You Can't Take a Drink With Your Hands in the Sink

By Angus Thomas 01/04/15

If you are giving back—then you can’t use your hands for destructive behaviours.


It's about this time of year when AA topic meetings inevitably turn to the subject of gratitude. Now, in my 15th year of sobriety, I don’t go to meetings so much, but I remember my heart would sink when someone would suggest gratitude as a topic.

The list is endless, but gratitude, for me, means being a verb not a noun. 

When I first got sober, I loved the subject because I was indeed grateful to be sober and relatively sane—I was also working hard to be the “AA Member of the Year” (no such thing exists by the way) and was seriously waiting to be talent spotted by Head Office for some position on an AA global committee. However, as time went on, I became more and more cynical about gratitude in all its various guises. Grateful for what?

There are the people who say they are grateful to be an alcoholic. For me, I have never heard anything so insane as being grateful to be afflicted with the third largest killer disease known to man.  The rest of my family certainly didn’t feel the love on that one after years of enduring my moods, instability, anxiety, unemployment, depression and all-around failure.

I think what they actually mean is what I feel, which I am grateful to have discovered the life that sobriety has introduced me to. I write this on the morning of New Year's Day having just run 6km along the River Thames with my AA bride, Tanya. I am looking forward to starting my nutrition MSc whilst still earning a living as a photographer, a career I learned from YouTube in recovery. I am grateful to know fabulous mental and physical health, the love of my children and a wonderfully devoted wife, the value of a dollar and for the ability to earn a living and support those I love. 

The list is endless, but gratitude, for me, means being a verb not a noun. As my fellowship friend, the late Liverpool Tommy, was fond of saying, “If you’ve got your hands in the sink, you can’t take a drink.” What he meant, I think, was if you are giving back, engaged, actively investing in something, then you can’t use your hands for destructive behaviors.

Investment has been a key feature of my own recovery. If I invest in something, I am far more likely to love, nurture and defend it. The stand-out example would be my recovery—I have invested an incredible amount of time in AA meetings, in time with my sponsor, in doing the Steps, in making amends, in writing Step 10s, in praying, meditating, and in sponsoring other men. And then there’s the therapy, the men's group, and the physical side of my recovery including exercise, learning yoga, learning meditation and learning how to align my diet with a sober way of life.

Investing in something means being a verb—a doing thing. Being a noun is like admitting in Step 1, but not doing my Step 4. Question: Three monkeys are sitting on a branch over a stream and they all decide to jump in. How many left? Answer: Three—all they did was make a decision. Being grateful as a noun doesn’t cut the mustard. Lots of people admit they are beaten, come to some form of recovery solution and stay there in the hope that if they maintain this shape they wont suffer again. But one thing is certain—nothing stays the same and what worked today probably won’t work the same in a day, a month, or a year's time.

We need to invest in recovery with time, energy and yes, money. We need to have the mind of a Zen warrior and seek answers, we need to want to discover if there is more to know beyond what I know today – be inquisitive – be a verb. In short, we need to want it and we need to get busy getting it – it takes action.

I look back on my first marriage with sadness and happiness in equal measure. My wife was fortunate enough to come into a very significant amount of money, which changed all of our lives, but for me it was the day I stopped investing in anything. Yes, I bought stuff and we certainly spent money, but I never invested the money in taking us forward as I felt I hadn’t earned it. I didn’t invest anything of myself in our relationship as my chronic low self-esteem told me I didn’t deserve it, although it told me I deserved the cash. Easy come, easy go – and it went.

In a similar vein, I have a friend James (name changed) who discovered in his late twenties that he was the sole beneficiary of a large financial estate in Italy left by his step-father’s aunt. How remote can you get? There were problems with resolving ownership of the estate, but he always knew he would get something. From the moment he knew about the inheritance, his life slid from city trader to country tennis player and house-husband, as he sat back and waited in self-imposed poverty for the payout.

During the lows of his existence, including the angst of his impoverished wife, his unemployment and the death of his mother I supported him emotionally and was made godfather to his youngest daughter. He came into his money, over $10m, 15 years later, just as I was divorcing. At this point he withdrew into his fortune and would have nothing to do with me. His lack of generosity and air of entitlement indicated to me a man not in touch with any gratitude for the change in his fortune because at the root of it is an unearned bounty. Gratitude can only come from conscious investment.

I am now remarried to Tanya, a recovering anorexic and drug addict. As we approach our fourth year of marriage, I can see how making an investment into this relationship has meant that I now fight tooth and nail to preserve and nourish what we have created. We have invested time, and what money we have, galvanizing kids together as a new family, in bringing our parents together to head a new unit, in our house, in our recoveries, in our careers and in supporting each other. 

So as we head into the new year and the conversation turns to an introspective discussion on this vague concept of gratitude remember this: It is better to actively invest than passively receive because only after you have started investing will you reap the rewards of gratitude as a verb.

Happy New Year.

Angus Thomas is a London based portrait photographer, wellness advocate & athlete using #plantpower to fuel his journey. He last wrote about lifting weights (instead of a drink).

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