I'm Grateful to Be Sober, But . . .

Reflections in Recovery

Bill and Lois at Stepping Stones home
I was enjoying a leisurely promenade with a friend on the High Line in the Chelsea section of Manhattan earlier this summer when my eyes were drawn to one of those huge, in-your-face billboards so typical of the city: “Stop praying . . . God’s too busy to find you a parking spot.”

In something of a madeleine moment, I was transported to Greenwich Village circa spring of 1984. Driving down 7th Avenue, I had turned on St. Luke’s Place looking for a place to park my car. I was prepared for the usual merry-go-round of cruising up and down the same streets over and over again for what feels like an eternity before the coveted spot finally materializes. But no sooner had I turned the corner than a spot appeared out of nowhere, on the brownstone side of the street, under the tall Ginkgo trees.

Finding a place to park in the streets of Manhattan can be such a near-hell experience that even an atheist might be tempted to sneak in a prayer after the umpteenth turn around the block. Not that I had prayed. Nor can I say that God got me that spot. Still, something of a miracle did take place. It had to do with my response. I was grateful.

Gratitude was an emotion that I had lost somewhere over the course of my 25-year drinking career as resentment and dissatisfaction over everything from God and the universe to the parking problem in New York City came to dominate my life.  

Less than 90 days after coming into the rooms, AA was helping me to regain that emotion. I was grateful to be sober. I was grateful to have a job. And now my gratitude had spilled over into, of all things, finding a parking spot. Within another three months I had a roof over my head again, my teenage daughter had stopped drinking and drugging, was back to living with me, and had started attending college. Today, as I write this, she celebrates 28 years clean and sober, serves on the world as well as regional bodies of her fellowship, and sponsors a number of women. She’s grateful.

On a later occasion this summer, I was again reminded of how gratitude works in recovery. I was sitting with the same friend on a park bench in Jackson Square, by Greenwich and Horatio, when a young man talking agitatedly on his cell sat down a couple of benches away. From the tenor of the conversation, I suspected the man was in AA. This was soon confirmed as I heard him say in a rather plaintiff tone, “I’m grateful to be sober, but . . .”

I couldn’t make out the words that followed, but I could tell the man was a newcomer, and that gratitude was new to him, just as it had been for me once. Whatever gratitude he felt for his sobriety, there was still that lingering “but.”

Returning later to another part of the country where I live much of the year, I ran into a handyman who is in AA. Every time he sees me, he asks me the same question: Are you grateful?  Around the rooms for a pretty long while, Howie probably knows the significance of that question. If I’m grateful, I’ll stay sober. It’s that simple. If there’s one rock-bottom spiritual principle that will practically guarantee sobriety, that’s gratitude.

Was the man in the park grateful? Whoever he was talking to on the phone—perhaps his sponsor—had apparently posed the question. The man’s answer was equivocal. Yes, but.

This might mean one of two things. He might have said he was grateful because, being in the program, that’s what he’s supposed to say. It makes him sound good. This brings into relief a feature of gratitude that can often work against its real and authentic practice. More than any other virtue, gratitude is practiced through speech. We give it voice; we say thanks. Because of this, gratitude can easily lend itself to lip service.

On the other hand, and perhaps more likely, the man really wanted to be grateful, but being a newcomer, his understanding and practice of gratitude was severely limited. Still reeling from the consequences of his drinking, his life possibly still unmanageable, he saw a good (his sobriety), but only at the margins, not as the central fact of his life as a recovering alcoholic. His tendency was still to focus on the bad, which thus continued to overwhelm him. Hence the “but.”

Growing in gratitude is a process, and in recovery it begins with being unconditionally grateful for our sobriety. Saying we are grateful is a start. Even if we don’t feel the gratitude yet, acting as if and saying the words can help us come to the point when we will feel it—but only so long as the desire is there and we are not just deceiving ourselves.

The process is largely one of habituation, where through practice we progressively surrender ingratitude and acquire gratitude as an established character and emotional trait. As with other virtues, this process is seen as moving through four stages.

In the first stage, when we are still drinking, there's little if any gratitude in us. We feel entitled to things and generally take what we have for granted. We expect and demand more of everything, and yet, the more we have, the more we want. We are seldom if ever satisfied.

In the second stage, when we hit bottom and first come into the rooms, we are jolted into the realization that we had it wrong all along. We did have a lot to be grateful for, but we just couldn’t see it. Coming now to see sobriety as a gift, a prized new possession and a ticket out of the misery we have created for ourselves and others, we want to be grateful. But we cannot act on it. The force of habit pushes us back into ingratitude. We still have a laundry list of “buts,” as the young man apparently did.

In the third stage, as we work through the Steps and our lives return to normal, we start to consciously practice gratitude in more and more areas of our lives. But this is a real struggle for us and it involves a lot of effort and self-control. We’re pulled back and forth between the old self and the new person we wish to become. When things go well we are grateful. When things go badly we tend to lose our gratitude. Our gratitude list may now be longer than our list of “buts,” but it has not entirely replaced it.

In the fourth stage, as we consistently practice gratitude in all our affairs, gratitude becomes a deeply ingrained habit in us, an integral part of our character and emotional structure. It is effortless and largely unconscious. We automatically see things through the eyes of gratitude. We are naturally disposed to find the good and to give thanks in all things, even amidst the bad. There are no “buts” left. Gratitude is now properly a virtue, governing how we think, how we feel, and how we act. It is not only what we say and what we do, but who we are. 

[Posted 09/12/12. Image: Bill and Lois at Stepping Stones home in Katonah, NY. For Lois's autobiography, see Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the Co-founder of Al-Anon and Wife of the Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.]

For more on gratitude, see The Virtue of Gratitude in Practice These. For more on the process of habit formation involved in acquiring it, see Practice & Habit

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