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 30th 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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Kind Mexicans

I'm in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as I write this.  And often, before I come here, some of my friends ask me if I'm not afraid to visit South of the border.

And my answer is usually the same.  I reply that there are places in Phoenix and other areas of the United States that are as dangerous - or more so - than here. Think Chicago, for example, where there may be 40 shootings on a weekend. Or Los Angeles, or any other metropolitan areas where gangs do battle over drug turf. 

In my 25 years of coming here, I've never seen a fight.  And, even though people drive as crazily as anywhere, I've only seen one or two auto accidents.

In my experience, this is a peaceful and friendly place and I can easily visualize myself living here someday out of the hustle and bustle of the Phoenix metro area where I've lived for over 30 years.

As an example of how gracious the folks are here, I'll tell you about how some locals helped me out of a dilemma this past Sunday.  I 'd pulled over to use a portable bathroom at the roadside.  And when I was done and started to drive off I was unable to drive anywhere.  The patch of dirt I'd parked on consisted of a crust of sand on top of a pool of wet sand that had swallowed our rental car to the front bumper.  And no matter what I tried I was going nowhere.

While I was trying to dig my way out with my hands, a cab driver dressed in a white shirt and tie stopped and offered his help, but to no avail.  Then a gentleman in a BMW stopped and tried pulling us out with a nylon strap he attached to his bumper.  Still no luck.

By now, we were surrounded by a gathering of neighbors - men, women, and children - offering to help.  And finally, with the BMW pulling, and about ten neighbors pushing, we were unstuck. 

And the interesting thing is that most of them didn't want to accept any pesos for their efforts. It was simply a case of people wanting to be helpful to their fellow humans - gringos they didn't even know and might never see again.

Click here to email John


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Opioid Tsunami

I read that in Franklin County, Ohio, so many addicts are dying from Fentanyl overdoses that County officials are considering opening a second morgue to accommodate the victims until their bodies can be processed.  One day during the past month, ten addicts died from what officials believe to be Fentanyl.

It seems that addicts are buying so-called heroin or other drugs that dealers lace with Fentanyl to increase drug sales.  And one of the problems, of course, is that addicts under-estimate their tolerance to drugs while hoping to get the maximum rush.

I recall when I was using over 30 years ago that when a lot of overdoses occurred everyone began seeking out the dealer because they wanted the strongest dope possible.  They didn't think an overdose would happen to them - or maybe they simply didn't care.

Since June of 2017, there were over 4000 opioid deaths in Arizona.  Check the following link to see the statistical breakdown.  https://www.azdhs.gov/prevention/womens-childrens-health/injury prevention/opioid-prevention/index.php.

Yet treatment in our State meets a lot of resistance from the public.  An example is that citizens want more stringent laws dealing with homes and facilities that offer services to addicts, a group that is protected by the Fair Housing Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.  If the disability were from diabetes, cancer, heart disease or another ailment one would never hear a peep from the public. In fact, they likely would strongly support it.

But try to help an addict get clean and sober and there's an uproar in the community and legislative bodies.

As an addict and alcoholic who's been clean 29 years- and a treatment program operator - I know that the so-called "war on drugs" has failed miserably. Yet the go-to solution with most of the public is to look upon addicts and alcoholics as morally corrupt and to resist the efforts of those who try to help them.

Their best ideas include punishment and discrimination.  Put them in jail and get them out of our neighborhoods.  And how has that worked?

Click here to email John

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Wanting to stay High

The mother of a young addict tells me that her son has had every opportunity get sober – but won't.

She has the resources to send him to a treatment program. He won't go. She's offered to rent him an apartment until he can find employment – but he won't look for a job. He just bums money from wherever he can, and lays up in a cheap motel. But his addiction is becoming so debilitating that he soon will be homeless because he can't even hustle up enough money to pay for his own motel.

She's tried everything in the world to get him on a recovery track, but addiction rules his life. Because she was using drugs when he was a child he uses that as a guilt card when he talks to her. And because she's overly sensitive she has a tough time putting her foot down. Even though she's in recovery and knows that she had to suffer enough pain before reaching the point where she got serious, she somehow has a difficult time applying the same principles to her son.

Because I know these people well I have some understanding of the dynamic between her child and her. I tell her she must be willing to let him go all the way to the bottom. Let him go to jail. Let him go to the streets. Let him suffer enough to figure out that his decision to continue using is going to keep him immersed in suffering. He'll begin to understand that his way isn't working.

I tell her that I never got into recovery until people stopped helping. When the person who loved me the most, my mother, told me she'd no longer help me I began to realize that I must be the problem. She wouldn't let me sleep on her couch. She wouldn't let me sleep in her garage. She wouldn't "loan" me money. Nor would any of my friends. I was without resources.  And ended up being homeless for a time.

But that was probably the best lesson of my life. I finally had to look at myself and say "You know, John, you may be the problem here." I began to realize that other people weren't the problem. Yeah, so I was raised in an abusive home as a child when I lived with my alcoholic father. While we had enough to eat, we were relatively poor as I was growing up.

All of the bad things that happened to us as we were growing up or going through relationships or jobs or life itself, may be true. And they may be bad, even horrible. But if that's what we use as an excuse to get high or drunk, then we're destined to never get well. All we're doing is perpetuating a bad situation. And eventually, those bad situations historically get worse, never better. If we live through our addictions, we may find ourselves in prison. Or on the streets. Maybe a mental hospital. Who knows? And the sad thing is that as we get older, we find that hardly anyone cares about us because we don't care enough about ourselves to accept help from others.

But there's a solution for all of us addicts. All we need to do is open up our minds and hearts – and reach out. Someone will help us get into recovery.

Click here to email John

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Communication

Communication is one of the most important parts of running a recovery operation.

This morning we had our monthly TLC business meeting and each of the 40 some participants were asked to submit five new ideas of how to improve TLC's operations. This is the first time we've had a meeting where all of the house managers got together in one room to exchange ideas about how to improve the program.

For over 25 years we've had monthly meetings. But the focus of those meetings was more on recovery and less on business. My contention is that we're supposed to take care of our recovery in 12 step meetings or with our sponsors. Because 80% of running a nonprofit corporation is about business and 20% is about the mission of helping addicts and alcoholics rebuild their lives. And our housing and business operations support our mission very well. But we can do more to help our recovering population if we run it in a more businesslike fashion.

For example, we often get into problems over simple things. Because we have some 70 parcels of property and around 900 residents we spend a lot of money and time on maintenance problems. A house manager may call for help with a leaky toilet or an air conditioning unit that's not functioning properly. He calls his supervisor, the district manager, who relays the information to our air-conditioning department or our maintenance people.

But many times – not always – a maintenance crew will arrive and address the problem then leave without telling the manager they completed the project. Perhaps the manager was off property running an errand, or else dealing with another issue on the property and was unaware that the maintenance people had even been there or if they fixed the problem.

As a solution, the manager of our maintenance people came up with a good answer: when a house manager needs something repaired or looked at, he submits a work order which gets passed up the chain of command to the chief operating officer. The chief operating officer sends a work order out to the appropriate department and thus creates a paper trail that describes the problem and how it was resolved. When the job is completed the house manager signs the invoice. Copies of work orders are then scanned into a database so that we have a history of the issues at each property.

While this may seem like a no-brainer or a simple thing for those who run large businesses, one must keep in mind that TLC from top to bottom is managed by addicts and alcoholics. And many of them have no experience with this type of organization. Or maybe they've never worked at all until they came to us.

Another thing in our managers often learn while they're volunteering at our houses is that dealing with addicts is not simple. But once again, I emphasize that it's all about communication.

Many of our clients show up from prison or off the streets and are frustrated and angry. Our natural impulse is to get angry in return. But the appropriate way to deal with an angry client is to simply listen. That often resolves the issue. But if it doesn't, and they continue to be angry or if they start to threaten our staff we usually ask them to leave. And if they don't, we tell them that we'll call the police and have them removed from the premises.

If we can deal with angry clients and calm them down before we get to this point, we save ourselves problems. On a few occasions, we've actually been involved in lawsuits because clients thought they were treated unfairly or that they were disrespected by a manager. And while we've never lost one of these lawsuits, we still went to the expense of hiring an attorney and sometimes spending months and weeks until we reach a resolution.

Communication is important in every realm of life but especially when we're dealing with people's lives and futures.

Click here to email John

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Trusting the Untrustworthy

On more than one occasion we’ve had managers steal from us.

Some have stolen money, others have taken vehicles. And a few have stolen both. Then they leave, they relapse, and either end up walking a prison yard or living on the streets.

And yet, even though they’ve done us wrong, we’ve allowed them to return to TLC when they show up asking for help.

And I’ve had people question my sanity because I’ve allowed them back. And sometimes I question my own sanity. But then I reflect hat a lot of people gave me more than one chance even though I let them down multiple times. Of course, when we let them back in they don't start out with a job where they handle money or other valuable assets, such as vehicles. They have to start at the bottom and work their way back into our confidence.

And, believe it or not, we actually had two clients who ripped us off a second time – and we gave them a second chance. And they didn't let us down. In fact, one of them is still with us and in a position where he handles large sums of money. The other one stayed a few years, then left and started his own recovery program. Sadly, he was murdered one night while collecting service fees from his clients.

All those who did us wrong and came back and made their amends to TLC are now sober for several years.

Perhaps the core of our philosophy here at TLC is that we trust some of the most untrustworthy people on the planet. Clients show up at our program from all kinds of places: prisons, the streets, hospitals, from other states, from detoxification units, from police departments, hospitals and so on.

The things that most all of them have in common is that 95% are homeless, jobless, and without money. Yet we give them credit and welcome them as long as they're not arsonists or sex offenders.

And as far as letting them back in if they rip us off, well that's just what addicts and alcoholics do. Until they get sober they take from everyone around them in some form or another. And that's why I believe in giving addicts and alcoholics second chances – because people gave me chances over and over until I finally got it right.

And once I did get it right I'm able to enjoy the wonderful life I have today. All the Promises have come true.

Click here to email John

Monday, February 3, 2020

Change

When our clients complain about the obstacles in their lives I give them some wisdom I was given a long time ago. And that wisdom is simply this: all we can count on in life is change.

And sometimes change is good.  And sometimes it's not so good. But regardless, it's the one constant in our lives that we can depend on. And, I believe, change is mostly a good thing.

This topic came up for me today because someone was complaining about their iPhone 7, about how poorly it performed compared to the latest models of iPhones. That's when I pulled out a bit of trivia that I use when people have luxury issues like which iPhone or iPad or other gadget is the best.

I tell them about when I was a child back in the nineteen forties when we didn't even have a telephone in the house. In fact, the only thing we had that could be called technology was a radio. And what came out of it was pretty limited and scratchy. Yet that radio was the latest technology. I remember that the family used to listen to boxing matches, ballgames, the Amos and Andy show, fibber McGee and Molly, the Falcon, Family Theater and the news. Of course there were other offerings. But those are the ones I remember.

Television hadn't been invented yet, it didn't come along until around the nineteen fifties and it was the most amazing thing to hit the neighborhood I lived in. The first families to own one were very popular. And it was not uncommon for them to have a living room full of visitors watching a little tiny box with a black and white screen and a very limited program selection. And, of course, today it's not unusual for someone to have a television screen that covers half of the wall.

And change keeps marching on. The other day I was surprised to hear some teenagers talking about Facebook being a site for old people, that they had other types of social media that they preferred over Facebook. And me? I never have had a Facebook page nor am I interested in getting one. I realize that I'm really out of the loop when it comes to social media, because I'm too busy as it is to keep updating information that's read by people that I mostly don't even know.

So how does all this relate to recovery? I think that if we can accept that change is inevitable, then we aren't surprised when bad things happen in our lives. Nor are we surprised when good things occur in our lives. And when we can accept change and wrap our heads around it then we're not so likely to react negatively and revert to using drugs or alcohol.

Change is on the march toward all of us. People will leave our lives unexpectedly. We may get our dream job. We may even hit the lottery, though that's a big maybe. We'll find ourselves growing older every day no matter what kind of exercise we do nor what kind of vitamins we take. But if we can expect change and learn to welcome it, life will run much smoother and our recovery will be much more solid.

Click here to email John

Friday, January 31, 2020

Gratitude Heals

I was talking to a recovering client today who told me that she always went back to using drugs or alcohol because she was depressed.

I asked her to tell me about her depression. Had she been suffering from it for a long time? Was there ever a time when she was happy and positive? In her memory, what was the happiest period of her life?

She said that there had been periods when she was happy. But then the happiness seemed to become normal and ordinary and then her depression would creep back.  And she would be off to the liquor store or dope house.

I decided to offer her some suggestions about how to have conversations with herself that would put her life into a more positive trajectory.

Many times people grow up with unrealistic expectations about how life should be. We go to school, get good grades, graduate and expect to land a dream job. But for many people, that scenario doesn't play out.

Instead, they find that it's a tough, competitive job market out there.  And that they're just another face filling out applications. In fact, I often read about college graduates in their thirties still living with their parents because they haven't found a career opportunity in spite of having graduated in the top half of their class.

In this woman's case, she'd been divorced once, was raising a child by herself, and had been successful as a professional person who made a good salary. For a period of time, she had a nice home and car but eventually, drugs and alcohol caused her to lose everything. Plus the state had taken custody of her child until she could prove that she could live a sober life. Which is why she was with us.

I gave her this prescription which I found has helped me and some of our clients to get over bouts of depression. And no, it's not a pill. However, it does require a minimal amount of work. And it goes like this: every morning when you wake up write down five things that you are grateful for.

You might think as you read this that you're not grateful for anything. And that may be true. In fact, the woman who is the subject of this blog asked me what she had to be grateful for. Here she is trapped in this recovery program. She doesn't have her child with her. Her family is angry at her. She doesn't have a car. She's in a minimum wage job at a fast-food restaurant. She's back at the bottom again.

So I asked her to reframe her thinking and stop looking at what she didn't have. Instead, perhaps she should focus on what she did have. And by the look on her face, I could see that I hadn't really reached her. So I continued, asking her why she couldn't see the positive side of her situation right now.

First of all, she is in a safe place where she can focus on her recovery and her psychological issues. Her child is in safe hands. She has a chance to regain custody of her child when she graduates from our program and finds a job and a place to live. She has her freedom, which many addicts have lost because of the crimes they committed while they were using. She is still relatively young and healthy. Her parents are beginning to talk to her again because they see that she's trying to help herself. She's making a few sober friends.

I asked her to start writing a gratitude list every morning for a week, then come back to me with what she had written. She halfheartedly agreed to do it and I told her I was looking forward to see what she came up with.

Many times in life we addicts have a lot of false expectations about how life should be. And therein lies the problem. Because life, if we live it on a daily basis, is an up and down proposition. Everyone on the planet has good days and bad days - some more than others. But if we can develop the perspective that this is just the way life is then we develop resilience and can bounce back much faster when we fall into moments of depression. Any time I start falling into depression I look around me and find someone who's life is a much bigger mess than mine or who is much less fortunate than I. And when I do that I immediately get back on track.