Life-Long Habit ‘Stroked’ Up In Smoke

I can think of many ways to stop a bad habit without having to suffer a stroke that goes untreated for years and years.

That’s what happened when I quit smoking.  I believe I suffered a mild stroke that went undiagnosed mainly because of my inability to describe its effect on me. If you ever smoked, you would know that it would take something like a stroke in order to get someone to quit by going cold turkey.

I had smoked since I was 12 and would sneak cigarettes from packs my parents left out in the house. They smoked Pall Malls and Chesterfields, two of the strongest produced by the tobacco industry. Neither had filters at the tips of the cigarette. You could light either end and inhale the toxicity to your heart’s content. (Actually, it was at the heart’s “distress,” and not content.)

All of my friends were smokers. Even when the anti-smoking campaign erupted at the end of the 20th century, I’d still be drawn to those who defied all medical proof and puffed five to six minutes at a sitting. I saw myself and other inhalers as rugged individualists who pooh-poohed all the fuss over a person’s choice to smoke. It hurt no one but the smoker, and who cared about any long-term effect in your old age? We were young, dumb and full of . . . well, let’s just say, an indiscriminate means to procreate whether or not it was best for the rest of humanity.

I made it into my 40s smoking slightly more than a pack a day. Marlboro Lights were my brand. I thought less tar and nicotine RJ Reynolds advertised for its more “manly” smokes fitted me well. I had become a young professional with family responsibilities who cared about second-hand smoke and the effect it had on my son and other non-smokers I come in contact with daily.

Quitting a habit is not easy

My spouse smoked. So did my two office mates. I put a yellow “caution” ribbon around the doorframe to our office, warning any who entered the small cubicle that they would be risking their health inside. I joked about it, and never took the warnings from the side of a pack of cigarettes seriously.

The beginning of the end occurred while I was doing research on a public computer outside of my small office and in the work area for receptionists and clerks. I keyed in a request for data and got shocked when some indescribable figures appeared on the monitor screen. These “things” made no sense. None were in the shape of letters or words which I had expected to see. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what to label them as: “pixels.”

I saw pixels. Hundreds and thousands of marks that a psychologist suffering a stroke described she had seen at the height of her brain squeeze. (See Jill Bolt Taylor) They were pixels like the ones advertised in digital cameras, which were had yet to be introduced to the public in the mid 1990s.

Something must be wrong with the computer, I thought. I had never seen anything like this, nor did I ever feel anyway quite like the way I felt. It was as if air in a balloon had been let out and there was nothing “solid” in the world. I was adrift. I couldn’t speak, afraid that some Twilight Zone episode was taking place inside of me.

My whole body felt “rubbery.” I believed that had I stood, I would have been unable to prevent myself from melting into a pool of liquid on the office floor.

I don’t remember how I excavated myself from that situation. I made it back to my room and left work early that day, trying to deal with what I thought was the stress of daily work. But, something had changed, and I knew I needed to change.

On April 9th of that year I stopped smoking. Night after night, I’d dream of cigarettes in a sexual way, craving to be with and in the comforting embrace their habit provided. I made it through tough times using some meditative exercises I had learned, “forcing” myself to stop thinking of a need to smoke. I placed mind over matter, so to speak, focusing on my breathing while fearing the return of the pixels.

 I would probably still be smoking today had I not undergone a stroke. I’m grateful to powers above that helped me take such action. But I wonder: why does it take something like a life-threatening event to make us do something we should have done in the first place?

9 comments on “Life-Long Habit ‘Stroked’ Up In Smoke

  1. souldipper says:

    While working with Seniors, I learned that people could have mini-strokes. Not being a medical person, I had been under the impression there were only the big ones.

    I also watched Jill Bolte Taylor on Ted. Her incredible insights helped me understand some of the symptoms that some elders could be experiencing – what to watch for in some cases.

    I marvel over how you managed to get yourself home. And I guess you just recovered all on your own. I wonder if you had any lingering symptom that you never associated with a stroke.

    Amazing, Michael J.


    • contoveros says:

      I did not realize I had had a mini stroke until years later when watching the Jill Bolte Taylor 20-minute presentatioon for TED. She described herself melting into and become part of the bathroom wall her arm was leaning upon. She couldn’t determine where her arm ended and the wall began.

      When she tried to speak, nonesense syllables came out. She was unable to put sounds together with words.But the thing that really got me was the “pixels.” She could not read or see the phone number to her business card when she was trying to dial her office for help. She described seeing only “pixels.”

      That’s when I knew I suffered a similar attack, albeit, a mild one that left me tired, irritable and ready for a full onslaught of PTSD some years later. I’m not the only one who suffered such an episode without fully knowing what had happened. One fellow I recently met described feeling the “rubbery legs” asscoiated with a stroke. He too did not seek immediate medical help, remembering how it was a “guy thing” to tough it out..

      Luckily it went away on its own. and in my case, left nothing for an MRI to find later.

      I still can’t believe I continued to work with no more treatment than trying to dial down stress in my life. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t hesitate to get the proper help.


  2. I have been thinking of this post (more than I care to share – but I have)

    “why does it take something like a life-threatening event to make us do something we should have done in the first place?”

    That was really the part that sits still in my head MJ…

    Some people need to feel the clear and present danger to realize that they actually have a life or death choice to make and that it is in their own power to do so.

    Maybe they even need it to prove to them that life is real – that they CAN make choices?

    That is the only thing I can think of to justify why people wait for anything they know is that ‘right’ thing for them to do in any situation.

    Nothing is as solid as a final ending – there is the beginning (always exciting and hopeful) the middle (boring as shit and the make or break of many a movie) and the END…

    What can have more impact than that?



    • contoveros says:

      There are times, unfortunately, that I don’t make a decision until I have to. It usually happens when I am so down I have no where to go but up. That’s when I let go of something old and try on something new that I’ve been reluctant to touch, taste or tackle.

      Facing the end can always help me see a new beginning.


  3. I wonder the same thing. I knew smoking was stupid, yet I smoked for 34 years. I started noticing that my husband was looking unhealthy in 2008, so badgered him into a physical October 2008. Our family doctor immediately referred my husband to a cardiologist. He went through a lot of diagnostic tests – each test leading to another to refine their diagnosis…I suppose. This went on for nearly 3 months due to lags between scheduling. January 7, 2009 was the last procedure which revealed blockages so severe that emergency surgery was scheduled for early the next morning. When his cardio doc came to the waiting room to let me know what he found and that my husband would be admitted immediately (the test was at the hospital), he told me that my husband must NEVER smoke again. Just hearing those words and the gravity of the situation sent what I can only describe as a scream inside my head that said “I WILL NOT BE HIS STUMBLING BLOCK!!!” I had attempted to quit smoking so many times that I used to joke that it was “easy for me to quit smoking – I’ve done it a hundred times”. My downfall was my weakness when I saw my husband’s cigarettes sitting on the coffee table. There was NO WAY I was going to cause my husband to stumble. It took me 17 days, but I smoked every cigarette in the house, tapering down to my last cigarette 1/24/09. I have not smoked even one cigarette since. My husband, btw, is doing great. He had 4 bypasses 1/8/09. His heart was so weakened that he was at risk for sudden death, requiring he wear a “life vest” that would shock him if his heart stopped. He had a defibrillator implant in March 2009. He has never smoked again either.

    I’m sorry you had a stroke, but am glad the gravity of your health condition was the one thing that made you quit for good. I’m not sure I would have quit for myself, but no way did I want to hurt my husband’s health. So, it turned out well for both of us.


    • Oh! Good for you!

      That’s love right there because I KNOW it could not have been easy.

      (just wanted to let you know I was reading this comment)



      • contoveros says:

        What a story, Darlene, and I agree with M.L. that quitting is is always hard, but a little bit easier when you do it for a loved one as well as yourself.

        michael j


  4. I have asthma – not just your average though – I have chemical burns in my lungs that have formed scar tissue (from a job I had as a young teen out on my own for the first time)

    And I smoked (cigars and Moore’s as well as any American brand I could lay my hands on)

    Chemo meds also left their mark later…

    I quit cold turkey after my Father (step father really but the best Dad in the world) died of a heart attack when I was a young Mom (He loved his grand daughter more than anything – she was his light and joy)

    I started to smoke again during the last few months of my marriage relationship…

    It had been years since I had let a cig touch my lips but I was able to get my now ex outside to talk instead of doing it in front of the children then – all in the name of a quick smoke.

    A year after he was gone I had a near death experience in the form of an asthma attack – it was fast and was so close to being the last breath I would ever take.

    Cold turkey.

    Have not regretted it for a moment.



    • contoveros says:

      Think of all the money we saved by quitting years ago, not to mention the quality of life we might have preserved for today and our future. I don’t miss it at all.


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