For many years, you could spare me your gratitude lists.
I didn’t want any of that manufactured positivity. I didn’t believe in it, couldn’t abide by it. The last thing I needed was your swirly font and numbered reasons to dig life, doubling as a reminder of all of the things I didn’t have.
Then, faced with a choice to change everything or die, I quit drinking.
The first person who really helped me understand how to live as a sober person asked me to send her a gratitude list as soon as I woke up every day. It wasn’t really negotiable. She told me a grateful person had a better chance of not drinking, and my desire to quit was bigger than my hatred of gratitude lists. l had also opened my big mouth and told her I would try anything to get better, so I shut up and sent her five things (mostly) every morning, in a plain black font text thread.
My gratitude lists include being alive and they often include coffee, as some mornings the two seem distinctly related. I’ve put being sober at the top most days, because I know now that I don’t have anything without that first. I’m grateful in print for my nephew and my sister and my parents and for that person who may be really on my nerves that day who is teaching me in the process how to shut up and get the lesson. I’m so grateful for my dog. I list my friends and the fact that I have a job to complain about. I was lucky to send my initial lists to a fashionista who supported my gratitude for finally being able to afford highlights because I stopped taking care of my hair there towards the end and when I could fix it up that was a good sign. She got that the boot socks I found in Target were a fun perk during my first sober winter, so they went on there too, and that was okay.
It’s a mix of the big and small — the things that sustain my life and my soul, and the things I can enjoy today because I have those things back. Over time, these lists have become exactly what my old self believed they couldn’t — a daily practice that has helped me focus more on the positive. Which was pretty easy, actually, because there was a lot of positive in my life.
A gratitude list doesn’t erase the challenges or struggles, whitewashing life in an unhealthy way, at least not for me. The hard things are still there, but I see them in better context. I understand that they can coexist with good, even if I can only dredge up coffee and boot socks as examples on certain days. (And there will always be days like this with me, because I’m me. It will never be all sunshine and roses, even when those are on my list, which they have been at least once.)
I still don’t believe that feelings can be forced. If I’d been asked to make a gratitude list when I was still hopeless and saw no way out of the hell I was living, I’m not sure it would have stuck. But maybe it would have. It’s impossible to know, so it’s pointless to think about. Today I have a new perspective, and a belief that anything that isn’t harmful is worth a try, especially if it’s a stab at light in darkness.
So every morning at 8A.M. the little Buddha head notification pops up on my iPhone from my Gratitude Journal app. It asks me “What are you grateful for today?” And whether I’m cranky or reasonably content, I write some things down next to his little Buddha head, and I remember that there is good no matter what. And if I need it, the previous entries remind me that even on the worst days in the past 16 months, this former champion cynic found five things to feel good about.
I’m also more apt to speak my gratitude out loud these days, beyond the rote pleases and thank yous of daily life. I can’t help but think it’s a cool perk of starting my day like this, as corny as that sounds. Turns out people like to hear it when you mean it, and now I can tell when I really do. I said thank you for a long time because I was taught that I was supposed to. I try to live it now because it saves me, and because I actually want to. That’s the real miracle.