate of human hair.”
Then the music changed to something trancy. She told me to count backward from 10. For some reason, I became terrified that she was taking her clothes off while I wasn’t looking. Was that the whisper of her jogging bottoms I could hear? I imagined myself coming to on the shag-pile carpet, a nude, beaming Stella beside me, sparking up a cigarette.
“All done,” Stella said after what seemed like a few seconds (but was actually 20 minutes). I opened my eyes to see her sitting in an armchair opposite me, sparking up a cigarette.
“Why are you lighting a cigarette?” I said, not quite masking the panic in my voice.
“So you can say goodbye to it,” Stella said.
What a load of bunk, I thought as I stood outside her bungalow, 80 pounds (about $125) poorer and seemingly no less cocksure.
I had a packet of tobacco in my pocket (I had, of course, smoked heavily on the way over). I decided to take it out and think about having a cigarette, noting carefully my emotional response.
The coughing fit that followed was both rapid in onset and utterly debilitating in effect. Within seconds, I was doubled over, leaning on Stella’s garden gnome for support, tears pouring down my face, cords of mucus unspooling from my nostrils and a noise rising up from my lungs that, even as I was making it, disgusted me. This led to further gagging and wheezing, until ultimately, I ended up on my knees in supplication to the gnome, holding up what I hoped was a calming hand to the young mother across the street who, upon seeing me, warily swept her toddler into her arms.
The fit lasted at least five excruciating minutes. At one point I realized my hand was in my mouth, trying to extract imaginary human hair from my windpipe. By the end I was exhausted and completely unable to imagine smoking for fear of triggering another bout of respiratory violence.
In the weeks that followed, this happened again, always when I ordinarily would have smoked. I took these episodes for what they clearly were: welcome reminders of my boundless susceptibility to suggestion, which, as any good hypnotist will tell you, is just another term for intelligence.
Sam Byers is the author of “Idiopathy,” a novel.
(Source: The NYTIMES)
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