Addiction, Recovery and Gratitude
by: Mark Thomson, Our Hope Association Board of Directors Member
One of the most consistent themes within recovery support groups is gratitude. As with so much in the addiction recovery movement, this emphasis on gratitude is for very practical reasons. Without an “attitude of gratitude” many will relapse into prior patterns of alcohol and drug use. In order to appreciate its importance, it is helpful to understand the process of addiction itself.
For so long, the addict found relief from anxiety, stress and depression by using alcohol and drugs. As he began to experience the life problems which accompany aggressive alcohol and drug use—loss of relationships, poor health, career stagnation or loss, or legal problems—he accelerated his use. Sooner or later, this leads to more life problems and, in turn, more aggressive use of alcohol and drugs. A classic vicious cycle is set in motion in which alcohol and drug use leads to problems, which leads to more aggressive use, which leads to more problems.
Try to imagine what it is like for that addict to reach that point in his life. Everything seems to be going wrong and the very thing which saw you through difficult times in the past has been revealed, not as a solution, but the cause of your problems. In short, your “medicine” has become your “poison.” For many of those in late stage addiction, there seems to be no way out. It should come as no surprise, then, that gratitude is in such short supply for the addict. As he considers all that is has lost—including his means of coping with these losses—he asks, “What in the world do I have to be grateful for?
Those who have been in recovery for some time recognize that the lack of gratitude is resentment. And resentment is one of the most common triggers for relapses. They know that mulling over past slights, relationship and career failures, and the “unfairness of life”, is a recipe for relapse for those in early recovery. For that reason, sponsors and others often ask the addict in early recovery to complete a “gratitude list”—a tally of all that is good in one’s life.
To the outsider, this may seem to be contrived. After all, if the person doesn’t feel grateful, why should he pretend to be? But those in recovery understand that feelings are not facts and that new habits can lead to changed attitudes. And, more importantly, recovery is much more than abstaining from alcohol and drug use. It is adopting a new way of looking at life. That is why those in recovery—often to the amazement and bewilderment of newcomers—express gratitude for “the gift of desperation” which led them into this new way of living. This gift may have come in the form of a failed marriage, the loss of a job, health problems or an arrest—things which most of us would never welcome. However, those in recovery understand as few others can that, without that gift, they would never have found their way into recovery in the first place. And it was in recovery that they learned that grace is not only available, but that it surrounds us.
But in order for a person to receive it, he needs to be looking for it. He needs that “attitude of gratitude”, not just in on the third Thursday of November, but every day of his life.
Mark Thomson is Director of Special Projects at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s and serves on the Kent County Prevention Coalition, The Turning Point Advisory Council, and Project Vox, an advocacy group for those in recovery.