I've made no secret over the years about which Joel Spitzer article is my favorite. It's about a woman who enrolled in one of Joel's two-week clinics.
Prior to the start of the first session, she came up to Joel and told him, "I don't want to be called on during this clinic. I am stopping smoking but I don't want to talk about it. Please don't call on me."
Joel said, "Sure. I won't make you talk, but if you feel you would like to interject at anytime, please don't hesitate to."
She grew angry. "Maybe I am not making myself clear, I don't want to talk! If you make me talk I will get up and walk out of this room. If you look at me with an inquisitive look on your face, I am leaving! Am I making myself clear?"
Surprised by the force of her reaction, Joel said he'd honor her request. Although he still hoped she'd change her mind and share her experiences with the group, Joel was no longer expecting it.
With approximately 20 participants, it was a good group except for two women in back who "gabbed constantly." Others were forced to turn around and ask them to be quiet. The women would stop for a few seconds and then were right back at it.
Sometimes, when other people were sharing sad, personal experiences, they'd be laughing at some humorous story they'd shared with each other, oblivious to surrounding happenings, recalls Joel.
On the third day of the clinic it happened. The two women in the back were talking away as usual when a younger participant asked if she could speak to the group first, because she had to leave early. The two in the back continued their private conversation as if she wasn't there.
The young woman said, "I can't stay, I had a horrible tragedy in my family today, my brother was killed in an accident. I wasn't even supposed to come tonight. I am supposed to be helping my family making funeral arrangements. But I knew I had to stop by if I was going to continue to not smoke."
She'd remained nicotine-free for two days and not smoking was obviously important. Joel recalls that the group "felt terrible, but were so proud of her. It made what happened in their days seem so trivial. All except the two ladies in the back of the room. They actually heard none of what was happening," recalls Joel.
"When the young woman was telling how close she and her brother were, the two gossips actually broke out laughing. They weren't laughing at the story. They were laughing at something totally different not even aware of what was being discussed in the room."
The young woman excused herself to return to her family, said she'd keep in touch and thanked the group for their support.
A few minutes later Joel was relating a story to the group when all of a sudden the woman who had requested anonymity interrupted him. "Excuse me Joel," she said loudly.
"I wasn't going to say anything this whole program. The first day I told Joel not to call on me. I told him I would walk out if I had to talk. I told him I would leave if he tried to make me talk. I didn't want to burden anyone else with my problems. But today I feel I cannot keep quiet any longer. I must tell my story." The room went quiet.
"I have terminal lung cancer. I am going to die within two months. I am here to stop smoking. I want to make it clear that I am not kidding myself into thinking that if I stop I will save my life. It is too late for me. I am going to die and there is not a damn thing I can do about it. But I am going to stop smoking."
"You may wonder why I am stopping if I am going to die anyway. Well, I have my reasons. When my children were small, they always pestered me about my smoking. I told them over and over to leave me alone, that I wanted to stop but couldn't. I said it so often they stopped begging."
"But now my children are in their twenties and thirties, and two of them smoke. When I found out about my cancer, I begged them to stop. They replied to me, with pained expressions on their faces, that they want to stop but they can't."
"I know where they learned that, and I am mad at myself for it. So I am stopping to show them I was wrong. It wasn't that I couldn't stop smoking, it was that I wouldn't!"
"I am off two days now, and I know I will not have another cigarette. I don't know if this will make anybody stop, but I had to prove to my children and to myself that I could stop smoking. And if I could stop, they could stop, anybody could stop."
"I enrolled in the clinic to pick up any tips that would make stopping a little easier and because I was real curious about how people who really were taught the dangers of smoking would react. If I knew then what I know now - well, anyway, I have sat and listened to all of you closely."
"I feel for each and every one of you and I pray you all make it. Even though I haven't said a word to anyone, I feel close to all of you. Your sharing has helped me. As I said, I wasn't going to talk. But today I have to. Let me tell you why."
She turned to the two women in the back who had listened to her every word. "The only reason I am speaking up now is because you two BITCHES are driving me crazy. You are partying in the back while everyone else is sharing with each other, trying to help save each other's lives."
She told them about the young woman whose brother was killed and how they laughed, totally unaware of her loss.
"Will you both do me a favor, just get the hell out of here! Go out and smoke, drop dead for all we care, you are learning and contributing nothing here." Joel recalls they sat stunned. He had to calm the group as things had become "quite charged."
Needless to say, recalls Joel, "that was the last of the gabbing from the back of the room for the entire two-week clinic."
All present that night were successful in remaining nicotine-free. The two women who had earlier talked only to each other were applauded by all during graduation, even by the woman with lung cancer.
"All was forgiven," recalls Joel. The woman who'd lost her brother was also present, nicotine-free and proud.
"And the lady with lung cancer proudly accepted her diploma and introduced one of her children. He had stopped smoking for over a week at that time. Actually, when the lady with cancer was sharing her story with us, she had not told her family yet that she had even stopped smoking."
Six weeks later his mother was dead.
When Joel telephoned to see how she was doing her son answered. He thanked Joel for helping her stop at the end, and told him how proud she was and how proud he was of her. "She never went back to smoking, and I will not either," he said.
She'd taught her children a falsehood and as her final lesson she corrected it. It wasn't that she couldn't stop but that she wouldn't.
I too was once totally convinced that I couldn't. But it was a lie, a lie born inside a hostage mind, a mind convinced that that next fix was more important than life itself.