How long does it take to eat healthy and stop smoking?

By Raylene Evans

I was on hold for just a few minutes before the nurse came back to the phone. She adjusted her screen so we could better see each other. “You have some pain in your left groin area as well as your left knee and all of your left leg hurts, is that right?”

“Yes, but not a whole lot.” The twinge in my knee reminded me of a rusty screen door but I needed not bother her about that.

“Our records show you were advised in January that you have peripheral artery disease. It’s more pronounced in your left leg.” She tilted her head toward the monitor and smiled knowingly.  “You’ve been eating the standard American diet, haven’t you? Lots of lunch meat and potato chips?”

I nodded affirmatively and she continued, “If you eat the standard American diet you’ll get the standard American diseases. You need to fix this.”

“Yes,” I agreed. I averted my eyes to hide my embarrassment.

“Greens, beans, nuts and seeds. Clean protein, mushrooms, onions and cruciferous vegetables. Garlic.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Tea. Citrus. A little fruit. Apples, lots of fiber. Walking.”

The nurse scanned lab reports in the folder that she held in front of her plain white blouse. “Your carbon monoxide level is high. Do you smoke?”

The question I’d been dreading. I hesitated for as long as I dare, then held my breath when finally replying. “Yes.”

The nurse looked up at me. I couldn’t decide if she was startled or… no, she definitely thought I wasn’t as valuable a human being as she had previously thought. I’d seen that look before. 

“Well, that’s why you have peripheral artery disease,” she said firmly. “Not only are you eating processed foods, but you’re ingesting poisons.”

The nurse slapped the folder down on the table in front of her. Her body stiff, mouth tight and skewed, she stared at me as if trying to control herself before offering any insight.  “Are you doing any other drugs?”




She eyed the paperwork and tapped her pen nervously. Her tapping was not nearly as loud as the thumping in my chest.  “Where’s your self-respect?”

I had no answer for her. It was a long story, best left untold.

Looking directly at me, she said firmly, “You have been given a healthy body and access to everything you need to keep it healthy. Many people on this planet don’t have that privilege. And what are you doing? Killing yourself? Making yourself so sick that you can’t work and you’ll spend your last decade in a care facility with other people bathing you and changing your diapers?” Her voice became gravelly and her face couldn’t have been redder. “Is there more you think we should do for you?  You’ve been given everything else.”

I didn’t reply but stood staring at the screen.  She was right, of course.

Her expression softened. “Come close and sit down. Let’s talk.”

I hoisted up the skirt of my caftan to get comfortable in my usual living room chair, then adjusted the monitor in my lap.

“You have quite a list of addictions, don’t you?”

I bit my lower lip and nodded in agreement.

“You are consistently eating the wrong foods. Your blood sugar levels are borderline. I’ve been listening to you wheeze and now we find it’s because you’re smoking. Smoking is a major cause of peripheral artery disease. Eating the way you do only exacerbates your condition. I’d be willing to bet there’s reason to be concerned about all your arteries.”

The nurse appeared to scan every page of the folder, sometimes reading something on the back of an occasional page, then reread much of it again. “How long have you been smoking?”

“Since I was a teenager.”

“So, you’ve smoked for…” she looked at something else in the folder, “a very long time.” Her face showed great concern. “No wonder you have artery problems.”

She tapped her pen again, seeming to be lost in thought. “It’s a marvel at how healthy you were meant to be. After all you’ve been doing to yourself you’re still able to get around.”

I didn’t know what to say. She was right. If I was a sickly person I’d probably be dead by now.

“Do you think you’ve done a good job of self-management?”

“No,” I said quietly. I looked down at my slippered feet and wished a power outage on the appropriate satellites so I could hang up the phone without it going on my record. 

“It’s time to break your addictions and make some smart habits.” Nurse looked away for a few moments, then turned back to me with half a smile. “You need to turn all this around.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do.”

“Bring your cigarettes to the phone. And a bowl of water. I’ll wait for you.”

I brought what was left of the pack I bought yesterday, along with a bowl of water. I showed them to her, then put everything on the table before me.

“Put those dirty things in water and throw them away. Don’t you dare put them in recycling and contaminate the soil.”

I did what I was told and returned to the phone, hanging my head in shame. “How can I make amends?”

“You can’t make amends,” she said, “until you get back into a normal condition. Right now you’re a liability to yourself and others.”

I continued to hang my head, clutching my hands together at my chest. There was no getting around this. No more sneaking around thinking all was well if nobody knew.

“You are to have no more cigarettes. Do you understand that?”

“Yes.  I am to have no more cigarettes.”

“And stop eating crap. You know what your body needs.”

My apprehension could not be contained. “What if I can’t quit? Do I get patches or pills or something?”

“No.” She said. “We have a hands-on program for long term smokers, and another one for people with poor eating habits. You qualify for both programs. We’ll get you all straight in less than a week.”

“Less than a week? Is it painless? Will my arteries be clean? What if I can’t quit smoking?”

“It’s guaranteed,” she said with a wry smile. “It always works. I’ll send over your release forms. Just sign them and fax them back to us within the next few minutes.”

“But, what if…”

“We’re done for now,” she said. “Look for the forms and sign them. As soon as we receive them we’ll call you every half hour to get you through the next few hours. Stay close to this phone.”

“Alright.” I mouthed the words “thank you” to the nurse without saying it aloud, and signed off the video call.

The forms came by email. I signed them without reading the small print, then faxed them back to the office. That same nurse called me half an hour later, and again half an hour after that. With each call I was asked if I had smoked or done any other drugs or alcohol and was required to recite the foods I had eaten.  I was being treated like the physical body criminal I was.

When I could bear it no longer, I ran to my neighbor’s to have one of her cigarettes. She wanted us to visit while we smoked on her front porch, but the minutes were passing too quickly to have any sort of conversation. I told her I was expecting a phone call and left her mid-sentence to get back to my landline. It was ringing when I took my last puff and flushed the cigarette butt down the toilet.  When the nurse asked, I honestly confessed that I’d just had a cigarette.

The nurse called me every thirty minutes until bedtime. On the last call of the night I was told that someone would be out the next day to give me hands-on assistance. It was a necessary part of my program. I went to bed as early as I could in order to sleep through some of the stomping and screaming I felt at the cellular level.

Early the next morning I got a call from the Ethics Office of my medical provider.  I propped myself up in bed and, after answering a myriad of other questions, I was asked, “If you wanted a cigarette right now, could you get your hands on one within fifteen minutes?” 

“Yes,” I admitted. “I could.”

“Where would you go to get that cigarette?”

“I could get a pack at the store,” I said. “I could also go see my neighbor and buy a pack from her. Or, she’d give me one or two to smoke on her front porch while we visit.”

“If you could not get out of your house, would she bring cigarettes to you?”

“I’m sure she would,” I said, fearing this line of questioning.

“Stand by,” the Ethics representative said. “We’re sending someone over to give you some counseling. We’re very much committed to your recovery in less than week.”

Everybody wanted to give me something or another. What I really wanted was a couple of cookies and a cigarette. Not necessarily in that order.

I hurried to dress so I could run down to my friend’s house before my visitor arrived. Even if she wasn’t home, she always kept spare cigarettes for me in a small container on the table on her front porch. The soft oatmeal cookies in the cupboard could wait until I came back.

This is where I warn you not to stop reading. 
You need to know what can happen. It can happen to you.

When the man from Ethics arrived I was hopping on one foot, trying to put a shoe on the other. He was burly with a clean shaved face and head, but otherwise a hairy figure of a man. He had a square jaw and weightlifter’s upper body. I opened the door and invited him in.

“You intend to have a cigarette,” he said with a sneer.

Without additional warning he balled up his fist and hit me in the throat and chest several times. I fell back, choked and exhaled all my air. As I lay on the floor, he closed the front door and turned the lock. Gasping and struggling to find my voice, all I could do was make a few guttural noises. He straddled me with his feet, hands on his hips. “This is your first counseling session,” he said. That’s when I felt him split my belly open and my guts spill. I held myself together with the palms of my hands to contain the damage. The pain was worse than any I’d ever experienced.

I called him Will. His eyes followed my every move. “Go brush your teeth and wash your face again,” was all he said to me. I said, ‘I will’, and I did.

Less than an hour after the attack I was working in the garden, sniffling and wiping my tears, not wanting to show my distress. That’s when the next phone call came. My chest and belly hurt so much, but I barely noticed after receiving my instructions. What I had to do hurt me so much more.

* * *

My neighbor had also been my friend for the last seven years. We could almost read each other’s minds and if either of us wanted for anything, the other would try to put it within grasp.  That’s how we were: Empathetic sisters of the heart. Sharing a soul. Of like mind. The only smokers in the neighborhood.

Without me she would be on the front porch of her little place, smoking all alone. With me as her friend we exhaled white puffs of Pall Mall Blue 100s together, as comrades. Once supplied, I’d be smoking those Pall Mall Blues on my back porch, so nobody would know. That’s what I smoked because, come to think of it, that’s what she bought. And now the Health Department not only wanted me to do away with the basis of our friendship for my health’s sake, but to temporarily sever any relationship with her so there wouldn’t be a setback. Rebellion was out of the question.

I felt my life stop when I sat numbly at the dark wooden desk that was likely the color of my lungs, and got out a blank generic card.  I quickly wrote the few words needed to tell her that, although I loved her dearly, we could not be around each other for a while because I needed to quit smoking. She’d understand. We’ve been through this before. What I did not write was that we could never be smoking friends again. It seemed the one thing we most have in common are her cigarettes.  With a silent pep talk about where to keep my mind, I took the note to her front porch and propped it against a vase on the table. I dared not tap my fingers on her front door to let her know I was out front, nor did I linger to look at the cymbidium about to bloom or the new growth of the rain lilies. I pretended not to know that the cigarettes she kept for me were in the little metal container on the table on her front porch. No, I came straight home. That hairy beast of a man walked right behind me and did not say a word.

If I had written that we could no longer be friends because I was weak of will and might never stop smoking, she would very likely call me and give examples of my strength, inviting me down to her front porch so we could talk about my low self-esteem. We might talk while smoking a couple of cigarettes, until the subject was exhausted and then I’d go home for a few hours, coughing, gasping and wheezing, until I again would be willing to do whatever it takes for just one more cigarette, or probably two.

It was while I was sitting in my chair, thinking those thoughts, that Will again knocked the fire out of me.  I wailed as he continued to beat me until I fell out of my chair. He kicked me over and over until I barely remained conscience.

“You were thinking about cigarettes,” he said. “Go brush your teeth.”

I did just that. I also washed my face.

* * *

The video recorder showed the time to be a few minutes before two. The hairy excuse for a man looked through the screen door and announced I had a visitor. He said, “Do you want to let her in?”

I opened my eyes enough to see that it was a woman in white uniform. I recognized her to be the nurse I spoke to yesterday. “Please come in,” I wheezed from the floor where I lay. Each beating took me longer to recover than the last, and I feared I may be laying at someone’s feet for a long time.

“I’m Health,” she said as she stepped into the house and squatted down to be sure I saw her face.

“Get up,” she implored. “We’re going shopping.”

It seemed she correctly suspected that I only had standard processed foods in my refrigerator and pantry. I hurt all over and hesitated to move.

“Get up,” she repeated.

She helped me to my feet and sat me in my favorite chair while she and Will cleaned out my kitchen of foods they deemed unsuitable. I could smell the macaroni salad being thrown out and heard the thuds of ice cream cartons being tossed into the trash can. I tried not to think about the soft oatmeal cookies. All I could do was to sit and be quiet lest I invite more punishment.

* * *

I don’t know how I got to the car or who drove, but the next thing I remember was Will pushing the grocery cart and nurse helping me walk as we perused the aisles for foods that would heal my body.  I looked around and could tell where I had been in the store by following the trail of blood. Nobody seemed to notice. So much for customer service at Save Mart.

“Fourteen bags of frozen Brussels sprouts?” asked the cashier.   

I laughed. I was sure I was supposed to laugh.

That night for dinner I ate a half bag of steamed Brussels sprouts and an apple. Three hours later I was served another half bag of Brussels sprouts but refused to eat them.

Health held a steamed sprout to my lips. “These are good for you, dear. The vitamin C will help heal your bruises.”

I ate them. My body was wracked with pain and the torture wouldn’t stop coming. Every time I thought about a cigarette I got the wind knocked out of me. Chocolate might help, but my supply had been tossed.

I closed my eyes and ducked when asking, “How long are you going to stay with me?”

Health said, “We guarantee recovery to take less than a week; we’ll talk after that.” 

I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. A cigarette sure would be good right now.

Will laid down the newspaper he had been reading and arose from his chair, balling his hand into a fist.

“No!” I yelled. “I don’t want one!”

“She doesn’t want one,” Health said. “Let’s just let her think about the benefits of not smoking.” 

If I could stay out of trouble another couple of hours I hoped to be in bed by nine. Tomorrow will be day two. Day two should be easier.

* * *

Frequent showers, teeth brushing and cinnamon tea got me through day two. I only got beat up a couple of times and noticed that the bleeding was easier to contain. Health taught me how to dress a green salad so I looked forward to eating every bite. I did miss my friend, and I did wish I hadn’t started smoking again. That night I went to bed early and got up late on the morning of day three. Hands-on therapy proved exhausting.

Occasionally, on day three, a wound would reopen and I’d find myself concentrating on positive thoughts and practicing deep breathing to make my healing more probable. All in all, though, it was not a bad day.

On day four, while Health was making lunch salads and I had just finished painting Will’s toenails to match mine, I noticed some of the scabs from my wounds were disappearing. My pain was mostly gone and the bruises were becoming lighter, a sign they were healing nicely.  When I told of my amazement, Health peeked around the corner and said, “Way to go!” then popped back into the kitchen to finish making lunch. Willy chuckled, then wiggled his fingers. He wanted his fingernails done, too. 

What a beautiful morning day five gave us! Before my shower I weighed myself and was pleased to have lost a few pounds. I no longer smelled of stale smoke and something sweet for breakfast didn’t even sound good. The wheezing was gone and Health said my arteries were improving with every day. I felt great!  I had a volunteer group committee meeting at nine thirty and no one said one word about my bringing Health with me. She came, I’m sure, to remind me not to eat the coffee cake or put cream and sugar in my coffee.  Will stayed in the car to look for exercise equipment in the newspaper. The meeting was to last only an hour and he assured me if I needed him, he’d be there.

We all had a talk that afternoon. “It took less than a week,” Health said.

Will shook his head in agreement. “You needed us, and we gave you everything you needed.”

“Thank you for your presence,” I said, “but I can take it from here.”

With apparent concern, Health said, “If you check the fine print in our agreement you’ll find that you committed to have us with you always.”

“Always? I’m doing just fine. I really don’t need you anymore.”

“That’s what they all say,” she said.

* * *

Shortly after our conversation, a knock announced that my dear friend had come for a visit. My two new friends glanced at each other as I got up to answer the door.

“Can I come in?” she asked.

“I’m so glad to see you,” I said honestly.

“I got the note you left on my porch and thought I’d give you a few days before coming over. How are you doing?”

I opened the door and she stepped into my sanctuary. “I’m OK.”

She stopped and looked around, sniffing the air. “Phew! What’s that smell?”

“Brussels sprouts. I just love’em!”

Health wrinkled her brow with concern when my Will came to stand between me and my friend.

“Let’s go outside, I want to tell you what happened.” She must have noticed my brief hesitation because she added, “Is that OK? Or would you rather not?”

“Oh, no, I’d love to visit with you.”

She started talking while I got the stove’s spoon holder to use as an ashtray, then led the way to the back porch. Health walked with me, matching her steps with mine. Will followed all of us outside.

“I wanted to ask your opinion about my hair and tell you what the girl did…”

She told of something that happened to her hair, although I couldn’t be sure what she was saying. I tried to make it appear I followed her train of thought.  She casually lit a cigarette and passed it to me.

Health cleared her throat and I quickly said, “No, I’m good.”

“You don’t want a cigarette? Are you sure? Come on, you might as well.”

I waved my hand as if to pass on her offer. Will, my beastly resolution, and Health, in her white uniform, stood on either side of me as I sat on the back porch with my friend. “I quit smoking,” I said. “They’re not good for me.”

“Oh I know they’re not good for you,” she said. “They’re not good for me either, but one or two won’t hurt you.”

Will cracked his knuckles.

“Addicted people can’t have even one,” I said.

My friend raised her eyebrows and her mouth went slack. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” I said with a grin. I could feel Health smiling to the left of me. She always was on my side.

“Most people go through hell when they quit smoking. How did you do it? I mean, it’s been less than a week and you’re OK with me having a cigarette, and you don’t want one?” She definitely looked astonished.  

“No,” I chuckled. “You go ahead, won’t bother me a bit.”  

I encouraged her to go on with the story and my friend excitedly recited some facts about her haircut and the way the new hairdresser cut it compared to the previous person. We agreed, after she finished her cigarette, that any damage done could be fixed once her hair grew out, but I liked it that way. 

As my neighbor was leaving, someone too beautiful for words waved and came up the walkway to my front door where I stood. She threw her arms around me, laughed and said, “I need a hug.” My Health and Will Power joined us in that communal hug, crying with me their tears of joy. My Self-Respect was back.

Raylene Evans is a Modesto, California writer who enjoys writing short stories for her own entertainment. She gives some to friends or organizations, and sells some.  She says, “More valuable than gold are the friends I've made through the Modesto Writers Group and the critiquing fun we have in the back room of Perko's once a month. Hope you enjoy this story.” 
Copyright 2015 Raylene Evans. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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