One of the tools of sobriety rehab said was essential was “living in gratitude.” This meant consciously reminding ourselves of everything we had that others might not and doing it on at least a daily basis so we’d never forget. We were told to write it down.
The first thing to be grateful for was staying sober that day. If we made it through another full day without drinking or using, that day was a victory. Everything else we accomplished was gravy. What we failed to accomplish was something to acknowledge and work on rather than beat ourselves up over.
After sobriety, we were to list all the things most people take for granted but many of us didn’t have in late-stage addiction: a safe place to live; enough to eat; health; family and friends who care for us; the AA fellowship. But it went beyond the obvious. We were to look for reasons to be grateful throughout the day because, they said, you won’t find what you’re not looking for.
Practicing gratitude was an exercise intended to gradually turn our negative mind-sets around into positive ones. It’s hard to dwell on what you’re missing when you’re grateful for what you’ve got, we were instructed. It was also part of living one day at a time. If you focus on how you’re blessed today it can help put to rest resentments about what you didn’t have in the past and add perspective to fears about the future. I heard this stated most clearly when a speaker at an AA meeting said, “A grateful heart doesn’t need to drink or use drugs.”
Listing what I was grateful for every night before going to bed was one of the very few suggested exercises I actually followed when I got out of the hospital. Why? Because it helped regulate the wildly fluctuating moods of early sobriety. It was a grounding experience, reminding me that despite often feeling unstable I’d accomplished positive things. It helped lift a little bit of the guilt-based depression I felt while I still doubted addiction was a disease.
I also found that it was relatively easy to do. I had a lot of reasons to be grateful, starting with being alive and present to raise my children and receive their love. When I looked for more reasons I found them all around me. I could give a couple quarters to a homeless beggar and be grateful I was sober and not on the streets. I could read of the daily devastation in my morning newspapers and count among my blessings that my kids weren’t living in a war-torn land, that they were loved and secure and safe, they were getting a good education, and had an opportunity to develop their talents. Millions of kids around the world don’t have any of that.
No, living in gratitude wasn’t some magic panacea that always made me feel better. Sometimes, especially in early sobriety when the mind demanded alcohol but the body had to resist, identifying what I was grateful for didn’t help much. But it did enough of the time to make it worthwhile and to continue the practice.
Learning the science of addiction helped reinforce what I’d been told about gratitude. I didn’t believe the brain was capable of re-programming itself from a negative to a positive mind-set. But the science demonstrates that I was wrong. It’s not only possible, it’s provable. (For more, click on Mind Training.) And for addicts in recovery, absolutely necessary.