There is a prayer in the Jewish tradition called Modeh Ani, or in English, “I give thanks.” It is supposed to be recited every morning, while still in bed or during the morning routine, as a way to start the day with gratitude. My mother decided about a year ago that she wanted to try it. She and my dad started taking a minute together every morning to say the Hebrew words and then share something or someone they each felt grateful for that day.
Not long after trying out this tradition, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. While she had previously enjoyed the morning gratitude, she now clung to it for hope.
Copious research shows the benefits of practicing gratitude. It can give an immediate mood boost. Expressing gratitude to others helps foster positive relationships. It can even help treat anxiety and depression. Practicing gratitude, as in journaling, meditating, or writing thank you letters on a regular basis, can actually rewire your brain; participants who practiced gratitude in one study not only felt better in the short-term, but brain scans showed noticeable change in follow ups months later!
Expressing gratitude in the good moments can feel easy or unimportant, but getting into the practice when things are good can help bolster you in the moments when life, and illness, gets tough. Having the routine in place helps keep you doing it when it feels difficult, and the increased brain activity in that part of your brain will give you hope even if you fall out of the habit.
As we brace ourselves for winter and for the food and festivities that may trigger our symptoms, let’s finish November by getting in the habit of gratitude!
I personally feel more grateful than usual this year. I am so thankful that my mother has finished chemo and surgeries went well. I am grateful for parents who model positive practices and the honest struggles and joys of a healthy marriage. I am grateful that my family’s relationship with my illnesses has settled; they have accepted — as I finally have — that this is my state of being. It does not need to be fixed. I am so thankful every day to know that I can call my parents, siblings, or partner at any point to express pain, grief, or fear, and know that they will listen without judgement.
I have struggled throughout life to find solid friendships. I’m sure much of this was due to hiding the sick part of myself and the shame that shrouded it. I feel so fortunate to finally have the social life I’ve always wanted. I have friends close by with whom I can be myself. I can excuse myself to go be horribly sick while they chill in the living room, and then come back to finish the evening with them without feeling ashamed. I have had to do significant weeding of my friends, only putting energy and spoons into the few who would be accepting and supportive, and who “get it,” no questions asked. In the end, many of my friends are now fellow spoonies. I am so grateful to have met these incredible souls — the spoonie community truly understands patience, compassion, vulnerability… not to mention the value of hanging out in silence and darkness!
I am thankful for the conversation last year with a coworker who reminded me that my value to the community does not need to be monetary, that leaving my spoon-sapping job may actually mean I can contribute in more meaningful ways. I am proud of myself for following my heart and not my pride, and finding part-time work that met my physical needs so that I now have the energy for the friends, family, and self-care practices that keep me stable and sane. And I am thankful for my new coworkers who have, without question, dimmed the lights, turned off the heat, and put a recliner in the staff room so that I can make it through the day without crashing.
I am eternally grateful for the providers who have made my growth this year possible. To the NP who mapped my entire history, validated that I was not “just anxious,” and named the answer I’d been seeking for 15 years — thank you. To the therapist who referred me to the NP after observing “you don’t seem depressed, you seem sick” — thank you. To the geneticist I drove 10 hours each way to see, who radiated warmth and kindness, who answered all of my questions and comforted my tears — 100 times, thank you. To the physical therapists who have not only put my body back together countless times, but refused to let me believe that my gym days were over — thank you. To the neurologist who, last week, didn’t scoff at my theories but instead said “Hmm, that’s an interesting thought. Do you have any research I could take a look at?” And every doctor who has said “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’m so sorry” or asked “how do you think we should move forward?” — Thank you.
And to everyone who has driven me to appointments, talked and cried with me afterwards, held me when I was shaking, helped me to the ground when I couldn’t stand, cooked me food that wouldn’t trigger me, reminded me to eat when my blood sugar was low, told me it was ok to just lay in bed another few hours, incorporated the spoon theory into their daily language, pushed me up a hill when I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own… or the thousand other ways you’ve been my allies and rocks and angels — thank you, from the bottom of my heart, I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.
I hesitated for days before writing this. It can be so difficult to let go of the pain and grief of endless illness. But as I lie on the couch staring at what I’ve written today, my heart feels as full as my tear-filled eyes. Just a few years ago, I don’t think I could have imagined the support that providers, coworkers, friends, and family have shown me this year. I think back to the 25 year old me, collapsed on the bathroom floor, angry and scared and lonely. I have a long way up still to go, but I hope I never take for granted how far I was able to climb this year, and the people who made it possible.
So, no matter where you’re at in your journey, take a minute to be thankful. Better yet, schedule a minute every day to focus on gratitude. It may not come easily at first, and you may need some tips for keeping it going. After a week or two, take note of how it has impacted you!
We’d love to hear who you’re thankful for this year or if you have any gratitude practices we could learn from! Share in the Friends in the Fight facebook group.