“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,” the old expression goes. I’m happy to say I ain’t got ‘em anymore.
I’ve smoked a long time, quit before, but on January 19, I had my last cancer stick. That day, I went to “The Mad Russian” in Brookline, as he’s known. His real name is Yefim Shubentsov, a guru who through what seems like magic has been making people kick the habit for nearly 40 years. No one knows how he does it. He uses a combination of talking to a group for 90 minutes and then one-on-one for mere seconds after, using hand gestures to wave away the habit.
I swear it works.
What does he talk about? I'm not sure, his Russian accent was so strong I caught maybe two
thirds of his spiel. He was all over the place, talking about his upbringing, training, Russia, lawyers, doctors, and occasionally touching on how we’ll stop smoking, all in his very thick accent which made me want to ask him, “Can you please say, ‘Eet ees moose and squirrel?’”
He stressed he is not a hypnotist (though what he does is pretty much hypnotism), and not a doctor (though he once ran a pediatric division in a Russian hospital). He claims to not know how he does what he's been doing for so long, with a roughly 1-percent failure rate out of well over 160,000 clients.
Harvard doesn’t get it either. There was a piece in that university’s mag that said researchers studied him, scratched their heads, and in effect said, "We have no idea how he does this. We just know it works."
For this, he charges $75 – about a week’s worth of butts for a deck-a-day puffer – very short money for nothing less than changing/saving your life.
And he is just fun to watch. The guy’s maybe 80, a small, bald, bespectacled and tireless man. He did most of his talk on his feet, animated and lively. He explained he’d see us one by one where we’d envision ourselves smoking and he’d “erase” the vision from our minds. He then sent us to the outer office where we commiserated with each other about our filthy habit, how we’ve quit before, how we hoped this would be our last attempt. We supported and encouraged each other as we shuffled closer to the Mad Russian’s door and our moment of erasure. We told stories we’ve heard about his curing thousands, celebrities and commoners alike, people who’d been in this very spot decades ago and have not smoked since.
We believed. We wanted to. We had to.
My turn came. He opened the door and whisked me in. I sat, closed my eyes and as instructed, said in my mind, “I am smoking” over and over as he presumably wiggled his fingers before me, mumbled something, exhaled forcefully and told me to open my eyes.
He smiled. He shook my hand, saying I’m in great shape and to keep at it because exercise – and not avoiding smoking – will prevent strokes and heart disease. He wished me luck. He called in the next soon-to-be ex-smoker.
It felt anti-climatic. I was truly waiting for an epiphany, a “Eureka! I’m cured!” feeling. I didn’t get it. I paid my 75 bucks to his assistant who told me that any time I felt like smoking, to call or drop in and the Mad Russian would talk me off the ledge, free of charge. I honestly almost walked right back in demanding an epiphany or at least a quick “Eet ees Moose and squirrel!”
I felt deprived, depressed, scared – but at the same time, weirdly peaceful. I went to my car. Ordinarily after two hours away from cigs, I would power smoke a slew of them, especially driving in Boston traffic.
I did not. And I didn’t even really think about it. There was no need, no urge, no hunger, no ache, no nothing. It’s like he really did erase smoking from my brain. Why would I want to light up if my brain thinks I never have?
Has it been a piece of cake? Pretty much. I used to smoke mostly in two places: my car (which still smells like smoke and the rancid hockey gear in my trunk) and my home office. I feel no urge in the car, even on long drives. The office is a tad trickier – it’s where I work, where most of my stress is, the stress that used to have me lunging for a cigarette twenty or thirty times a day and sitting in a carcinogenic cloud of shame and self-pity.
But those urges are subsiding. When they do come, I don’t eat (Mad Russian say, “Put NOTHING in your mouth, or you get big, like elephant!”), or I breathe deeply and think of anything but smoking (Mad Russian say, “Human mind cannot think of two things at once!”)
Why does it work? Who knows? My take is I enjoy stories, and this funny, self-effacing, sarcastic and clever man told stories for 90 minutes in an endearing, engaging, entertaining way. As a result, I trusted him, that trust extending to believing he truly wanted to cure me of smoking.
Which he has. I almost said “so far.” But I won’t. My brain has been fooled into not wanting a cigarette again. My brain cannot think of a single reason why I should smoke and about ten million why I should not. This is if I think about smoking at all. Soon, I won’t even think about being a non-smoker – I’ll just be one.
The urge to smoke is gone, because of The Mad Russian. But now, also because of him, I have the urge to binge watch “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”