The Monkey and Me

Testimonials and “dancing lessons from God.”

I would be a bad test case for Breathe Laser Therapy, I explain to CEO Rick Diamond. For one thing, I haven’t actually quite decided to quit smoking. I came here to write a magazine article, not to kick my own habit. For another thing, in my entire 40-year career as a cigarette devotee, I have never tried to quit. Not even for a day. So, I can make no comparison with other cessation techniques.

From a testimonial point of view, a great client for Breathe Laser is a guy like Richard “Froggy” Maroushek of Cottage Grove, who says he smoked two packs a day for about 30 years, then walked into Breathe Laser’s office in January 2008 and hasn’t been seriously tempted to light up since. Maroushek says he had quit for up to a month before, using Nicorettes, but “I always started smoking again because it drives you nuts, all you think about is a cigarette. The laser took that craving away.”

Doug Henneman, a software engineer from Coon Rapids, attests to the relative effectiveness of the laser treatments and to the importance of making a commitment to quit. Breathe Laser’s typical regimen is two or three treatments over a three-day period, but the $489 price allows a backsliding client to come back as often as necessary for six months. Henneman repeated the process three or four times before he finally achieved the right mindset for his last treatment in March 2009: “Nothing will help if your head’s not in the game.”

Henneman smoked heavily for about 30 years, and says he tried seriously to quit using gum, patches, and the prescription drug Chantix. Nothing worked. “For me, [quitting after laser treatments] was still a very difficult process,” he says. But the cravings did seem significantly reduced. “If cold-turkey cravings were a 10, laser cravings were a three.”

My experience with nicotine withdrawal is limited to hours, not days or months, and my mindset is highly questionable. What’s more, I have no skin in the game since I’m not paying for the treatment. As Sigmund Freud is supposed to have said, if you don’t pay, you don’t get better.

On the other hand, my wife has been on my back lately (right next to the monkey), and I did tell her that I would quit in 2010. I was thinking December, not March, but still. Also, it is a bit eerie that I should get this particular magazine assignment after making that particular promise. Kurt Vonnegut said that unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God. This has a little of that feel to it.

All things considered, Diamond probably should tell me to take a hike. But he agrees to put me through the treatment—just to show what it’s like, no expectations.

The laser machine is roughly as big as a laptop computer. A laser pen is attached by an insulated wire, like a phone cord. I recline in a chair and hold a metal conductor the size of a Bic lighter—to form a circuit, with me as ground, Diamond explains.

He presses the pen against 25 points on my body where certain nerves cluster, working from my left thumb and wrist, to my ears and forehead, down to my right thumb and wrist. He doesn’t refer to them as acupuncture points; neither does any Breathe Laser literature. Clinical studies of acupuncture as a smoking-cessation technique have been very discouraging. “I don’t like associating this with acupuncture because that just sets up more credibility issues in people’s minds,” he says. “Besides, lasers have a very specific effect on the central nervous system.”

I smoke Marlboros, which experience has shown are the hardest brand to quit. Diamond believes this is because Marlboros are more acidic, which alters their nicotine and other toxins and makes them easier for the lungs to absorb. He doesn’t claim to be sure about that. He just knows that his success rate with Marlboro smokers goes up if they get three treatments instead of the usual two. So I will have to come back for the next two days.

Diamond advises me to drink lots of water, take vitamin C, stock up on suckers or chewing gum (not nicotine gum, mind you), and try to avoid triggers in the next week—like beer or driving—that will make me want to smoke. Above all, I should remember this: For a full 30 days, whenever I feel a craving for a cigarette, I should take three deep breaths and repeat an “affirmation statement” three times. The affirmation should be something like “I am smoke-free,” or “I am stronger than this,” or “I can do it.”

This is a behavior modification technique to reprogram the brain by giving it something to think instead of “I want a cigarette right now.” The laser can reduce the body’s physical cravings, but it can’t eliminate the psychological desire. At my next two treatments, technician Wendy Rudoy will repeat that the affirmation is critical. A former Breathe Laser client herself, she still uses her affirmation a year after kicking a long-time habit.

I figured I would just take it a day at a time. As this story goes to press, I have not smoked for 10 weeks. Have these weeks sucked less than they would have if I quit cold turkey, using only the lollipops, the breathing, and the affirmation statements? My guess is yes, but having never tried, I don’t know.

A better question is probably this: Has it sucked less than it would have if everything about the experience remained constant but the laser treatment itself was a placebo—just a pen light? Short of a clinical test, how would anybody know?

I’d be interested to find out, but not yet. If it’s only the power of suggestion that has made this seem doable, let’s give it another five or six months before I learn the truth.