The idea of gratitude makes some people want to throw up a little. I get it. I used to be one of them.
Today, gratitude is part of the zeitgeist. It’s everywhere. On bracelets, yoga mats, birthday cards, pre-packaged gratitude journals. Gratitude: It’s emblazoned on the tattooed wrist of Tiger Woods’ coach, and on the awnings of Cafe Gratitude, a chain of Californian restaurants where, apparently, they ask you what you’re grateful for before they take your order. (As my friend Kate said, “I’m grateful you’re here because right now I’m starving.”)
People are grateful for the heart-shaped foam on their morning lattes and they’re grateful for sunsets at the end of the dock. In other words, ubiquity threatens to devalue profundity.
Part I: Grace
I started my gratitude practice under the ever-so-gentle coercion of a tiny powerhouse of a woman, a five-foot package of soulful determination. It happened this way: 10 years ago, when I was eight months out of treatment and deeply depressed, still struggling to stay sober, a woman I will call Karen offered to mentor me in our mutual support program as long as I met three simple requests.
I was to go to at least three meetings a week, rendezvous with her regularly, and send her a daily email articulating five things for which I was truly grateful. I was to write this list on waking each morning and email it to her.
It was like getting out of bed on the right side, metaphorically.
She encouraged me to be original—no repeating from the day before, with the exception of sobriety. (I was to remain eternally grateful for sobriety.) Put simply, she claimed this list would change how I saw the world. It was like getting out of bed on the right side, metaphorically. In return, Karen would send me her own gratitude list, as well as shepherd me through the difficult first months—possibly years—of staying sober.
At this point in my life, I was willing to do just about anything to quit “slipping”—a pretty innocuous term for remaining in active, life-threatening addiction. In April 2008, I had “graduated” from four weeks at a treatment center. This was not remarkable: Most people can stay sober in a locked-up facility where they test your urine after each foray into the world beyond. At my graduation, they had presented me with a medallion and a copy of Tal Ben Shahar’s book Happier: Learn The Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment.
At that point, happiness was not on my radar. My life had hit rock bottom—or my version of it. Most of my worst fears had come true: I was between jobs; I had shamed myself in front of all those I knew and loved—plus those I didn’t; and I had evolved into my own worst nightmare—a depressed alcoholic. Happier? All I was hoping for was sober.
Sober eluded me. Re-immersion in my regular life presented an endless array of triggers, plus a relentless obstacle course of social events. In treatment, we had been warned off parties. But I didn’t like saying no. There was my first “sober” social outing, a wine shower for my niece (I took a sip); my first “sober” birthday party (I snuck two drinks); followed by my first truly sober summer wedding–and so on. In those months since leaving rehab, I had found it almost impossible to go two weeks without drinking. After a long patch of disappointing myself and devastating those who loved and supported me, I was on my knees in prayer, desperate for help.
Help came within hours in the form of Karen, who saw my tears at a meeting and crossed the floor to ask me if I wanted to meet for coffee. And so began my daily gratitude practice, a condition of trying to save my life. Those early lists are tough to read: visceral and raw as I navigate the first nail-biting months of true sobriety. I was hanging on tight, desperate not to fail. I knew if I slipped, I would die. Most likely, I thought I would fall down a set of stairs and crack my head open, as more than one person I knew had done, dying an undignified death, drunk and alone.
Totally shamed by my recent inability to stay sober, I began to take a wary look at the positive side of the ledger.
In fact, there were plenty of tragic examples around me, in the so-called “Downstairs Church” of my mutual support group—the place where people go when they are committed to choosing life. One shabby fellow had clocked 25 years of sobriety and then decided he could drink again, losing everything—job, home, teeth. A beautiful dark-haired woman, a mother who loved her two teenage daughters and often sat near me, disappeared suddenly. I kept her death notice tucked into the front of my diary.
I sent my first gratitude lists with a desperate heart. Totally shamed by my recent inability to stay sober, I began to take a wary look at the positive side of the ledger. This was tough. My sister had lost faith in me, my son had issued an ultimatum, my beloved partner was deeply disappointed and I—who had always been career-focused-—was “between successes,” as Karen liked to put it.
On a cold November morning, I suspended any disbelief and focused on writing the first of many exceptionally long gratitude lists. I began itemizing simple things, transforming what could have been a negative into a positive:
I am grateful to be invited to a dinner tonight, at a home where I once passed out and made a fool of myself by having to sleep over. I am grateful to be included and loved, still, after this behavior. I am grateful that there will be friends tonight, family to love tomorrow, people who are welcoming to the loving person I am without alcohol.
I am grateful for the little turkey badge my son bought me on his outing today: ‘Congratulations for going cold turkey.’
Karen had been clever in choosing this project. This was gratitude as intervention, and it worked. For months, I had been playing a Where’s Waldo game with myself, trying to locate the real me after my hellish two years as a blackout drinker. Mercifully, the game was over. Not only was I back in the landscape, but my loved ones had re-appeared, too. My early morning ritual had both a softening effect and also a bracing one. I was focused on all that was rich in my world. I had a renewed sense of agency. I began to look forward to the task. Baby steps, but it was heading in the right direction. Just as E. L. Doctorow once said of writing, it was like driving at night in the fog: I could only see as far as my headlights but with luck, I could make the whole trip that way.
Since 2008, my gratitude practice has rarely faltered.
Since 2008, my gratitude practice has rarely faltered. Day by day, month by month, year in, year out, I have written close to 3,500 lists. I use this practice like a miner’s pick, excavating my grown-up sober self, recovering and expressing the essence of what makes my life my own.
Part II: Grief
It hasn’t all been smooth.
I was 18 months sober when my life went sideways: a major breakup with my sweetheart of 14 years, my fathering dying of end-stage alcoholism. Mourning the end of a great big love affair—one which once had the steam heat of a locomotive—I began to have panic attacks. When I fell down the deep well of despair, my faith in just about everything disappeared—including my gratitude practice. I kept sending the lists, but my heart wasn’t in it.
After the breakup, more than one person said to me: “I’m just sorry you never got closure.” Truthfully? There is no such thing as closure. You don’t close. Grief is lots of things: an opening, a portal, a journey of initiation. It’s a confrontation with what it means to be truly human. Grief rockets you out of the familiar, into the middle of a dark forest. No map, no compass. The path behind is closed, the path ahead uncharted. The only way out is through. No shortcuts, no detours. As the great Jungian analyst Marion Woodman once said, “We usually need to leave the old without any promise of the new, need to spend some time as forest dwellers, just surviving.”
And so you embark into the dark, messy territory of mourning. When I think of grief, I think of the black-suited surfers trying to ride the waves at sunset at Santa Monica, being tumbled and tossed head over heels, into the roiling water, stumbling to find their footing. When the waves roll in, all we can do is aim for grace. Or pray for grace—and ultimately, gratitude for whatever connection we have secured on this fragile planet.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight. What’s your secret?” someone would ask. “Grief,” I’d reply.
When I was upended, my heart raced, my sleep was disrupted, I lost my facility for reading, I stopped eating. “You’ve lost a lot of weight. What’s your secret?” someone would ask. “Grief,” I’d reply.
I was too brokenhearted for small talk. Each morning as I awoke again to the new reality, I would feel like crawling back into sleep: reality was always a huge let-down. I remember a profound sense of dissonance with the rest of the world. In particular, I think of a stellar July afternoon, out sailing with my brother. He’s at the tiller, the waves are high, the sun is glittering. “What can I say to make it better?” he asks. “I have no idea,” I say. “Can I say you’re better off without him?” “Sure,” I say. “Whatever.” My throat clutches. I turn my head into the wind so the tears will whip away. My heart feels like it will tear out of my chest.
To my embarrassment, I would often weep at my Monday night sobriety group. Each week, when it came my turn to share, I would tell the truth, and the truth just felt like some sad old Frank Sinatra song. It was summer, and here I was on a tough wooden chair in that windowless church basement, telling my story of heartache. My dad was dying, my guy was gone. The group was tender and supportive—especially since I hadn’t picked up a drink—but I found it unnerving. On top of my sadness, I felt naked, exposed.
One Monday evening, a man asked if he could share the Taoist parable of the Chinese farmer. Here is how he told it:
Once there was a farmer whose horse ran away.
All the neighbors said, “That’s too bad.” The farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse came back, bringing seven wild horses with it.
The neighbors said: “Wonderful!”
The farmer said, “Maybe.”
Days later, the farmer’s son fell off one of the wild horses and broke his leg.
“That’s terrible,” said the neighbors.
The farmer said, “Maybe.”
Soon, the army came to conscript all the young men, rejecting the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.
“How lucky!” said the neighbors.
And the farmer said, “Maybe.”
And with that, my friend just smiled, gave me a hug and walked away. I’d like to say his story helped loosen my fierce grip on heartache. But in that raw season of recent betrayal, I was in no mood for “maybe.”
Part III: Gratitude
Finally, Karen handed me a small book on gratitude by Melody Beattie. Beattie’s formula for gratitude—grounded in her own experience when she was making her youthful transition from honor-roll student turned junkie-thief-stripper turned addiction counselor-mother-bestselling author—was simple. Instead of practicing “misery with discipline” —as she had as a broke newlywed—she advocated cultivating gratitude for everything in your life: the good. the bad, the indifferent.
But especially the bad. Beattie believes that just as in martial arts, resistance is the fastest way to disconnect from our own emotions, locking us into battle with reality and above all, ourselves. You must befriend what is, all the while setting your intention for what you want.
She was challenging me to do things differently. What did I have to lose?
I had little to no interest in this book. I was especially put off by the title—one Beattie herself dismisses: Make Miracles in Forty Days: Turning What You Have into What You Want. To me, it sounded like a twisted riff on The Secret, Rhonda Byrne’s red-sealed mega-seller, which claims you can manifest your every desire through the law of attraction. Byrne’s book gave me the heebie-jeebies—especially after reading her response concerning the victims of the 2006 tsunami. “By the law of attraction, they had to be on the same frequency as the event,” she told the Daily Mail.
But life had given me a solid whacking, and I was in no frame of mind to challenge my friend. Besides, whatever I thought of Beattie’s book title, she enchanted me with one phrase near the opening: “Grace neutralizes anguish.” I knew that was true from my experience in early recovery, when I had sunk to my knees and begged for help. I believed in grace. Beattie also said this: “A monkey can count his blessings.” She was challenging me to do things differently. What did I have to lose? Forty days of thanking for the tough stuff wouldn’t kill me.
As Beattie suggested, I set an intention. Why not?
I wrote one: I wanted to write a feminist book for women who were wrestling with their drinking, about the closing gender gap on risky drinking, the sort of book I had needed so urgently when I was swamped by with my own confounding, messy slide into addiction. I wanted to write a book which laid it all bare, made sense of the confounding reasons why high-functioning, professional women like myself were using alcohol to self-medicate and numb. I tucked my intention into a notebook and set it aside.
For 40 days, I followed Beattie’s formula to the letter. I wrote my gratitude list with a twist, thanking for the things which were breaking my heart, for my fear of the future, my seemingly never-ending despair. I thanked for the lessons of addiction, for the challenge of depression and the wide-open space of being unemployed. I thanked for my newly single status and the fact it was the flipside of being exquisitely loved. I thanked for my mother’s stoicism and dedication in the face of my father’s advanced alcoholism—alcoholism being our family curse. I tried to be unflinching, leaning into all the grief and fear. Reluctantly, I began to see life not as a tragedy, but as an exploration.
Reluctantly, I began to see life not as a tragedy, but as an exploration.
Day by day, I led my dog’s body through the boggiest parts of the woods, sniffing the foliage, stepping over fallen logs, slipping on moss, craning for light. Slowly, we made our way towards the clearing. Eventually, we emerged from the darkest parts of the forest, a little more integrated and whole. This took a long, long time.
I’ve never abandoned the habit of being thankful for the tough stuff. Here is what I know. There’s a strange alchemy to gratitude: It works when you’re not looking, in a quiet, subterranean way, molecule by molecule. Over time, you can make enormous shifts in how you view the world and how you move through it.
Gratitude is a muscle, like any other: let it get flabby, and your sense of perspective disappears; work it daily, and the effects are undeniable. It destroys “if-this-then-that” thinking: if I get the perfect job/love/house, if I lose enough weight or win the lottery, then I will be happy. Gratitude sits you down, where you are, and opens your eyes to what’s before you: the ever-peeling artichoke of life, with layer upon layer of connection. None of us know where it all ends.
What is it not? Gratitude is not happiness—although it can be a precursor to happiness. Gratitude is not blind positive thinking, but it can be a positive ally. Gratitude brings equanimity. It grounds us. It helps battle anxiety and depression. It helps us reframe the more difficult stuff life throws our way.