Suddenly, here I was, 47 years old, smoking cigarettes again.
Thrown by a disorienting job relocation into a new environment, I found myself among people who were, mysteriously for this health-conscious age, smoking. Equally mysteriously, I began to join them, first not inhaling at all and then, before I knew it, escalating to two fully inhaled packs a day. Given my near inability to breathe without wheezing, I was mystified by how, when I'd quit some 20 years earlier, I had ever been able to cram in four packs of Lucky Strikes on a daily basis. Forget the lung capacity to withstand that much unfiltered nicotine and tar, where in the space of 24 hours did I even have the time to go through 80 cigarettes?
Beyond its utterly indefensible stupidity, my present addiction took on characteristics of the surreal: I often had an irresistible compulsion to light up my next cigarette even as I was dragging deeply and unsatisfyingly on my current one, all the while knowing for certain that each would be my last. I knew I was engaged in self-destructive behavior that gave me very little pleasure, and yet I felt as if in a trance, unable to control myself, the oral urge unrelenting.
Could therapy help?
Over the years, whenever depression and despair had reared and then refused to bow their ugly heads, I had tried, it seemed, almost every type of therapy, each one over time becoming pathetic, comical: the tiresome solemnity of my own self-pitying saga; the sanctity of the ritual of "going to the shrink"; the reliable rhythms of each earnest session as I recounted tales I had grown sick of from overrepetition--all that ancient history with the glaring gaps due to age and the mysterious embellishments from retellings now themselves too ancient to distinguish from the original events; then, inevitably, the slow draining of meaning from the ritual--starting out as hopeful cynic, evolving into cautious believer; eventually hitting a kind of wall and, from that point on, finding it difficult to end things since the therapist would by then have become a burden of sorts, a dependent I couldn't get away from; finally wresting myself free and then, years later, some crisis in my life sending me back to therapy once more, like starting up yet again with yet another woman, causing the cycle to begin all over, each time a little more bored with my own story, a little more reluctant to invest the time to repeat it yet again for yet another paid professional.
Was it time once more to go down this road? How many years had I been in--and then unable to get out of--therapy? And what had I ever gotten out of it?
When I was 22, I went three (yes, three ) times a week, to lie on a couch way up in Riverdale at the top of the Bronx, maneuvering my taxi-driving schedule through not-always-compliant traffic to be on time for my appointment, seeking there some kind of road map into "adult" life. What had I paid? Who knows? What had I discovered? A quarter of a century later, almost all I can recall is a bit of practical advice, a bringing to awareness of a phenomenon I had not been aware I had been aware of: ashamed at my impulse to engage in "baby talk" with my wife-to-be, even to call her "baby," I was transformed (no other word can quite convey the profound sense of inner shifting) when I heard my shrink--my shrink, the anthropologist--point out that, far from being unmanly, it was just that very tender impulse that lay beneath people's addressing each other as "baby," not only in bed, but in everyday conversation, even in song. How natural, how omnipresent it all was. How much simpler the world suddenly seemed. The insight gave me permission to consider myself part of the human race, one of those people who could talk baby talk without at the same time losing my tenuous grip on my own fragile sense of masculinity. …