Recovery Connections

John Schwary is CEO of Transitional Living Communities, a 850-bed recovery program he founded in Mesa, Arizona January 9, 1992 when he had a year sober. He's in his 27th year of recovery.

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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Today I awoke at 4 AM with a strong sense of gratitude. Not only am I grateful for being sober. I'm also grateful because my sweetheart and I are leaving in a few hours for a week's vacation at the beach in San Diego. Once there, we will meet up with my children and grandchildren for a week of fun and relaxation. We began this annual pilgrimage after I had been sober a few years and able to afford to afford trips like this.

Even though I have been sober almost 20 years I still have a profound sense of gratitude because I am able to take vacations like this. It is not only a time for us to reunite and spend time with my children and grandchildren, it is also a time when I can reflect on the many blessings of living in sobriety.

In the last years of my drinking and drugging my life was so chaotic that, even if I had the money, I wouldn't have been able to plan anything like a week-long vacation. There was no planning in my life in those days. My addictions controlled my life. My only plan involved how to get my next fix or drink. Disorder and insanity ruled my life.

Now I work every day in a large recovery program with many people who are new to sobriety. Sometimes they will comment that I am “lucky" to be able to go on vacation. I never disagree with them because I recognize the blessings that I have in my life today. But such comments are also an opportunity for me to discuss the promises we are given when we get sober.

When I first came in to the program the focus of my life was living sober. In those early days I didn't think much about jobs. I didn't spend much time thinking about money or cars or even what I was going to do the next day. I was immersed in living in the moment and staying sober. It was only after a few years of living like this that I looked around and realized that many of the things I had dreamed of all my life were coming true.

I had a home. I had friends. I had a successful business that I had started after I was sober a year. I had financial security. And one of the most important things I had was a new relationship with my family and friends.

God was doing for me what I could not do for myself.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The medical profession has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in services to our clients over the past 19 years.

Many of our clients used methamphetamines, a drug that devastates a chronic user's teeth. So, when these users begin their recovery, they face not only recovery issues but also the challenge of getting their teeth fixed. In many cases their teeth are rotten and cannot be salvaged. The solution is a set of dentures. Because 99% of them have no money or insurance their challenge is to find dental care.

One dentist has donated over $100,000 in services to our clients since 2004. More than twenty others have contributed several hundred thousand dollars in services. One of our unspoken agreements with them is to give them anonymity as they can't respond to all of the requests for help that publicity might generate. Many say the real reward for them is the improvements in the client's appearance and dental health.

Other professionals also help. Eye care providers have donated countless examinations and prescription lenses. This help has come from private practitioners, as well as national chains.

Our policy for referring clients is based upon need. If they are in pain we try to get them to a dentist right away. If they wear prescription lenses and have lost their glasses we refer them as soon as possible.

Referrals for dental work beyond extractions or pain relief are based upon a client's commitment to sobriety. Those receiving more extensive dental work have usually been in our program for at least 90 days. Our staff waits at least that long before making a referral because dentists like to help those who are serious about rebuilding their lives.

TLC has one staff member who coordinates donations. Probably 10% of his time is spent on seeking medical donations and coordinating appointments. Senior staff members approve requests for help based upon a client's commitment to sobriety.

In a world where news is often negative or sensational the unpublicized donations of the medical professionals in our communities sometimes go unnoticed.

We are very grateful for the help.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

While riding my bicycle at 4:30 this morning, I was reminded of how quickly change comes to our lives.

The route I take several times a month passes by an orange grove that sits right in the middle of the city. This is a welcome part of my ride, because by the time I get to this area I have worked up a sweat. The half-mile of my ride that passes the orange grove is usually 5 to 6° cooler than the rest of the route. In addition, there is the fresh smell of the leaves and sometimes, in the spring, the orange blossoms. But today I received a shock.

When I pedaled into the area of the orange grove heavy construction equipment sat behind the fence. A large swath of the trees had been ripped from along the roadway. As I continued to ride I thought that perhaps they were just trying to widen the street. But as I went further, I saw a larger area where dying trees had been uprooted, lying on their sides waiting to be taken to the dump. I rode away sadly knowing that I would miss this cool oasis on hot summer mornings.

But isn't that the way they change often comes into our life? We arrive at work having a plan for our day and an emergency pops up. We expect our utility bills to go down, but they go up. We think our exercise plan is working, then we discover that we have gained 5 pounds.

We have a plan for our education or retirement, then the economy goes sour. Maybe someone who was a pillar of sobriety, someone we looked up to at meetings, has relapsed. The changes go on and on.

I once read that the only thing we can count on in life is change. Nothing stays static. But if change is difficult for us there is something that we can do about it. We can determine that we will become more resilient. We will prepare ourselves mentally for the day-to-day changes that come in our lives. If we can steel ourselves to change then when change does occur it will not rock our world.

We can say "Oh, I expected that," when change comes into our lives. Whether the change is big or small, one of joy or one of sadness, we won't have to escape from the change with a drink or a drug. Instead, we can openly embrace it and realized that this is just the course of daily life.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I was at a meeting the other day where a young man was sharing his experiences at the podium. He had been sober several years and had a good grasp of all of the steps. But one thing he said really resonated with me.

He related that when he first got sober he looked around the meeting rooms to find someone who had what he wanted.

He said he finally met a man who seemed calm and serene. He believed that this man had good sobriety because of the message he shared - and the look in his eyes. He felt his serenity. He asked him to be his sponsor. The man accepted and helped him through the steps.

The point is that how we carry ourselves at meetings can help someone stay sober. I remember my early days in the program when I would meet someone who was positive. I would leave the meeting knowing that the program worked. If the person at the meeting shared an upbeat message I became enthused. If he talked about the challenges he had overcome then I was encouraged. Over the past 20 years I have accumulated a treasure of success stories that I can draw on when things get tough.

If all we share at meetings is the mess, rather than the message, then we are not working the 12th step. We can share negative things at meetings. But we should relate the negativity to some kind of solution.

When we are at meetings we are the only example of sobriety a newcomer might see. It would be a gift to the world if our behavior helped this person change their life.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Even after being sober many years I get insights into how my life has changed.

Last week I started having problems with my swimming pool. First, because of an oversight on my part, I burned up the pool pump motor. The repair bill was $250. After the motor was replaced one of the plastic pipes connected to the motor sprung a leak. Another repair bill. After that repair the valve on top of the filter started leaking. I took it to the pool store to have it repaired. When I put it back on it leaked even worse. So I took it back to the pool store and asked them to repair it again. They did and I brought it back and installed it. It still leaked. I took it back once more because I found a minute crack in it which was the source of the leak. Finally, I was done with it.

I detail the problems with my pool to make a point. Twenty years ago if I'd have had the same kind of problems with anything, I'd have been drunk or high right away. My anger would have boiled over. I'd have been off to the liquor store or to the dope house. Before I left though, I would have taken a sledgehammer and demolished the pool pump. That's the way I dealt with life before I got sober. I would get angry or I would get drunk or high. Most likely it would be all three.

Because today my goal is to live in sobriety and serenity I try to enjoy the moment. I recently read somewhere that I should enjoy the pain and challenges in my life. When a challenge shows up I ask myself "what is the worst thing that can happen?" And normally the worst thing that can happen is that I won't resolve the problem. Today however, because I've been sober for so many years, I usually have the resources to resolve whatever problems show up.

It came out at a meeting this morning that one of the blessings in my life is that I even have a pool to repair. After all, when I got sober about 20 years ago, all I had to my name was seventy-three cents in the pocket of my raggedy jeans.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The kind things we do for others often follow us for a lifetime. I was reminded of that recently when I received a phone call from someone very dear to me who had been attending her grandmother's funeral. She said that the pastor, in his eulogy, mentioned how kind her grandmother had been to him many years before. He said that at the time he knew the grandmother she was supervising the the food preparation department of a children's home where they both worked.

He recalled that she had taken him under her wing and always made sure that he got "a little extra" when she served him his food. Her kindness, which probably occurred some 30 years previously, followed her to her death at 95 years of age. This gesture was significant enough that the pastor remembered it for many years and was able to recall it as part of the legacy she left behind.

This anecdote reminds me that when many of us come into recovery we don't leave behind us a lot of good memories. We have harmed others. We have taken from others because of our addictions. We haven't been very considerate of our loved ones and have disappointed them. We have not contributed to society. This is not a legacy of which we can be proud.

But as we stay sober and rebuild our lives, this can all change. We can choose kindness over anger. We can choose generosity over selfishness. We can make amends to those we have harmed. Because we're in sobriety, we are new creations. We can now leave a trail of good memories behind. These kinds of memories are treasures beyond value.

As did this 95 year-old grandmother, we can leave a positive imprint upon the lives of those we touch...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

To alcoholics and addicts the idea of change can be daunting. Any kind of change raises the specter of insecurity. Because many of us are fear-based, we often look at change as though it will bring something negative into our lives. But change can also bring positive things in our life. In fact. Nothing positive or negative comes into our life without change.

My present wonderful circumstances came from what many would rightfully consider a very negative situation. Around 20 years ago I was in the midst of a devastating addiction to heroin, alcohol, and any other drugs I could get my hands on. I was homeless, I was stealing to make a living, to survive. I was totally demoralized and life looked bleak. Because I had been arrested many times I knew that if I were arrested again I would spend a long term inside. I didn't know where to turn.

Even though I feared the change that was about to come in my into my life I decided to get sober. Why did I fear this change? I feared it because I had never lived sober and been happy. The only sobriety I had experienced was when I was locked up in a jail cell or in a hospital ward. It seemed like I was always trying to drown my pain with alcohol or drugs. I was raised in an alcoholic family and it seemed like the only way I could overcome the experiences of my childhood was to immerse myself in alcohol and heroin. Even though using drugs and alcohol had put me in jail for over 15 years, being drunk or high somehow seemed a safe alternative. I was unwilling to deal with the painful experiences of my childhood.

So the idea of getting sober was almost overwhelming. In retrospect, I look back and see how other people probably viewed me. They might have looked at me as someone who didn't have the courage to face themselves. I'm certain that they didn't understand my addictions or all the problems I had staying out of jail and living sober. I know that my parents and my ex-wives probably just thought I was crazy. My addictions became so difficult for them that they became unwilling to have me around. I was no longer welcome in their lives and they told me to go elsewhere.

The idea of changing my life and getting sober was daunting to me. I was facing the biggest change in my entire life. I was finally ready to admit that I was powerless over drugs and alcohol. I walked through my denial and finally admitted that I had no power over any kind of substance. That was a big change.

For some reason the hardest part of the change was simply admitting that I had a problem. However, my life has been getting progressively better since I admitted my problem. Slowly my health came back. The legal problems I was facing went away. I started out in sobriety walking, taking buses, riding bicycles. But eventually I was able to get an automobile. I kept getting better and better jobs and making more and more money. It seemed like things came back to me almost without effort. The center of my being, the focus of my life, was to simply stay clean and sober.

But, a better life came to me because of this focus.
This is my first day of blogging. So why another blog? After all, they're scattered all over the Internet.

I guess it's about several things. For long periods of my life I've been writing. In the early 60s I was a staff writer for a major newspaper for more than a year. While I was incarcerated during the 1960s and 70s I worked on prison publications. In the 1980s I started a small publication in Arizona, which I later sold. Part of what got me to the point of publishing my own blog started when I was listening to a talk show about a year ago. The host, a doctor, made the statement that he had written and published 32 books over the past 30 years. I was amazed! How does someone have a career as a doctor, talk show host, and also have time to write over 30 books? The obvious answer, when I started thinking about it, was that he wrote a little bit each day.

So last September 16 I started writing each day. At first I started writing my life story. In fact I completed some 42,000 words and decided that I would set it aside because I didn't find my life that exciting. Then I took off on a fiction story. I completed about 34,000 words of that before I realized that I didn't know much about plotting. I've learned that writing fiction is more difficult than turning out news stories and articles. At about the same time I started reading a daily recovery meditation that was sent to my e-mail. It really resonated with me because I work in the recovery field and have nearly 20 years of sobriety. And this e-mail meditation was all about recovery. The more I read these meditations the more I realized that I could probably write a daily meditation. So I just took off doing it as a daily writing exercise. Soon I realized that I could probably put something like this in a blog and link it to our nonprofit's website. And, here we are.

Because I'm the CEO of a large recovery program in Arizona I mostly view life through the eyes of recovery. On a daily basis my staff and I deal with the emotional ups and downs of 600 recovering substance abusers who live with, and in some instances work for, us. For 12 years I've volunteered each Monday night to run an aftercare group for some of those in our program. As a result of all this experience I decided that my blog would be about things in everyday life that I can relate to recovery.

There is no shortage of topics. I see many things in daily life that relate to recovery, that might be the topic of a blog. Empathy, generosity, kindness, honesty, joy and a myriad of other human characteristics weave through our daily lives. We just have to look for them. While there are many examples that I can use, my more difficult chore will be viewing them through my sometimes smudged lenses of recovery. Whatever the result, I just want to contribute something to those who are trying to stay sober.