Ungrateful for Gratitude Lists


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 think I had that I needed and deserved and wanted. My eyes were on the consolation prize, or the one the other person got. Wallowing was a bad habit that resulted from some bitter disappointments that festered into semi-permanent states of mind. I didn't really want to practice gratitude because I honestly didn't know how. 

Then, faced with a choice to change everything or die, I quit drinking.

The first person who really helped me understand how to live after that asked me to send her a gratitude list as soon as I woke up every day. It wasn’t really negotiable. She told me that a grateful person had a better chance of not drinking, and my desire for survival was bigger than my hatred of gratitude lists or other people's well-meaning suggestions. l had also opened my mouth and told her I would try anything to get better, so I shut it 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 family, for transportation, for work and the support it allows me, and maybe even for that person who may be really on my nerves that day who is teaching me how to keep my mouth shut. I’m so grateful for my dog. I list my friends who save me constantly in countless ways. 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 of my run and when I could fix it up again that was a good sign. She got that the boot socks I found in Target were a fun and warm perk during that first long, confusing winter, so they went on there too, and that was okay.

My lists are a mix of the big and small things that sustain my life and my soul, and the things I can enjoy today because I have those things back. Over time, they have become exactly what my old self rolled her sad eyes at — a daily practice that has helped me focus more on the positive. (Which has gotten easier, too, because suddenly there was way more positive in my life where previously I could see almost none.)

A gratitude list doesn't whitewash my life in an unhealthy way, which I think was my fear. The hard things are still there, but I see them in better relationship to some always-existing 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. It will never be all sunshine and roses, even when those are on my list, which they have each been at least once.)

I still don’t believe that feelings can be forced. If I’d been asked to make a list when I was still hopeless and saw no way out of the hell I was living, I don't believe it would have stuck. But maybe it would have. Impossible-to-know things are pointless to think about. I have a better perspective these days, and a less cynical 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 8 a.m. the little Buddha head notification pops up on my iPhone from my Gratitude Journal app. (Shut up, yes, I have this, and I love it.) It asks me what I'm grateful for today. And whether I’m in beast mode or reasonably content, I write some things down next to the little Buddha head, and I remember that there is good no matter what. And if I need it, which I often do, the previous entries remind me that even on the worst days in the past 28 months this former champion cynic found five things to feel good about.

I speak my gratitude out loud more easily these days, too, beyond the rote pleases and thank yous of daily life. I said those things for a long time because I was taught that I was supposed to, but it never clicked deep down. I try to live it now because it saves me, and because I truly feel it. That’s the real miracle.

A version of this post originally appeared on TueNight.com.