Singer Patti Page's decades-long addiction to cigarettes was threatening her career, so she prayed about it.
- Posted on Oct 31, 2008
Every smoker remembers her first cigarette. I took my first puff in 1942 back in high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was 14, on the chubby side and wore glasses. Though people were already talking about what a good voice I had, I wasn't exactly one of the popular girls. But I'd made up my mind. I was going to hang out with the cool kids. The kids who looked so grown-up leaning against their cars in the school parking lot, lighting one another's cigarettes, blowing tendrils of smoke in the air.
During lunch one day I sauntered across the parking lot to them. "Wanna smoke?" one of the guys asked, holding out a pack. I pulled out a cigarette and put it to my lips. I looked into his eyes as he flipped open his Zippo and lit me up. I felt so sophisticated. Then the smoke hit my lungs and I couldn't help it. I coughed. A lot.
"First time?" he asked.
"No, of course not," I said, trying to regain my composure. Before lunch was over I'd worked my way through that cigarette and started on another.
I didn't dare light up at home—my mother would have killed me. I was only sneaking cigarettes at school. Then I got an after-school job singing for KTUL radio. Everyone at the station smoked. They were all older, and I felt even more out of place than I had in school. One day a DJ offered me a cigarette. I grabbed it like it was a lifeline. Just a few drags and I felt different. Worldly, experienced. There was no going back after that.
I wasn't the kid with the great pipes anymore. I'd become a grown-up, a real professional singer. And a real smoker too. How many people are in the audience? I'd worry backstage. What if I forget the lyrics? Then I'd light up, inhale and my fears would drift away. Nothing eased my anxieties like a cigarette.
My singing career took off in my twenties. "Tennessee Waltz" and "Doggie in the Window" shot up the charts. My smoking habit rocketed, too, to three packs a day. I couldn't leave the house without a fresh pack and a book of matches in my purse. I'd walk out of church after services and be puffing away before I got to my car. Touring in Europe? No problem—there, smoking was a way of life. Instead of the usual souvenirs, I came home with an exquisite French porcelain demitasse cup that had been turned into a cigarette holder and an antique silver filigree lighter. (Now I wonder if I collected those lovely things to cover up a habit that deep down I knew was ugly.)
Nothing could get me to stop. Not the nagging cough I developed. Not my husband's worrying. Not even my two children. The thought of it makes me shudder now, but back then, no one understood the effects of secondhand smoke on a child. At one annual physical, my doctor warned me, "Sooner or later, Patti, smoking is going to take its toll on your body. You've just been lucky so far." But I didn't listen. I lit up as soon as I left his office. If my health gets really bad, I can always stop, I told myself. I sailed through my physicals, so I never seriously considered quitting.
Until one day in the summer of 1974. The kids and I were going grocery shopping. I got into our station wagon and stuck a cigarette in my mouth before I even turned the key.
"Oh, Mom, those things stink!" my 12-year-old, Kathleen, said. Her little brother, Danny, chimed in, "Yeah, Mom, cigarettes are bad for you."
I knew he was right—people I loved, like Nat King Cole and Betty Grable, smokers all, had died of lung cancer. But I couldn't admit it—especially not to my kids.
"Fine," I said, and stubbed out my cigarette. "I don't need to smoke." I hardly got out of the driveway before the urge set in. I can't go two blocks without a cigarette! It was the longest drive to the supermarket. By the time we walked inside, sweat beaded on my brow.
I told Kathleen to take Danny to the deli and get some cold cuts. "I'll pick up some apples and meet you there," I said. As soon as they were out of sight, I dashed outside. I pawed through my purse, frantic. I lit up a cigarette. I took a puff. Instead of the usual relief, something else hit me. Reality. I'm lying to my children over this. I've got to stop smoking. I would just do it. I would use my willpower. I would break this horrible habit.
I must have tried to quit a hundred times. I never lasted a day. Something would invariably trigger the urge—a person in the audience smoking, my morning cup of coffee, a really good meal, an argument with the kids.
Then something really got me worried. I used to be able to sing for hours. Now I'd belt out a song and feel my vocal cords tiring by the time I reached the high notes in the finale. During one particularly difficult rehearsal I had to take a break. Backstage I immediately lit up a cigarette. What am I doing? I lowered my head. Lord, I'm hooked on these things. I don't want them to control my life anymore. I don't want them to ruin my voice. Please help me quit.
"What's wrong, Patti?" my pianist asked.
I held up my cigarette. "I'm so sick of not being able to live without these."
"Yeah, I know," he said. "I used to smoke, but then I talked to a great counselor about it. With his help and a lot of prayer, I finally stopped."
I believed in the power of prayer. The counselor I was a little skeptical about. But I was desperate. After years of smoking, I was willing to try anything. The Lord helps in mysterious ways, I thought. Maybe this is the answer. I took the number and made an appointment.
I sat in the counselor's office and explained my problem. My addiction. And that's what it was. Yes, it was bad for my health, for my vocal cords. But worse, smoking made me ashamed. Not just because I did it, but because I couldn't stop.
The counselor asked, "What made you start smoking?"
I thought back. Back to being that nervous teenage girl who wanted to fit in. That girl who needed to be liked. Who needed to feel like she was a part of something. That girl who was trying to act more grown-up than she was. Smoking is such a dangerous thing, and I was too young to make a decision like that.
"Patti, you're one of the best-selling recording artists out there," the counselor said. "You have a family who loves you. You're not that awkward teenager, not anymore. God's given you incredible gifts. Now you have to respect them."
We talked a long time. I realized that I stumbled upon cigarettes at a very vulnerable point in my life. Smoking used to take away my worries. But it had turned into my biggest worry.
I went home and dug up every pack of cigarettes and every book of matches in the house and threw them in the garbage. I stared into the trash can. Temptation stared back at me. I reached for the only force powerful enough to help me resist. Lord, keep me strong, I prayed. You gave me a beautiful voice, and I don't want to abuse it anymore. Please lift this addiction from me. Hands shaking, I put the lid on the trash can and walked away.
That was 30 years ago. I haven't picked up a cigarette since. And it is the best thing I have ever done for myself. But not by myself. Every time I felt the urge for a smoke, I would think about the life and the voice that the Lord had honored me with. Smoking would hurt that gift. Disrespect that honor. Instead of reaching out for a cigarette, I would reach out in prayer. That's why I'm still singing though I'm into my seventies. And not just singing either, but hitting those high notes.
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