Have you ever had to describe yourself in one word? My single-word slugs have changed over the years. I remember having interviews when I was 22, and if they’d asked me, I’d have said “responsible,” but if I’d been really honest, it would have been “angry.” My anger had deep roots. It dated back to my 12th year, at least, when Sue and I started smoking cigarettes and pot after school. My anger sprouted from several seeds. My uncle first groped me when I was 11; my live-in grandmother got sick and my parents constantly argued about her care; and my newfound independence earned my father’s angry disapproval.
I stayed angry through high school and college. I was a self-destructive mess. I smoked; I drank; I used drugs. My first steps toward recovery came in college. I remember I’d lived at SUNY Albany for two months, and I realized I hadn’t had one argument during that time. I was accustomed to fighting with my parents on a daily basis. The realization that life was not a series of arguments hit me hard. Besides the lack of daily family clashes, once I got to college I realized that everyone did not live their lives on drugs. I had already spent all of my college money in high school, so in college I had none left for drugs. Just like that I stopped using cocaine. Every time I smoked pot in college, it would make me withdraw from the group, depressed. I realized I had never really liked the high, either. I just did it to escape. So I quit smoking pot. By Thanksgiving of my first semester, I had quit drugs, mellowed a bit and lost 17 pounds.
My second year of college found me depressed and detoured me back to my path of self-destruction. The previous semester, my roommate and I had quit smoking, but over the summer, I’d gone to Greece and smoked some cigarettes at a date’s insistence. That experience, plus the depression, made it easy to go back to smoking full-time. My depression persisted that semester, and I missed weeks of classes and begged my parents to come home. Over winter break, I campaigned to take a year off of school, but they sent me back. During the first few weeks of that semester, I continued my campaign and my father finally relented because he’d been able to sign me up for another school. I attended a few classes, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I stopped going and got a job selling pets. My father finally realized he couldn’t force me to go to school and I took that year off. I decided I might want to go to cooking school, so I got a job as a prep cook in a restaurant. Once I saw the hours and conditions under which chefs work, I decided against cooking school and signed up for community college.
I had a major manic episode during community college. It lasted for three weeks or two months, I don’t know. During it, I couldn’t keep track of hours or days or weeks. My parents denied that there was a problem, and only after my friends staged an intervention did they take me to a crisis center. I got some pills, slept for three days, and my parents figured I was cured.
After I graduated community college I chose my own school: The University of South Florida. USF fed my tropical soul and my need for control over my life. It was also far enough away that I could distance myself from home life. I got my psychology degree during the Bush Senior “recession”, went back to New York for a year, lived with my parents, and decided that I’d rather be in Florida, so I moved. Happy to be in the sunshine, I started working on myself. I saw a therapist for group and individual sessions and they legitimized my pain. I never felt entitled to my feelings. I’d been programmed to think that my home life was normal and I was crazy and overdramatic.
In therapy, I met some amazing people. My therapist was understanding and supportive and one woman in our group had suffered horrific child abuse. I had nothing on her and I felt my struggles were nothing compared to hers. She showed me compassion and upheld the notion that my difficulties were legitimate. Hearing about her hell and seeing that she still had so much love inspired me. During that time, I realized that working in the psych field was compromising my own sanity and I realized that I really wanted to write. I hadn’t considered writing because my last high school English teacher admonished us not to major in English. “You’ll never get a job!” was his constant refrain. (For the record, I’ve held five writing jobs over the years, and lots of freelance work.)
Once I decided I wanted to be a writer, I wrote about the “Mid-Twenties Crisis” – realizing that my degree had nothing to do with my desired career. I sent it to Cosmopolitan magazine for its “Life After College” special issue and they rejected it, but they hand-wrote a note that said “Interesting but not what we’re looking for.” I sent it to a smaller magazine and they published it. They didn’t pay me but they complimented me and showed me that I was good enough to be published. And the next Cosmo “Life After College” contained a story about the mid-twenties crisis, written by somebody else.
I would never have legitimized my desire to write without therapy. And I stayed in touch with the woman who showed that incredible compassion. I continued to work on myself. I kept going to therapy, eventually got diagnosed as bipolar, and added a psychiatrist and a 12-Step program to my regimen. You’re supposed to stay in 12-Step programs forever, and I didn’t, but I managed to maintain several of the principles in my life.
The 12-Step program gave me a huge gift. A program friend invited me to participate in a gratitude group. Every weekday, we’d send each other our lists of things we appreciate. Over the years, we’ve had some turnover, but the group keeps going. Composing the list forces us to think about what’s positive in our lives. Some are surprising, like when I felt the pain while I lost my mother. Some are mundane, like morning coffee. But the result of the exercise is the same. We force ourselves to focus on the positive and we find a way to see the good. And when we focus on the good, it’s much easier to get through struggles and find solutions to problems of any size.
This is my 12th year of practicing gratitude on a daily basis. Through the lists, we learn about each other’s struggles, triumphs and life’s mundanities. In the lists, we find strength, support and understanding. And if you asked me today to describe myself in one word, I’d say “Grateful.” I’m grateful that the anger I held for so long dissipated, that I have a wonderful family and the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and friends who make my life complete. And since I’ve given up most of my anger and focused on the positive, so many great things have happened. I met and married the love of my life. I had two children, one a fertility long shot. I had the adventure of moving to the West Coast. I met my birth mother. I became a full-time writer.
Celebrating gratitude is the whole point of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims understood gratitude. They initiated Thanksgiving as a concrete way to practice gratitude, and we kept it up – once a year, whether we needed it or not. This holiday is the best marketing tool gratitude’s ever had. This year I’m wishing for more “Thanksgiving Creep” – marketing gratitude sooner and sooner during the year, starting on Black Friday. Maybe we can start a trend. The 12-Step programs say “Let it begin with me.” If we work on feeling grateful every day, good thoughts fill our hearts, leaving less room for the bad ones. I believe that if we focus on the positive, we can’t help but attract good things. It’s worth a shot, right? Really, what have we got to lose?