In the late 90’s I read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It took awhile for me to get through because of the outdated and sexist language. Also, if I’m being honest, I was probably at an elementary school reading level as my dyslexia and homelife had derailed my academics in my younger days. While the message was life changing, the details of the book bothered me. I later learned that my experience was a common one for people just beginning in their journey of sobriety.
As my sobriety attempts ebbed and flowed, becoming almost as predictable as the seasons, I met other people, who, like me, were trying to get and remain sober. I made it a habit to judge those I met on the likelihood on whether or not they would stay sober. Did they “have what it takes” to leave the drink and make a better life for themselves? Occasionally, one of my judgements would come true and I’d pride myself on being a good judge of character. However, more frequently, those around me got sober and stayed that way, while I continued to struggle.
The “Big Book” as it is affectionally called by those who read it frequently, was always nearby. As the years of intermittent sobriety mounted, so did the number of times I read the book. I was told over and over again that the answers I was looking for were in that darn book, so I read. And re-read. I read it out loud, in groups, and to myself on lonely, quiet nights.
The message of the book never changed. I understood the words and how they reflected in my own struggles. I understood the hope its words represented. However, I didn’t think it fully applied to me. It’s sexist language and outdated references were reason enough to justify why the program, as it was outlined, would not work for me.
Naturally, I tried other versions of the program from other texts. I read religious texts and self-help books. If I could only find out why I was the way I was, then I could change it. At least that is what I told myself. I’m not sure when it happened but at some point, years into failed attempts at sobriety, I decided to look outside myself, and outside of books, for answers and reluctantly let go of what I thought I knew.
Somehow, I was able to piece together some sobriety. Then life happened and I became grateful that I didn’t have to drink over things anymore. And that for me was the magic. I had become grateful. Despite myself, my bad attitude and unwillingness to fully submit to any formal program of recovery, I found gratitude.
Gratitude lists are common in many communities. They are common because they work. We all have something to be grateful for. Even when it feels like all is lost, if we put our minds to it, we can find something to be grateful for.
Once I had learned how to foster an attitude of gratitude, life became a lot easier. So did reading the Big Book. I no longer focused on the lack of female perspective or my perceived biases. Instead, I saw the book for what it was intended to be, helpful. All the judgements were mine alone.
Eight years after I opened the Big Book for the first time, I was able to read it without discounting its contents. When I reflect on what changed and why I was able to hear a familiar message in a new way, the answer is clear, gratitude lists. It had become habit to make gratitude lists every day. Focusing on what I had, not what I wanted, allowed me to take the actions required to get and stay sober.
Last month I celebrated eighteen years of sobriety. On my gratitude list today are many things that were beyond my wildest imagination eighteen years ago, yet here I am. I still read the Big Book and I still make time to share my journey with those who are just starting out. I remember where I came from but there is no overflow of the past into future. My feet are firmly planted in the present and gratitude is what keep me there.
There was a period in my sobriety when life was difficult. Joy had abandoned me, and apathy became my default emotion. A few years ago, I found a gratitude list from that period of my life. There as only one thing on that gratitude list. One thing I was grateful for. It was only two words; “Red Cup.”
While my state of mind was terrible at the time, I wrote that gratitude list, I remember the cup I was referring to. It was red painted stainless steel and vacuumed sealed, so it kept water cold or coffee hot all day. It had a metal clip, like the ones rock climbers use, attached to the top and it was sharp if it was opened. I used to carry it as I walked past a halfway house of men that made it a habit to sit outside and catcall women as I walked to class at university.
My red cup made me feel safe. Looking back at my younger self, it’s almost comical that I thought a stainless-steel cup would protect me against a group of men. But at the time, I would have thought it ridiculous that it would not. The metal clip would allow me to swing it with great force and the added weight of the liquid inside would only help. In hindsight, it was probably the swagger in which I walked that cooled the cooing as walked past. Self-assurance can be unsettling to those who push boundaries.
When I first found the Red Cup gratitude list, I laughed and how disassociated I must of have been to write that. I had forgotten about the security it gave me walking to class. Only recently, has this come to mind, hence me writing about it today. It reminds me that gratitude can always be found and that it doesn’t need to be complicated.
Today, my life is blossomed in so many beautiful ways, I’m hesitant to share as it could be interpreted as bragging. But none of it means anything without gratitude. Today, I am grateful for the journey and all the stops along the way. I’m grateful that life can move through me instead of against me and that when I am off course, it is not a struggle to start again in the direction I want to be going. But most of all, I’m grateful that I do not have to do any of this alone. My friends, my family, strangers that read my words, all this connection is the fuel that makes my light burn strong and bright. Thank you for reading this.