How do you manage to feel grateful when you’re feeling terrible? THE OTHER NIGHT at our AA meeting, Frank asked a question, and a dozen hands went up. He said, “How do you manage to feel grateful when you’re feeling terrible? I can’t do it.”
George, who has had a stroke, said, “I’m paralyzed in one arm. Soon after I came into AA, I broke the other arm. All I could move was my pinkie. I was grateful that I was sober and that I would recover the use of my broken arm. I’m more grateful for this program every day, for the love and friendship I find here, for my spiritual progress, such as it is–just for being alive!”
Tom said, “I use what I call gratitude-generators. Right at the moment, I have no job, and my wife is divorcing me. But I can generate gratitude by counting my blessings. I’m sober. I’m not crazy anymore. I have a place to live. I’m job-hunting, and I’m praying for the right job. I was sick and crazy and unemployable. I had a mountain of debts. Every morning, I thank God for my good and ask Him to let me live this day according to His plan.”
I raised my hand and said that I was like Frank. When I have felt depressed, I haven’t been able to list my blessings and raise my spirits. “This bit about ‘I cried because I had no shoes till I saw a man with no feet’ has never worked for me. It’s taken time, psychiatry, and a low-blood-sugar diet to get me over my bad depressions.”
Then somebody said, “Don’t wait till you’re depressed to practice gratitude. And that’s just it. Gratitude has to be practiced.
I was surprised that I had not thought of this before. I had assumed that some people just found it easy to be grateful. Where had I been all this time? Of course, I had thanked people in and out of AA who helped me over the years. I had been vaguely thankful that I was sober, alive, happy, and free. But now, I realized that I had not been appreciative enough.
The next day, I embarked on my own gratitude-generator. I wrote out a list of all the people in my entire life who’ve taught me something valuable or helped me in some way. I wrote a short description of my relationship with each of them and a brief character sketch. At the time of this writing, I have ninety handwritten pages, and I’m not through yet. Despite years of timidity and confusion, followed by ten years of horrible drinking and antisocial behavior, I have been blessed by so many friends that I can hardly believe it.
There was that time when I was seven years old and a cousin of my grandmother’s took me for a walk in the woods. She made me stand still and observe what was going on: insects dancing in a shaft of sunlight, crawling, birds singing, leaves moving in the breeze. She gave me the gift of special awareness. I wonder whether I thanked her in any way.
Then there was the very rich and famous lady who was at a dinner party on Long Island one night when I got too drunk to drive my car. She took me home with her. The next morning, I woke up in an enormous room overlooking Long Island Sound. Breakfast was brought to me on a tray. Later, I was driven home, having written my hostess a hasty, shaky note. I wish I’d gone to see her years later after I joined AA and while she was still alive. I wish I’d told her what her kindness meant to me, especially since she never said a word about it to anyone.
As I go on writing this list, I remember more and more people to whom I am indebted. And I realize I’ll never remember them all. During thirty-four years of sobriety, I’ve heard a thousand wonderful things that have helped me to stay sober. I wish I could thank everybody–the people who’ve made great talks, the people who’ve said something meaningful in closed meetings. Of those I do remember, many are no longer on earth.
My two sponsors, Marty and Chase, are still here, thank God. They are both good friends of mine, and I see a lot of them. I am so lucky to have such sponsors, both gifted with inexhaustible patience and wisdom. Marty nursed me through the worst hangover I ever had, coming off my last drunk. It was in the early days, when medical help for hangovers was not so well developed. Marty said later, “I never saw anybody so sick.” She left her office to come to my aid. She sat by my bedside, holding a glass of milk and making me lick the spoon, a process that took about an hour and finally made the turmoil in my stomach subside. Over the years, she has given me well-seasoned advice from time to time, but never unless I asked for it.
Chase has held my chin above the flood countless times when I’ve been badly depressed. He’s said to me, “You have your feet in the clouds and your head in the dismal swamp. Get up and do something. Don’t think about it–just do it.”
It’s easier to express my gratitude to these two, since I’m associating with them. I try to do things for them from time to time. Chase has an eighty-second birthday coming up. I’m going to think up something that will please him.
Writing out this list is a revelatory experience in more ways than one. Sometimes, I’ve lacked the discernment to be grateful, and I see this now. It’s like the story about the man who is floating on the ocean on a life raft. He’s praying and praying to God, “Save me! Save me!”
Suddenly, he says, “Never mind, God. Here comes the Coast Guard.”
Often in the past, my prayers for help have been answered in ways that I have not recognized as answers. Indeed, I have cursed my fate instead of thanking God. I have prayed and prayed, sometimes in desperation, but I haven’t thanked Him as much as I’ve implored Him.
So now I have a separate list headed “What You Can Do Now.” And this one is very rewarding. I have put down the names of those whom I can show my thanks to, and have written suggestions on what to do. For instance, there’s a wonderful friend in Washington, D.C., who was one of my mainstays when I was living there in an impossible marriage. I was wriggling on the end of a pin, so to speak, and she got me off the pin. I had not heard from her in years. The other night, I called her up, and we had a wonderful talk.
There are friends who are no longer here. But in some cases, I can write or phone their children or widows. There’s an AA friend’s granddaughter, who lives out in Iowa. I have never seen her, but we correspond. In my next letter, I will describe what her grandmother meant to me.
Speaking of that relationship: I am a great-grandmother. I have already spent half a lifetime in AA. You might say to me, “Do you think you have time to get in touch with all your benefactors?” Perhaps not. But I will enjoy doing it a day at a time. And in the meantime, I seem to have generated a lot of gratitude.