Gratitude Is in the Trenches

The evening I celebrated my first thirty days of recovery, I talked about gratitude. I shared that it was a downright miracle that I’d had the same ten-dollar bill in my pocket for several consecutive days. I spoke about what a blessing it was to have a bed in a halfway house, a place to sleep, shower, and brush my teeth. I landed on just how grateful I was to be alive, knowing that people who were living the way I’d been living, people I ran with for years and loved a great deal, were dying.

Since then, my life has improved tremendously. It has not gotten easier, and it’s by no means perfect, but it’s pretty damn good—leagues better than I ever imagined it could be. I’ve found myself in places I never thought were possible for a guy who entered recovery without a high school diploma, without job experience, social connections, or the slightest idea of how to operate in the world. When I first entered recovery, any person in their right mind should’ve looked at my track record, my utter lack of stability, my many failures, and turned tail as quick as possible. Some did. Others kept a healthy distance. But the game changer for me were those people I found who had lived like I was living, who knew what it was like to bear the weight of a criminal record, to have failed over and over, to be unstable, and these people were the ones who loved me back to life.

I am the result of other people’s time and attention. I made none of what has happened in my recovery happen on my own; I was shown the way. When it was time to get my GED, someone showed me where to go. When it was time to interview for a job, someone coached me through it. When I hurt, people showed me how to feel it without getting loaded. These people are my heroes, and the result of their love is manifest in my story. I’ve gotten a good education, I’ve had large swaths of time to focus on my passions, I’ve traveled all over, I’ve had jobs I loved, I’ve fly-fished on some of the best rivers in America, I’ve formed relationships with people who inspire me, I’ve gotten married to a woman I love who also loves me, I could go on and on. Most of us, if we are doing this recovery thing right, can rattle off our lists indefinitely, and we should. It’s not about bragging. It’s about hope.

As I write about these things, I realize how lucky I am, but despite all of the amazing gifts I’ve received, at times, I find it difficult to be grateful. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth. In a strange way, it was easier to be grateful for that ten-dollar bill I had in my pocket at 30 days sober than this amazing life I have in front of me. I know, I know, its crazy, but the whole reason I’m a person who needs recovery is that my thinking rarely makes sense. Lately, I’ve been jammed up by my lack of gratitude, which has inspired some examination of my thinking, and some talks with people I trust. How can a person with so much have such a lack of appreciation? I’ve made some progress in trying to figure it out, and what I think I’m finally beginning to see is that this lack of gratitude really boils down to serious disconnection from my roots. My good life is the very thing getting in the way.

It’s been almost ten years since I’ve felt what it is like to be dope sick, to be locked up, to be utterly hopeless. At times these experiences feel like they happened to someone else, like they existed in another life. On one level, this is amazing, but on another, it becomes a significant problem. The difficulty is this: when that part of my life doesn’t feel like my own, when I lose sight of where I came from, my life in the present has no context. I begin to think I got here by my own good deeds, that I’m somehow entitled to the life I have by virtue of my hard work, and this is the point at which my gratitude dissipates.

The privilege of long-term sobriety is that I get to choose whether or not I want to think about the things that I’ve lived through. This wasn’t always the case. Early on, when my health was still on the mend, when I didn’t have experience and references to prove I wasn’t a risk to employers, when my behaviors were still rather rough around the edges, I was forced on a daily basis to confront where I came from. Now, all of these years later, I can easily put my past out of mind and walk through life looking like a guy who, for the most part, has his shit together. This, of course, is far from the truth, but I can fake it pretty well. The problem with choosing to ignore my past, however, is that it does not serve my recovery. Like it is with all histories, if I forget or ignore where I come from, I’m bound to return to places I’ve already been. If I lose sight of the ways opiates and alcohol ravaged my existence, the true goodness of my life loses its meaning, and ultimately, the reasons I continue to persist fade away.

So, all of these years down this path and right in the center of a damn good life, I’m left with the task of finding a real way to stay connected to my history. I suppose there are many ways to do this, but the best I have found has been the act of placing myself into environments and relationships that remind me of where I started. I need to be in the trenches with people who are fighting, minute by minute, for their lives. I need that connection. This is by no means an idea I came up with on my own, but it is one that has become more and more important as I continue down this path.

In recognizing my lack of gratitude, and discovering that it is rooted in the absence of context for my current situation, I’ve made a stronger effort over the past few months to get into closer contact with people who are standing where I once stood. In doing so, I’ve been feeling a rekindled connection to my own story. More than writing or talking about my life, more than meditating or trying to reflect on what I’ve gone through, this human connection has been crucial and powerful. When I sit across the table from a person who’s trying to make a start in recovery, and listen to their struggles, I feel it in my bones. It’s a physical experience, and I need to feel it in this visceral way.

Early in my recovery, a man who was helping me find the way told me that I was helping him more than he was helping me. I scoffed when he said it. I could barely find my way out the front door of the halfway house in the morning. I had a hard time stringing together a coherent thought. I had nothing. At that point in time, I had no awareness of the things I’m writing about in this essay. I didn’t perceive any value in myself as a newcomer to recovery, especially to people who had lives that seemed impossible to me.

What I didn’t realize was that in order for this man to fully appreciate the life he was living, he had to see me and love me and lift me up. I had no idea that I was the mirror reflecting back to him an earlier version of himself, allowing him to put his life in perspective, but I see it now. So I want to finish by saying that if you’re new on this path of recovery, you are so valuable and so desperately needed. You are never a burden. Your story and lived experience are necessary. Your struggles, successes, and failures are the essence of recovery. When I see you, in your vulnerability, I know where I come from. I remember who I truly am. And when you allow me to be of service to you, I get to honor those who have given to me, and remember that I’m nothing on my own. It is only through you that I’m capable of seeing myself clearly, and this is everything if I want to experience gratitude for what I now have.