By Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
A heart attack served as a wake up call to a smoker to quit. Here’s how he turned his life around through healthy lifestyle choices and willpower to stick to them
For the last three years, it has become one of my favourite not-so-clever one-liners—if I weren’t still an atheist, I would have called myself a born-again Hindu. Some of my god-fearing acquaintances find my remark in poor taste. But the fact is that I have neither changed my political views nor my views on the existence of the ‘Almighty’ since that fateful morning of October 30, 2000, when I nearly died. In fact, I was declared clinically dead and revived only after the third shock with a defibrillator—a device used to restore normal rhythm to the heart by application of electric current to the chest wall. I survived, as the old saying goes, to tell my tale.
My heart attack changed my life for the better. The jolt it gave me made me change my lifestyle more dramatically than I could ever have imagined. I am now 48, but often feel a few years younger. I think I have more physical and mental energy in me than what I had when I was in my early 40s. This transition did not come easily or painlessly. Before I became a better human being, I caused considerable pain to those I considered closest to myself—my family and the many friends I am lucky to have.
In what respect did I change? There are three broad components to my lifestyle change that are significant. First, I quit smoking. Then, I changed my diet. And finally, I started walking daily. Yes, walking every morning, barring an occasional day when it was raining or I had to leave home early or felt unwell. I wish to dwell on the first of these three aspects in greater detail and touch on the others.
I first smoked when I was 15. I had seen my father and his friends smoking and wanted to try it out. Because I suffered from asthma and had to hide my smoking from family members, I smoked on the sly and infrequently during much of my youth. From around the time I turned 20, I had become a regular smoker not just of tobacco but of ganja and charas too. On a few occasions, I even tried opium and its derivatives. Like almost all smokers, my ego came in the way of my acknowledging that I had become hopelessly addicted.
Nicotine is the most addictive substance known to humankind. Research has shown that the chances of a person getting addicted after the second time she or he has inhaled cigarette smoke are as high as 75 per cent, perhaps higher. Most smokers are aware that what they are indulging in is bad for their health, but they delude themselves into believing that they are not addicted and worse, that they can easily give up the habit. Most smokers lie frequently not only to those who disapprove of their habit, but to themselves. If a person is, for instance, smoking 20 cigarettes a day, she/he pretends to actually smoke half the number.
Nicotine has some positive aspects—it kills appetite, enhances concentration and brings about a sense of well-being. But the negative aspects of regular nicotine inhalation far, far outweigh these so-called positive features. Besides impairing the functioning of a person’s lungs and causing cancer, smoking results in loss of muscularity in blood vessels, including critical arteries of the heart.
For nearly 30 years, I smoked not less than 20 cigarettes on an average every day. I also would regularly smoke marijuana and drink alcohol. I refused to heed the advice of those who told me I was ruining myself. I refused to calculate the amount of money I would have saved had I not been a smoker and all that I could have done with funds that had literally gone up in smoke. I would deliberately skip articles in newspapers and magazines that highlighted the harmful effects of smoking.
The morning of October 30, 2000 was pleasant. It was a few weeks after my 45th birthday. I found myself sweating profusely on my way to work. I was trying to read while travelling, but the words were merging into one another. Reaching office, I went to the toilet thinking if I vomited or excreted I might feel better. It did not help. I just couldn’t keep my head up. That’s when I realised that something was drastically wrong. The constriction in my chest was unbearable. Many days later, I thanked my instincts that led me to ask a senior colleague to take me to the nearest hospital.
I walked 30 metres from the car to the emergency ward of Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi. I lost consciousness soon thereafter. No, my entire life did not flash before me as it is supposed to for those who undergo near-death experiences as I did. Months later, I would joke about what happened. There’s no heaven—no wine, roses, angels or apsaras, and neither is there a hell. My faith in the potential goodness of human beings has gone up manifold. The doctor who administered electric shocks to me was in his early-20s, a medical intern. He saved my life yet never came back to see me.
One of the most humiliating moments came one evening at the hospital, when I was not responding to huge doses of morphine. My wife, who believes one should never lie to a doctor or a lawyer, told the doctor about my drug habit. He heaved a sigh of relief and promptly called a bunch of interns to my bedside and said: “Here’s an addict and that is why his body is not responding to morphine injections we are administering.”
Such experiences made me wonder why I had caused so much unhappiness to those closest to me. I decided I must change. It is more than three years since I quit smoking. It is not as if I do not feel tempted to resume. But I am glad to notice my discomfort in the presence of someone puffing away. I have been able to stick to my resolve never to smoke. In fact, my smoker friends (and I have lots of them) complain that I go the other extreme in trying to persuade others to quit smoking. I do want others to learn their lessons the easy way and not the hard way as I did, and this is why I chose to write this article.
Equally important as far as my lifestyle is concerned is that I started walking every morning. If you cannot take out 30-45 minutes every 24 hours to look after your physical self, life is perhaps not worth living. Go to a large gathering and ask how many people believe exercising is good. Almost everyone will agree. Then ask: how many actually exercise, and the number of hands will come down drastically.
My decision to shift to food cooked without oil and fat has also done me a world of good. Once again, it is not as if I have always been able to resist the temptation to not have chocolates, cheese, ice cream, pastries, pakoras, samosas, and so on. A lot of people ask me whether I survive on boiled vegetables. I respond by pointing out that food can be cooked in so many different spicy and succulent ways without using a single drop of oil.
I now think that no one’s life can ever be completely free of tension. It’s how we cope with it that matters. It’s all in the mind. If any readers have reached thus far, I would only hope that they would learn from the mistakes I made and I would be happy to share more of my experiences with them.
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