Recovery Connections

John Schwary is CEO of Transitional Living Communities, an 900-bed recovery program he founded in Mesa, Arizona January 9, 1992, when he had a year sober. He's in his 29th year of recovery.

In these posts, he views life mostly through the lenses of recovery. While the blog is factual, he often disguises events and people to protect anonymity.

Sunday, December 8, 2019


It was about this time of year in 1990 that I decided that it was time for me to get sober. Nothing in life was going right. I didn't have a job. I had to steal every day to survive and get enough alcohol and drugs to carry me through till the next day. And probably the biggest thing of all that made me get sober is that I was just plain unhappy with my life.

There'd been times before I fell deep into my addictions when I'd owned businesses, houses, and had good relationships with friends and family. But I was at the point in my life in early December 1990 where I had nothing but the funky clothes on my back in and a serious drug habit to maintain.

And I guess I bring this up today because this time of year always reminds me of the last days of my using, and the beginning of my recovery. It's not really like I'm reflecting upon an anniversary but it does remind me of how far I've come from those many years ago when I was sleeping in the back seat of a stolen car.

I think reflecting upon the twists and turns of our lives is good for because it reminds us of where we might go if we don't pay attention to what we're doing each day. The Big Book has a line in it that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And while I was sure I fit that definition of insanity I certainly didn't think I was crazy. I just thought that I was having some bad luck or maybe that the stars weren't quite aligned in my favor. It took a lot of painful experiences before we decided to take a chance on recovery. And, I think it's probably the best thing that I ever did. For that reason I don't forget where I came from.

So in January 2020, on the 14th, it will be 29 years ago that I walked into a detoxification center on Bellevue St. in Mesa, AZ. And I had with me one of the most important things an addict can have if they want to get sober: and that was a willingness to go to any lengths to change my life. And I had that willingness.  And today my life is unbelievably wonderful thanks to all of those in recovery who spent the time to teach me how to live without substances.

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Thursday, December 5, 2019


A lot of times at AA meetings we hear the word "surrender "

Today I understand what surrender means, but at one time the way I walked through life was with the idea that I'd never surrender anything. And I didn't.

I was one of those arrogant, egotistical, people who thought they knew everything and thought they ran everything. No one could tell me anything about my lifestyle. About getting an education. About using drugs and alcohol. From the time I was a teenager I did things just the way I wanted to most of the time.

And playing captain of the universe as I did showed me just exactly how smart I was. Because nearly everything I put my hands on, I messed up. My know-it-attitude and unwillingness to listen to others resulted in me spending something like 16 years locked up in various types of institutions for stupid drug charges and the crimes associated with obtaining drugs.

Yet today, I follow the dictum in the big book that says "we ceased fighting anyone or anything..." And you know, for some reason the world is a much easier and pleasant place. I finally came to the point where I realize that cause-and-effect is a reality. That there's a purpose and a lesson behind nearly every challenge that we meet.

And I sometimes wonder – in moments of whimsy – why it took me so long to learn the simple lesson that there's a certain kind of sweet victory when we surrender in these unwinnable battles with ourselves.

For example, I used to have a bad habit of wanting to be right about everything – even if it didn't make a bigger difference one way or the other. It was just my fragile alcoholic ego at play and I wasn't even smart enough to recognize that.

Today I have strong opinions about things just like before; but the main thing is that I keep my mouth shut because no matter what I say I'm not going to convince anybody that I'm right or wrong. And even more than that nobody gives a crap because they have their own opinions.

To be sober and happy I believe that one must flow with life. I need to give up the idea that I have to always be right about everything. I believe that whenever we have a chance we must express kindness rather than anger over silly things that mean little or nothing. After all, life is short and we need to do our best to enjoy it without fighting with ourselves or anyone else. And that's how we surrender.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Carrying the Message

I've always understood that the primary purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers. And my definition of "still suffers" is that someone who may not be drinking, but may be so new that he or she doesn't understand how to apply the tools that are in the big book. The tools that have led millions over the past 75+ years onto the path of sobriety.

For someone new, the environment of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting can be intimidating. There are strange slogans on the wall that say such things as "One Day At A Time," or "Easy Does It." People are friendly. Some of them are laughing and virtually all extend their hand to welcome newcomers. Even though the group may seem friendly, there are many newcomers with a lot of social anxiety and are still suffering from withdrawals on top of that.

Yet, over the years I've seen several alcoholics with decades of recovery who behave so poorly in the meetings that it makes these newcomers so uncomfortable that I'm surprised to see them at the next meeting - if ever again.

Almost all of them fall under the category of what is known as "old-timer." One fellow, whom I haven't seen in probably a year, used to carry a dogeared big book around in a custom-made case and and collar a newcomer and begin to tell them exactly how to read the book, tell them loudly what was wrong with them, and generally badger them until they were looking for a place to hide – anywhere to get away from this pesky, overbearing loudmouth.

Last week, I saw an old timer approach a group of newcomers and do something similar. It seems this fellow has a fetish about where people sit in the meetings. He gets really upset if anyone sits in the back of the room when there are open chairs in the front. I think he's gone as far as to remove a couple of the back row chairs so people are forced to sit in the front of the room. However, at the meeting I'm talking about there were maybe one or two empty chairs in the front two rows when five or six people came in at the last moment, just as the meeting was starting.

So a few of them went to the back and brought chairs forward so they would have a place to sit. However, this old-timer jumped up and ran back and pointed to the front of the room and told them that there were plenty of chairs up front for them to sit in. Then I guess he noticed that there were only a couple of open chairs and allowed them to bring extra chairs forward so they would have a place to sit.

While I'm not sure what this old-timer's problem is, it probably has something to do with control and power. But the reality is that our goal in AA is to help people get sober. And anything that affects them negatively might interfere with that process.

I know that when I first came to 12 step meetings I didn't necessarily want to be there. And anything negative that would happen would be just one more reason for me to not be there. Today, after more than 25 years of recovery, I don't give a crap where anybody sits in a meeting or if they sit at all. To me, the important thing is that they're inside the room.  And hopefully some of the words they hear will sink into their subconscious.

The alcoholics and addicts who are not quite sure whether they want to be there will use any excuse at all to avoid having to come back. Especially when longtime members treat them rudely or embarrass them.

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Friday, November 29, 2019

Here and Now

One thing I've learned in almost 29 years of sobriety is that I 'm never in trouble when I'm living in the here and now.  Worry and anxiety are future things.   Depression occurs when I'm dredging through the garbage of my past.

But in this moment, right here and now, everything is just fine.  I have a job.  My doctor says I'm in good health.  I own stuff that's paid for.  I have a wide circle of friends, family, and acquaintances that I can call on for help.  I have a job that allows me to help others do something different with their lives if they're tired of drinking and drugging.

So, the point of this blog is that living in the here and now is desirable.  A healthy thing, a way to keep our brains from leading us astray.

About 20 years ago I decided to learn how live in the moment.  I took a course in meditation and kept it up on a twice daily basis for the next 15 years.  Then, I started investigating other kinds of meditation and decided to take a one year course to become a meditation instructor.  I thought it would be somthing I could use with those who are in our recovery program. And it's something I use periodically when someone seems like they might benefit by learning to live in the moment.

It has helped others when I teach them meditation, and at the same time it reinforces my own efforts to live in this moment - in the here and now.  And I find that that is a good thing because all we have is this moment -the here and now....

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019


Today I was at my dermatologist's office to have a growth removed from my forehead.

As he was describing the procedure, he explained that he was going to be careful when he closed the wound so he wouldn't leave a scar. I replied that while I appreciated his doing a good job I told him that I didn't think it would make much difference because not many people – if any – pay much attention to what my 80-year-old forehead looks like. I believe that people don't care much what any of us look like – they're usually quite interested in what they look like.  And understandably so,

In any event,  he completed the process much sooner than they'd planned and now I'm at home writing about my experience at the doctor's office.

As I was driving home I reflected upon the years I was raising my teenage daughter. If she had even a small pimple or blackhead she would want to stay home from school. While I never let her I did try to explain that people weren't too concerned about how she appeared because they spent a lot more time thinking about their own appearance. I'm not quite sure she was mature enough to understand exactly what I was saying because I'm sure, that to her, that small flaw was the size of Mount Vesuvius. And that she would be ostracized for the rest of the school year if anyone noticed it.

I think vanity has  made changes in our culture. The other day I went into the restroom at a local restaurant to wash my hands and noticed there were no mirrors. And that isn't the first time I experienced that. But on this last occasion I happened to run into the manager – a fellow I've known for some time – and asked him about the mirrors. He explained that he'd been forced to remove them, because many of his employees – from waiters to busboys – seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in front of them. He learned that whenever he was missing an employee, he could usually find them in front of the mirrors, admiring themselves.

As we grow older we realize that it's not who we are on the outside – it's what we are on the inside that determines what the world thinks of us. The superficial distortion looking back at us from the mirror rarely seems to improve.

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Saturday, November 23, 2019

Worthwhile Decision

One of the most worthwhile things I've done in my life is quit using any kind of drug or alcohol that wasn't prescribed by a doctor. And that was almost 29 years ago.

Now a lot of people who have never had a problem with substances might find that an extreme statement. I remember, when I was a young boy, every Christmas my grandmother used to have a glass of white wine with dinner. The glass wasn't very big but I remember she used to say something like "I can't drink anymore of this, I'm starting to feel it."

And in my later years when I was deep into my alcoholism I used to marvel at that statement. Because for me the only purpose of putting alcohol in my body was so that I could feel it. And the more I felt it, the better I liked it. And the same philosophy extended to the other illicit drugs that I used as a teenager until I got sober in my early 50s.

And this came up for me today while I was reflecting on my recovery while returning from my grandson's fifth birthday party. I began doing an inventory of all the blessings that have appeared in my life since I got clean and sober. And this birthday party was just another one of them. To see my grandson opening presents with all of his friends and relatives was priceless. And socializing with about 30 sober relatives and friends is something that I could never have imagined during the years of my addiction.

Because when I got sober I only wanted one thing: I wanted the pain to stop.

And before very long, probably when I had six months sober, the pain did stop. That didn't mean that the problems in my life stopped. But what it did mean is that I no longer lived with depression and anxiety about the path my life was taking. I became much stronger and more capable of dealing with my problems. I began to realize that life had its ups and downs. But, if I remained sober and clean those problems were much easier to deal with. Instead of looking at the bumps in the road as disasters, I began to look at them as challenges. And when I took that point of view things were much easier to deal with.

If you're an alcoholic or addict and you're on the fence at all about whether or not you can successfully use alcohol or drugs I'd suggest that you make the right decision. Because if you have to ask yourself questions like that you already know the answer. And I'm here today to tell you that your life can be unbelievably wonderful, beyond your wildest dreams, if you make the right decision.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019


When one is ailing and goes to the doctor the first thing the doctor does is diagnose the ailment. Something similar happens when one goes to an attorney with a legal problem: the attorney defines what the problem is so that he knows what he or she is dealing with.

And what happens when an alcoholic gets deep into Alcoholics Anonymous is that he or she accepts that they have a drinking problem. And it's really that basic. Before we can resolve any challenge that we're facing in our life, we first have to define what the challenge is.

Now in the case of an alcoholic or an addict it would seem obvious what our problem is. And the reason it would seem obvious is because we are always getting in some kind of trouble. We either end up broke. Divorced. Homeless. Or maybe even in prison. Or perhaps with some kind of health issue.

So one of the most important words, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, is acceptance. And after that, while it may not be an easy road, the steps we have to take to change our lives are very clear. They are in the big book. They are on the walls of virtually every twelve-step meeting room. They are the subject of big book studies.

But for many newcomers, and I was one of them, the acceptance of our alcoholism is sometimes not so easy. We might ask ourselves questions like maybe I should just stick to drinking wine. Or beer. Or whiskey. Or maybe I should just smoke pot. Or take pills. These are all forms of denial that keep us from getting sober.

Acceptance is key, really the only key to a sober life. Because once we realize that every time we drink alcohol we get into some kind of trouble we find the source of our problem. And once we find the source of our problem, then we find the answer to our problem. And the reason we go to meetings is because there are a lot of people there who have faced problems we may one day face. Yet they have come through the experience with their sobriety intact. And that's why it's important for us to hang around with sober people and to go to twelve-step meetings. We learn that if we want to stay sober we do what sober people do.

But if we can't accept what we hear in the meeting rooms from the veterans who have been sober for many years we may just have to go out and try it once again. And that's why acceptance is the key, acceptance that we are alcoholics and addicts. A simple word, yet it contains a world of wisdom.

Click here to email John