My routine consists of late night confessional phone calls, the occasional hop-heavy IPA, and high-quality tobacco. I am a smoker with a capital S. I light up when I wake up, after I eat, with every cup of coffee, and for no occasion at all. It’s such an integral part of my day that the thought of giving it up seems impossible and frightening. But the thought of being a smoker my whole life is a great deal sadder.
In recent months I’ve had to admit that smoking is a habit I’m deeply ashamed of. It started as youthful whimsy but no longer fits in any category besides capital-A-addiction, and it’s time I said good-bye.
I’ve tried the patch, the gum, cold turkey – nothing works. And so I decided to sacrifice my under-the-breath comments and cynicism and enter into the world where people eat granola by the fistful and talk about their childhoods at length in “integrative” therapy sessions. These people must be doing something right, given their confidence and commitment to health. I’m willing to examine whether their methods might work for me. Specifically, I’m going to give hypnosis a try.
Alexis Cohen’s earth-toned website advertises “art healing, depth hypnosis, and blessingways and other ceremonies.” The phrasing scares me a little, and for days after arranging the hypnosis appointment, I wonder what the hell I’m getting myself into.
I do a little research and learn that depth hypnosis is an approach that combines Buddhism, shamanism, and transpersonal psychology – a bunch of terms I’m uncomfortable with, but am willing to try to accept, given that my other attempts at quitting have proven fruitless. In the weeks leading up to the appointment, I smoke more than usual and grow slowly consumed with dread.
When I arrive at Alexis’ office, the place is clean and subdued and smells strongly of incense. She’s wearing an oversized sweater, leggings, and sensible boots; she has masses of curly hair and never breaks eye contact. She is the sort of person you want to hug, and I take great pains to remove the frequent “fucks” from my speech. I want to trust her and I want this to work.
Our session begins with Alexis asking about my life, making little notes, nodding. She is, in every way, empathetic and understanding. This sort of immediate intimacy is hard for me, but I try to quell my aversion and find myself opening up so quickly it is frightening. I reveal within minutes that I started smoking heavily shortly after two people extremely close to me passed away. One was my father, who died of a smoking-related disease.
The connection between my dad’s habit, his death, and my attachment to smoking is obvious, but it’s one I don’t like to talk or think about. I am weeping within minutes, and Alexis keeps her eye contact firm. Once my tears subside, she asks me to lie down and offers a silk eye mask. I take deep breaths and try, wholeheartedly, to listen to everything she says. She asks me to envision a place of comfort, possibly in nature, with a staircase leading to it. She tells me to imagine that I am being led by “the part of yourself with your highest good as its sole intent.”
My anxious intellectual tendencies get me in trouble here. I start to catalogue the strangest staircases I’ve ever climbed, the most wholesome, the most architecturally appealing. Which should I be climbing? My mind finally settles on one that is grand and wooden, the steps well-worn from the comings and goings of a large and happy family. As I ascend, I grip the wooden banister and try, try, try to sink into that elusive highest good.
At the top of the staircase is a door that Alexis instructs me to open and then enter my place of comfort. I admit that I feel some gratitude to be back here, on a beach in the Trinity Alps where I camped and swam for years. This time it’s the middle of the night and I’m listening to the river’s current but not seeing it, hearing the chirping of bugs but not knowing where they are. Alexis urges me to find a voice or a guide within my surrounding: a light, a human, a mythical being, or a part of the environment.
“Umm…the water?” I offer. I am not convinced. Alexis remains patient, gently suggests that I ask the water for some insight into my addiction. There’s a large part of me that wants this water wisdom, and an equally large part of me that wants to laugh.
“I’m sorry,” I say hastily. “The water is not telling me anything.” But Alexis doesn’t give up, and I soon realize there is another presence with me. I’m sitting on a beach in the pitch black under the kind of stars you just don’t get in a city. Also sitting there is another version of myself – at 15, the year I started smoking.
Alexis asks me to hold this younger me and speak with her. Despite all my pragmatic, no-nonsense gut, I do. I tell her that the future she feels incapable of is quite bright. That she’s due for love and travel and laughably perfect afternoons, a rewarding career, and a rich family of dazzling friends who field late night sadness with grace. I explain that the deep hole of grief gives way to insight and strength and life experience that, strangely, makes the future brighter. Essentially, I tell the younger me that the heaviness in her bones will fade. Things like eating and laughing will become simple again. The dead manifest themselves in ways that are more comforting than heartrending. While I’m communicating this, Alexis brings out a bongo drum. The parallel of its rhythm to my beating heart is obvious, and this is the only time the sound of a bongo drum has not made me swell with sarcasm and hatred.
When Alexis begins to “count me out” – slowly transitioning me from my meditative state back to the dark blue couch in the busy Mission District – I am sad to leave this beach, this confident integration of my former and present selves. I sit up slowly and remove the eye mask. I am glad to find that my body still feels slow and clear. In the discussion that follows, Alexis leads me on an exploration of what I learned.
While it’s obvious that my addiction began as a mirror of internal hurting, I’ve gained a new and firm perspective of my current state. It’s clear I no longer need some source of self-destruction – I’m happy with who I am. It’s possible I’ve been harboring a melancholic vision of myself, borne out of some perceived artistic need for melancholy. I understand the truth better now, and it is this: I’ve had enough tragedy. It’s a part of who I was, but not who I am every day.
Alexis bids me good-bye and I leave her little sanctuary, follow the echoing hallway to the elevator, and exit onto Treat Street. It’s winter, officially, but undeniably California. My regular frenetic head state, the constant ordering of things to do and impending deadlines, breathes a little better. I feel capable.
In the days that follow, I try to focus on this feeling of capability, the knowledge I gained that insists I no longer need cigarette breaks to get me through the day. I take out a never-used pair of running shoes and pant through Duboce Park, the dogs skirting happily around my ankles.
I won’t lie and say I don’t have serious withdrawals. I do. I also worry that quitting for good still seems like a battle I feel incapable of fighting. In the first 48 hours I am a certifiable mess, barely able to concentrate, and I feel a genuine sense of loss and longing. But I do everything I can to return to the little beach – although not actually seeing the strong current, knowing and feeling that it’s there.
To learn more about depth hypnosis or Alexis Cohen, visit alexiscohen.org . Her sessions cost $95 and last 75 minutes.