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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

Finding Gratitude and Connection, Even in Dark Spots

Oct 31, 2022 09:31AM ● By Liz Jorgensen
In the 1980s, I was blessed and lucky to meet people in early recovery who were full of honesty, caring and humor. Some of these people were grateful to be alive even as they suffered from AIDS—as at that time there was no treatment and much social rejection, even by close family and former friends. 

My natural state was definitely not gratitude at the time. I was self-focused, fearful and proud. I thought it was a tragedy that I was 21 and getting sober. It’s hard to admit that level of self-pity, but it’s true.

The AIDS epidemic was finally being acknowledged by our culture and medical professionals were desperately trying to find a way to help the young people suffering with rare cancers and wasting from simple illnesses. I worked in a hospital at the time and we all talked about how we could help AIDS patients, even though the route of transmission was not yet completely known. Most of the nurses and doctors were brave and knew that these humans needed us, even if there was a risk; some were quick to be fearful and “blamed” the patients for their deadly illness. I learned from the brave professionals that there was a choice.

That the professionals who supervised me, with similar, elite educations, could choose to do the humane thing or remain steeped in fear and judgement opened my ignorant eyes. Even though I had some real fear of infection (I was pregnant with our first child) I chose to join the brave team, and as I did, my fear turned to deep gratitude. I hugged patients as they learned about their HIV status. I learned all I could about the illness to be able to talk honestly with others at risk. I followed the mentors with gratitude who seemed to have the belief that these patients were theirs to help, and there was no choice to not help.

Around the same time, I was attending many recovery support meetings a week. In all the meetings, young people in various stages of the progression of AIDS would share their journey—sometimes in pain, but full of deep gratitude to have been welcomed, even in cases where their families had rejected them due to their sexual orientation or addiction. One young woman, frail, but still able to walk, said in our meeting, “I will die soon, but I will die sober and loved by all of you. I am so grateful for that.”

In my early recovery, with these brave warriors as mentors, how could I not choose gratitude? I was healthy, educated, loved. I was privileged in my status as a white cis woman and I could walk without help and most likely would be healthy for most of my life. I often share my story and humbly admit that witnessing the AIDS epidemic upfront in meetings and at work forced me out of self-pity, envy and my other character defects fairly quickly. My daily reminder was that I was lucky, despite whatever other real challenges I faced. I remind myself of this today, as our entire world faces the potential of widespread suffering and our own mortality. We have the choice to be kind and rational in the midst of “herd thinking” and panic.

Gratitude is a rational choice, as it leads to a calmness and contentment even as we face great difficulty. Research in the field of Positive Psychology has demonstrated that creating and following a daily gratitude practice can help inoculate us from some psychological illness and, most importantly, can help us to feel relief and some autonomy when we are facing significant challenges in our lives.

Try some of these gratitude practices that can help support mental health.
Start a gratitude journal. Keep a gratitude list in a journal that you add to every day, or simply when you think of something that fills you with gratitude.

Make a conscious goal of verbally expressing gratitude to others in your life. Every day we are the recipient of thoughtfulness or even basic care from others, from the person who bags your groceries, to the work colleague who remembers your birthday or other special occasion. Use these opportunities to state how grateful you are out loud, reinforcing your sense of gratitude and also giving others some deserved care and reinforcement.

Gently add gratitude into conversations. We are all guilty of complaining and not looking for the good in others or in situations. When you are next gossiping with others, make sure to include “good gossip” things that others have done that were kind and decent. Examine if gossip is really a behavior that helps or harms your own mental health.

Send old-fashioned “thank you” notes. Electronic communications are great, easy, efficient and they technically cover our social obligations to someone who has gifted us in some way. But a written gratitude note is so unusual today that both the sender and receiver feel wonderful when we take the time to send a note.

Gratitude for health, life, sobriety, connections are all possible, even in the face of great loss. This is a choice and will always be a choice—to look at the fullness of life and choose to focus on the gifts over the inevitable stresses and losses.

In times of great stress or loss, it can be difficult to list all the things we are grateful for, but we know from empirical evidence what the wisdom traditions have always emphasized: A grateful heart is procured and created by us, it is not magically given or spontaneously appears. A grateful heart is happiness and contentment. A grateful heart makes us free.

We must discipline the mind to see the moments of joy and connection, the rays of light and love that are present simultaneously during the storms of suffering. I wish you the ability to find gratitude and connection and thank you to all who have been part of my journey. 

Liz Jorgensen, director of Insight Counseling, has over 30 years of experience with adult and adolescent psychotherapy and counseling. Connect at 203-431-9726, [email protected] or See ad, page 15.

Insight Counseling LLC - 105 Danbury Rd  Ridgefield CT

Insight Counseling, LLC - 105 Danbury Rd , Ridgefield, CT

Liz Jorgensen has 30 year’s experience with adolescent and adult psychotherapy and counseling. She is a nationally recognized expert in counseling, particularly in engaging resistant tee... Read More »