For most of the summer, it felt like my right leg was on fire. The rheumatoid arthritis that I’d had since the age of three flared so intensely with lightning bolt heat radiating through my ankle and into my knee that sleep was impossible. Elevating the leg didn’t help. My medication had no effect. Treatment options? Too invasive to try. So, when I could no longer grit it out, I would get up and begin walking. Stretching that joint was excruciating but over time, it loosened as I walked and that helped ease the pain slightly. Until, I laid down and it all started again.
The good news, each night during this three month period, I got my 10,000 steps in for the day. Bad news? Most of those steps came between 12:30 and 4 a.m.
I was uncomfortable, scared that I would somehow get stuck this way, and utterly, exhausted. I felt broken and angry and was having a hard time tuning in to anything but the pain. Still, I knew that in order to get through it, in order to move myself into a better, more creative, resilient place where I could deal with this circumstance more proactively, I need to cling to the good stuff. I needed to practice gratitude and notice all the things that were working in my life, instead of being consumed by what wasn’t.
There are always many things to be grateful for, but when we are in the shadows of life, sometimes we forget to notice them.
Gratitude in Good and Bad Times
Gratitude is easy when life is easy, right? When you are in love it’s easy to be grateful for the guy who shows up with flowers. Can you also be grateful when he’s late getting home on the one night you are supposed to go out with the girls?
Gratitude is easy when the baby is sleeping quietly through the night. What about when the baby hasn’t slept through a night in four months and spends most of the day crying?
It’s all good and easy to give thanks for when the food is on the table, the boss compliments you at work, the car is humming. But can you also give thanks when the recipe is ruined and the boss is a jerk and car repairs are going to run $1,200?
Can you be grateful then?
The Power of Gratitude
Gratitude matters – all the time. It is a game changer. According to researcher Robert Emmons and others, a regular gratitude practice aids our immune system, lowers heart rate, increases our sense of well-being and happiness. It also builds resilience and optimism – which means we need it more than ever when life is hard. When the cancer comes back or the job is lost or the marriage is ending.
Gratitude can make our best days brighter, and it is the one thing that can help us make it through the tough times. It is not frivolous. Not a luxury. It is a coping strategy. And it works.
Shout Out the Good Stuff
When the arthritis flared so violently this summer, it chipped away at my sanity. The months of pain and lack of sleep pain conspired to undermine my marriage (I was so grouchy), my job (so hard to focus) and my relationship with my daughter (so tired, no energy to play), and I knew I had to make a dramatic shift before all of the dominoes started to fall.
I’d always had a gratitude practice, but to get through this big-time stuff, I knew I needed to amp it up a bit. To make it boisterous and intense and bigger than the physical struggle I was in.
Each morning, instead of complaining and lamenting about the pain and how many hours I’d been up – as I had done — I decided not even to mention it. I began giving thanks for the hours I had slept. Of course I was still awake most of the night, but I stopped focusing on that. I shifted my energy to what was working.
Each morning I’d text a friend with the good news: “I slept two hours last night.” Or, “I got in a full four.”
I wrote the number in my calendar to remind myself during the day that I’d gotten some good sleep and I made other notes: “When I was up last night, the house was so peaceful, I love the quiet.” Another note: “The moon was so beautiful tonight, it lit up the house.”
And, each morning after Sweet P left for school, I’d sit quietly and think about the hours I’d slept and the other good things I’d discovered. Then I’d give a big ol’ shout out to the Universe. “Thank You.” And I do mean I shouted it out. After all, I needed to kick it up a notch. Then, I let myself experience the emotions of those positive things. Gratitude gains power when we allow the good feelings to flow in.
I begin doing this several times a day. Once, as I was driving my daughter and her friend to soccer, I turned the music off and ordered everyone to give thanks for 30 seconds. We noticed the changing leaves and the sunset and the safety of the seatbelts. My daughter was mortified. But, I felt myself coming alive again.
And, after a couple of weeks of this boisterous practice, an amazing thing happened; I began to relax a bit. I wasn’t so tight. I began to sleep a bit more – at first one or two days a week. Though I still felt flooded by the pain and fatigue, my clarity returned and I felt more hopeful. And creative.
That’s when I knew, I could find my way through. Because, when we are creative, we are better problem solvers. We see possibility. We are proactive and more open and inspired. I began to think differently about my care. Considered different options. Became more aggressive in my treatment. By the time my physical condition improved, I was already feeling better. Gratitude got me through.
Gratitude is the emotional supplement that supports us no matter what we face and it’s there for you even during your darkest nights.
In Wednesday’s post, I’ll share some practical tips to help you practice gratitude even when it’s hard and you don’t feel like it.