How can we learn to be grateful in long term sobriety, and why is it really important?
Gratitude is important because it is the strongest mindset for relapse prevention in my experience. No one who is truly grateful in the moment is going to pick up a drink or a drug and self medicate with it. No one who is truly grateful is going to throw away everything that they have worked for in order to sabotage their recovery.
When an alcoholic or an addict relapses, they are essentially saying in their mind “I deserve this.” They have a term for this–they call it justification. So before the alcoholic can lift the drink up to their lips, before they can actually put their money on the counter and buy a bottle, they have to rationalize the decision in their mind. And this rationalization and justification has to happen based on a certain mindset or attitude that is happening at the time.
The mindset of relapse is one of selfishness. The addict is thinking only of their own happiness and their own selfish needs, saying to themselves “I deserve to self medicate. If other people were in my situation, they would self medicate too. This is justified. I should not feel bad for taking this drink.”
Gratitude can completely overcome this problem. Gratitude is a state of mind that says “I have everything that I need in the universe.” True gratitude makes you want to fall to your knees and kiss the ground and weep with joy.
Now, am I suggesting that you need to be in this extreme state of gratitude every second of every day?
Of course not. I do not believe that is realistic for anyone to aim for, and I think that expecting yourself to be brimming with joy and gratitude every second of every day is just going to set yourself up for failure.
On the other hand, if you have been in recovery for a few months or a few years and you have yet to really experience a single moment of joy, bliss, gratitude, or wanting to fall to your knees and weep with joy, then I think you could probably stand to “up your game” in this department.
Which is another way of saying that gratitude is something that we practice. It is something that we improve at over time as we work at it more and more.
One of the ways that we do this kind of practice, in my experience, is in doing the holistic work of recovery.
So this is not necessarily working specifically on gratitude per se, this would be an approach in which you work on all of the different areas of your life and your health in recovery so that you can improve yourself and live a healthier life overall.
When you get clean and sober you generally check into rehab and then you hammer on a recovery solution such as AA or NA for the first year or so. That’s fine. You need laser focus in order to succeed in early recovery, for the most part.
But as you transition into long term sobriety, you have to do different things in order to keep growing and becoming that better version of yourself. In other words, it is not enough for most people to just keep showing up to an AA chair forever, not do any real footwork, and expect to be able to maintain anything like real personal growth. The key is that you have to also be working the 12 steps, or pushing yourself towards personal growth, or doing some kind of footwork and personal development in order to succeed at recovery.
This personal growth happens in multiple areas of your life. So you don’t just quit drinking–you also start practicing spiritual principles. And you don’t just stop pouring poison into your system, but you start sleeping better, eating healthier, and so on.
Recovery is thus a holistic journey of repair. You are repairing all of the areas of your life that were damaged by addiction.
Our physical health was damaged. Our relationships were damaged. Our emotional health was compromised. Mentally we fell into all sorts of traps.
So in recovery, if you are trying to be grateful on a daily basis, you are probably going to struggle with that unless you are also doing this “repair work” in all of these various areas of your life.
Not that you have to have this perfect life in order to feel grateful–I am not saying that all. What I am saying is that if you want to keep having those “breakthrough moments of joy or bliss” then you need to be doing the footwork in order to make some of those moments happen from time to time. I was experiencing those moments in my own life because I was hustling in my recovery–going to meetings every day, seeing a therapist, taking advice from my sponsor, and generally doing the active work of learning how to live a sober life.
As I transitioned into long term sobriety, I continued to take advice from my therapist, my sponsor, and my trusted peers in recovery, and I began to use the holistic approach more and more: I quit cigarettes, I started exercising every day, I started reaching out to help the newcomer in recovery, and so on.
So what I am really saying is this: Because I had built this foundation of positive action, and because I was taking advice and actually hustling in my recovery and trying hard to work a real program, I had much better success when it came time to actually practice some gratitude in my life.
So when my sponsor suggested to me: Write down 20 things you are grateful for today, and then tear the list up and throw it away–I was able to do that without hesitation. Why? Because I was putting in the work. I was not just sitting idle on the couch and hoping that recovery would drop into my lap, but I was putting in the action to make it happen. So I had a lot to be grateful for because I had a lot of things going on, I was helping various people, and I was learning every day how to help myself more and more.
Why tear up the gratitude list that you write?
Because the practice of gratitude is actually the building of your gratitude muscle. If you quit doing it then it gets rusty and it becomes harder and harder to feel that emotion of bliss, joy, and gratitude to the universe.
But if you force yourself to conjure that emotion up every day then it gets more and more familiar.
So tearing up your list that you write is no big deal. Tear it up every time, and just write another list tomorrow.
You want to be able to get really good at making that gratitude list, because some day you will be staring at your drug of choice, and there will be no one there to stop you, and it is all going to come down to whether you are feeling selfish or grateful in that moment.
If you feel selfish then you relapse.
If you feel grateful then you live to fight another day. You conquer your addiction with an attitude of gratitude. Anything else leaves the door open for relapse.