Recovery Connections

John Schwary is CEO of Transitional Living Communities, an 850-bed recovery program he founded in Mesa, Arizona January 9, 1992, when he had a year sober. He's in his 28th 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.

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.