By Jerzy Gregorek
In 1981, when I was twenty-seven, I led a strike at the Fire Protection Academy in Warsaw. On the first day of the strike, the police surrounded the building so that no one could go in or out. Starting that day and for the next nine to follow, I had to be alert around the clock, existing with almost no sleep. To stay awake, I was constantly drinking coffee and started smoking cigarettes again, which I hadn’t done for eight years. Finally, using helicopters and battering rams, the police attacked the building and forced us out.
For the next year, I worked underground with Solidarity, no longer drinking coffee, but still smoking the cigarettes. Aniela asked me many times to stop smoking, and I always said I would when the time was right. “I quit cold turkey once before, and I can do it again whenever I want. Back then I was smoking two or three packs a day, and now I only smoke half a pack, so why can’t I do it?”
“Because your motivation now is weak,” Aniela said. “You don’t care anymore if you do or you don’t.”
Three years later, when I left Poland for Sweden, I was still smoking. Whenever someone asked me why I smoked, I said, “I only have one once in a while…when I feel like it.”
A year later, when I moved to Germany, I was still smoking. Then everything changed in an instant after Aniela and I met two German weightlifters, Bernd and Harry, and began training with them. One day, when Aniela’s parents were expected for a visit, Harry offered to drive us to the port in Kiel. We arrived an hour before the ship, so, to pass the time, I pulled out a cigarette and lit up. When Harry saw that, he was shocked. “Jerzy,” he said, “you’re a smoker?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m not a smoker, I just have a cigarette once in a while.”
Harry was devastated. Looking at me with sad eyes, he said, “Jerzy, if you smoke you’re not an athlete.” And with that, he turned his back and walked away with a heavy step.
I looked at my cigarette and, feeling sudden disgust, I dropped it on the ground and crushed it with my shoe. That was the last cigarette I’ve ever smoked.
Now, thirty years later, I see clearly what a gift Harry gave me that day. At the time, I could not admit that the habit was stronger than I was. I had to maintain the illusion that I was a strong man who could overcome any habit whenever I wanted. Harry said the right words at the right time in the right way. In an instant, he gave me the power to do something I had not been able to do on my own for five years.
Have you ever experienced denial about a personal bad habit? Has someone else helped you with overcoming it?
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