Fighting Gratitude

Photo Credit: Neil Kremer via Compfight cc

Dawn breaks into my bedroom like a baseball through a window. I am tired before I even get up, worn out from a game that has not yet begun.

I manage the start well. I pack lunches, check emails, and schedule appointments as I should. I feel even and productive. It is an effort, but I accomplish what needs get done.

As the sun grows brighter, my mood dims. A single sock I find on the floor irritates me. A trip to the grocery store seems daunting. An innocuous request by a repair man for a serial number that is difficult for me to read causes me to grit my teeth in frustration.

A friend stops by unexpectedly to pick up a dish. As kind people do when speaking with someone who has been ill, she offers the obligatory, “How are you doing?”

“I’m great,” I muster in my upbeat voice. “Honestly, in the grand scheme of things, I am lucky. It could have been cancer, or it could have happened to one of my kids, I am just grateful for all the support we’ve had.”

The dialogue is well-rehearsed and appropriately measured. I hear the words come out with sincerity, and I feel my head bobbing at the right tempo to demonstrate I am engaged in the conversation. My thin lips purse together in a slight smile, and I tilt my head to the side to show I am appreciative of the thoughts and prayers this generous person provided to me during my time of need.

I am always surprised as the bitter taste of resentment creeps up in my throat like bile during these discussions. I am grateful my community rallied around my family when I suffered from a rare eye disease that sidelined me for several months. I am grateful for the support of my dear family. I am grateful I did not lose my vision completely as others have.

Yet, my fury at contracting a disease that happens to only one in a million people lays thick like a layer of blubber, crushing my gratitude deeper into a black hole. Despite being on the back end of my recovery, I am still irritated that it happened at all.

Following the encounter, my mood changes. The disconnect starts. I feel my energy draining like a toy dying from old batteries. I find myself in a room with my kids, yet I cannot engage in today’s school stories. I smile and nod and sometimes even laugh. I cluck reminders to “hurry up” or “get your soccer shoes on.” I tell a joke that even gets them to chuckle. Then I walk away from the moment like it never happened.

I look around at my beautiful home but only see the dust and paper and crumbs scattered around like the remains of a party I did not attend. The chaos of a family of five that once brought joy feels more like carrying a pile of bricks on my back.

I heave a load of laundry up the stairs to fold, convincing myself of its importance and push back the thoughts that I am avoiding interaction with those who love me most.

Alone, I let the shame wash over my body. My pulse quickens as I recite all the positives in my life, a gratitude routine that should bring me peace. I close my eyes and whisper: “Wonderful children, loving husband, healthy body, beautiful home, great friends.”

The chant should calm me, should shift the numbness to happiness, move the feelings of loneliness to love; but it does not work. Again.

The fight I have with gratitude each day is exhausting. It is a never-ending tug-of-war that slowly deflates my soul like a nail in a tire.

The positive attitude that defined my life no longer exists. I am an actress playing a role I no longer understand.

I am in a self-defined purgatory. There is no way someone like me, someone who has everything, could be depressed about their life. There is no way I can’t get past this. There is no way I shouldn’t be grateful.

Then night comes, as it always does, and I start to obsess. What else will happen? What bad thing will come next?

As the minutes click by on the red lights illuminating my bedroom, I try and focus on what I have overcome this year which leads to a chain reaction of extreme emotions. I think about finishing my meds for my eye disease. I remember my pride with my daughter’s release from a therapy program. I am happy that my family is now settled after a transfer to a new state. I think about the people I left behind when we moved. I miss the friend I lost to cancer and the dog we put down. I fear my vision will never be the same. I worry about my marriage if we have to move again for my husband’s job.

The push and pull from practicing gratitude weighs heavily on my heart. It never comes easily to me.

It is work. It is hard. It is exhausting.

As night disintegrates into dawn, I slowly wake, feeling raw and weathered from another tortuous sleep. I begin my day the same but feel like the last threads holding my life together are about to break. Something needs to give.

I decide to walk out of the shadow of gratitude. Today I will be grateful; but first, I will be honest.

I call an old friend to tell her I miss her. I break down and talk to her about nerve pain, headaches, and poor vision. I don’t say it in passing. I discuss it at length and in detail, describing how much it bothers me, how frustrated I am that the scarring in my eye limits my reading, my computer time, my life. I selfishly complain about the little things — too many soccer practices during dinner, not enough time to write, and an annoying encounter with a woman in the grocery store.

I am lighter after hanging up the phone, almost relaxed. The day passes by quickly and effortlessly.

Later, I let my kids eat in front of the television, and I sit with them marveling at their long limbs and dirty feet and hair that smells like sweat and outside. I am relieved just to watch them as they sit like zombies transfixed at the flood of animated colors filling the screen. I find great satisfaction in the comfort of our flesh touching each other against the leather couch without the need to pretend I am engaged in their stories. I enjoy them on my terms, and it feels as if I am seeing them for the first time after a long trip.

Later that evening, I lay in my husband’s arms, crying about a life I no longer know how to live. I do not talk myself out of my fear and anger this time. It flows as easily as the tears streaming down my face. I face the dissatisfaction with my life and the events in it head on, accepting that my struggles are difficult and real.

At the end of my break down, I can sense he wants more of me, yet I have nothing left to give. I feel the slightest twinge of guilt as I selfishly leave our bed, but I’m not pretending I’m okay today. Not even for him.

I decide to shower, and it feels more like a baptism as the warm water races over my head. My breathing flows and for the first time in what feels like forever, I look forward to the next day. I make plans in my head for what I want to accomplish, excited to tackle my simple life instead of run from it.

As I settle deep under the covers, I recite my gratitude list again. It is easier this time, uninterrupted and longer than usual. I listen to the cadence of my husband’s breathing and despite my swollen eyes and puffy nose, I feel satisfied that this is exactly where I need to be. Yes, even where I want to be.

My thoughts drift to the past year, filled with pain and conflicts and lows. And for the first time, instead of marginalizing my struggles, I embrace it with the all the energy I can muster. It is a part of me, whether I like it or not. I cannot “gratitude” it away, nor pretend it does not exist.

My weaknesses are now exposed, and hiding it no longer seems worthy of the experience. Others suffering may be more, but that does not mean mine did not matter. I cradle the pain, imprinting the feeling on my soul like a tattoo, so as never to forget this flash of understanding.

I am grateful for this moment of consciousness, grateful for my life, grateful to be living it.

And when night returns, as it always does, I sleep.


Whitney Fleming

Whitney Fleming is a public relations consultant and freelance writer. She lives with her husband and three tween daughters in the Chicago suburbs. She is trying to break out of the mold of being a typical suburban mom despite that she is often seen driving her minivan around the to soccer tournaments or volunteering for the PTA. She blogs about parenting, relationships and w(h)ine at Playdates on Fridays, and is featured on sites such as Huffington Post, In the Powder Room, Scary Mommy, Club Mid and The Mighty, among others.

3 thoughts on “Fighting Gratitude

  1. doriowendoriowen

    I loved your story, Whitney. You have such a gift for bringing your readers into the moment. I’ve had those autopilot days and sleepless nights…you describe them so well. I’m so glad you shared your story on Feminine Collective. I hope there will be more! ~D.

  2. Kitt O'MalleyKitt O'Malley

    Beautifully written. Living with illness is challenging. Hell, living without illness can be a struggle. Love how you took us on your journey to acceptance.

  3. B. Janine MorisonB. Janine Morison

    Having had several eye surgeries myself this resonated deeply with me. Great essay.

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