Thanksgiving is a unique holiday. On most American holidays, we exchange gifts with loved ones, celebrate in reverie, or commemorate a group of people or specific historical event. Officially, Thanksgiving commemorates the first harvest and feast shared between Native Americans and the Pilgrims in 1621, but as time has worn on, Thanksgiving has evolved into a celebration of a concept. The concept of gratitude.
While most average people will tell you that it’s important to be grateful for what you have, people in recovery have an even more personal and deep connection with gratitude. Gratitude is the fuel that powers recovery from addiction. Without gratitude, there is nothing but complacency, contempt, self-pity, jealousy, fear, and anger. These are the symptoms of the disease of addiction, and gratitude is the cure.
How I found gratitude when I was at my bottom
When I first got sober, I struggled with gratitude. I’d left the big city because I was too drunk to hold onto a job or a relationship, much less pay rent. So I had to move back home to my parents house in the suburbs and learn to get sober. I went to detox, rehab, intensive outpatient programs, 12-step meetings, spent some time in a sober living, but I still didn’t have gratitude in my heart. I was sitting on the pity pot saying, “woe is me, I don’t have a job, I don’t have any friends, I don’t have any money, I don’t have a romantic partner, I hate the place I live. I hate what drugs and alcohol have done to my life, I feel like a loser,” and on and on and on. I couldn’t find happiness anywhere.
Then finally one day in a meeting, someone shared their own story about finding gratitude. I listened to a man talk about how he’d lost his job, gotten divorced, and then relapsed after over 10 years of sobriety. He’d ended up in the hospital with liver and pancreas problems, and now the medical debt was piling up because he’d lost his insurance along with his job. But then he said, “but at least I’m alive, I’m not in jail, I’m not locked up in an institution somewhere. I’ve got somewhere warm to sleep tonight, and god willing, I’ll wake up tomorrow with another chance to stay sober just for today. Who’s got it better than me?”
This guy could have given up hope, wandered off into the cold night, and drank himself to death over his problems, but he didn’t. He stayed sober all day, put on his shoes and coat, and went to a meeting to share about the good things about his life that gave him hope. He told us about the bad stuff, but he didn’t dwell on it. “The past is in the past,” as they say. And at that moment, I began to understand the true nature of gratitude in recovery.
Stop living in the past, Stop worrying about the future
My lack of gratitude stemmed from my own misunderstanding of what I should to be grateful for. I wanted money, I wanted sex, I wanted to be back in the city surrounded by excitement and hustle and bustle, I wanted my old apartment back, I wanted my old job back, I wanted everything to go back to the way it was before things started to get bad. But there were a fundamental flaws in my understanding of gratitude that were fueling my discontent.
First of all, tangible things don’t matter. Anything tangible thing I’ve ever lost due to my addiction can be replaced. So what if I don’t have a job right now? If I stay sober and keep working hard, I will have a job again eventually. So what if I don’t have a lover right now? If I get myself together, stay sober, and bring some light back into my life, I will find another partner to share my life with. So what if I don’t like the place where I live right now? If I dedicate myself to healthy long-term recovery, I can go anywhere and do anything I want to.
I used to lay in bed at night, unable to sleep, because even though I kept wishing for it, the past never changed. I agonized over past mistakes, wondering what I could've done differently. Then one day I was talking to someone about being unable to change the past and how crappy that felt, he said, "the thing you hate - not being able to change the past - is exactly the same reason you should be able to let it go. You can't change the past. You just can't. It already happened, it's over. There's nothing you can do about it except change the way you live, and try to make amends when the time comes. That's it. When it comes to your recovery, your past doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is today."
So I started working on letting go of the past and being grateful for today. Sure, I can learn from past mistakes, but I shouldn't dwell on them. I can examine the choices that led up to the catastrophic events in my life, but I can't undo them. What I can do is change my lifestyle and behaviors to ensure I never make those mistakes again.
Worrying about the future was another problem for me. I'd stomp and stammer and say "what if this?" and "what if that?" What if, what if, what if. What if I never find true love? What if I get a job, but I'm not good at it and they fire me? It was a never-ending cycle of what if's swirling around my head, causing me anxiety, and harming my sobriety. But then I received another bit of wisdom from an old-timer I met at a meeting. He said "you can't predict the future, but you can prepare for it. You're worried about money? Start a savings account. You're worried you'll never meet a nice girl? Be a nice boy. And as far worrying about your mom getting sick or someone you love dying, you can't control that, so stop trying to. No matter how hard you try, you'll never be in control of any situation. The only thing you can control is the way you react to those situations, so focus on that." That was great advice and I accepted it and put it into action. I stopped worrying about what might happen, because it just doesn't accomplish anything. I think playwright and filmmaker David Mamet said it best: “worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.”
The biggest problem I was creating for myself, though, stemmed from ignoring two of the most popular and well-known recovery slogans in the world: Just For Today, and One Day at a Time. I shouldn’t be dwelling on past mistakes or dreading the future, I should be focusing on today. Right now. Present tense. If I make a real effort to make today a good day - a day where I stay sober, stay humble, and stay grateful - then the day is a success because at least I tried. And if today can be a good day, maybe I can wake up tomorrow and do the same things and have another good day. And another, and another, and another.... But first I need to focus on today.
Positive action and living one day at a time
I started trying to live more in the moment, become more mindful, and focus on the stuff that really matters. I woke up each morning determined to have a good day. I was told that if you want to have healthy self-esteem, do esteemable things. If you want a job, go out and look for one. If you want to get in shape, do some pushups or go for a run. If you want to stay sober, then stay sober. Don’t just sit there wishing things would get better, make them get better. And when your efforts just aren’t enough, ask for help. You can always ask for help.
I started small, doing little things that made my life feel more orderly and less chaotic. I started keeping my room clean, and when I was done cleaning, I’d say out loud “I’m grateful that I have this room to live in.” I started setting my alarm and waking up at 8am every day instead of sleeping until noon, and I started making my bed each morning, and when I finished making my bed I would say out loud, “I’m grateful that I woke up alive this morning, and I’m grateful for this bed I get to sleep in.”
I started practicing self-care. I made doctor and dentist appointments, brushing my teeth and flossing twice a day (the flossing was a really hard one for me for some reason). I started wearing button down shirts and jeans instead of moping around in my sweats or pajamas all day. I took commitments at the meetings I was going to. I started helping out more around the house. I started calling other people in recovery and asking them how their day went. And with each positive action, I would affirm it by stating out loud, “I’m grateful for _____.”
I started making a daily gratitude list, where I would write down at least 5 things each day that I was grateful for. When I was feeling low, I would pull out my notebook full of gratitude lists and read them to remind myself what I had to live for.
Guess what? It worked. I started having good days. Sometimes I’d go an entire day forgetting completely about alcohol and drugs, because they simply weren’t a part of my life anymore. I started feeling good. I started radiating happiness and feeling truly sober. And as my sobriety strengthened, so did my self-esteem. And with this renewed self-esteem, I gained confidence. And with that confidence, and a healthy dose of sobriety, I put my life back together. I got a job, I found a partner whom I fell in love with, I became a more productive member of my household, I became a better friend to the people around me, and a better son/brother/uncle/nephew to the members of my family. My life was getting better right before my eyes, and it was all because I learned how to be grateful and live in the moment, just for today. And it was all thanks to gratitude.
It’s not about what you don’t have, it’s about what you do have
These days, the core tenet of my gratitude is focusing on the things I have, and trying not to worry about the things I don’t have. I’ve learned that if I truly take a close look at my life, it’s pretty damn good. I also learned that if there’s something truly lacking in my life, I and I alone have the power to change that. If I want a better job, I have to learn some new skills and then go out and look for a better job. If I want a relationship with a caring, loving partner, I have to be caring and loving myself. If I want to be happy, I need to do healthy things that make me happy.
The short version is, if I want things around me to change, I need to change myself. But in the meantime, I need to be grateful for the things I do have. I don’t have the perfect job, but I have a job, and I’m grateful for that. I don’t have all the money in the world, but I have enough to pay my bills on time and still have a little bit left over for some fun every once and a while, and I’m grateful for that. I may not have the nicest house or the perfect living situation, but I’ve got a roof over my head and the gas bill is paid so I’m not freezing to death out in the streets, and I’m grateful for that. Sometimes recovery meetings feel repetitive and boring, but they keep me sober and happy, and I’m grateful for that. I may not have the coolest car in the world, but I saved enough money to buy a dependable vehicle that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and expensive repairs, and I’m grateful for that. I may not have the life I planned for myself when I was much younger, but I'm sober, I’m alive, and my life keeps getting better and better, one day at a time, and I’m grateful for that. The list goes on and on.
There is no magic pill you can take or potion you can drink or drug you can inject that will make you happy. There’s no amount of wishing or wanting or whining that can change your life. There’s no cure for the disease of addiction. But addiction can be treated, and the prescription starts with gratitude. So this year on Thanksgiving, while the rest of the country is focused on being grateful for that one day, stay focused on being grateful every day. As they say, a grateful heart doesn’t drink, and it’s true.
-- Anonymous for Life Assurance Recovery, 2018