True Story: How A Show Called “Smoker” Shifts The Narrative About Nicotine Addiction and Inspires Hope For Change
The art of story is a way to reach beyond self-protective defenses for a time, to activate imagination and emotion well enough that listeners feel and think together. This shared experience can build connections through exposing the painful realities that had been hidden by shame. And through those connections weave a genuine safety net.
The scene is a workplace wellness class for staff at a large health care organization, set in the gloomy basement training space of an administration building. This is the third class in a series of five on the topic of smoking cessation, attendance at which will reduce participants’ health insurance premium, but not necessarily their smoking habits nor general thorniness about discussions of what makes quitting so difficult. The twelve employees sit in folding chairs forming a semi-circle, most with arms crossed in quiet defiance, some scrolling through their phone, all signaling how much they would rather be anywhere but here. In the previous two classes, improv exercises eased the tension and warmed everyone up to meaningful conversations about real-life struggles. But that flow rapidly shut down once the subject of smoking was raised.
In this session, we take on the subject but with an approach unlike the lecture-heavy formats of other smoking cessation programs. For 75 minutes Bob Brader, New York-based writer, actor and monologist, performs his solo show Smoker, a true, artistic, theatrical telling about the complex emotional connections underlying his own nicotine addiction. Smoker has won awards around the world for Brader’s excellent script and acting and deals with the impact of Brader’s abusive father on his relationship with cigarettes and smoking as well as with important people in his life. Brader brings the same commitment to that dim, damp basement space as on any professional stage, playing 24 different characters — each with their own “voice” and physicality — through the course of the piece, in an artful combination of comedy with a highly-charged pain-filled narrative.
The group leans in. Their silence is now active, engaged, responsive.
Most of the participants in these workplace smoking cessation classes we offer throughout the year will say they feel judged for smoking, particularly by their doctors and other health care providers, shamed for their desire to continue smoking and criticized for their unsuccessful attempts to quit. Whether real or imagined, the perception of negative bias is a barrier to trust. The stigma of addiction complicates clear communication and disrupts human connection. Whether providers and educators involved in health care are even aware of their own bias, storytelling has the potential to reach beyond it.
“When I wrote Smoker, I never thought it would be anything other then entertaining,” Brader says in an interview about the evolution of this show. “I wanted to talk about how hard it is to quit smoking and how the tobacco companies have people believing that it is a will power issue, that if you cannot quit, it is your own fault. I wanted to talk about how much smokers love to smoke. In writing the show, I realized that one of the reasons it was so very hard for me to quit was that smoking is the only thing that my father and I ever really did together. Finding that out through the writing was very powerful.”
During the discussion, group members talk about seeing themselves in Bob Brader. They connect their own dots.
“I always feel judged as a smoker. And as a person in general. Bob Brader’s story lifted that self-judgment off of me, and I feel much more open to the idea of quitting,” reports one participant.
“His father is my father. I never talk about the violence in my childhood. But it comes up when I try to quit smoking,” says one woman, who then says she know she needs a good therapist to deal with this.
“I laughed until I cried, and I cried because he expressed some truths I never looked at before,” says another.
“I understand myself so much better” a lifelong smoker shared in the post-session evaluation. She had been through 8 smoking cessation series since working for this organization and was opening up for the first time because of our approach. “I feel understood. Which makes me feel maybe I can change.”
An authentic, well-crafted narrative is essential when it comes to inspiring change shadowed by shame and stigma baked into the health-related issue.
“Trauma and shame are intensified in the silence,” states Brader. “We need to be talking about these issues, sharing our stories, and bringing light to them.” In the post-show discussions in these smoking cessation classes, as with the many other performances he has done, the groups openly process the shift in perspective the show provides. “Performing Smoker has been incredibly eye-opening. Smokers get what I am talking about, and they start to understand why it is so hard for them to quit. I also got a lot of comments from people who have other addictions and how they relate to the show as well. It is truly an honor to be able to tell my story and have people understand and feel something, not only for the character on stage, but for themselves.”
Creative strategies like storytelling reach beyond the psychological barriers generated by bias and stigma from professionals toward clients or patients. The Journal Of Interprofessional Education and Practice showed that storytelling specifically has a direct impact on reducing stigma and bias among providers. A 2022 study published in the journal Evaluation and Program Planning found storytelling increased understanding about LGBTQ patients- — a group that routinely experiences discrimination and negative bias — among health care workers.
Smoker has as many hilarious moments as it does deeply painful ones, an element that adds to the bonding among group members and between the group and the instructors. “Comedy in a story can unite an audience and allow them to take a breath and relax after you have told them a chilling or powerful part of your show,” Brader explains. “To me, a good show is a roller-coaster ride taking the audience through the ups and downs.”
The science tells us that humor delivers more than just a good laugh. A study published in the journal Personal Relationships shows that “shared laughter was uniquely linked to people’s overall evaluations of quality, closeness, and social support in their relationships.” What defeats the barriers imposed by shame is the shared experience of looking at the same human struggle through a different lens. It is the shared experience that benefits relationships the most. And when people must face pain and loss that has been highly defended in order to change a health behavior, relationships in which there is safety and understanding can have life-saving impact.
Coming at the dilemma from the storyteller’s perspective can also shift the shame narrative. Brader recommends that anyone struggling with the change process try engaging their creativity. “Communicating ideas is important. Even if you are just writing in a journal and not performing them. Write about your experience, dig into why you are feeling a certain way and why you reacted in a certain way. Explore that in writing. I never thought it would help and believed it would be retraumatizing to write about everything that happened to me, but the truth is, for me, it helped. It is the main thing that helped make me a stronger person. It really helped me get rid of some of the heaviness that I had from all the trauma and made me feel lighter.”
Shame-busting. Community-building. Information-sharing. Inspiring. The way Smoker shifts the narrative about addiction will have you hooked on the power of story.
Smoker will be performed on Sunday October 1, 2023, 4 pm at The Performing Arts Studio, 224 E. Main St, Port Jefferson, NY, produced by Lifestage, Inc. Complete information and ticketing are on this link