One of the amazing things about addiction recovery is how it changes your personality for the better.
I was always afraid of this. People told me that becoming sober would change my personality and it terrified me. “I like who I am” I argued back. “And other people seem to like me.”
That was my defense against the idea of change in recovery. It was part of my denial, of course. I believed that if I got sober that I would lose part of my identity. Drugs and alcohol had become a major part of how I self identified.
But there is definitely this tendency towards selfishness if you are a drug addict or an alcoholic.
You can’t help it. The drugs (or the alcohol) does this to you. It becomes all about “me, me, me.”
This is because your disease is creating all of this misery in your life, and the only way that you can get any “happiness” is to self medicate with your drug of choice. So it becomes this endless battle of self indulgence. How can you get enough money, drugs, alcohol, and all of the other right circumstances to line up perfectly in your life so that you can get a tiny bit of happiness for once? Everything and everyone seems to be working against you when you are stuck in addiction and so you have to fight for every little bit of “happiness” that you can find.
The reality of the situation is that you are self medicating yourself and the only way that you can get any happiness is by selfish means.
For example, when I was in my addiction I might accidentally do something nice or kind for someone else, but that would not give me any real benefit or happiness. Who cares? Did that act of kindness lead to me getting drunk or high? No? Then what is the point really? It may have been a nice thing to do and I did not really mind doing it, but I would never out of my way to try to help others during my addiction. I was in it for me. I was looking out for my own happiness. Life was a drag. Life was a struggle. I just wanted a bit of happiness. Just give me my drug of choice!
In recovery this all changed. It changed drastically, though these were not things that I could really notice in early recovery. I could not notice them because they happened slowly, over time.
I can remember being in my first few AA meetings and everyone was talking about gratitude and how grateful they were to be sober today, and at times I was just thinking things like “What? Really? This kind of sucks! What do we have to be grateful for?”
And so it was a process. It did not happen overnight. It took some time. I had to do the work, I had to give myself a break by listening to advice from other people, I had to give myself the space that I needed and the time to let my life heal itself.
And this is how I started on the long path that went from total self centeredness to something like gratitude.
Now it is important to realize that I am not an expert at gratitude. I am not this spiritual guru who is perfectly grateful every day.
Gratitude is a practice.
You work at it. You are never going to be perfect at being grateful. The ideal is to always be grateful, yes. But you will never attain that.
So the goal is to work at it, to practice it, to improve at it.
It is easy to be grateful when everything is going your way, right?
But what happens when life serves you up some adversity? What happens when the chips don’t fall your way? How do you produce gratitude out of frustration, out of misery, out of fear, out of anger? Is it even possible?
In our addiction it was definitely impossible to find gratitude during adversity. We just wanted to self medicate, to find our own happiness, to escape from whatever was upsetting us.
In recovery we have a chance to turn that around. We have the opportunity in recovery to look at a negative situation and turn it into something positive. We can look harder and find the silver lining in anything. And just knowing this and practicing this on a daily basis can drastically alter your overall happiness. If you are grateful then happiness comes along with that. If you are in a selfish state then it is difficult to be grateful.
When someone asks “how does spirituality keep you sober?” a good answer to that is “through gratitude.”
I am guilty of simplifying the idea of spirituality all the way down to just one principle: Gratitude.
If you are not being spiritual, then in my experience, you are not being grateful.
And likewise, if you are in a very spiritual state of being, then by definition, you are also in a state of gratitude. They seem to be synonymous.
Not grateful, not spiritual.
So when someone is wondering exactly how spirituality can lead to sobriety, I think it makes sense to talk about it in terms of gratitude.
The bottom line seems to be this: If you are truly in a state of gratitude then you are 100 percent immune to the threat of relapse.
I know that is a bold statement so I would urge you to explore the idea for yourself. Watch your own life and try to determine how grateful you are each day. Then watch and see how much you feel like you want to relapse, or if you have bad cravings to drink or use drugs. Note the relationship between your urge to relapse and the amount of gratitude that you are feeling.
My experience is that gratitude is the strongest form of relapse prevention. Because then what you are really doing is to take all of those excuses that you have to drink and turning them upside down into some sort of gift.
So maybe you lose your job and you are in danger of using that as an excuse to relapse.
But with gratitude you turn it all around. Why should you be grateful that you lost your job? There could be several reasons, and it is your responsibility to find them:
1) More time to spend on yourself and on personal growth.
2) An opportunity to find a better job. Maybe you were complacent.
3) Maybe you go to more AA meetings now, meet new people, create meaningful new connections.
4) Get a different job and meet amazing new people.
How many people have had something bad like this happen to them (such as losing a job) and then six months later say “It was the best thing that ever happened to me!”
That sort of thing happens all the time. The problem is that we cannot always see the positive lining right away. It may take some time for it to reveal itself.
And so you can do two things:
* Have faith that a better path is being revealed to you.
* Actively cultivate gratitude, regardless of your current circumstances.
I have had more success with the second idea than with the first, though I have tried to use both concepts in my journey.
The opposite of gratitude is selfishness and self centered behavior
The opposite approach to this is to lose your job and then become very negative about it. So instead of practicing gratitude you can become more selfish. You can argue that the world has it in for you, that no one wants to help you or do you any favors, and that everyone is just out to harm you. So why not treat yourself and do what you want to do, which is to relapse and self medicate with drugs or alcohol.
This is the complete opposite approach to using gratitude. So instead of looking for the positive, you focus on the negative and in particular you focus on how you were treated badly.
I used to be an expert at this during my addiction. I actually liked it when someone “did me wrong,” because then it gave me a perfect excuse to self medicate. How sick is that? Pretty darn sick!
How to build your gratitude muscle in recovery
In order to get better at gratitude you have to practice.
Whatever you happen to be doing for your spiritual growth in recovery, first ask yourself: Is this helping me to develop an attitude of gratitude every day? And if it is not doing that either directly or indirectly, then I would really have to question what value that has for you. If it is not building gratitude somehow then it is of very limited value in my opinion.
Things such as prayer, meditation, and forgiveness can all be a way to experience and cultivate more gratitude. But you don’t necessarily have to use any of those vehicles in order to work on your gratitude. There are other ways.
Perhaps one of the simplest ways is to write out a gratitude list.
This is a common suggestion from sponsors in AA. They tell people to write out a gratitude list.
I would take that a step further and tell you to write out a list every single day for a month straight. And after you write out the list, tear it up and throw it away.
Does that sound crazy? It’s not.
What this will do is force you to get really good (and really fast) at coming up with reasons to be grateful.
If you do this exercise every day for a full month then at the end of that month you will be like a gratitude guru. You will be in good practice with it. And so if someone tells you: “Quick, tell me ten things that you are grateful for right now, you have twenty seconds!” You would have no problem with that at all. Because you have been practicing so much.
That is why you tear it up and throw it away. Because it is a practice. The benefit of gratitude comes from your ability to generate it at the drop of a hat. To pull gratitude out of thin air like a magician.
This way, when life gets hard in recovery (which it inevitably will at some point) you will be in good practice with gratitude and you will have an “instant shield” of sorts.
Maybe you will express gratitude through prayer. Or maybe through meditation. But if you do the simple exercise every day and write out quick lists, then you will be in very good practice to be able to summon that feeling of gratitude at a moment’s notice.
And this just might save your sobriety one day.
Capturing the feeling of gratitude and extending it
Gratitude is not just a mental list of things that you are glad about. It is a feeling. It is an emotion.
And so what you want to do is to focus on extending that feeling. When you feel real gratitude, you want to learn to savor it and extend it as long as possible. You don’t just want to feel grateful for 2 minutes out of each day and then move on.
One way to do this is by sharing it with others. So you might do this at AA meetings, you might do this when talking to your peers, or even when sharing in an online forum.
Another way to do this is by developing a daily practice that helps you to remain grateful.
I have done this in my own life by figuring out what actions I need to do each day in order to take better care of myself. If I am not taking good care of myself then it is more difficult to feel gratitude.
So I exercise every day. I don’t just try to exercise every day, I actually do it. It is a regular habit. Part of my routine, part of my daily practice. I have established it as a habit so that it is just a natural part of my life now. And in being consistent with that it helps to balance me, helps me to appreciate my life more and more.
Of course exercise is just one example of how you can take care of yourself. There are other ways. And I think it is very hard to hold on to the feeling of gratitude if you have a major negative factor in your life that is working against you.
So for example, maybe you are in recovery now and you are doing all of the things that you think you should be doing. You have a sponsor, maybe you are going to meetings, you are trying to eat healthy foods and get good sleep and so on. You are working on yourself and trying to grow as a person.
But maybe you still have a thorn or two in your side, such as cigarette addiction. I had this myself for the first few years of my sobriety. I remained addicted to cigarettes even though I was clean and sober.
But it was definitely a negative part of my life, and I wanted it gone. I wanted it fixed. But I struggle for a long time to actually quit. Somehow this was harder than the booze and the drugs. It was more insidious. It was more harmless and easier to justify (even though it kills you all the same, I know!).
And so this is a great example of a “gratitude crusher.” Even when I felt that feeling of gratitude in the past, it was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I was unhappy about being a smoker. I could not fully appreciate my life in recovery because there was this negative thing that was holding me back.
So when you are thinking about that feeling of gratitude, and you are practicing it and trying to hold on to it and extend it, what is blocking that from happening?
We have this false belief that if we achieve certain things then gratitude will follow. But I have found that it is more about elimination. So there are all of these negative things that were in my life (addiction, alcoholism, cigarette addiction, etc.) and I had to eliminate those things in order to build a foundation.
In other words–eliminating the negatives does not make you instantly happy. But what it does is to build a foundation in which real happiness can flourish.
If you have all of these negative things holding you back in life then it will be difficult to maintain gratitude.
Is it still possible? Sure. People in concentration camps were reported to have some gratitude (those who did practice gratitude were survivors in many cases!).
So gratitude is not necessarily dependent on your circumstances. But my point is–why make it hard for yourself?
And this is why I had to take a look at the negative stuff in my life. I had to take inventory. I had to say “OK now, what is creating anxiety in my life today? What is causing me stress?”
And then I had to take action and work hard to eliminate those things.
I could temporarily latch on to gratitude in brief moments of hope, but when I started “doing the work” I was really able to extend that feeling.
So it is a both a practice and a process.
It is a practice because you have to keep returning to it over and over. There will be many times, even in long term sobriety, where you are selfish and not grateful. And you will hopefully be able to identify those times and pull yourself out of it somehow. Hopefully you have a daily practice that forces you to take positive action, to shift your attitude, to shift your perspective.
It is a process because you have to do the work. You can’t just accept your life and all of the negative things in it and expect to be grateful forever in spite of these problems. You have to take action and correct what problems you can and strive to improve your situation.
If you want to be grateful then give yourself reasons to be grateful!
I realize there are contradictions there. I realize that anyone can be grateful at any time, regardless of circumstances. But I also realize there is a balance between acceptance and personal growth. We can’t just use the “excuse” of acceptance for everything in life. If that were true then I could have just accepted my alcoholism and continued to drink!
So there had to be some balance. I had to say, at some point, “No, I can’t accept this negative thing in my life, and therefore I am going to take action to try to change it.” And this led to future gratitude.
And so I try to do this over and over again in recovery. Some things work out and some don’t. I focus on the “wins” and try to extend that feeling of gratitude.
And I try to pay attention to the negative, to the anxiety, to the stress that is telling me to change something. To rearrange my life for peace. So that I can embrace the gratitude and ride it like a wave.