A Bad Attitude About Gratitude

My children and I are heading home after a long shopping trip at Walmart. This, in itself, should drive anyone to drink.

But I cannot. I am an alcoholic in recovery and thus drinking is not a part of the plan for the rest of my evening.

But today, the thought of dealing with cranky 6 and 7 year olds for another minute seems impossible. And since I can’t just leave them on the corner in front of Walmart, I decide to go for the lowest common denominator in child rearing and behavior management. “How’s about we stop and get dinner at McDonald’s, boys? Want some fries?”

I think French fries can solve all of the world’s problems, even the challenges of sobriety. But then, I heard it. A small voice issued from the backseat: “What? No ice cream?”

And what followed was not one of my best mothering moments. The lecture continued past two exits on the highway for a full 20 minutes and ended just as we pulled into our driveway. “So, in conclusion,” I said, through gritted teeth, “That is why we always need an ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE.  GOT IT?”

Both boys had slumped so far down in their seats it’s a wonder they even knew we were home. They couldn’t see out the windows. Since the car had stopped moving, I am pretty sure they realized they could slink off with the great “Attitude of Gratitude” lecture firmly wedged in their brains for at least for the next five minutes or so. But, an attitude of gratitude is not learned through yelling. I know this because my boys were right back at discontentment with minutiae sooner than you can say, “Lecturing Never Works.”

My children have a lot to teach me about gratitude, it seems. True, the McDonald’s incident was a great example of how NOT to be grateful. It’s always easy to spot a small child’s failings in this department because they usually don’t have the wherewithal to hide their selfishness. They’re built that way. But what really surprised me is that by observing my boys’ reluctance to channel their inner grateful guru, I too realized that I act the same way when it comes to being thankful. As I watched my boys slide out of their car seats and skulk up to the front door, all the while avoiding eye contact and praying that Mom would not start talking again, I kind of felt sorry for them. Gratitude under duress can feel a bit … lacking.

I am working my recovery. And, it’s a lot of work. It’s a long journey, this road, and on it I need to carry as many tools for recovery with me as I can. Gratitude is one of the toughest to wield because I have a natural inclination toward pessimism. My eyes see the glass not only as half empty, but sadly filled with some sort of wimpy non-alcoholic substance (like tea — I really hate tea). And so, the glass is doubly cursed.

When my children are fussing with each other, I often force them to sit on the couch and hold hands. It’s kind of cute. Each child acts as though the other one has the plague. Then, if I am really feeling evil, I ask the boys to say out loud one merit about each other. They both look at me, their cruel oppressor, and sigh. They’ve played this game before, and they know there will be no movement from the couch until the kindnesses are uttered. Charlie manages to pair his words with so much slouching that his voice is strangled. “I like Henry because he plays Legos with me,” he whispers. I nod and decide to not push my luck by asking for some volume. Henry blurts, “Charlie’s trucks! He’s got ’em. He shares them. Sometimes. I guess.

Well. Rome wasn’t built in a day. After this lukewarm attempt at goodwill, my boys then wander off, and all is well, for at least the next 30 minutes or so. But I realized, this is exactly how I deal with gratitude. I get surly. I slouch a lot and try to avoid eye contact with it. My sponsor asks me to write a gratitude list every morning, and every morning there is a lot of hemming and hawing. Too often, the list is then abandoned, forgotten under a pile of busyness.

One afternoon, after a really interesting “text fight” with my husband about who is picking up the dry cleaning, I call my sponsor. I want to complain. My sponsor tells me, “Thank your Higher Power for the good in it, and the bad in it,” and I balk. Clearly, my sponsor is not understanding how marriage works, because I would so much rather whine a bit before thanking anyone for anything. I am reminded, gratitude under duress is a bit lacking.

Or, it’s not. It’s a choice. Here’s the deal: gratitude is the power-lifter of recovery. Gratitude grabs hold of getting through another 24 hours without alcohol, and lifts it a bit. It graces all the other tools of recovery, some of which are quite tricky for me, and lightens their weight, so I can heft them more easily. I wonder at the physics of it, but not for very long. It’s one of those spiritual things that my Higher Power tells me not to mull over. “You think too much about too many things,” He says. “Go outside and play.”

I do. One tool for recovery is my new dog, Hosmer. The Great and Mighty Hoz likes to go outside quite a lot. I would prefer not to. I am much more inclined to find a good soft chair and a book and stay there all day, but Hoz doesn’t read, and he does like to sniff at the wind and pee on trees. So, I take him on long walks. His tail sashays back and forth and I find myself savoring the air as much as he does. I practice gratitude with each step. “Thank you for the breeze … thank you for the Hoz. Thank you for how his ears flutter when he walks. Thank you that he seems to be such a healthy little dog, as evidenced by the massive pile of poo he just left for me. Yes, thank you for that.” I bend over to pick up after my dog, the universal symbol of humility for canine owners around the world. “Thank you for exercise. And for this plastic bag.”

Later that day, I am reading my Daily Reflections. I would rather watch Cesar Millan on Netflix and try and psychoanalyze my dog, but the book is another tool in my recovery. I grab it and focus on today’s entry. “Obviously, the dilemma of the wanderer from faith is that of profound confusion,” it reads. “He is the bewildered one.” I pause and try to meditate on the depth of these words, but my stomach growls. Now I am bewildered. There is half ton of Halloween candy in my laundry room, and all I want is a Kit Kat and a more solid faith. “Ok, I am grateful for my faith. I thank you for allowing me to be lousy at it. I thank you for daily rituals, for this book, and for the time to read it. Oh, and I really, really thank you for chocolate.”

The rest of my day is full of deadlines and phone calls. My introversion asks me to bury myself in my work, my writing, and to avoid the phone at all costs. Its ring terrifies me, and when I hear it I tense up, like when Hoz hears the vacuum. I wish I could skitter off, my tail tucked between my legs, but one of my tools in recovery is to not isolate when anxious. I mutter the serenity prayer as I pick up the phone, and later I am grateful and a bit proud as I realize that I was an adult for all of 20 minutes. “Hey, look!” I tell my Higher Power, “I answered the phone! I am growing up! Thank you!” I never once wanted the phone to be a tool for my recovery, as I tend to treat it as if it is dipped in Ebola. But, I am grateful for its ring. I have friends. I have people in far away places that want me to come speak or write for them. This is a miracle. I remember to be thankful for the ring tone, which is set to some horrible electronic jive that sounds like a 1980s Casio synthesizer. It is so shrill, it simply cannot be ignored.

I am also thankful for my 12-step meetings, where sometimes I get annoyed by that one guy Ron, who talks for 20 minutes and is really grumpy, or for Leah, whose opinions at times seem to come from another planet. I am thankful for these people, who remind me that the human race is not one to be controlled. I gave up any attempts at managing the universe back on my sobriety date, and I am grateful for the reminder.

I am even grateful for when recovery goes really wrong, and all my tools can’t seem to help my horrible, terrible mood, and I feel like I might be turning into Ron. I am grateful even for the temper tantrum that I had while trying to cook dinner, because even with my yelling and my boys’ whining, I still managed to pull off the biggest feat known to mankind for that day: I didn’t drink over it.

And I am grateful that on lousy days I get to just retreat to my bed, eat 50 fun size Kit Kats, and set the amazing “do-over” button for my life: my 6 a.m. wake-up call on my alarm clock. I had never actually been grateful for my alarm clock until I got sober. Some days are best ended with  a, “Well, everyone sucks, but I didn’t drink today,” but this faithful little device reminds me: Take heart. Tomorrow is another day to mess up in a totally different, but maybe less colossal, way. Progress, not perfection!

I am thankful for these tools and tricks of the recovery trade. Like the faded “Let go and let God” poster on the wall at my recovery group, they are a bit beat up and frayed about the edges, but they work. Nearly every tool is a mechanism that leads to thanksgiving. They help me to stop, and breathe, and listen for gratitude.

After the McDonald’s lecture, I had two choices. I could simmer about my children and their stunning lack of humanity. Or I could forgive them (and myself) and move on. The first option had a lot more dramatic flair, so of course I leaned toward that one. However, I decided to opt for using another tool in recovery. I thought, “OK, I am having a tough time here, what can I do about it? How can I do the next right thing?” I am so thankful for the next right thing. It’s always right there, bright-eyed and raring to go. Most of the time, the next right thing involves eating more chocolate, and then I can double up by being grateful for that lovely confection. That evening, the next right thing was to go get a drink of water and sit with my feelings for a minute or two. I generally don’t like my feelings much, but I have learned even to be grateful for them. They don’t kill me. And, because of this realization, my children stayed alive that evening, too.

When my family gathers this Thanksgiving for gluttony and football, I will look around the table and be grateful. My boys will probably be fussing about the food. There will be no French fries. And gravy, evidently, is so gross it engenders actual gagging from the youngest one. Charlie will whisper-shout that absolutely NO food should be touching, which is rather tough when all he picks to eat is some Jello and 50 olives. But we will survive all of this. I am grateful for my little boys. They run me through endless drills of gratitude training every day. They are a part of my recovery, too.

And the relationship I have with my boys now is a gift. That’s how gratitude works. We learn the tools, we lean into them, even the hard ones, and then we find ourselves so grateful for them that we find ourselves swimming in good feelings. Perhaps even joy. The work becomes the blessing.

At the Thanksgiving table, my family will hold hands and pray, and each family member will say what they are most thankful for this year. Last year, Henry said, without hesitation: “Kitties!” but Charlie squirmed. He hates having to “do gratitude” on request. But he did finally whisper, “Football. And kitties.” And I smiled at him, acknowledging that gratitude, when pressed, can be tough. But it doesn’t mean we will ever give up asking for it. Gratitude doesn’t always come easily, but I will still practice it, every day. I will sit with it, hold hands with it, make my lists about it, and grumble, but then continue on.

And, as I looked around the table and smiled at my family, I said, “I’m still here.” And it was enough.

And I am forever grateful.

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