My life at that moment seemed almost impossible to live.
Twenty four months earlier I had declared myself a raging alcoholic on the verge of prolonged suicide and spent five weeks in an addiction clinic.
Thirteen months earlier I had given up smoking thinking that as I had managed to do it with one addiction, the second one would be easier.
Six months earlier I had finally decided to give up what I hoped was my last addiction. I divorced my husband.
So there I was: 18 months and I was free of every visible addiction. The night my then ex-husband moved out I put on Julie Andrews singing “The Sound of Music” as loud as it would play and invited two friends over for dinner. The high lasted approximately three weeks and then the crying started. Not only couldn’t I stop crying every morning, every evening and several hours in between, but also I felt as if I were dying and life was just not worth living. I dragged myself through each day more miserable it seemed than the day before. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I was doing everything I knew to do: I was going to AA meetings on a daily basis, sometimes twice a day; I had two hours a week with my therapist; every Friday, I was following a recovery program at the clinic where I had been interned; I had formed a group of divorced friends to go to the movies and out to dinner with; I was even dating a man I was interested in, but the pain not only didn’t stop, it seemed to get worse with every day that passed.
The morning was the worst time. I didn’t even have to open my eyes. The moment consciousness crept in I would curl into a ball under the covers feeling the pressure in my chest, the knot in the stomach and the clamp on my throat, and begin to cry: a ball of nothingness. My Labrador retriever who slept by the bed would get so upset she would slink into the closet and not come out again until I stopped. Sometimes it was well over an hour before I did.
The day in question I had had my morning cry, finally stopped, taken my bath and was standing in the middle of my dressing room when it hit me again and I was sobbing, holding onto my midriff as if trying to control some insatiable beast that gnawed at my heart. Suddenly it seemed to me as if everything was in vain: the effort, the sobriety, the good-girl-I-will-do-anything-necessary stance, the hope, the feigned cheerfulness, the smile so that someday if I kept it up my body might follow suit. Suddenly there was nothing but pain and despair and the absolute absence of hope that this would eventually end.
I remember dropping to my knees, I remember letting my forehead fall until it hit the floor, I remember howling, the tears dripping off my nose onto the carpet; I remember clenching my fists and beating on the floor. I remember crying out: “I am doing everything I know how to do, I am doing my best. What am I doing wrong? What the f__k am I doing wrong? Please, please help me.” I knew I was talking to God, a God in which I didn’t believe, a God whose mention I had crossed out at every step in The Big Book, penciling in over it H.P. for “Higher Power” (euphemism for “God”, obviously), so I knew I was in absolute contradiction to myself, but I didn’t care: I was dying.
Seeing as I had asked a question, in order to hear the answer, if there was one which I didn’t really expect, I had to be quiet. The crying stopped and I lay there, forehead on the floor, butt sticking up into the air, and listened to the silence. My mind was strangely quiet. There was no answer. I dragged myself to my feet feeling utterly exhausted, and sat down at the dressing table contemplating, in the mirror, the disaster area I called a face. Slowly, I swabbed on the cold-cream and began trying to repair the damage. Although it was an almost impossible job, I had actually gotten as far as my eyelashes which I was applying mascara to when I heard the voice. It was clear, it was deep and it wasn’t mine even though it resonated in my head.
“B, Life doesn’t owe you anything.”
In the emptiness that followed I sat in stunned silence. Nothing had changed, nothing had moved, but the quiet was so deep that I could hear my ears ringing. And then the implications of those words began to creep in. First, the most obvious: Of course, Life had given me life, nothing more, just as it gave life to the African children that were starving or to the millions of Chinese or to the birds or to freaks or to the trees, the sons of millionaires, the insects, the schizophrenics, mosquitoes… Life had given me life, no promises, no bonuses, no dressings, no guaranties, no commitments: just life. Nothing more. Job done, gift sufficient in and of itself.
But then…. ¿everything else I had? Gravy! Life was the great gift and mine had come with … trimmings! Not only had I taken this completely for granted, not only had I believed and acted as if this were the most expected thing on earth in spite of being able to ascertain at every turn that not everyone in the world enjoyed such benefits, but I also had deemed it my right to complain about all the things that popped into my mind and that I didn’t have, happiness and fulfillment being just about always number one and two on my list. I had been staring right into the hole in the doughnut. I had done nothing to deserve this abundance; it was included in my package: gift upon gift upon gift, an uncountable overflow for which I had never once said –or thought- ‘thank you’; never, not once, for nothing, not even for life itself and much less for any of the millions upon millions of moments filled with everything I needed to sustain and enrich it.
“Life doesn’t owe you anything, Life doesn’t owe you anything, Life doesn’t owe you anything” ran over and over in my mind imprinting on every cell its truth. Life didn’t. I could have been born and died a few minutes later; I could have found myself in a family that lived in a garbage heap and sorted waste for a living; I could have been an orphan or the princess of Monaco or brainless (which is what it seemed I was), and still I would have received the gift of life. The nowness of realization crept slowly into the deep stillness that surrounded me like solid matter. I was an ungrateful wretch. Life saw fit to march before my mind’s eye not only everything I at that moment had, but everything I had ever had in my life, the richness, the unending generosity, the unbelievable goodness of it all.
As understanding was experienced… understanding that I was not a victim, but believing I was had seemed to give me power; understanding that in my childishness I feared gratitude as if it were a ball and chain that forever attached me to the service of the one who had seemingly given; understanding that I had never learned gratitude not because I was bad but because I was innocent; understanding of how really close gratitude and love are, so close they could be one… as understanding was experienced, a strange inkling of joy entered my heart.
As if suddenly I were a different person, I looked around me for the first time. I saw the four walls, the window looking out onto the garden with its tree in the middle, the closets that lined the far wall, closets filled with clothes that I could chose from to wear each day. Above my head, a ceiling protected me from the rain, the cold, the wind or the beating sun. Through the door I could see the bath tub and shower, the blue speckled curtain that kept the water from splashing onto the bath mat, the sink and toilet on the other side that allowed me comfort and cleanliness. Through the bathroom I could reach the bedroom with its king-size bed (left over from my marriage) that invited me to sleep in any way I pleased: up or down, across or diagonally; the clean sheets, the warm blankets and so many ceilings and walls and doors and windows for my pleasure and ease. Down a short flight of stairs, the ample living room, pleasant dining room, the kitchen fully equipped, a washing machine and dryer, a small library lined with all my books, a computer, phones, mirrors… endless, endless; innumerable, unnamable. The images of objects and containers and utilities and furniture and… everything flooded so rapidly into my mind that I could not contain them all, could not even begin to contemplate the infinitude of wealth that was my life just in that moment, and in that moment I was fifty-two years old, so what was present today had to be multiplied by at least 18,980 days, 455,520 hours, 27,331,200 minutes, 16,398,720,000 seconds to simply begin to encompass what my life had been at every instant for as long as it had lasted till then, and I had never once said “Thank you”.
Suddenly I found myself reaching out my hand, touching the dressing table, “thank you”, the chair, “thank you”, my own lips “thank you”, walking to the wall, “thank you”, throwing a kiss to the ceiling, “thank you”, racing down the stairs, “thank you”, brushing my hand over the back of the sofa “thank you”, passing through the dining room “thank you”, embracing the refrigerator “thank you”, opening the tap “thank you”, filling a glass with cool water “thank you”, feeling the fresh liquid pour down my throat “thank you” and allowing my gaze to float through the window up to the blue sky lying beyond the leaves of the willow tree “thank you”. Slowly I went back to the living room and stood in the middle “thank you” repeating my mantra at every step “thank you” and then I was on my knees for the second time that day “thank you, thank you” and resting my forehead on the carpet once more “thank you thank you” and crying “thank you thank you” unashamedly “thank you thank you” out of sheer gratitude and joy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
At that moment, my chocolate Labrador came out of the closet, down the steps and across the room, and laid her soft, warm muzzle on my back. I sat up and looked into her honey-colored eyes, my heart filled with love, and said: “Thank you”. She placed her two front paws on my shoulders and slurped her long pink tongue right across my face and I could have sworn she was laughing. I was. Thank you.