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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It sometimes amazes me that Transitional Living Communities functions at all. Our total staff, top to bottom, is made up of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. We use outside consultants for a couple of areas that are highly technical. A consultant reviews our accounting records once a month. And periodically a professional counselor will come in to deal with specific issues that can't be dealt with by our peer counselors.

When this company was founded in 1992 there were no plans for it to become as big as it is today. There was no business plan, there were no financial backers. The company consisted of a small group of recovering addicts and alcoholics who wanted to stay sober and help others rebuild their lives. It was just a few of addicts working hard and putting their money into the project.

The company started with five beds and some broken down houses in Mesa, Arizona. Within six months there were over 150 residents. At the two-year mark the population was over 300. By the late 90s the company had expanded to Nevada and New Mexico and the population was near 1100. The residents currently operate five small businesses, though at one point TLC had over 10 businesses.

We learned along the way that we do best with businesses that are labor-intensive and low technology. The important thing we consider in our planning is, "what is the worst thing that can happen if we fail?" If we believe that we're not going to bring down the company we're likely to start the new business. Some of our businesses were closed, not because of lack of expertise, but because of a downturn in the economy. One of these was our construction business, which closed last year due a slowdown in the housing industry.

I guess the amazing part to me is that are able to survive financially, even in rough times. Unlike many nonprofits, we receive no funding from the government or outside sources. Our revenue comes from our small businesses and service fees paid by our clients.

The lesson for me is that even a diverse group of people without much of a record of success can accomplish a lot when they work together and stay clean and sober.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

In my blog I often write about the opposition that we encounter with our recovery program. We fight local governments over zoning, licensing, and fire safety. While all of these issues are real, they are not the whole picture.

One of the aspects of this operation that I seldom mention is the support from the larger community. We have one employee whose mission is to acquire donations. Our needs cover a wide range. We use a lot of building materials to repair our facilities. Among the items our donation coordinator acquires are roofing material, sheet rock, linoleum and tile, and paint. It is fairly easy to obtain these because suppliers and builders often find themselves with leftover material from completed jobs. They are more than happy to contribute to a worthy cause. Our experience has been that it is much easier to obtain material donations than it is to obtain cash donations.

We have been dealing with some donors for so long that we don't even have to call them. When they have something they think that we can use they simply call us. Often, they don't even care if we use it to repair facilities or if we want to sell it. They just want to get the material off of their premises and to receive the collateral benefit of a tax deduction.

We also receive many donations in another area. A wonderful group of medical people who give us a great deal of help are dentists. We have more than 40 dentists in various specialties who are continually helping our clients. We have a large number of clients who have never taken care of their teeth, some with a condition known in the media as "meth mouth." In most of these cases the clients end up receiving full dentures because the damage has been so extensive.

Hotel and motel chains donate large amounts of sheets pillows and towels. When they upgrade to new dressers and beds, our organization often is the recipient of the furniture they replace.

We also obtain stoves and refrigerators from apartment owners who sometimes have us refurbish their units. They often have no way of disposing of the old appliances. So the easy solution is to give them to us.

The point of all this is to acknowledge and express gratitude for the larger community that supports us.

Friday, October 29, 2010

There are no bad reasons to get sober. During the past 18 years of volunteering as an aftercare facilitator I've heard clients give many reasons why they decided to change their lives.

Some change because of family or poor health. Others quit using for love or financial reasons. Among the most powerful reasons I've heard is from those who do it because of their children. And in this regard men and women seem equally motivated to change because of their children.

During a group this week a client with four children discussed her battles with an addiction that started after one of her oldest child died tragically several years earlier. She described the overwhelming grief that consumed her for years. Alcohol and drugs sometimes masked her pain. But ultimately her drug use put her in prison for five years for a drug offense.

Now, however, she is on parole and working an intense recovery program. Her children live in another state in the care of a family member in a Christian environment. She is determined to grow stronger in her sobriety and ultimately return to raising her children.

Another client told of relinquishing custody of her child to a family member until she gets strong enough in her recovery to resume custody. Her pain, as she discussed temporarily giving up her child, permeated the room. She knows that she will never be a good parent until she gets a period of sobriety. And she wanted her child to be in a safe environment until she achieves that.

In my own case I obtained custody of my seven year old daughter after I was sober two years and raised her until she joined the army. The responsibility of raising that child supported my efforts to stay sober and lead a good life. Even when things got tough I always knew I had the primary responsibility for that girl and she gave me strength when I needed it.

God bless our children for motivating us.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A city council election here in Mesa, Arizona recently made headlines when a 23 year old won one of the open seats. It was interesting to our organization because one of the the winner's first public pronouncements was that he was looking at the "concentration" of halfway houses in the city. His statement demonstrates his youth and ignorance of the history about the so-called halfway house "issue" in this city.

The Mesa halfway house "issue" landed in Federal court in 1998, when the new councilman was around 10 years old. After some five years of litigation, the city modified three laws and gave a $40,000 check to Transitional Living Communities to reimburse legal expenses.

I'm never surprised when a politician panders to his constituency. The constituency in this instance consists, at least partly, of some of Mesa's old-line conservative religious groups. Members of this group reveal their bias in public statements like, "we have more than our fair share" of halfway houses or "we really like what you guys do, we just wish you would do it somewhere else." One of them actually told me one time that I “didn't get it.” He went on to say, “We just don't want you here.” I'm not sure how this attitude squares with one of the great admonitions in Christianity: “Love they neighbor as thyself.”

Sadly, the young councilman is attacking one group in the city that provides a genuine public service at no cost to the taxpayer. Had he taken ten minutes to visit the SAMSHA website he would have learned how alcoholism and drug addiction affects about 15% of the United States population. Since Mesa has over 400,000 residents, there's a statistical probability that some of his constituents might need our services.

Something else the neophyte councilman might have considered is that even recovering drug addicts like to go to restaurants and movies and buy new clothes. They spend for services that generate tax dollars for a city that has a cash flow problem.

Some constituencies with a moral viewpoint think that if they just get rid of the halfway houses the so-called “problem” will go away. And maybe if we close the hospitals and clinics people won't get cancer. The American Medical Association has long recognized alcoholism and drug addiction as a disease. That's why the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act also protect addicts.

We are treated as any other disabled person.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

There's a proposition on the ballot in this next election to make medical marijuana legal. Because of my position as director of our recovery program a few people ask me what I think of it. When I say I'm going to vote for it they seem surprised.

"Don't you run a recovery program?" one asked.

"I do," I replied. "But I don't believe there's a strong connection between legalization and drug use."

I used Prohibition as an example. I've never seen evidence that alcoholism increased or decreased because of the passing or repeal of the 33rd amendment to the constitution. I believe that there is a disconnect between our laws and the amount of drugs or alcohol people use.

In any event our drug laws seem to have little effect on availability. One can go in any direction in our city and purchase drugs. I can't remember a time in the past 50 years when our so-called war on drugs has reduced availability for long. Police trumpet the seizure of tons of marijuana or cocaine, but the supply on the streets never seems to diminish for more than a moment. In other words, in our country we have de facto legalization.

On top of that our laws have created a huge enforcement and incarceration industry. Probably more than half, depending upon whose statistics you accept, of the people in state and federal prisons are there for drug-related offenses. Our neighbors to the South are fighting an ongoing battle with cartels that are funded by drug markets in our country. In Mexico over 25,000 people have died in the past four years due to government enforcement efforts.

Much of this drug traffic would cease immediately if drugs were legalized. I believe that moralists object to the idea of legalizing drugs because it would seem like we're condoning drug use. This is hypocrisy, a head in the sand position that ignores the reality that drugs are readily available today.

Some ask about the economic impact of replacing enforcement personnel. Likely the same number of people who work in the incarceration and enforcement fields could be retrained to work in the recovery field. It takes a lot of effort and skill to counsel people and help them change their lives.

I believe that a benevolent society that cares about its citizens will try to help them get to the root of their problems. Laws and punishment are political “feel-good” responses to an uninformed and misguided moral majority.

But for some reason up to this point the moralists have held sway

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I was at a 12 step meeting yesterday where the topic was the first step.

After one of the old-timers shared about the first step he segued into a discussion about finding role models in recovery. He said that when he first came to the program he tried to find people who had been sober for a while. He said that he was so serious about recovery and sobriety that he was desperate to find good examples. He didn't pay attention to those who complained at the meetings. He didn't try to pick apart the stories that others told about their experiences in recovery. If he heard something negative he shut it out. He was so desperate to change his life that he focused on those who had what he wanted.

Since he had been in business for much of his life before attempting to get sober, he looked for people with a similar background. Finally his focus fell upon a man who had been sober some 10 years. He noticed that this man came to the meetings in a relatively new car. He was always well dressed in casual business attire. He seemed calm and relaxed and serene. The old-timer noticed that when the man shared he told stories of drinking and drugging that were similar to his own. Finally, he had found someone to whom he could relate.

It isn't imperative to find someone whose story matches ours perfectly. But I believe it boosts our chances of success if we find someone who has a similar background who's been sober for for some time.

My own sponsor is a man I have known for nearly 20 years. He is five years older than I am, retired, and was in the recovery of business for many years. His background is close enough to mine that I can relate to him on many levels. In fact, when I go to him for advice, he often tells me that I know the answer. And he is right. He and I think enough alike that our answers to problems are generally the same.

Try to find someone to whom you relate if you're trying to stay clean and sober.

Monday, October 25, 2010

In recovery we can sometimes learn lessons from the world around us. This came to mind when I was thinking about resentments while watching two dogs playing. They were chasing each other around the yard, play fighting over a bone. Then one of them nipped the other one too hard and a fight broke out. They made a lot of noise for a few minutes, rolling around on the ground, biting each other and growling with what seemed like serious intent.

Finally, though, the fight stopped. The two combatants stood up, looking angrily at each other for few moments. Then they each went to a separate part of the yard. It looked as though they had fractured the relationship for good. Within a few minutes though they were playing again. It was it was as if nothing had ever happened.

While I know that we can't reliably compare animal behavior to human behavior, I believe there are lessons we can learn from animals and children. They have disagreements. They have fights. But wouldn't it be wonderful if we adults could get over our resentments and make up as quickly as animals and children? The world would be a much better place.

In my own recovery I know that I've kept some resentments for years. I'll be sailing along and up will pop a resentment against someone or about something that I thought I'd long forgotten. Maybe the way animals and children deal with one another is a survival skill. But as recovering people our lives would be much simpler and serene if we could take these examples and apply them in our own lives.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

When TLC started some 19 years ago we weren't given much chance. We started with no funding, little experience and five beds. As the founder, I worked an outside job and put my salary into getting the program started. This effort paid off because within 18 months we had over 100 clients.

Today we have 700 beds, operate a couple of small businesses, and have a lot more experience in how to run a large program without government funding. Oh, it's not easy. Since early 2008 we've terminated some 50 employees, have sold 20 vehicles, and have held off paying rent to some landlords. Yet we keep hope alive and are doing our best to meet obligations. We've made arrangements with many of our creditors to suspend payments until times are better.

The thing that likely makes the biggest difference, is that our mission is still the same: to help recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives. This mission gives us the motivation to show up every day and keep doing what we're doing.

When I get gloomy or let pessimism creep in, I turn my focus back to our mission. I believe we'll succeed because we are helping people. There are so many addicts and alcoholics who don't know how to get help, who don't have the resources to get help, that a program like ours serves a great purpose.

They don't need money or credit to get in. They just have to be willing to follow suggestions and and want to change. Even though half of them don't last longer than a few weeks the ones who do stay make it all worthwhile.

We have naysayers in the recovery community who think we should have psychologists and government oversight to assure we treat our clients well. We think this is a great idea and are ready to put these kinds of measures into place as soon as they hand us a check.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I was at a meeting at our Macdonald Street employment office while one of the clients was describing his day.

“It started out,” he said with irritation, “with me being abused by management.” He went on to tell the group about a couple of staff members who had confronted him because he woke late and hadn't gone to look for work. He was upset about how they talked to him.

When I identified myself as the program director he asked to speak to me after the meeting.

Once in my office he started to tell me the details of how he'd been treated. When I was able to interject I agreed that he must have been talked to in a manner he found objectionable. Otherwise he wouldn't have brought the topic up.

He seemed surprised that I didn't try to defend the staff members. Instead I asked about his role in the incident. I pointed out that no matter who is right or wrong there are usually at least two parties to a disagreement. I explained to him that when I disagree with someone I do better when I look at my part. No matter how minor that role might be, I had some part in the disagreement.

As the conversation went on his body language changed. He relaxed in his chair and the tension left his face.

He brought up his work history and success in the business world. Drug use brought him to our program. He seemed to be a bright fellow and I pointed out to him that, in my opinion, he only had one real problem: it was his addiction. When I put it that way he agreed with me.

I try to explain to our clients that if they simply focus on staying clean and sober then their lives will change. And I try to bring my own experience into the conversation. When I first got sober I was just happy to be sober and I focused on my program. While I was doing that other areas in my life began to improve. I found several employment opportunities. I was able to start making amends to those I'd harmed. I took joy every day in being clean and sober. While I maintained this focus God was doing things for me in other areas.

It wasn't long before I had a great job, I was able to buy an old car, and I reestablished a relationship with a former girlfriend. All of these things seemed to come to me without much effort on my part.

Friday, October 22, 2010

TLC has a program called Hard Six. It is actually an 18 month program, but its name derived from the fact that when clients first enter the program they are restricted for six months. During this restriction clients work solely on TLC projects, work seven days a week, and can only have five dollars on them at a time.

How do clients get into this strict program? It started some 18 years ago when some clients developed a pattern of entering TLC, staying for a short period, and then leaving to relapse. Our staff came to believe that we were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But we were stymied. What could we do with these guys? A lot of times when people went out, they didn't make it back. Some of them died in the hot streets of Arizona of their disease.

The man who came up with the idea thought that if the clients had more time to focus on their recovery they might have a better chance. So after clients had been in our program three times without success, we allowed them into the Hard Six program. We received some criticism because the program has so many restrictions. However, our answer is that everyone in the program as a volunteer. We don't force anyone to become a Hard Six. In fact, during the initial interview we try to talk them out of joining the program. We suggest that they might try to find another program that might be more suitable for them. However if they have been at TLC three times, and are willing to accept the restrictions, we take them in.

Our experience has been that some of our best managers come out of the Hard Six program. It seems that the six-month restriction and a year a follow-up supervision helps get clients on track.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In one of our aftercare groups a man was talking about his children with tears in his eyes. The two children, a boy and girl, were being raised by his mother. He had granted custody to her because the mother wanted to protect the children from his drug addiction. And now he was hoping, as he stayed sober, that he was going to become a participant in the children's lives. As he was talking the intensity of his emotion affected all of us in the group. His pain of not being a participant in his children's lives was apparent. Finally, to move the group along I asked him a question.

"And how old are your children?" I asked him.

"I think they are 16 and 18 now," he said after some thought.

His answer changed my perspective. For some reason, because of the intensity with which he started talking about the children, I thought that they were still very young, maybe under five years old.

"How much of a role do you think you're going to be able to play your children's lives at this point?" I asked him.

He replied that he wasn't sure. But he wanted to participate in their lives. As the group went on it became apparent that he had some kind of disconnect when it came to his children. It seemed to me that he overlooked the fact that he hadn't been in his children's lives for many years. The group pointed out that he would have to face the possibility of rejection from his children. After all, his parents had raised them and had functioned as their real parents. He would probably be dealing with some confusion and resentments on the part of his children. After all, he might just be a distant memory to them or someone that they only knew of through the eyes of his parents.

As the group went on it was pointed out that he should learn to live in the moment. The reality was that he had been out of his children's lives so long that it was unrealistic for him to think about playing the traditional role of a parent. The group members had a lot of good insights. Among them was that, as it became apparent to his family that he was succeeding, he would likely be invited back into their lives.

Before concluding the group, I shared with him my personal experience. Nearly 20 years ago, when I first got sober, it took me a while to reunite with my family. After all, for most of their young lives I had been in and out of jail and rehab because of my addictions. They had seen me fail more than once at efforts to get sober. However, as time passed, they realized that I was serious about changing my life. At that point our relationships began to change. I now have a great relationship with my family.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sometimes our mission becomes obscured in the day to day running of our business. This was brought home to me yesterday during a group we were having after two members of our construction crew nearly came to blows.

During the group each of the antagonists tried to present his point of view. One of them thought the other one was looking at him strangely. The other claimed that he did not understand what the man was talking about, that he hadn't looked at him at all. It went back and forth like this for a while. Each of them tried to present their case, as if they were in front of a jury. Finally, the foreman of the crew, who was one of the group members brought everything into focus.

He pointed out the real reason that everyone on the crew was in our program.

"The main reason we are here," he said, "is to work on ourselves and our sobriety."

He went on to explain that the reason he had a morning get-together before the crew went to work wasn't to talk about the job. It was about finding out where the crew members were at emotionally. Even though he brought the crew together under the guise of planning the day's work, he said that the more important thing was to find out where everyone was at spiritually and emotionally. He did this because he didn't want one of them to be in a bad place and cause an accident on the job.

Once the foreman brought this perspective into the group the whole tone changed. Each of the antagonists changed their body language. The importance of why they were in TLC became apparent to them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The speaker at the Sunday morning meeting delivered an excellent explanation of the 12 steps. Because there were a lot of newcomers at the meeting, he focused on the basics. And even though I've been around for some 20 years, I appreciated his clear outline of how the program works for different people. When he finished speaking he chose the topic "working the program."

When it was his turn an old-timer explained that when he came into the program he thought, that as time passed and he achieved more sobriety, he would be elevated into some kind of inner circle. He thought that maybe he would learn a secret code or a secret handshake that came with seniority in the program. Today, however, he realizes that the program in all of its beautiful basics is the same now as it was 20 years ago. And it works pretty well for everyone as long as they don't drink or put other substances into their body. As a speaker explained, that's the one step that we have to do perfectly.

I suppose one of the reasons I appreciated his clear explanation is that many old-timers will dictate that their way is the only way the program works. And they will brook no deviation from their opinion. They seem to believe that their seniority confers upon them some type of wisdom to which others are not privy.

I believe that seniority comes with responsibility. And I believe old-timers have a responsibility to carry the message to newcomers in a way that will help them understand the program. A rigid, dogmatic, interpretation of the program sends a lot of people out the door in my opinion.

Attraction, not promotion, works for me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Last Tuesday I left at 7:00 a.m. for our Las Vegas facility. I left early so I could arrive about midday, check into my hotel, take a break and then get to the house to spend time with the clients. However, life had other plans.

The trip went well until I got into Northern Arizona, near the Nevada border. There I was halted for an hour and 45 minutes by construction. I've been traveling through this area for seven or eight years of bridge building and hadn't experienced a wait of this length. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes as the maximum. But, I had my Kindle with me and so was able to listen to an e-book while waiting. Once in a while I would shut off the book and listen to local radio and all in all the time past fairly well. Once the line started moving it crept forever across the winding road across the top of Hoover dam. Once on other side my goal was in sight. I visualized a relaxing siesta at the hotel, then off to the program. However, life intervened again and I found myself trapped in another construction zone at the top of the hill on the road into Henderson, Nevada. By this time I was in acceptance and the wait was over before I knew it. I finally arrived at my hotel at about four o'clock. My plans for the day were just a memory.

One thing I try to practice, after nearly 20 years of sobriety, is to flow with life. When I was drinking and drugging delays infuriated me. The universe was against me. Life sucked. Didn't people know how important I was? When things didn't go my way the world stopped. Even though I was going nowhere, I wanted to get there fast.

Today I try to look at delays and blown-up schedules philosophically. For example, during these delays I mused that God might be telling me to enjoy the trip. Even though I don't have a lot of frustration in my life and try to keep my stress down, I enjoy busy. This lifestyle makes me happy.

But when I get messages like this from the universe, from God, then maybe I could at least acknowledge them.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My father was an alcoholic. My brother was an alcoholic. Both died of their disease at 60 years old. Somehow I'd hoped that alcoholism and drug addiction had stopped with me and my generation. The evidence is, though, that what I hoped is not coming to pass. In the case of my family, addiction and alcoholism are proving to be genetic.

As the years roll on it is becoming apparent that my children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, are having their own battles with substance abuse. It's their battle, but somehow in my naivete I had the idea that if I didn't drink or drug maybe they wouldn't face the same battles that I have had to fight. This was wishful thinking. I guess I thought that in an age of enlightenment where everyone knows about 12 step programs and the risks of drinking and drug use that they would somehow have become immune. This hasn't happened.

Stories filter back to me about the escapades of my younger family members. One is not paying his bills and is maybe using pills. Another is found lying on the porch, drunk. Still another has been in a knock down drag out fight that has ruined an important relationship. One has broken down a door because she forgot her keys while drinking. The stories keep flowing.

At first I thought I could help. But I didn't get help until things got bad, really bad. And I wouldn't admit that things were bad, even when I was in jail or in accidents because of what I was using. Only when things kept happening to me did I finally accept that I had a problem. I wasn't going anywhere in life and finally connected the dots. I realized that my messed-up life might be a result of my substance abuse. After all, the normal person doesn't keep losing relationships, jobs and businesses without some kind of extenuating circumstances. It took a long time to accept that I had a problem.

Yesterday my sponsor and I discussed these issues over lunch. Since he's had some of the same experiences with his family he was a great sounding board. And of course he told me what I needed to hear: that life itself would help bring my relatives into recovery.

I guess that - because of my experience - I thought I'd have a pivotal role in helping them get sober. He agreed that I might, but not until they were ready.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A fellow I sponsor called me very upset at himself. He had been working on his spirituality and was puzzled because he found himself getting angry in traffic. He went on to tell me that he was driving onto the freeway and when he pulled into his traffic lane someone started blowing their horn and waving their fist at him in anger. Before he knew it he was waving his fist and shouting back at the angry driver. It was only after a few moments had passed when he realized his intense reaction. His heart was pounding and he was full of adrenaline. It was amazing to him that he had gone from serenity to near rage in a flash.

He was disappointed because the day had started out great. The sun was shining, he was driving to his office, and feeling positive. Then the next moment he's embroiled in an angry exchange with a stranger.

"I'm embarrassed," he told me. "I thought I was beyond that kind of stuff."

I explained to him that there will never be a time, in my opinion, when we live always on a plane of spirituality. It says in the literature that we claim "spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection." To me this means that we always face challenges. My experience has been that the more I try to be spiritual and serene and at peace the more challenges come my way. And in my life they always come as a surprise, when I'm least expecting obstacles in my path.

My belief is that being spiritual is not something we can really plan for. To me it is something that comes upon us naturally when we're in a good place. As soon as we start to congratulate ourselves on our progress, it seems that life intervenes with quick lessons.

If I live in the moment and enjoy everything God puts before me, even angry drivers, then maybe I'm making progress.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Recently an associate of mine came to me upset. A long-time friend of his had come to him with bad news. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had some six months to live. Then a few days later he received a call with more bad news. It seems that an in-law was dying of terminal stomach cancer. It was a rough week for him and I let him know I was there for him.

What can we learn as recovering people when we receive these kind of messages? When I first got into recovery such bad news could cause me to become highly emotional. It seemed like week after week, month after month, someone was receiving bad news about something.

At the halfway house I lived at 20 years ago, men were always leaving to drink or use drugs. Some of them even died after relapsing. This experience made me wonder if the program really worked. In fact, so many people relapsed that I often asked myself "what's the use?"

When I talked to my sponsor about this he pointed out a statistic that came out of the central office in New York. Statistics show that only a small percentage of those who enter an AA meeting for the first time stay sober for the long term. Most alcoholics and addicts will die of our disease. What my sponsor wisely pointed out, though, was that it was important to look at those who've made it, not those who failed. He also used the analogy of war. He explained that when men are in battle and are wounded, we try to help. We extend a hand to them. But if it looks like they're terminal, that we can't help, then we move on. In sobriety our mission is to stay sober, that is our goal. We look around at those who have remained sober for a period of years. We look to them as mentors and guides. Those who have failed can also teach us lessons, the lessons of what we should not do.

But back to my friend who had received the bad news about his friends. What could he learn about these ultimate challenges in life? All I could do was comfort him and share with him about how I try to deal with these kinds of challenges, these sometimes devastating messages.

When I see people who are facing terminal illnesses or have health problems I try to look at my own life. Their challenges make me realize that I must use my moments, my minutes, my hours and my days, wisely. When I hear what they're going through it makes me realize how fragile our existence really is. It makes me want to be a better human being and to do more for others. It makes me want to help my friends get through their issues.

Yes, it's okay to experience grief. It's part of a healthy process of living to grieve when others are suffering. But after a certain point isn't our grief unproductive? After a certain point I believe that we should turn our grief into something positive. Sometimes just letting others know that they are not alone can help. When people confront devastating news for the first time it might seem overwhelming to them. But if we have had similar experiences, then it is our duty to tell them how we got through our tough times.

One of the worst things we can experience, I believe, is that when times are tough that are alone. In recovery we learn that we are part of the human race. We learn that we are not facing life's battles by ourselves. When our friends or mates are in trouble we learn how to be there to help them through the rough spots.

This is what love and compassion is all about.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yesterday I heard some news that I never like. One of our key managers, a man who had been with us for over 7 1/2 years, resigned. This man had been a great contributor to our program. One of his major contributions was to act as a liaison with the Las Vegas Municipal Court system. He spent a great deal of time, at a very small salary, helping people to get into our program.

I still remember, as if it were yesterday, the first time I saw him. I was making one of my biweekly visits to our Las Vegas facility when I walked into our administrative offices. In the hallway outside the office door was a large black man, kneeling in front of a mentally ill street person who had several blisters on his feet. He was bathing the man's feet in a basin. When he finished he patted them dry with a towel. Then he put salve on them and gave him new socks that he had purchased himself.

"Who is this guy, Jesus?," I asked the on-duty manager.

"No," he replied, "he's just a new resident who likes to help others."

And so it was for over seven years. Greg spent time helping other people. He was generous and most of the time gave away his small salary to help clients - and their families. If he heard that a client's family was struggling, he would go to the market and buy them food. He is one of the most generous and helpful people I know.

It was difficult for him to tell me he was thinking about taking a new job. He told me it offered a salary of over $800 a week, with the potential of $1100 a week. It also came with an apartment and medical benefits

My initial reaction was selfish and I told him so. I said it was in TLC's interests that he didn't leave. But I told him, that if anyone else were asking me about this opportunity - and worked for another company - I would advise them to take the new position. And that's what I did. I told him he needed to move on, that there was no way he could make that kind of money working for us. I told him that people who had been with us for over 15 years didn't make that kind of money nor have those kind of benefits. He thanked me with tears in his eyes.

Godspeed Gregg. Your loyalty, and your love for others, serves you well. We wish you continued success...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The mother's voice was full of concern for her daughter. She was in a state on the East Coast and her daughter was flying to Arizona to enter our woman's program. The mother wanted to be sure that the daughter was going to a place that was safe and secure. As we talked I assured her that we had security personnel at the property and that the women were separated by several blocks from the men in our program. Also, I explained to her that the women did not go to outside meetings. They were rarely off of the property by themselves during during the initial part of their program.

After a while the mother's concerns seemed to lessen and she felt better about her daughter's decision to fly thousands of miles to work on changing her life. Before we ended the conversation, I made suggestions to her about joining Al-Anon. I believed joining Al-Anon might help her understand what she was going through.

Since we started our woman's program in April of 2004 we have made several changes. At first we treated the woman's program simply as an extension of the men's program and everything was exactly the same. But over the years we have learned that women have special issues. Almost all the changes we made were based on suggestions from our women managers.

Among the changes they wanted was for the women to be more secluded so that they could focus strictly on their program. Many women in early recovery would go to meetings and often meet someone with whom they became friendly. The friendship often blossomed into a recovery romance. Sobriety would be put on the back burner.

These recovery "romances" seemed to always interfere with the TLC mission helping addicts rebuild their lives. In the first months after we opened the women's program this was one of the primary reasons women left. They believed that they had found “Mr. Wonderful” and that life would be bliss from then on. However, one of the things we learned, is that these early sobriety relationships rarely work out.

And because our responsibility has always been to help people get clean and sober, we made several changes over the years to improve our women's program to the point that it is today one of the role model programs in the Southwest.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A word we often hear at our program is "respect." It often comes up in the context of, "he didn't show me any respect." Or, "I'm a grown man, and he needs to respect me." This issue nearly always arises from a conflict between one of our managers and a client. I view it as the last refuge of those who don't have much to feel good about.

The term is often used when the aggrieved party is either newly paroled from prison, or has come to us after spending months or years living on the streets. In those environments, disrespecting someone can have serious consequences.

I often asked those who have an issue with respect about what it really means to them. And usually it comes out that this is something that is very important in the environment from which they came.

The conversation then might evolve into what the term respect really means. Clients become uncomfortable when I ask them how much they respect themselves.

"If someone had done to you the things they have done to yourself," I ask, "how much respect would you have for them?"

"Probably, not a lot," they respond. "In fact, I'd be really angry at them."
So I suggested they apply that same reasoning to their own lives.

After we leave the homeless life and the prison yards and walk through the doors of recovery our idea of respect should change. To figure out what respect really means we should look at those around us for whom we have respect. In early recovery it's easy to find someone to respect. Maybe the person we admire has attained some of the promises found in the 12 step programs. He or she may have serenity, business success, or good family relationships. It doesn't really matter what it is, the important thing is do they have something we want for our own lives?

To develop self-respect we must begin to do things that are worthwhile. At first these might be small, seemingly insignificant things like finding a job, or giving clean drug tests.

We must remember that for many of us it was usually a lot of small bad decisions over months or years that brought us down. A sequence of small good decisions can restore our self-esteem and return us to genuine self-respect.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The former client called to say that he was throwing up blood, and living on the river bottom. He had called, desperate for help. The manager who had taken the call asked what we should do.

"I think we should take him back in," I told him. "After all, we owe him." There was silence on the other end of the phone after I said this. Finally the manager spoke.

"I'm not sure I heard you right," the manager responded. "We owe this guy?"

"Yes," I told him, "he helped us stay sober today."

Several days earlier the caller had been sober for nearly a year. And after just a few days of drinking he was calling, once more wanting help. And our policy is generally to help people in that situation. Our belief is that maybe this time they will make it. It says in the literature that if we think we can use we should try it out and see how it works. If it works we don't have a problem. If that doesn't work then were pretty sure that we can't successfully drink or drug anymore.

I then went on to explain to my manager that when people relapse and tell us it didn't work for them it helps us to stay sober for another day. A benefit of working in a recovery program is that we see examples all the time that we can use in our own lives. This man's story is just one of many.

The same day we were blessed with a similar call from a man who has relapsed over and over. This man had left during the summer, deciding he didn't need our help any longer. He called to say that he was afraid that if he didn't get help he was going to die. He was living in his car at a local park, shooting heroin every day.

The lesson I always derive from stories like this is that if were are real addicts and alcoholics we can never successfully use again.

The lesson helped me today.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

One of the more interesting aspects of running a recovery program is dealing with clients with a dual diagnosis.

These clients are often referred to us by agencies who don't know what to do with them. They bring them to us, many times out of frustration, because there aren't many programs that accept substance abusers who are also mentally ill or who take daily medication. If they seem functional to us - and we are not professionals - we usually accept them out of compassion. However, if they are too disruptive, we refer them back to where they came from.

One of our early clients with a dual diagnosis came to us in mid 1992 and stayed with us some 17 years before he eventually relapsed and passed away. This man was highly functional and worked in a demanding job. As long as he was on his medication, he was as normal as any other client. He kept his appointments with his doctors and was a contributor to our program for many years. Our experience with him led us to accept others with a similar diagnosis. His passing was a tragic loss to us, not only because he was a valued employee, but also because he became a good friend.

Because many of these clients are on medication they are classified as disabled and receive Social Security or disability income. One of the issues of dealing with clients in this situation is that they can't work because they receive disability. So what do they do with their time? We try to find something for them to do that's not very stressful. We often have them doing such things as answering telephones. Or they might do light janitorial or maintenance work around our facilities. One of the things that experience has taught us is to not put people with a dual diagnosis in stressful situations.

We had this experience recently when we put a man with a dual diagnosis to work in our office. He seemed perfectly capable of doing the job. His responsibilities included filing and answering the telephone. But the location of his desk required him to interact with people coming in and out of the office, while at the same time answering the telephone and doing data entry. While the job was not this intense for eight hours a day, there were times when this fellow did this kind of work for one or two hours in a row. The pressure became too much for him and he asked to be moved to a less demanding job. However, in a position where he was not under the direct scrutiny of management we found that he lost focus. We discovered he was spending a lot of time surfing the internet. After several warnings we laid him off.

When I spoke to him later he was accepting of the fact that he probably wasn't cut out for the kind of job we had given him. We had tried to make it work.

And that was the important thing.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The grandfather, a man in his early 50s, had tears in his eyes in one of our group sessions as he spoke of his five-year-old grandson. He was distressed because his son and daughter-in-law were using heroin and other drugs. The grandfather wasn't sure his grandson was receiving proper care. He feared for him living in that environment.

As the different group members commented on the grandfather's dilemma it became clear that there were no easy options. One of the choices proposed was that the grandfather call child protective services. Obviously, this would alienate his son and daughter-in-law. Another option proposed was that the grandfather might assume care of the child with the permission of his son and daughter-in-law. But that wasn't a good choice either because the grandfather had no one to help care for the child while he worked.

Some group members supported the idea that others could help care for the child while he worked. Other group members brought up the idea of employing a day care service. But that turned out to be a bad idea because day care is expensive and the grandfather didn't make a lot of money.

As the group continued it became clear that this was a real world dilemma with no easy solution. The grandfather could risk alienating his son by reporting the drug use to child protective services. He could also do nothing, letting his grandson stay in that environment. At the very least, the grandson would continue living where he would witness drug use and the other behaviors associated with it.

Substance abusers in the midst of their addictions sometimes don't realize how their abuse affects those around them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

One of the concepts that confounds many of us, particularly in early recovery, is the idea that we are powerless.

"What! I'm powerless? Me? Maybe not so much," we may respond.

In early recovery it was an alien idea that I might be powerless over anything. After all, wasn't I the guy who ran everything? In my haze of alcohol and drugs I had the idea that I was in charge of everything, including the world. In my drunkenness I thought I could solve the country's economic problems. I could resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I could have done a much better job with the Iraq war than the president. But the reality was that I couldn't even control the basics of my own life.

My drinking and drugging cost me several relationships. I'd lost jobs and homes. I spent some 15 years in jails and prisons, plus a year in a mental institution. In spite of all this evidence that I had no power over my own life I had trouble with the concept of powerlessness when I first got into recovery.

Just what is this concept of powerlessness and how does it apply to my life? After all, I must have some kind of power over something, don't I? And it is true. We do have power over some areas of our lives. And for me, the issue is always defining where that power begins and ends.

In the meeting rooms, there is no shortage of old-timers who will tell you exactly what powerlessness means. Some of them may be loud and opinionated. But one of the things that I have learned, is that no matter what others say in meeting, I must remember that it is their opinion. And they are as entitled to their opinions as I am to mine.

So, regardless of what others say on the subject, we must be careful when we define where we have power in our lives. For example, I have no power over the larger economy. But I can decide to go look for a job. I have no power over what you think of me. But I do have the power to try to make a good impression on you. I cannot control the outcome of the 12 step meeting, but I can participate in a positive way.

In other words, I no longer rule the external world. I have no power over what others do or say or think. If I'm fortunate I'm able to have power over my own thoughts and reactions and behavior.

At its core, the essence of this concept is what we learn in the first step. And that is the idea that we are powerless over our disease. I didn't end up in the rooms of recovery because I had a spiritual awakening. No one came running up to me with recovery literature and coffee and doughnuts. Angels did not speak to me. I arrived there because my disease had kicked my ass over and over again. So no matter how much I may wrestle with the concept of power in other areas of my life, there is no equivocation when it comes to my disease. Once I pick up that first drink or drug I have no power over what might happen next.

But, based on experience, I'm pretty sure the outcome won't be positive.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Often our clients reflect upon what they don't have versus what they do have in their lives today.

I was reminded of this during a peer group as a client talked about his days as an athlete. I could see the pride on his face as he discussed his accomplishments 20 years ago. He referred this period as "the best time of my life."

I wasn't unkind to him. I didn't bother to point out that he was older and many pounds heavier than he was during those former glory days. Or that he didn't exercise anymore and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.

I like to focus in our peer groups on living in the present moment because the present moment is all we have. In my opinion the past can be beneficial in some ways. It can serve as a template of our potential when are at our best. But beyond that it's not much use in the present moment.

When we show up in recovery most of us are damaged by whatever drug we used. We are depressed and life can look hopeless. Most of our clients come to us emotionally and physically bankrupt. It's probably natural for them to focus upon a time when life was glorious and they were at the top of their game.

But what about right now?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

There are many victims of our addictions, but the children are the most tragic of all. This was brought to me over the weekend when I was dealing with a couple who were in our program. They had two children under five years old in the care of her mother, who lives in an eastern state.

The couple had been in our program nearly 90 days and had given us notice they were leaving to return home. One of our managers asked me to intervene because he felt they were leaving for the wrong reasons. It seems that there was an impending hearing with the state about who was to have custody of the children. The parents, the couple in our program, understandably wanted to be there for the hearing so that they wouldn't lose the children.

However, one of the issues was that the couple had only been sober about 90 days and had no resources or ability to take care of the children. They had no job, no car, no money. They didn't have enough money to return home, a trip which would've cost under $500.

When I counseled them I suggested they stay longer and allow our organization to intervene in the matter. I told them we were willing to call child protective authorities in their state and explain that the parents were in a recovery program. We have intervened in situations like this in before and when the parents are trying to rebuild their lives, the state usually goes along with the plan. I even offered to help them, if they gained custody of their children, to start a new life in one of the sober apartments that we lease to graduates of our program.

When I discussed this with them they were indecisive. I told them to think about it for 24 hours and to let me know. The husband, who was unemployed, was offered another job the next day by the labor group our company operates. When I heard he had turned down the week's work we offered him, I realized that he and his wife were probably planning to leave our program. Our management team made a decision to discharge them.

There were immediate repercussions from the mother - who is taking care of the children. She was upset when she called me. She said she didn't have the money to buy them tickets to return home, which would've cost her around $400. She also told me she believed her daughter had been discharged unfairly from our program. I understood her anger and patiently explain to her the sequence of events that led to the discharge of the couple.

Once I explained the situation to her she calmed down. She told me that the father had only called the children one time in the 90 days he'd been in our program. She also said that she felt he was incapable of maintaining employment or taking care of the children, at least based on his history.

My hope is that the couple make it back to their home state, start a new life, and regain custody of their children. However, if history is any indication, this will not happen.

And the victims in this situation are ultimately the two minor children.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The promises of the 12 step programs usually don't come to us overnight.

I was reflecting upon this the other day after I received my certification as a CADAC, which in Arizona is an acronym for Certified Alcohol and Drug Addiction Counselor. This certification is particularly meaningful to me because when I entered the program in January of 1991 the formal education I had was my GED diploma. And I had earned it while incarcerated many years ago.

While this certification likely won't earn me more money, at least it may lend TLC credibility in the eyes of those who value formal education. Also, even though we are a peer driven program, it may have a little influence on those who question the value of what we do.

For me this certification has a great deal of meaning on a personal level. Probably because of self-esteem issues and the years I spent pursuing my addiction and alcoholism, I didn't believe I could succeed academically. I had this belief in spite of the fact that I had done many things that showed I had at least average intelligence. I had written for several years for prison publications. At one time, during the 1960s, I was a staff writer for the Orange County Register, a major Southern California newspaper. I had worked for several years for a major corporation as a vice president of business development. I had owned and operated several small businesses, including a tree service, a small advertising publication, and a garage. Yet I was afraid to undertake any kind of formal education because I didn't want to confirm that I wasn't very smart at all. Yet when I finally did go to school, I was able to maintain a B+ average. Now this is not the perfection that an alcoholic or addict fantasizes about. But it is good enough to graduate, which is what I did.

And when I took the state examination for the ICRC certification I achieved a 75% score, which isn't perfect, but good enough to pass. In fact, I learned that I did as good or better than many people who had worked as counselors for years. For me it was a tough, nerve-racking, examination.

But the idea that I hung in there and passed has a lot of meaning to me today. Another promise came true.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Yesterday I spent time on the telephone with my 11-year-old grandson, who lives in California. We weren't talking about anything in particular. He was on his computer at the other end of the phone and was looking up weather reports for different parts of the world. He would ask me to give him the capital of a state or country then he would give me a weather report for that area. It was a silly exercise but when we through talking I realized how much I enjoyed the exchange.

I realized that in his 11 years my grandson has never seen me drunk or high and I felt a rush of gratitude. Nor has he seen his father or mother under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I know that if I hadn't been sober since before he was born I likely would not have had the blessing of this exchange.

One thing I know about alcoholics and drug addicts who are in their disease is that they often have a profound negative influence upon family members. They come home drunk. Or high from a session at the dope house. They have fits of rage when things don't go their way. They spend family resources staying drunk or high. Their chaotic behavior has an indelible impression upon their children, one that can scar them for many years.

Our sobriety has an ongoing influence upon those in our lives. It is like throwing a a rock in a pond. The rock has a ripple effect that spreads across the surface, one we can never bring back.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The other day I was approached by a new client who wanted to talk to me. He had just arrived at our program from New Mexico. He told me he once spent 30 days at a famous treatment program, a stay that had cost his insurance company some $30,000. I asked him how long he had remained sober after leaving that treatment program.

“About four years,” he replied.

When I asked him why he had come to a program such as ours, which costs about $5500 a year, his answer surprised me. He said that his wife had been in a woman's recovery program in our city several months earlier. When he started looking for a recovery program after he relapsed, she told him that she'd heard about a really tough program that was in the same city. She said it had a reputation as a "no-nonsense" program for those who were serious about recovery.

I was pleased to hear that our program has that kind of reputation. One thing that sometimes hurts programs such as ours is that there are several halfway house operators in our area who are simply trying to rent real estate – yet they call it a recovery program. Our proram, however, is different because we are serious about one thing: recovery.

We welcome anyone into our program, whether they have money or not. But many leave soon after they arrive because they discover that we have a lot of restrictions, that we drug test people, and have a lot of guidelines about behavior. Once the unmotivated realize we are serious about recovery, they get angry and find an excuse to leave. They usually end up in one of the programs in town that bill themselves as recovery programs. But many of them have few restrictions on behavior. They don't have a drug testing program. And they have minimal requirements as far as meeting attendance or in-house groups. As long as they pay the weekly fee clients can do pretty much as they please.

Our situation is different in that we will close down before we let clients do as they please. Because of this policy we are bashed a lot on the streets and in the prisons. Because they need an excuse for their failure to stay sober, former clients will say that anything goes at our places. Our response to those who believe them is always the same: spend a week with us and see if you can do whatever you want in our program.

No one has ever taken us up on that offer.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A young person was talking about how few of her fellow graduates stayed clean and sober after leaving the state licensed treatment program she went through. While she had recently celebrated three years, she said there was maybe one other contemporary who hadn't relapsed.

Her comment interested me because TLC is a totally peer-driven program. And even though we are a nonprofessional, privately-funded program, I believe our success equals that of many costly treatment programs.

I don't write this to bash treatment programs that use certified counselors and physicians. In fact, I'm a certified counselor. But I believe there are many approaches to helping others get sober. Some get sober in church, in counseling, or because they fall in love. There are many ways to get sober.

I write this because probably I'm reacting to governmental bodies that periodically try to close our program. My reaction is probably emotional. After all, I got sober in a halfway house where I lived for a year working my way back into the community. And I've seen thousands of others get sober in peer-driven situations.

It's a beautiful thing when addicts and alcoholics help each other into sobriety. When this process works it's best, as it does at TLC, it's a low-cost solution to substance abuse. And from one perspective it makes it makes sense. After all, didn't other alcoholics and addicts introduce us to our disease? Not many of us woke up one day and said I think "I'll become an alcoholic." Or "maybe I'll be a drug addict." Many of us were introduced to drugs and alcohol by our families, friends, or schoolmates. It makes sense to me that we could lead each other out of this wilderness of substance abuse.

At this writing we have nearly 600 people in our program. It's refreshing when I go to the houses and see how well they are functioning in sobriety. Many of our staff members have never held a management job or ran a therapy group. Some of them have never sat down in front of a computer. Nor have they handled other people's money.

Yet, to an outsider it would seem like they've been helping others all their lives. Peer-driven recovery is a viable solution that has helped many substance abusers into recovery.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The speaker at Sunday's meeting selected gratitude as the topic for the discussion that followed.

Different members of the group shared stories of how gratitude has fueled their recovery. One man was grateful because he hadn't drank or used drugs since he left prison. Another man was grateful for the halfway house that had accepted him after a period of homelessness.

One of my strong beliefs is that if I have gratitude then I will remain in recovery. It is difficult to relapse, I believe, if I am grateful for my circumstances. If I'm ungrateful I create fertile soil for anger, depression or negativity and allow these toxic emotions to creep into my life. It is difficult to drink or put drugs in our bodies while in a state of gratitude.

It's easy for me to find gratitude in everyday things. Yesterday I was reading a newspaper article about a young soldier who had lost his right leg below the knee in an explosion in Iraq. His primary concern was that once he recovered he would be able to return to the battlefield. He worked extremely hard in therapy to regain mobility. He exercised until he was able to run a mile with a 50 pound pack in less than eight minutes. His determination eventually earned him what he wanted. He is now serving as a captain in Afghanistan.

Stories like this illustrate the strength of the human spirit and help me realize that I can do whatever I want with my life if I have a strong desire. The idea that this young man, though severely injured, didn't sink into depression or negativity, and returned to the battlefield, gave me for the life that I have today.

Many of us in recovery from substance abuse may not have visible physical handicaps. Our problem is nearly always emotional and spiritual. But if I look about me I can observe how others deal with the issues they face. I can use these good examples and find gratitude for everything in my life, including the challenges.