When attempts to quit smoking lead to hypnosis, skepticism turns to one day at a time

Monday, July 29, 2013 at 12:17am
072613 Smoking Illo topper.jpg

(Illustration by Nicole Dudka)


I am told to keep breathing.

I am counting backwards. I am starting from 10, which doesn’t feel like a long enough time for my conscious mind shed this reality in favor of some ethereal plane.

I am told to keep breathing.

I am destined to plumb the depths of my own mind to quit smoking cigarettes. I am 32, and I have smoked with varying frequency since I was 19.

Another countdown, from 10, and I’m still very much in the room, very much with the hypnotist I’ve paid to mentally block — or undo? — my smoking habit.

I am told to keep breathing.

It is July 1.


I always said I was supposed to light one up when my time came.

It’s been a rich life: I’ve been to Spain, Wyoming, the Caribbean. So in the face of a self-righteous legion of overweight Americans who for years have sneered at my cigarettes on their way through Burger King, my plan has always been to greet any news of a brain tumor or exotic incurable disease with a good old Marlboro. A Marlboro red, fat with flavor, teeming with indignant blue smoke.

That was the plan. It sounded unassailably cool for years. I’m not sure why, but I can tell you that “punk rock decision making” is a mentality impossible to describe in hindsight and invisible to an individual presently using it.


I am not asleep. I am not unconscious. This is not working. I am still here, in the house in East Nashville, in this man’s office, not across the planes of mind and soul.

This is not working. My nose itches.

I am told to keep breathing.

I’d worked through the cycle of stop-smoking aids in recent years — patches, gums, pills and fake e-cigs. On a lark I contacted Steve Roehm, a Nashville based hypnotist and ex-smoker (he quit via hypnosis, too).

About 65 percent of Roehm’s business is smoking cessation. He also helps with everything from nail biting to overeating to PTSD battles among soldiers from Fort Campbell. By his numbers he’s cost the tobacco industry about $5.2 million each year by assisting more than 2,000 people in Middle Tennessee and beyond to quit smoking.

Roehm is exceedingly polite, a guy who looks like a musician in a city filled with them, and yet entirely and constantly in a state of calm. On or around Sept. 1 he’ll open a newer, larger hypnosis facility (hypnotist training will also be involved) on West End Avenue. On the day I met him, we worked from a house in East Nashville, just across from Rosepepper Cantina.

I am told to keep breathing. This is not working.

I am obliged to see this through. I am still in this room. For the basic two-hour session, we spent more than an hour talking. At first I was tempted to operate as the questioner for the purpose of this article. But eventually I
relented and began to answer questions about my life as a cigarette smoker.

To my feet is a wastebasket Roehm purposefully keeps full, teeming with nearly full packs of cigarettes and a variety of lighters.

I am told to keep breathing.


When I started smoking at 19, I started with Marlboro Reds. They’re the whole milk of tar flavoring, with the red packaging label to match. Reds are the undisputed worst iteration of an already bad thing.

Marlboro is a brand timeless to the minutes-long pop culture trends that 19-year-olds strive to rise above, which is an overlong way of saying that the box always looked cool.

If you’re younger than 40 and are or were a smoker, you were never supposed to start. No one of this age group can accurately explain why they started. Enough evidence has existed in the national conversation to make it impossible to argue that you didn’t know the lethal side effects of long-term use.

You and I smoke — or rather, I smoked — in spite of reason. We use some combination of tropes: Cigarettes are especially addictive, and nefariously designed to be so, so that’s why we don’t quit. Despite their danger, nothing assuages stress or amplifies enjoyment like a cigarette, so if measured out and used in moderation, they’re not that bad.

The point at which I’m convinced this isn’t working is when I can hear Roehm speaking, at times alternating and then repeating particular phrases. But I’m sure the fix is in when I can hear in plain terms Roehm creating a mental reminder.

I feel hesitant to elaborate, but think of a number, shape, color, etc. … something common you’d come across on a daily basis. I’m convinced that if I’m consciously listening to Roehm tell me this, there’s no way it can work subconsciously.

I am told to keep breathing.


I didn’t decide to quit smoking because logic finally outweighed excuse. I watched a grandparent die quite slowly and painfully from smoking. I didn’t have the alcoholic’s singular moment of clarity, either.

Eventually, over time, I became alone with the cigarette. Alone hiding it from my wife. Alone outside various bars and hotels among co-workers in an industry (sports journalism) that increasingly shuns users. Alone in trying to model a future life as a smoking parent (mine never did, repulsed by their own parents’ smoking).

This inevitability, this defeat in a slow war of social attrition, led me to hypnosis. The stigma of hypnosis never bothered me, at least in that I couldn’t live with the mental image of someone discounting the validity of the subconscious mind’s power while slobbering on a known carcinogen. It might not work, yes, but damn if that cigarette doesn’t certainly work in ostracizing me whilst building towards my eventual painful death.

When I open my eyes I can tell at once that while I haven’t left the room, gone to space or been separated from my corporeal state, I haven’t necessarily been as present as I’d thought I was throughout the session.

Roehm asks me how long I think I’ve been in hypnosis. I’m 16 minutes off in my guess, but I’ve had the same “phenomenon” occur via a PlayStation 3, so my doubts are still safely intact.

Roehm is just so damn nice about all of it, and just past that, so noticeably confident.

“So, want a cigarette?” he asks. I’ve got a pack with 17 (of 20) remaining, and a chipped black Bic lighter.

“I guess not,” I say.

Maybe, I think. Maybe I do. Maybe I will in two weeks. Maybe I will when I go home to a group of friends my wife invited over for dinner and drinks. Maybe my twin spires of cigarette lust — alcohol and social unease — will blow past this charade and I’ll be hotboxing one in the trash alley at midnight while the dog goes to the bathroom.

Before I leave, Roehm doesn’t focus on anything other than my breathing. He tells me to keep breathing.


It is July 23. I have not smoked a cigarette. I have not felt the desire. I have the memory of smoking, and the memory of desire.

My skepticism has strived for this to fail. I purposefully drank too much at a wedding reception. I’ve gulped the stagnant air of smoke-friendly bars around town.

I have not smoked. Apropos of my conversation during the sessions, I choose to still fear the failure of smoking again, like the way an alcoholic takes sobriety a day at a time. When I call Roehm and confess my initial skepticism of his work, he’s just as friendly as he was at our meeting, admitting he felt the same way before he was hypnotized the first time.

“There was a lot going on there in that conversation. It’s not just a conversation, over a time it becomes a very tailored experience,” he said. He tells me there’s a combination of language, specific words and even the structure of the conversation that precede the actual hypnosis.

Viewed as a whole, the process is still suspiciously void of any kind of apparent “event.” I never felt hypnotized by any cinematic or spiritual definition.

I can remember every moment of my smoking life. I can remember how I wanted a cigarette so badly at so many times, for such a variety of reasons. I remember they’re paired best with black coffee in January and canned Budweiser in July. I remember the allure of smoking created by so many indie films I devoured in the 1990s.

Roehm’s best advice for the more powerful moments is, as you’d expect, to keep breathing.

I have not smoked a cigarette. I am still breathing.

4 Comments on this post:

By: WayneR on 7/29/13 at 10:41

Back in the seventies a friend went to a Nashville hypnotist to help him stop smoking. The hypnotist put him under and told him upon waking that every cigarette he smoked would taste to him like "burning rubber."

Sure enough, it worked. My friend told me every cigarette he lit tasted god-awful, like, surprise, burning rubber.

Of course, the hypnotists tactic did nothing to alleviate the incredible withdrawal symptoms every smoker experiences when going a few hours without their nicotine fix. Every cell in the user's body begins to talk to them when nicotine is removed, and the cells do not speak gently. They scream and hollar, demanding the user do something to quell the craving.

And so it was. My friend returned to the hypnotist to deprogram his previous work. No longer would cigarettes taste like a tire fire. The power of nicotine addiction overcame the nasty taste of his cigarettes, and hypnosis, while planting an idea in his head, did nothing about the real problem...addiction. And so it goes.


By: Steve Roehm on 7/29/13 at 3:40

Actually, not every smoker feels withdrawals. Most of my clients, over 95%, walk away as non-smokers not ex-smokers. When I quit, I did not experience any withdrawals whatsoever.

Nicotine is not as addictive as it has been sold to the general public. If it was, every single client I help quit would suffer the side effects of diminishing nicotine in their system.

I surely don't want my clients to have to deal with the taste of burning rubber..blech. I expect my clients to be free...period. I think your friend saw the wrong hypnotist.

Check out the other testimonials on my website, http://nashvillehypnosis.com/testimonials/

By: Kosh III on 7/30/13 at 10:14

I quit cold turkey and had little or no withdrawal symptoms.

By: budlight on 8/4/13 at 4:50

I used to smoke. I decided that if I wanted to smoke less, I'd pay a quarter for each one and bought them from a friend. That didn't work, so I paid 50 cents; then that didn't work, so I started buying them for a dollar. When I got up to spending $4.00 for cigs (4 of them), I quit. No withdrawals. I just couldn't stand blowing up all that money on cigs. And they were not $3.00 a pack yet. In this day and time, I don't know how people afford to smoke. It's such a waste of money.

My inlaws decided to put cig. money in a vacation fund and started using that $1200 or so annually for a nice vacation. They are 82 and 79 respectively and they are still breathing -- well and vacationing!

Good for you Kosh! People can do what they WANT to do if they WANT to do it badly enough. Now I need to see Steve to stop eating bread and pasta! My downfall!