I remember the last day I sat on the patio of our house, the house in which I had raised all my daughters and in which I’d had all those birthday parties and Thanksgiving dinners and BBQs.
The house with the bedroom added on, and the vegetable garden added on, and with all the unhappiness, depression, and confused emotions that hanging on all those years had caused.
My husband and I had been married just short of 30 years when it was finally over. I was 48 years old.
You think when you finally leave everything’s going to be okay.
You don’t think that you’re going to lay in bed every night wide awake with anxiety keeping your eyes from closing. You don’t think that you’re going to pull the car into the driveway unable to take the keys out of the ignition because the grief keeps you from having the strength to do it. You don’t think about having the fear of being a bag lady or of being alone forever or of every sound in the night being a danger to your life and limb.
You just don’t think about all of that—and then you’re faced with it and what do you do? How do you get out of the hole you’ve fallen into? How do you survive?
“This may sound really stupid,” my girlfriend was saying at lunch one day. I’d been having a particularly bad week experiencing “upset and pessimism as well as regret, and resentment and the long shadows cast by old pain.”
At first, when I heard what my girlfriend was suggesting, I resisted. The idea of making a gratitude list seemed either outright ridiculous or just plain tedious and boring. I was mostly pissed off and annoyed and from my perspective, I had either not enough or nothing at all to be grateful for.
Still, I was desperate and despite my resistance and misgivings that anything so simple could even begin to address the frozen, depressive state I was in—I tried.
My first lists were pretty raw.
Thank you for the roof over my head.
Thank you for the spoons in the drawer.
Thank you for my suede skirt.
Thank you for food.
But they were about all I could do. Going back to my marriage wasn’t an option. I needed a lifeline that kept me from feeling like I was drowning.
Thank you for having a bed with a pillow.
Thank you for running shoes.
Thank you for my crock pot.
I kept the practice up mostly out of desperation and eventually bought steno pads at Walgreens to write in before I turned out the light when I went to bed at night.
My lists would be the last thing I saw before I went to sleep and the first thing I saw when I woke up. Over time, they expanded and began to include more than just my immediate needs.
Thank you for the men who keep the streets clean
Thank you for the people who keep the busses running
Thank you for all those who work night shifts
I began to see there was a world out there that was practically designed to hold me up and help me to keep going and I didn’t feel so disconnected—so alone.
”Many different spiritual and psychological traditions have pointed to the value of doing a gratitude list. If we sit down and really list all the things we have to be grateful for we recognize our interdependence with all of life and with other human beings as part of what we depend on for our very existence.” ~ Fleet Maull
In time, I began to title my thank you lists, “Holidays With Friends,” “Hairdressers,” “My New Job,”
Thank you for being able to walk to work
Thank you for making just enough money.
Thank you for covered parking.
Thank you for two weeks vacation with pay.
Thank you for making new friends.
After a while, not a short while, but a just as long as it took while, I started to feel almost alive. My thank yous became numerous and my gratitude lists—together with all the other things I was doing to keep my head on straight, like therapy, twelve step groups, yoga—began to have an effect.
“Positive experiences—unless they are very novel or intense—have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time.” The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.” ~ Rick Hanson
Through my gratitude lists, I had begun to capture the positive experiences in my life rather than allowing them to flow through my brain “like water through a sieve.”
Today I look back on those times of struggle as among the most important times in my life; the times in which I learned that of all the personal work I did, making gratitude lists really were one of the gifts that keeps on giving:
>> A way of living positive and enjoyable experiences twice (the first time when they happen and the second time when they were recalled).
>> A way of crowding out the knee-jerk response to negative, fear-based emotions that are stored in long term memory.
>> A way of recognizing gratitude for all the things in the immediate, everyday world.
>> A way of recognizing interdependence with the greater world and the other human beings in it.
>> A way to foster the perspective that life is comprised not only of dark but also of the light.
Perhaps most important, my gratitude lists were a way for me to gain an intimate experience of myself.
Apart from being a wife and mother, I hadn’t really known who I was. In reflecting on the things I was grateful for a deeply held self-image emerged and I learned that it was the things that appeared on my gratitude list that gave me a true picture of who I was and what I valued most.
Today, I maintain my practice of making gratitude lists. While I have recovered from the loss of my marriage and no longer feel the darkness of those days, the world itself continues to offer stressors and I find that making gratitude lists help me maintain a positive, wholesome and grateful attitude.
Thank you for gratitude lists.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Image: via Imgur
Editor: Catherine Monkman