We talk a lot about gratitude around here, and for good reason — it’s one of the building blocks of a successful recovery program. There’s a saying in recovery that “a grateful addict will never use,” but I personally believe that gratitude is an essential hearth stone for everyone. Life often feels like it’s dialed up to 11, to borrow a rock ‘n’ roll term, and we’re often under such a barrage of information and obligations that the ability to be still and truly reflect on the reasons we have to be grateful is fleeting.
One of my biggest character flaws is that I can so easily turn my blessings into burdens, and Thanksgiving is a perfect case study. In years past, Thanksgiving was a day that amplified the crushing loneliness I felt, even gathered around a table full of family. A restless heart and a head full of self-doubt always made me feel apart from rather than a part of, and as I got older, I pulled away from the traditions of my childhood, the memories of which today fill me with equal measures of warmth and regret. I unconsciously tried to replicate that warmth with gatherings of friends, but my attempts to make merry with a refrigerator full of booze usually ended up in me passing out before 3 p.m., food half-cooked and friends slipping away quietly from the guy who didn’t know when to stop.
As my downward spiral progressed, so too did the desperation I felt to numb the discontent that consumed me. I remember a particular Thanksgiving in 2000, when I showed up for my shift at the newspaper in the throes of withdrawal. A couple of using buddies, Fitz and Lee, were waiting for me back at their dank apartment, where the power had been shut off and an eviction notice hung on the door. I sleepwalked through my shift and left early, pockets bulging with Saran Wrapped turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes lifted from the newsroom feast trays, and the three of us ate cold leftovers sitting cross-legged on the floor by candlelight. Lee jimmied the lock the power company had put on the outdoor breaker box and restored electricity, but the guy we hoped would come through with a fistful of pills never called, so we ended up dropping a few sugar cubes of acid and passing out in front of an old TV airing the original “Star Wars.”
It was, without a doubt, one of the most miserable and lonely holidays I’ve ever been a part of. I hold fast to that memory, because although my life is miles and years removed from that misery, I still can lose sight of how far I’ve come out of that black pit of despair and lose the gratitude that should be a constant companion on this day of all others.
I have a wife who never knew me when I was getting high. I have children who will never know an absent father who comes around to take their toys to the pawn shop. I have a house that I own, pets I care for, friends and family members whose respect I have earned. And yet when the clock ticks down toward meal time, and the turkey is still cooking and the kids are screaming and the dogs are barking and I feel the weight of self-imposed stress settling on my shoulders like anchor chains, I grow surly and grumpy and short-tempered … at least until I put a stop to the runaway emotional freight train of negativity and remember that I am so blessed, so stupidly blessed, that to dismiss those blessings is an insult.
It’s an insult to my family and to the man I’ve become. More than that, it’s an insult to the people with whom I share my little corner of Planet Earth that face very real and very overwhelming struggles that are only magnified on a holiday built around familial warmth and unity. The frustration and stress I feel are entirely self-imposed and a product of this beautiful life with which I’ve been blessed, and when I get out of my own head and remember that others are in very real pain — and that I was once in similar straits — it’s enough to make me blush with shame.
I lift up my friend Tina, whose partner, Angie — our Angie — committed suicide earlier this year. I remember so many others who have lost their battles with addiction, or who have simply crossed that earthly threshold made thin by the frailties and foibles of human existence.
There are so many people hurting and struggling financially and wrestling with health problems, and I have the audacity to get annoyed because the turkey I bought was too big to cook in time for a gathering of loved ones around my table?
How dare I. How dare I take these gifts, these beautiful gifts of life and love, and dismiss them out of the self-centered instincts of my baser nature. It’s … obscene, is what it is. Regardless of how much or how little I have, it’s always more than what others do. I can find gratitude in the simplest of things if I remember how far I’ve come and how far others have fallen.
Thanksgiving is not a celebration of triumph; it doesn’t come with a blue ribbon for “winning” at life. It’s simply a reminder that we all have something for which we can give thanks. So whether you’re sitting down next Thursday to a seven-course meal with 30 relatives or opening up a tin of potted meat with your cat, I hope that the spirit of this holiday, the gratitude that makes life a little more bearable, abounds, within your heart and throughout the rest of the holiday season.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Be good to one another.