By Bob Gaydos
It’s traditional at Thanksgiving dinner to go around the table with each person saying what he or she is grateful for. The typical answers are “good health,’ “family,” “the food on the table,” “world peace.” Predictable, but nonetheless valid.
Going around the table at Thanksgiving at an AA, NA or Al-Anon meeting on gratitude is another story:
“I’m grateful I have my kids back in my life.”
‘‘I’m grateful I’m employable.”
“I’m grateful I have a sober partner.”
“I’m grateful the tree kept me from going into the river.”
“I’m grateful just to be here.”
Gratitude and recovery go together at this time of year like turkey and stuffing. Truth be told, gratitude is a primary ingredient of recovery at any time of year. And while those new to recovery are often mystified and annoyed by the emphasis on gratitude (“What do I have to be grateful for? My life is a mess!”), it is routinely, almost casually, accepted as vital to those with long-term recovery.
“It’s like being addicted to living a good life,” said Jim (all names are fictitious), a recovering alcoholic from Orange County with more than three decades of sobriety. In fact, that’s what researchers have found.
People typically come to recovery hurt and broken. The “friend” they have typically relied on to help them deal with life’s joys and stresses — alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, sex — doesn’t enhance the joy anymore and, rather than relieving the stress, it only adds to it. Unpaid bills. Strained relationships. Health problems. Legal problems. Addicts are generally the last to acknowledge this development and their denial turns to anger and resentment when someone else points it out to them. Shame may also be present.
Some, like John, a retiree who lives in Sullivan County, say they had “the gift of desperation” when they came to recovery. No excuses. No shortcuts. No more lies. What do I do? That’s gratitude in spades, even if belatedly acknowledged. Many others, though, bring their resentment and anger at life with them and they resist — resent — any talk of gratitude. Those who stick with it though, soon learn that gratitude, even if reluctantly or grudgingly expressed at first, is the antidote to resentment. And resentment is a precursor to relapse.
Rinny, 33, of Ulster County, knows this all too well. “I’ve been here a couple of times before,” she says, “but this time my whole perception has changed. I stopped looking at what I didn’t have and started looking at what I do have. The steps helped me do that.” The AA member has 133 days in recovery.
AA sponsors often tell beginners to make a gratitude list and check it and add to it daily. Make it a habit. That can sometimes be awkward. Dave, a 62-year-old Orange County man sober three years, says he keeps his list on his phone and has the phone programmed to remind him to check it every day on his break at work. When his break time got changed one day, the phone loudly reminded him in the middle of an all-phones-off meeting. His supervisor couldn’t get too upset, however, when Dave explained it was his daily gratitude reminder.
His gratitude list includes: family; the sound of rain; a child discovery; power naps; the smell of fresh-cut grass; hard copies of pictures in this digital world; that final payment; the fact that one great song can bring back a thousand memories; live customer support; homegrown tomatoes; the Newburgh waterfront; and
the love and support of a great network of friends and family.
the love and support of a great network of friends and family.
Mike, a state employee from Ulster County sober five years, says: “The only way I can explain how I learned gratitude is in my story. One night, in a beginners meeting, the topic of gratitude was suggested. At the time I was approximately 18 months sober. When the topic was announced, I mumbled under my breath, ‘I hate gratitude meetings.’ I did not realize that my inside voice was louder than it should have been. My sentiment was heard by a number of people. A bad example for the newcomer. I did not share that night and walked away a little embarrassed. A week later, I was in Stinkwaater, South Africa. This was an extremely impoverished community. I walked around a building to a shaded location. There were three Little Tykes training potties and a bucket. I asked our host about the need for the potties and a bucket. She simply stated, ‘We need to conserve water. The water truck only comes twice per week. If we are lucky.’ Imagine my surprise when there was no running water, or considering the fact that I couldn't flush a toilet. My understanding of gratitude took a 180-degree turn. I took so many things for granted that the thought of waiting in line for water or any other necessity was fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. I realized that a house with electricity, heat, and running water is not the norm everywhere. When I returned from this mission, I was able to share very easily on the topic of gratitude. I spent a major part of my life with a checklist that needed to be completed and I did not appreciate it. I do know today there are so many things, opportunities, events, and life activities that I missed, because I did not have gratitude for them.”
A 50-year-old man from Orange County, six years sober says, “My gratitude since I’m sober is that I can accept the good and the bad, understanding that both will continue to happen in my life. I understand today that my unhappiness is directly correlated to my inability to accept that things change.”
That’s a major change in perception. By focusing on things they previously took for granted, these people in recovery stopped resenting the fact they couldn’t drink safely or use drugs without serious consequences. They changed their attitude and, instead of trying to “hang in there” and stay clean and sober with will power, they became addicted to living that new way of life.
There’s a saying many in AA use: I came for my drinking and stayed for my thinking. Grateful thinking, studies have shown, has more beneficial side effects than just helping addicts avoid relapse. Among other things, it can lower blood pressure, spur an interest in exercise and good health, improve sleep, increase feelings of happiness, optimism, compassion and generosity and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
There’s no place for resentment on that list. That’s what people like Rebecca, 10 years sober from Sullivan County, means when she says, ‘’I’m a grateful, recovering alcoholic.”