When was the last time you took a few minutes to delve into your gratitude? Often we rattle off lists of things that we’re thankful for—My recovery, my family, my home—without taking the time to really think about the joy that those things bring into our lives.
In recovery, we’re taught that gratitude is essential. We have to be thankful for the new life we’ve created, free from the pull of addiction. But over time it becomes easy to think we’re practicing gratitude without actually making the space to really appreciate the ways that recovery has enhanced our life.
“I could sit here and rattle off so many things to be grateful for, but am I really stopping to integrate that into my life, to slow down my thought process and let it sink?” asks Nell Hurley, the executive director of alumni and recovery support at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
Hurley has been in recovery for 19 years, and says that gratitude has been a continuous presence in her life for nearly two decades. Even so, she struggles to define such a lofty concept.
“Gratitude is one of those things that is so big. It’s like love. How do you even talk about that? Language kind of falls short unless you’re a poet,” Hurley says. “It’s something that’s so big and so essential that sometimes I struggle with describing it or expressing it.”
That’s can be where people get stuck. They aren’t able to pinpoint exactly what gratitude is, so they rattle off what they’re thankful for and check the gratitude practice off their daily to-do list. However, Hurley says that to get the full benefits of practicing gratitude we need to delve a bit deeper.
“Gratitude is more than just an attitude,” she says. “It goes deeper into a perspective that can really drive your actions. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to recovery. Those of us who struggle with addiction or who have substance use disorder tend to look at the world in a certain way: a glass-half-empty kind of way.”
Taking time to find the positive can help shift that perspective to a more sunny outlook.
“There is really an opportunity to train the way that you look at the world and the way that you think about your circumstances,” Hurley explains. “We’re not just handed one things, we have the opportunity and the choice to look at the world in a certain way.”
Early in her sobriety Hurley used gratitude practices like making a list of things she was thankful for and keeping a journal. Getting through each day without drinking was a struggle, and in order to keep herself motivated in recovery she needed to focus on being grateful for the gifts that recovery was giving her.
“I learned how to look at what was good in my life, and what my recovery was giving me in that day and in that moment,” she says.
Hurley says that she had a lot of anger and cynicism when when first got into recovery.
“I didn’t want to drink any more but didn’t want to give up drinking either,” she say. “I was going to meetings during the week but drinking on the weekends. I had one foot in and one foot out, and I was so angry that I couldn’t just figure out [healthy drinking patterns]and manage it.”
Meetings were a stress rather than a relief.
“I hated AA. I really hated the slogans and holding hands, saying the prayer, and all those rituals. I was repulsed,” she says.
However, when she allowed herself to let go and appreciate what sobriety was bringing to her life she was more open to the messages of recovery. She began to change her perspective.
“The slogans of AA saved my life,” she says. “I love them. They’re such simple tools that I live by.”
Hurley still goes to a meeting at least once a week, but over time as she became comfortable in sobriety she paid less attention to the gifts of recovery.
“I take it for granted today because it’s been almost 20 years of waking up without a hangover,” she says. “But if I stop and reflect on it that’s still huge.”
Today her gratitude practice is about taking the time to appreciate those simple gifts that have become an everyday part of her life.
“It’s very easy to just get busy, and we can just plow through and not pay attention to those things,” she says. For Hurley, gratitude is no longer about getting through each day without drinking. Instead, it’s a ways to help her manage her though patterns, perspective and stress levels.
“If I’m feeling hungry, lonely or tired, I take a deep breath and look at what’s right with my life,” she says. “That’s a good question to ask yourself: what’s right with you?”
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