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Food For Thought

Exorcising the incubus

The closest synonym for the word “incubus” is “burden” and there is a wide range of definitions to describe it as well. These range all the way from “millstone” to “evil spirit” and crop up in fairy tales and legends more often than in ordinary conversation.
There are chilling old wives’ tales wherein an incubus steals away a newborn baby and takes its place, attaching itself to the mother who loves and cares for it because she believes it is her child. The incubus, of course, has it made. It can live on easy street while dominating and draining the lives of the parents, never being suspected of its true identity.
An incubus, as a burden, is often a bad or self-destructive habit such as anti-social behavior or an addiction. In legend, the incubus can be exorcised by a holy man or psychic. In real life, it takes the total determination of the victim. As I’ve maintained for years about achieving happiness, shedding the incubus has to come from within the sufferer. No one can do it for them.
Think back to the 1950s, when we learned that Frank Sinatra, besides being a superior singer and entertainer, was also a fine actor. Remember “The Man With the Golden Arm,” in which Sinatra portrayed a drug addict? Remember the term, “a monkey on his back,” that everybody understood then? In other words, an incubus. In the movie, determination wasn’t strong enough to break the drug habit, in spite of the knowledge that it was self-destructive, and Sinatra’s character ultimately succumbed to the addiction. The word “succumb,” incidentally, is related to “succubus,” the female version of an incubus and implies seduction. And seduction (of the will) is a large part of most bad habits.
I know that many people start each new year with shining hope about self-improvement. I’d be willing to bet that more people than ever before are presently struggling with a resolution to give up one bad habit, and chances are that bad habit is cigarettes or other forms of tobacco. I’ve heard various statistics about the success of Americans in kicking this habit. It seems that we stop smoking about ten times before we finally succeed and manage to stop for good. Though, like recovering alcoholics, there’s always the chance that something– a weak moment, a period of stress, even a dare, can knock us right back into self-destruction with hardly a struggle.
I know from experience because I quit smoking for various periods of time over a span of 50-some years. I quit for periods lasting less than a week, to five months, to three years, to the present period of six years and counting. I don’t claim to be forever free of the urge to light up, but I hope I am. I still experience the temptation once every six weeks or so, but it’s fading.
My incubus invents silly reasons and justifications for relapsing. Years ago, I received a beautiful gold lighter as a gift. It seems a shame not to use it. And look at all the money I spent on cigarettes over those years. For some reason, quitting smoking seems to point up the certainty that all that money was wasted. Somehow, starting again might justify the expenditure after all. How silly can you get? When the price went to three dollars a pack, my determination accelerated. It was the money, not the health issues then. When smoking was forbidden in most public places, it seemed like too much trouble to find a place to enjoy my bad habit. Again, inconvenience, not health issues. Cutting down was certainly a result of both these factors, but I finally stopped completely after about two weeks in the hospital where I had no hope of smoking, since I was tethered to tubes and unable to leave my room. Recovery was lengthy and I decided that, as long as I was miserable anyway, why not quit smoking and get it all over at once.
I don’t recommend having major surgery as a means of stopping smoking, but there is an irony in the fact that, if you don’t stop, you will undoubtedly have major surgery sooner or later anyway. If you’re lucky and don’t die first, that is. I never had to resort to pills or patches or nicotine chewing gum to get over my bad habit. I’m too stubborn to admit I needed help. Half my ancestors were German or Norwegian and that’s enough stubborn genes for anyone. For a long time I had to make a special effort to spend most of my time in places where I knew I couldn’t smoke– shopping, the library, sleeping, taking a shower, taking classes, going to club meetings, in other people’s homes where I knew they wouldn’t allow it. All that helped, and at the same time, gave me other things to concentrate on. Like happiness, exorcising an incubus is a conscious decision and nobody else can do it for you.