In AA there’s a lot of talk about gratitude. Make a gratitude list. Replace guilt with gratitude. Put some gratitude in your attitude. All I ever felt about that was resentful. Gratitude for what, exactly? And it wasn’t my circumstances so much as the way I felt. I didn’t take my first drink at 11 for nothing.

Things were difficult with my parents. But I’m not talking about abuse; I was an emotionally precocious kid with a mom and dad I felt I had to manage. At 55 I see they did the best they could; back then, it wasn’t enough.

In the nature/nurture debate, I stand on the side of both. We come into this world with what to work out, and our parents don’t always help us in the way we want them to. Sometimes we can only learn what we need through difficulty, starting with the Moms and Pops. And as far whether we carry either light or grief (or anything in between) into this world, I can speak to this because of my pregnancies. With Philip I felt the same light and ease about him as I did for all the years he was here. With Natalie, I felt a heaviness, and a stubbornness. And she and I have talked about what it is she feels she carries because there are times and ways she’s troubled that seem to just be part of her.

And she is both wonderfully and exasperatingly stubborn.

Regardless of how I got wherever I was, when I was 24 I walked into AA  and thought I found the answer. Back then, I thought there was an “answer.” A one thing I was missing that maybe could be found there. I went to meetings nearly every day for ten years. I watched people come into the rooms and get sober and get earnest and get God and I just didn’t understand why I didn’t get it, too. After two years of not drinking, a man I knew said to me, “This is the first time I’ve seen you at a meeting and you aren’t crying.” Crying has been a big part of my life. It was the only way I knew to ask for help.

I refused gratitude because something always felt wrong. I didn’t want to live and I didn’t think that was normal. I figured most people were happy to be alive but had their moments when they struggled. Not so me. Depression was my baseline; anything else was an aberration. I had a job, a nice apartment, I was making friends in AA; none of it mattered because of what I felt. No matter what I did, I was unhappy. And angry that I was following the rules but God didn’t reach his hand inside my gut and wrench that misery right out once and for all.

I didn’t consider that vomiting on a daily basis had anything to do with my state of mind. I’d started doing that when I was 22, and continued for the first three years or so after I stopped drinking.  I stopped when I met Phil, who seemed quite sane in the face of my crazy and who I didn’t think would stick around if I kept flushing all dinners he treated me to down the toilet. So I dragged myself to the city to attend the Bulimic/Anorexic stepchild-meeting of AA and got control of not only eating, but of letting the food stay in my belly once it got there.

But AA remained the main front. One day I did my fourth step. That means I “made a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. There isn’t any one way to do it, but at my sponsor’s suggestion I looked at all the troubled relationships of my past and wrote about them as honestly as I could. Four hours later, I’d learned something. Every relationship I wrote about was the same. I could’ve save 3 hours and 45 minutes had I just changed the names. It couldn’t be that all the people in these relationships were the asses I thought they were. I had a part in all of it, but I couldn’t yet see it.

Of course, all that did was cement the idea that there is something wrong with me.

It’s been a torturous route to gratitude, and it isn’t the fullness and peace I imagined it would be. And I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why so much of what matters in life is learned through suffering. Is it the curse of living in a world of opposites? I mean, how do we know except by contrast? If everything was, say, red, then we wouldn’t know not-red. If I’m “happy” all the time, how would I know that I am, except by its unhappy opposite?

Ironically enough, I’ve learned of gratitude through Philip’s death. See, I know how much worse this could have been. If he had to die, at least there was the clarity of love between us.  And I do believe I was being prepared for his death. The images of him dead, picturing myself at his wake, the terrible vulnerability I felt in him and the desperation I had to let him know that I loved him. The joke about finding him dead of an overdose.  That apology I made to him, that seemed to come from nowhere. Philip’s answer to that was, “Mom, I love you and I’m grateful for you.”

He was 21, and he knew gratitude. When I was 21, I sat in a bathtub  and hacked at my wrists with a razor. Yet he is dead, and I am not. Am I the only one who finds this bizarre?

I am grateful that much as Philip’s dead, he’s not gone. He’s not here the way I want him to be, but he’s here in the way I need him. I’m blessed to feel him, to hear him enough to write down what he’s trying to teach me. I’m grateful for the people he’s brought into my life since he died, and for forcing me to feel the heart I didn’t know I had.  He is my muse. And I am grateful that he cracked me wide open because something had to jolt me into the reality I’ve spent my life trying to avoid.

But gratitude is a place I visit, not the home that I yearn for. I’m still struggling with things I’ve struggled with long before Philip died, before he was even born, things that seem insurmountable now that he’s gone. And if my life felt hard more than good when he was alive, it feels impossible to cope with now. Philip’s trying to teach me how to do that. Then you shouldn’t have left me, I tell him; you shouldn’t be gone.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. behindthemaskofabuse
    Aug 05, 2013 @ 00:30:12

    My heart is with you xo


  2. Trackback: Blog Challenge from a Little Red Fan- When Have You Felt Out of Place? | Little Red & Her Writing
  3. Lucia Maya
    Aug 05, 2013 @ 01:52:33

    Wow. What a beautiful, vulnerable and profound piece Denise! I’m deeply touched that in Philip’s death, you have learned gratitude, and that he continues to share that with you. How amazing.
    Sending much love, Lucia


    • Denise
      Aug 06, 2013 @ 09:29:22

      Thanks, Lucia. What a heartbreaking way to learn gratitude; but I think that’s it. The heart-breaking. As I wrote in my tagline, “A broken heart is open to receive.”


  4. Maura
    Aug 06, 2013 @ 07:40:59

    I do not suffer from depression, but my son does. My suffering is nothing like yours or his, but it is deeply difficult to see someone you love suffer. The worst way that depression hurts someone is the way it isolates them from others. People love them, but those who suffer depression so often just don’t know or feel it. It is a very heavy cross for sufferers, worse than physical disability.

    You ask why we have to learn through suffering. Is it not the one way that demands – not suggests or invites – that for survival’s sake, we call out to others for help or to provide succour?

    I can only recommend what has helped me. I pray the rosary daily, sometimes more than once. I start the day by turning my son over to God, reminding myself that “His eye is on the sparrow.” And I look to the saints who have suffered from depression or alcoholism: St. Benedict Joseph Laboure and Blessed Matt Talbot.

    I sometimes feel like an eavesdropper reading your story and about your sorrow, but we do need to hear voices like yours that provide a window into what you suffer. May the Lord Bless You and Keep you and send you consolation.


    • Denise
      Aug 06, 2013 @ 09:27:26

      Thank you for your kind words, Maura. And I believe you’re right; suffering demands calling out for help. In that way we learn to love; what other reason are we here for?


  5. Lucia Maya
    Aug 10, 2013 @ 02:12:26

    I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Your writing is wonderful and you deserve this recognition! Here are the details on what to do if you choose to accept the award:
    blessings, Lucia


  6. Denise Hisey
    Aug 25, 2013 @ 11:22:12

    Denise, your raw vulnerability is incredibly powerful. Thank you for sharing this story; though mine is different, much of what you say resonates with me. I appreciate and admire your honesty.
    My kids have been two of my best teachers about life, love, and forgiveness. God truly blessed me with them as He did you with Philip.


    • Denise
      Aug 25, 2013 @ 13:24:22

      Thank you, Denise; and yes, your story is different, but you survived something I don’t pretend to imagine. Yet as you say, you’re trying to thrive; I take comfort in that, I do. Because if you can suffer and come out the other side, maybe I can, too.


      • Denise Hisey
        Aug 25, 2013 @ 19:12:50

        It’s the beauty of this blogging community -that by sharing our stories we can help each other heal. “When one falls, the other shall pick him up.” We’re in this together.

  7. Denise
    Aug 25, 2013 @ 21:42:40

    “We’re in this together.” Four words that never fail to make me cry, yet bring profound comfort at the same time. Thank you; so much suffering, yet so much grace.


  8. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 19:35:02

    I don’t know why suffering is placed on so many of us, I am only at August reading your blog , not sure if you ever found that happy dancing, spirit filled, clap your hands, tears of love and happiness I have found God feeling in your heart. I have not, would that help? Many say it does. He/She hasn’t touched me like that.


  9. Denise
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 19:45:34

    No, I’ve not; I didn’t know it before Philip died, and now, I’m too grieved. But never mind clapping hands; some peace, I think, would be good.


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