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Episode 12

Gratitude

December 22nd, 2020

Announcer: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 12: Gratitude.”

Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?

Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.

Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.

Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.

Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.

Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.

Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.

Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.

Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.

Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.

Female Speaker: It's generational.

Female Speaker: I think of him every day.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, a podcast by and for family members of anyone with an addiction. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I'm a social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Centers in Texas. I've led hundreds of family workshops, but I've also lived the experience of being family to addiction as both a child and adult. My wife, Kira, and I were in our addictions together for over a decade and now have been in recovery together for almost 20 years. Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together.

Kira Arrillaga: Hi, Kira here. In this episode, we are going to be talking about gratitude, a concept that is fundamental to many people’s recovery and happiness. We will look at what it is, where it can be hard around addiction, benefits of gratitude, how it fits into recovery followships, ways it can be practiced, and then I will guide you in a gratitude meditation. Along the way, we’ll hear the voices of people in recovery talking about gratitude in their lives. All this after a quick message from one of our sponsors.

[Commercial]

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome back, so what is gratitude? Simply put, it is the positive feeling we get when we recognize that we’ve been blessed with kindness, acceptance, or perhaps a more material benefit such as a gift or something we didn’t assume was coming to us. Gratitude may leave us feeling more loved, more secure, or simply, more lucky. To feel grateful for something is the opposite of taking it for granted.

Gratitude shows up in the VIA Classification of human strengths, meaning that research shows it’s one of the 24 strengths valued in cultures all over the world, and it is one of the most commonly reported. It notably is classified under the heading of transcendence, meaning it is a strength that helps us connect to the world around us and give our lives meaning. As with all human strengths, some people find it comes easily to them while others have trouble finding it at all.

Kira Arrillaga: Gratitude is not always easy to come by when active addiction is part of the scene. Family members may feel there is little for which they can be grateful if they see their loved one’s struggle, if they feel they are being robbed of the family life and relationships they thought they would have, if they are in fact robbed of money and possessions by someone they love, and if they yearn for a better time before the chaos of addiction reared its ugly head in the family. Since addiction has been called the opposite of connection, the loss of that connection and loving relationships can leave family members feeling resentment, grief, anger, sadness, and fear, all emotions that do not sit easily side-by-side with gratitude.

Casey Arrillaga: Similarly, people with active addictions are not often prone to gratitude. Addiction can feel like a sense of desperation in which nothing is ever enough. Even while getting high, people with active addictions can already be worrying about how they will get the next high. When that high comes, it often feels like relief from the unbearable tension or even agony of not being high. Under such circumstances, positive emotions become harder and harder to find. In my active addiction, I might pay lip service to gratitude, but part of my brain kept telling me that I always needed more, more of whatever felt like relief, so it was difficult for me to experience gratitude when nothing ever felt like enough. It turns out, I’m not alone in this. Let’s hear the voices of people, some of whom are family members, and some who are in recovery from addiction about where gratitude is hard around active addiction.

Male Speaker: Alright, I can think of a lot of times when gratitude was difficult. When I started feeling guilty that I had some sort of part to play in my son’s addiction and in the way he was not really getting treatment, and the way he was breaking the law, and so it was a matter of if I’m not feeling gratitude, what I was feeling is more like responsibility for everything that was wrong, and worry about all the things that might happen because of his addiction. When I’d get a call from the prison, and he’s asking for bail, or asking for some other kind of relief, and I’m going over in my mind all the ways that this is the worst thing, and there is no hope, those are the kinds of things that bring me to where gratitude is just kind of nowhere in sight at those moments.

Female Speaker: In my experience in active addiction, I had absolute zero gratitude. I was very hateful. I was blaming everybody. I was very selfish, and just me, me, me. I was not grateful for anything, whatsoever.

Female Speaker: Gratitude was really difficult for me before I had some recovery under my belt, and watching my stepson in his active addiction devastate my husband, kept me angry and so frustrated, and I found it very difficult to find any way to be grateful about anything until I found recovery.

Female Speaker: I would say gratitude has been difficult for me to see the value in that particular individual, my family member, that was suffering from addiction. I would say it kind of tainted my perception of them. It skewed my vision, the way I viewed that particular family member. So in the sense, I became jaded.

Female Speaker: It was a very dark place. I was never grateful. I don’t think I was even grateful prior to picking up to be quite . . .

Female Speaker: It doesn’t exist. Addiction puts you in a dark place even if it’s not your own, and it doesn’t exist. You can’t see anything to be grateful for when you’re in a dark place like that.

Male Speaker: I don’t think there is any gratitude in active addiction. Active addiction is almost like an alternate world, so I would be grateful if I had a copious amount of drugs. I would be grateful if I didn’t go to jail. I would be grateful if I lived through certain situations. I would be grateful the judge didn’t give me so much time, so I think my baseline for gratitude was a little bit different.

Female Speaker: There are two guys that I care deeply for, and they’re both in different addictions. I’ve seen one of them in particular just in and out of sobriety and recovery. It’s easy to stay grateful when he’s here, and when he’s part of it, and when he’s sober, and when he has a light behind his eyes. It’s difficult to stay grateful because he’s a chronic relapser. I love him, and I’ll always support him, and I’ll always be his cheerleader no matter how many one-month chips he picks up that he doesn’t want to celebrate. It’s all a big deal, every time, but it is so hard to love somebody and every day pray like, “Please don’t die.”

Casey Arrillaga: Even though gratitude may seem hard at times, it is definitely worth it.

Kira Arrillaga: That’s because gratitude has a lot of psychological benefits. Regularly practicing gratitude leads to a brighter, more optimistic view on life. If you are always looking for reasons to feel gratitude, you’ll find them. Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with a situation, you look for what’s right. That doesn’t mean you’re ignoring problems that need to be fixed. It means that you will see what there is to be grateful for in the midst in those problems. This may actually make it easier to find solutions as you are much less likely to fall into hopelessness about the problem. If you’re used to finding what’s right and what’s a blessing, solutions may jump out to you more. At the very least, you’re more likely to enjoy the problem-solving process.

Casey Arrillaga: Gratitude also leads to increased happiness, no matter what your life circumstance is. In fact, there was a really telling study in which happiness levels were compared for two groups of people. The first group was people who had won the lottery. You’d think they would be very happy, and you’d be right, at least at first. The second group was people who were keeping a gratitude journal. They may not feel the same [10:37] in their happiness level at first, but watch what happens over time.

The people who won the lottery experienced a huge boost in happiness initially, but then saw their overall happiness decline over time. Meanwhile, the people who were keeping a gratitude journal reported gradually increasing levels of happiness over time. At six months, the people who were keeping a gratitude journal were as happy as the people who had won the lottery. Pretty amazing, right? But we’re not done yet. Because the people who won the lottery continued to see their overall happiness decline whereas the people who were keeping the gratitude journal continued to see their happiness increase. By a year, the ones regularly writing about their gratitude were significantly happier than the people who had won all that money. It turns out that while the old saying that money won’t buy you happiness is true, a regular gratitude practice may just do the trick.

Kira Arrillaga: This happens because gratitude changes the way people see themselves and the world around them. If you are always looking for what’s good in what’s happening, the world will seem like a better place, and who doesn’t want to live in a better place? In fact, who doesn’t want to be in a better place, not just psychologically, but physically.

Gratitude turns out to have all kinds of health benefits. People who are more grateful live healthier lives with different benefits being seen at different life stages. Gratitude can reduce blood pressure and increase the quality of your sleep. It’s been shown to reduce stress and depression, factors that can have a huge impact on things like organ function and muscle tension. Gratitude also influences brain function, leading to improved ability to regulate emotions and increase self-motivation.

Casey Arrillaga: Given all this, it can be no surprise that recovery followships advocate for gratitude as a regular and important part of recovery. Twelve-step groups such as Al Anon or Gamblers Anonymous strongly encourage gratitude. Al Anon references gratitude in ten different publications with some publications having multiple entries on it. Many a 12-step sponsor has assigned their sponsees to create a gratitude list daily, sometimes leaving those in early recovery wondering what they can find in their lives to put on such a list, only to find that with practice, it isn’t so hard. Alcoholics Anonymous says, “Gratitude and serenity are two sides of the same golden coin of sobriety.” SMART recovery puts less overt emphasis on it, but talks about it in their article on the benefits of journaling. Since gratitude has been shown to improve willpower, it should come as no surprise that recovery followships say it is important. Let’s hear from a few people, some in recovery from their own addictions, and some who are family members, about where gratitude fits into their recovery.

Female Speaker: I practice it daily. I try to think about it throughout the day. I’ll remind myself and ask myself, “What are you grateful for right now?” In the dark places, when I can’t be grateful for anything, I actually have a list in my phone full of gratefuls that I will read to myself whenever I need it. I have to wake up and do a gratitude list every day. If I don’t, I default to all those defects of character, and I wake up really not grateful until I apply the program to my everyday living. I mean I have to do that.

Male Speaker: Today, I can feel grateful about a lot of things, and that includes that my son is still alive, that he can periodically get into recovery, and have a decent life. It’s very important that if you have gratitude, that none of that is my responsibility, and for that I’m grateful for most things that occur throughout the day as long as I stay in the present moment, and look around and appreciate them.

Female Speaker: When I got into recovery for myself, I found gratitude to be enormously helpful in pulling me back from the desperation and anger and frustration of thinking that I had control over things that I didn’t. Because I learned about addiction as a disease, I was able to amend my relationship with our addict and we have a loving relationship when he’s in contact with us but I learn to have boundaries and I’m grateful for that. All of these are gifts of seeking recovery for myself.

Female Speaker: It’s probably the biggest part coming from what I experienced to where I am now, I have nothing but gratitude for where I am. I have to practice it daily, even if I do have bad days, because they come. I have to remind myself it’s in everything.

Female Speaker: Gratitude is something that I think slips away from me or I fall out of the pattern of staying mindful of very easily. It’s so ironic how I came into recovery thinking that I wasn’t worthy of anything, but at the same time, the second that I get something good, I’m ready for the next good thing. I don’t really let myself enjoy it. I don’t really thank my higher power extensively for all the blessings that I have in my life today. Today, it takes reminders programmed into my phone to go off at random times of random days to say three gratefuls or something like that. Somehow those times are always coinciding with when I’m frustrated or when I think I’m too busy. It's never when I’m actually just in a state of today is good. I think it just goes to show how almost magical this program can be because I came from a place where there were things to be grateful for but they were not the things that I have today by miles, by worlds. Today I can sit here and be a brat for no good reason at all. Thanks for the reminder to stay grateful.

Male Speaker: Today, gratitude plays a heavy part in my recovery. Without gratitude, my humility is gone. My ego takes over and I start to take credit for all the things that I’ve done and then the extraordinary things become ordinary. I was having a bad day and I wasn’t really grateful for anything. I didn’t know I was. I went to Walmart. This was this past Saturday that really stuck in my mind. I remember I was feeling a certain type of way, just upset and discontent. I walked outside of Walmart and looked to the left and there was a dude with a Salvation Army bucket on the corner. He was just laying on the ground. People walking by him. He's covered with blankets. It was cold, man. It's the beginning of wintertime; it was really cold that night. Everything that was bothering me went out the window. My perspective shifted. That’s how I believe God talks to me, how the universe talks to me. There’s the saying, if you’re not grateful for some things, you will lose them. You lose the joy that you had and that’s where I want to be.

Casey Arrillaga: After a quick break to hear from one of our sponsors, we’ll explore some practical ways to start or grow your personal gratitude practice, including a guided gratitude meditation by Kira. All this in just a few moments.

[Commercial]

Kira Arrillaga: Welcome back. Let’s look at some things you can do to increase gratitude in your life and get more of its benefits.

Casey Arrillaga: After all the nice things we’ve said about gratitude journaling, we’ve got to start with that. What, you may ask, is a gratitude journal exactly? Unlike a diary, which just logs the day, a gratitude journal is specifically about what happened in the day that inspires gratitude. A brief internet search can bring up long lists of gratitude journal prompts, from simple things such as what brought a smile to your face today to more challenging prompts such as what was the best part of an otherwise unpleasant experience today to the truly Herculean what is something you can appreciate about your ex-spouse.

Some people like to write on a new prompt each day, never repeating a prompt until they have gone through all of them, which challenges them to stretch their gratitude muscles when they run into a prompt that doesn’t seem to come as naturally. Others may choose a handful of prompts that really speaks to them and choose the one that feels most inspiring that day. You might try writing a few things each day and then once a week write a more in-depth essay about something that stood out that week. Some people like to write a simple list of the things that inspired gratitude that day, which some writers call it bullet point journal.

Kira Arrillaga: If you go this route, be sure you aren’t just rattling off the same list most days as this will get stale and the benefits will likely fade. Luckily, we’ve got a few ideas to avoid this. One simple but powerful technique is to make a short list, say three things per day, but never repeat anything on the list, ever. If you’ve written it down once, you can never write it down again. This challenges you to keep a keen eye out for things you can include that day since you will probably run through all the obvious stuff pretty quickly. When you’re constantly on the look out for new things to include in your journal, you will start to experience your life in a new way. Every experience becomes an opportunity to find some element that you can appreciate. Keep this up for a year and you will have a list of 1,095 things that you are grateful for.

Casey Arrillaga: Another great journaling idea is to periodically change it up and make an alphabetical or ABC gratitude list. Name something for which you can be grateful that starts with each letter of the alphabet. Sometimes in groups at WindMill, I challenge the clients to see how much of this list they can complete in one minute. I have a friend in recovery who says that if she’s ever having trouble falling asleep, she starts making an ABC list in her head and she falls asleep about halfway through. What a great way to drift off to positive thoughts. I find that an alphabetical gratitude list often tells me what kinds of things are on my mind. If I’m hungry, it sounds like apples, bananas, cherries, but if I’m in a more recovery kind of mood, it’s more like altruism, blessings, cheerfulness. No matter how it comes out, though, I know I’ll be challenging myself to get creative in my gratitude.

Kira Arrillaga: There’s more to gratitude than writing, however. A great way to build gratitude in daily life is to practice savoring. Savoring is when you go out of your way to notice great things as they’re happening. This could be as simple as really paying attention to your favorite food as you eat it. Feel the texture. Notice details of how it tastes. Take time to enjoy every bite as though you are experiencing it for the first time. Similarly, you can apply savoring to spending time with people whose company is particularly enjoyable or uplifting, engaging in activities that nourish you, or any little moment that captures your attention. Similarly, through positive recall, you can savor the memory of a time in your life that really stands out in a positive way, whether it was earlier in the day or years in the past. Think about all the details you can remember and savor each one giving thanks that you got to have that experience. You can even savor something that hasn’t happened yet by engaging in positive anticipation. Through this, you can engage in gratitude for something you’re really looking forward to doing, such as going on a vacation or spending time with loving family members and friends.

Casey Arrillaga: One more gratitude practice that a lot of people use is engage in gratitude meditation. Such meditation has been shown to improve things like brain function and life satisfaction, and in one study, it even got teens to feel happier with their school. Gratitude meditation can draw on many of the ideas we’ve talked about so far, such as sitting quietly and considering different things for which you’re grateful, perhaps savoring each idea or memory one by one. It can be a free form thing or perhaps a guided meditation. In fact, Kira is really good at guiding people through such meditations. If you’re driving or doing something else that requires your full attention, then come back to this part of the episode later to try this out. If you’re able, sit somewhere quiet and relaxing and follow along.

Kira Arrillaga: Take a deep cleansing breath. Hold it for just a moment and slowly release it. Take another deep cleansing breath. Now hold it in. Let it go. Breathe normally and focus on your breathing. Every intake of breath is healing energy. Every exhale is letting go of all that is no longer needed. Just breathe. Notice your body. Feel yourself rooted to the chair or the couch connected to the earth beneath you. Follow the energy of that connection like an umbilical cord that connects you to the center of the earth, a long bright cord of energy connecting you to your higher power, to the God of your understanding, to all that is, to nature, to the earth, to the universe.

Let your mind drift as your body floats and let your thoughts settle on someone you love and appreciate, someone who has made you very happy at one time or another. Think about that happiness they brought you and revel in the beauty of it and feel the gratitude. Think of an experience you’ve had that taught you something important, whether it was an easy experience or a difficult one, you wouldn’t trade it away because you emerged better in some way for having had that experience. Let yourself feel the gratitude for that situation. Look at your life as a beautiful tapestry. Think about your beginnings, happy moments in your childhood, the best parts of who you are now, and the people who love you. Revel in the beauty of the gift of your life and feel the gratitude.

Now focus on that connection, that cord that binds you to the earth. Notice your body again, still floating yet still rooted to the earth and still connected to every living thing. Notice your breathing. Notice that every intake of breath, you’re still bringing in healing light. With every exhale, you’re exhaling that same healing light which fills you up. Bring yourself back into your body. Take a deep cleansing breath. Let it go. When you’re ready, wiggle your toes and open your eyes.

Casey Arrillaga: Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices.

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Kira Arrillaga: Addiction and the Family is produced, written, and engineered by Kira and Casey Arrillaga, with music by Casey.