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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The economy is finally starting to shift once more. In the past 40 days our population has soared by more than 100 clients. We have been busy for the last two weeks, scrambling to find beds and to open up some areas of our housing units that were previously closed. It has been a long dry spell for us and it feels good to be heading back to our former population levels.
 
A reality of this business is that no matter whether you have 10 people or 1000 people, the mortgages and the maintenance continue. Someone asked me to what we attribute our sudden population increase. I wish I knew. We've been doing a lot of advertising and telephone outreach across the country. We have also changed some policies to help clients feel more at home. One of these changes is to allow incoming clients to use cell phones from the day they arrive. Previously we had restricted phone use for newcomers. But, after someone pointed out they needed a cell phone to help them find employment we changed the policy and it seems to have a good effect. One of the realities of being in the recovery field is that there are so many variables that come into play.
 
The big factor for us is always population, which is rarely stable. Right after 9/11 when the economy went into a tailspin, our population went down radically. It took us a year or more to recover financially. Eventually we did and things went very well for us until the beginning of 2008. Since then it has been a real struggle to pay bills and keep things functioning.
 
So it is with a sense of relief that we start December and the Christmas season. We are setting up seven Christmas tree lots, our labor group is busy, and we are scrambling to provide services to the newcomers. However, no one is complaining. This is what we have been praying for and now it's finally coming to us.
 
I try to always look at the blessings that come from adversity. And we've had a number of them since the first of 2008. We've cut our staff by approximately 35 people. We sold 22 vehicles. We cut expenses in virtually every area. Its created for us the idea that we can always cut expenses if we just make an effort.
 
Our cost-cutting has shown up in several areas. We've been able to cut 13% from our utilities by installing weatherstripping and more efficient thermostats. We cut printing and copying costs in the corporate office by $500 a month by installing a digital faxing program that allows us to send and receive faxes without using paper or toner.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"How do I find a good halfway house?" a newcomer asked me after the 12 step meeting the other day.

Of course my immediate response was to tell him that TLC has the best recovery program. But I didn't. Instead I gave him some ideas about what to look for before he chose one. I told him that there were several good places he could live while working on his sobriety. Some things I told him to look for were the quality and structure of the program he selected.

The first thing I suggested he look at was the management. How long had the operators been in recovery? This latter is an important question. Many times people will get sober for 90 days, then decide to open a halfway house. They do the math and decide this is a good way to make easy money. I told the man to be sure the management had been sober for at least a year and, hopefully, more like five years.

What was the focus of their program? Or did they even have a program? How long had they been offering services? For a halfway house or recovery program to help its clients there should be structure and rules. If a program only offers a bed and directions to 12 step meetings then that's not much of a program. While that structure might work for someone who's been in recovery for a year or two, it definitely will not work for a newcomer who's not highly motivated.

Several other things to pay attention to when selecting a program are:

-Does it offer meals?
-Is counseling available?
-Does the program have a license from the city or state?
-Is there employment assistance?
-Is public transportation available?

When interviewing the manager of a halfway house make sure you ask about other programs. It's the manager bad mouths other programs or tells you they're a bunch of crack houses, then you're probably talking to someone who is not very professional. When people ask us about other programs we have several to recommend. Addicts and alcoholics get sober in all kinds of places, many without a program at all. However, it serves no purpose to bash other programs. People get sober in all kinds of places. And even the worst help some people get sober. Often, it depends upon the motivation of the addict or alcoholic.

But the idea that we will improve our program, or elevate it in some way, by bashing the competition has never worked for us.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The literature says the spiritual life is not a theory. What exactly does that mean? Does that mean that the spiritual life is something tangible?

Often at 12 step meetings, we hear people discussing their spiritual experiences. When I was a newcomer, I used to question some of these stories. I heard such things as people having spiritual awakenings after an eagle landed on the hood of their car. Others described getting messages from God. While I didn't laugh at these stories, I found many of them incredible. But today I have a different view.

When people talk about their spiritual experiences now I realize their these accounts are very personal and subjective. How do I know what others experience? In fact, I can maybe learn something from the stories they share. After all whatever helps them stay clean and sober is, in my opinion, worth taking a look at.

My spiritual experiences take many forms. However, they always involve other people and are nothing abstract. My spiritual experiences occur usually when I hear someone talk about how being sober has changed their lives. I often hear people recount how they have achieved things they never thought they'd achieve had they not gotten sober. Sometimes these experiences happen for me when I'm in public.

A while back I was in a neighborhood market shopping when I noticed someone looking at me. Finally, the person came up to me and said are you........? I told him in my name and he said he'd been in our program some 13 years before. He had with him two of his daughters and said he had two others at home. He's a successful businessman, living the promises. To me it is a spiritual experience when someone gives me the gift of a story like that. I treasure those stories of success and believe that I wouldn't have been involved with this person if it wasn't for God in my life.

I once heard someone say that what is not material is spiritual. While I'm not sure if his statement was right or wrong I like the concept. If I believe everything that's not material is spiritual then I have an opportunity to live a spiritual life.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Yesterday I realized how rich my life has become. I'm writing this the day after Thanksgiving, in a reflective mood. During the morning I received several messages from managers and employees, thanking me for what I'd done for them. Aside from those calls, I also received text messages from others expressing gratitude. During the day I was reflecting how life has changed over 20 years.

When I went into a detoxification unit January 14, 1992, I had one phone number. And, in retrospect, that person didn't want to hear from me. I believe that family and friends still loved me then. But my life had been a train wreck for so many years they were more comfortable in expressing their concern from a distance. Today there are more than 100 numbers in my cell phone and I have many people I can call on for help.

Later in the day I went to a Thanksgiving dinner. There were many family members and friends at the gathering. The event was cordial and convivial, a refreshing contrast to how life once was.

Another reflection of the change in my life is that I'm privileged to be able to help people in recovery. We have almost 650 people in our program and were able to provide Thanksgiving dinner for them. Many lost their friends and family due to their addictions, so holidays can be rough. Our staff was fortunate in being able to obtain 75 turkeys, enough to provide meals for our clients.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Yesterday a man who has been in our program several times without success called and asked for help. Each time we've discharged him it's because he's been using drugs, usually on the property. On one of these occasions he was actually working for us as a manager. Another manager noticed that his eyes looked funny and he was asked to give a urine sample. He declined, and of course was discharged him for refusing a drug test.

Over the past 10 years he's been back in our program four times. For a period of time he'll do well and then he'll be asked to give a drug test, which he usually fails. After he leaves he goes on a long run of using until he is near death. When he calls, we usually take him back.

But where we draw the line? For some reason the man always has the humility to ask for help. When he calls he's usually broke, sick, and demoralized. Our inclination is to not help him. But then we have to look at our mission which is to "help recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives." So in pursuit of this mission, we generally take the man back into the program.

And these days we're more inclined to help people in this situation than to not help them. Over 10 years ago we turned a man down who had a similar history. We learned a few days later he died in the streets of Phoenix while drinking. Though he made the choice to drink and drug we always wonder if maybe we'd let him in one more time it might have helped him change.

There is a term that seems to apply to this situation. It is called "harm reduction." Maybe all we can do for a man in his situation is to help him stay sober for a period of time, that period of time being while he was with us and sober.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Today is Thanksgiving and I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my sobriety. If I hadn't gotten sober January 14, 1991 I wouldn't be alive today. When I finally entered sobriety I was addicted to heroin, alcohol, and anything else I could get my hands on. I had lost my job, my apartment, and I was essentially homeless. I was totally demoralized. I knew that I was facing prison, a mental institution, or death.

From the day I got sober my life is taken them interesting course. Since I admitted I was an alcoholic all of the promises have come true for me. My blessings include:

-I have a loving relationship with a beautiful woman.

-I have loving relationships with my children and grandchildren.

-I have good friends.

-I work in the recovery field, a job I have had for nearly 20 years.

-I founded a nonprofit recovery program after I had a year sober, which created a job that allows me to help others.

-I have a relative amount of prosperity in my life.

Today, on Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for all that life has so generously provided for me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The other day a woman was telling me about her health problems. She was overweight and she had heart problems that had been with her since childhood. While we were having this discussion she was lighting a cigarette.

She must have seen a look on my face because she told me "I know, I need to quit these things."

I learned a long time ago to not engage in health discussions. What others do or don't do with their lives is not my business. If people come to me and want to discuss sobriety or addiction I'm happy to do that. But beyond that I have learned that it is frustrating to expect people to change. I didn't always have this attitude. When I quit smoking some 27 years ago I was almost evangelistic in my fervor to help others quit. Today I don't engage with others about smoking. If they ask me how I quit I tell them. As long as they don't smoke around me I'm okay with them pursuing their addiction. Oh yes, I would prefer that nobody smoked but I realize that there are lot more productive battles to fight.

It's the same way for me when people talk about losing weight. For some reason, probably because I don't have a weight problem, people like to engage in conversations about losing weight. A few of them have been memorable. Last year three of my family members were talking about losing weight while we were on vacation. They were having this discussion while slicing a cheesecake. Another close relative likes to talk to me about losing weight, and it is usually over a large plate of pork chops or steak. When we get into serious discussions about health and weight loss he reverts to telling me about how intensely he worked out 25 years ago. When I attempt to steer the conversation to what he can do today about his weight he changes the subject.

Many times those of us in recovery switch addictions. We become addicted to food. Or become addicted to sex. Or maybe we start smoking more. Our obsessive behavior may play out on a different stage.

For me the discussion is always about the quality of life. I didn't get clean and sober just to start another negative addiction.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The TLC program is peer driven. That means that we're just addicts helping other addicts. This type of program has disadvantages and advantages.

One of the disadvantages is that we must monitor our managers very closely to make sure they treat clients with respect. There is a high burnout rate among our managers, probably as high as among professional counselors and therapists. At times we find our managers taking their frustrations out on the clients.

This venting of frustration takes the form of being short with the clients, being impatient with the clients, or perhaps just being rude. When this happens the manager receives an invitation to visit my office. During this visit I explain that our clients are our most important resource. I also point out that they never treat me with anything other than respect, no matter how frustrated they may be. I further explain that they will be known for the management skills used with the newcomer and the most problematic resident in the house - not by how they treat me or their supervisor. I always evaluate our managers by how well they treat the residents.

One suggestion I give them is to make sure they get plenty of rest. Most of our managers take a two hour break in the afternoon when the clients are either working or looking for jobs. I also ask them to schedule time off on weekends, taking at least one day to get completely away from the program. Many of them protest, saying they don't have anyone to take their place while they're gone. I explain to them that that is always about their ego. Before they got there someone was doing their job. And after they leave someone else will be doing their job. None of us are irreplaceable, in spite of what our ego tells us.

There are also many advantages to a peer driven program. We are able to help more clients because were not spending money on counselors or therapists or psychologists. All of our resources go to help our clients rebuild their lives. While many in the community take comfort in the idea that a psychologist or therapist is dealing with their loved ones, no one can really demonstrate that professional treatment or counseling is superior to peer driven counseling when it comes to results. And the results we look at is how many people live in long-term sobriety after leaving a program – whether it's peer driven or of a professional nature.

Another advantage of a peer driven program has that a lot more addicts can afford to get help. The amazing thing is that someone can be in our program for a year for less than $5500. The other day I was talking to a client who had gone through an expensive treatment program. The 30 days of treatment cost his insurance company and family some $30,000. He said that the program was like a resort or spa yet he didn't feel like he was getting any better information about sobriety that he was getting in our peer driven program.

I guess time will tell.

Monday, November 22, 2010

At this time of year it becomes apparent how teamwork and organization can create success. The day after Thanksgiving we begin selling Christmas trees. We sell them through Christmas Eve.

There are a lot of logistics involved in selling trees. Our management team starts the process in mid July. Why so early? Because, that's when the growers in Oregon start planning to harvest and ship their product. So that's the time of year we start placing orders. But it's not as simple as just placing orders. Before we know how many trees we need we must figure out how many locations we can find to sell or trees.

So before we can even place an order our sales team is scouting out malls and supermarket parking lots where the owners will allow us to sell trees. And even if they agree we can sell them there's more work to do. In some cities we have to get permits. At others we have to find a water source to keep the trees fresh. We also need proof of insurance for the property owners. In each location we put up chain-link fence to prevent theft. We also have to find volunteers among our clients and employees to staff the lots during the chilly days and cold evenings.

Why do we sell Christmas trees? This is one way we are able to give Christmas bonuses to our employees. In the past two years the economic slump has been so severe that we've had to use the profits from the Christmas tree sales to pay bills. This year we're hoping that the slight economic uptick will allow us to give bonuses to our employees.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The display at a local superstore was filled with a popular soft drink packaged in a container shaped like a Christmas tree bulb. The sides of the container had large signs that read "Buy Yourself Some Happiness." The message didn't hit me until later as I walk through the store to continue my shopping. Then I started thinking that this was an attractive message to anyone, but especially to someone in recovery.

For wasn't that one of our problems? We always thought we could buy happiness in a bottle. Or in something to smoke. Or in a needle. It was only until our excesses and abuses started having a powerful and negative impact upon our life that we decided to change. But even after 20 years of sobriety the seductiveness of the message resonates with me. One of the strong elements of our consumer society is that happiness is something we can purchase.

If only I have the right clothing, the right job, the right girlfriend, the right home, then I'll be happy. Of course those of us with addictions take this a step further and find that for a while we can be not just happy, but also overjoyed. It just takes the right chemical mix in our body and we will have bliss.

Overcoming the constant bombardment of messages from the television, newspapers, and other media, is an ongoing battle. While our consumer economy has given us a high standard of living, it has also warped our values about what is meaningful in our lives. Those who play the lottery are seduced by the idea money will bring joy and happiness. For the winners, the joy and happiness only last a while. One can only eat so many cloying, sweet desserts before the excess is overwhelming.

This is what happens to many lottery winners. They buy cars, they buy expensive clothing, they buy palatial homes. Then reality sets in. And the reality is that there isn't enough stuff to buy happiness. Some learn, if they're lucky, that true happiness doesn't come from things. True happiness comes from experiences that create great memories.

Having been in recovery for nearly 20 years, I've changed my idea of happiness. Yes, I'm still on a track of achieving financial security. But I find that the best experiences I've had involving money come when I've created good memories by going on a vacation with my family. The inanimate objects that money can buy do bring a fleeting pleasure. But true happiness, in my opinion, is found in human interaction with those I care about.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An employee at one of our outlying facilities has serious health issues. A few years ago he had triple bypass surgery. A recent medical report showed a hole in his heart. In a few weeks he's scheduled to have an examination to see if there's anything that can be done about the hole. This came to my attention recently when his supervisor came to me with a request.

He asked that we give the man several weeks off work and have someone substitute in his place. This change would require us to give him free rent for several weeks. And, we would have to compensate the fellow who would be replacing him. But having known this fellow for several years I had a question for his supervisor.

"Is the man still smoking? " I asked his supervisor.

"I think so," said his supervisor.

"Then we're probably not going to help him unless he quits smoking," I told him.

While this might seem to be an extreme response it has been our policy for some time. Several years ago we had a few employees with serious health problems. When they would ask for time off we came to realize that their health problems might be exacerbated by their smoking. Finally, we developed a policy where we wouldn't give people a lot of time off for health reasons if they were still smoking.

While some might find this to be a harsh reaction, it has helped a few people stop smoking. In fact one them, who'd had a heart attack while with us, has now been smoke free for more than four years.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Many times we get younger clients into our program who have no experience in life. We took one in the other day who was in his late 20s. He'd never had a job, he hadn't graduated from high school, and he had zero work experience. How had he managed to live for more than 20 years and achieve absolutely nothing? It was simple. He had been locked up for over half of his life in juvenile or adult institutions. His attitude and addictive behavior were so bad that most of the time he was locked up he couldn't avail himself of educational programs because he served much of his time in isolation.

We've had some good experience with clients who come to us in his situation. At some point clients come to realize that if they're going to survive in free society they're going to have to develop some skills. We've had several clients in this situation. When they first come in we try to help them find a basic job, something that they can complete and feel good about. We either assign them to work in our temporary labor company or else we employ them around the program doing an entry-level job. We have many of these. Clients without skills can start out cleaning up the facility, working in maintenance, or answering telephones.

As an example we have a man who has been with us for nearly 15 years, who came to us as a teenager. He left a few times during that 15 years, only to relapse and return. He finally graduated from one of our more difficult and demanding programs and today has a position of responsibility with TLC. His story is heart-wrenching because it shows what happens when addicts and alcoholics raise children. His mother died of alcoholism when he was 12 years old. The last time he saw his father he was panhandling in a local park. In fact, the client gave him a few dollars before he told him goodbye.

It is gratifying to help someone rebuild their life.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

During a daily debriefing meeting last night at our Mesa employment center the floor was opened for complaints or questions. The manager who moderated the meeting said if there were any complaints about the program this was the time to bring them. Usually, at this point, there were the usual complaints about the food, or about a manager's communication skills, or other issues that arise when people live in groups. But the moderator last night said something that he usually doesn't say.

"You guys can also give us a compliment or an attaboy," he said, in an attempt at humor.

He was mildly surprised when one man started talking about what he had gotten out of the TLC program. He said that he had been released from prison to TLC and that he was grateful for having someplace to go. He said that there was nothing he had encountered at the TLC program that was as bad as what he dealt with while he was in prison. He now had freedom to live a sober life, not exposed to the drugs and other issues that come up with living inside prison walls.

Another man talked about how his attitude had changed since he had come into the program. He talked about how he'd given the management team a hard time when he first arrived. He had wanted to do everything his own way but finally realized that at TLC there are certain guidelines he had to follow. He talked about how much his house manager had helped him and how grateful he was for the help he had received.

Before the meeting ended several others shared positive comments about their experiences in the program. When the meeting adjourned there was an air of enthusiasm among the clients. Most of them were up for the challenges of finding a job the next day.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When the facilitator asked for a topic at last night's aftercare group a member selected "frustration." He was asked to lead off and he did.

He started describing problems he was having with an 18-year-old daughter who'd been living with his ex-wife in another state. It seems the girl had left her mother's home and moved in with a boyfriend. On top of that, the group member believed she was smoking marijuana and drinking. There were other issues involved, including his suspicion the girl was possibly being abused by the boyfriend. All of this had come to him through phone calls. When he finished, the group chimed in.

“Have you thought about acceptance?” one man asked. “Anyway, there's not much you can do about this from 2000 miles away.”

“Your daughter's an adult,” said another. “You have no power over where she goes or what she does.”

Several others contributed their thoughts as the group went on. One of the best ideas, I thought, was when one member suggested he give his daughter no advice unless she asked. He suggested that he simply listen to her and let her know that he loved her.

When the others had their turn to share the consensus seemed to be that being frustrated had a lot to do with wanting the unobtainable. And the solution always came to acceptance.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gratitude was the topic of our monthly staff meeting. The 20 people in the circle talked of the gratitude they had for different aspects of their life. Some were grateful for having been able to stay sober for more than a few months. Two of the group members had regained custody of their children. Others had gratitude for being able to help others with their sobriety. As we went around the circle it became clear that all of them had a different viewpoint about gratitude. The one thing they did have in common, however, is that they all agreed that gratitude would help them stay sober.

"It's hard to get drunk or get high," said one man, "when one has gratitude."

I, for one, have a lot of gratitude for the way our organization runs. We have one of the most disparate staffs of any company I know. We have people of all ages, from all ethnic groups, and educational backgrounds. Some have arrest records and many have been in prison or jail. Some have physical disabilities and others are on psychiatric medication. The one common thread is they're all trying to recover from substance abuse, either alcohol or drugs.

The glue that holds this organization together is the strong desire to change, both ourselves and others. We make decisions with the idea of helping as many people as possible stay sober and rebuild their lives. And while we don't always make the right decision, it's usually the right decision when those who are making it stay sober themselves.

More than three quarters of our staff members are volunteers. They don't get salaries for the work they do. They don't get medical insurance. They don't get paid vacations and many of them volunteer six days a week. But the one thing they do get is something upon which they cannot place a monetary value: they get their lives back. Most of them have been on years long missions of destroying themselves. When they finally realize that they are still alive and in misery they decide, mostly out of desperation, to take a chance on recovery.

While it may seem to be a Hobson's choice, it's a choice that many of them make. In making this choice they've developed gratitude for their new lives.

Monday, November 15, 2010

It's very rewarding when I run into a former client who's been sober for a long time. That happened yesterday when I went with our employment supervisor to talk to an advertising company owner about a contract for our clients to work with his company.

During our conversation with the owner, who has been in the advertising business for about 20 years, it came out that he employed a former client.

"One of my supervisors was in your program 13 years ago," he told us. "He makes over $150,000 a year now," he said.

I was pleasantly surprised and asked the man's name. However, just then the former client walked around the corner and I immediately recognized him. The man came up and gave me a hug and we chatted for a few moments. When the employment supervisor and I left the man's office we had an agreement to provide employees to his company.

These encounters don't often happen quite that dramatically. But when we do have serendipitous events like this it is an additional pay off and reminds me how we make a difference in our community. At times my staff and I get caught up in the day-to-day minutia of running a business and don't get to see the results of our efforts. When we encounter a former client, who's had a long period of success, it brings home to us that what we do makes a difference in the world.

There have been times past several years when some members of my staff and I haven't been paid because of economic conditions. We have postponed taking a salary because it was necessary to keep the company functioning. However, when I see the results of our work in the lives of those who've been sober for many years it makes everything we do worthwhile.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The first client to share in our aftercare group was full of emotion. It seemed he had a problem with his dentures and was in pain. His voice was shaky and the pain was visible on his face. He had a simple request: he needed to go to the dentist to get his lower plate repaired because it was broken. Once I dealt with the issue and told him that we would get him to the dentist the following day he relaxed and we went on with the group.

We selected as a topic the subject of asking for what we want in life. We selected this because it came out that this client had been hesitant to ask for help with his dental issue. When I asked him why, he said he didn't know. When I suggested it had something to do with self-esteem he reluctantly agreed that he felt like he didn't have anything coming.

As the discussion went around the circle it came out that many of them were hesitant to believe their needs were important. Many had been raised in abusive homes, had been in prison, or had abused alcohol and drugs for a long time. Because of this history many felt bad about themselves and what they hadn't contributed in life. Their behavior had resulted in severe consequences for many of them. As a result their self-worth had suffered.

"How are people going to know what you need" I asked, "if you don't let them know?"

As we went around the circle it came out that many felt they had misused friends and family members. Their disease caused them to take from those around them and hurt them the process. This abuse on their part sometimes resulted in a feeling of worthlessness and loss of self-esteem.

I suggested they work with their sponsor on issues like this. Many times when we are able to do an inventory and make amends we start to rebuild self-worth. Once we make amends we start to build a foundation of self-worth that will continue to grow as we do positive things.

When members of the group suggested other ways to build self-worth they came up with several ideas. Among them were going back to school, starting an exercise program, quitting smoking, and developing better communication with their family members.

They all agreed that regularly doing positive things over a long period of time would help restore self-esteem and allow them to feel more positive.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A client in aftercare had been fired three times in the past seven months. When he was asked why he'd lost three jobs in such a short time he began to rationalize. He said he'd only been fired from two jobs. He said at the last job they had just asked him "to not come back the next day." When someone suggested that was the same thing as getting fired he finally agreed.

He went on to say that he seemed to be unable to stifle his feelings when upset. When he became angry or frustrated, he was often unable to be quiet. And, it resulted in him losing jobs.

As the group went on some members were not very charitable in their suggestions. One suggested that he "grow up." Another said he should stop being "a big baby." Almost all of the suggestions had to do with the client's immaturity and unwillingness to delay gratification.

The group facilitator shared how he dealt with frustration. He said he had a punching bag on his back patio. When he became frustrated he said he often went to the back patio and beat the bag. Once he did, most of his anger worked itself out. He found it to be a therapeutic outlet. One client suggested the man take a bicycle ride as a way to relieve his anger. A few others agreed that physical activity often helped them reduce the stress and anger that might come from not getting what we want when we want it.

The client said he'd come back the following week with some examples of how he'd dealt with his frustration in a positive way.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Probably one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of my job is when I talk to parents who are concerned about their children. Sometimes their children come from far away to enter our program. The parents are often concerned about their safety. They wonder if they'll get the help they need. If only the children could hear the pain and emotion in their parents voices, it might be a strong motivating factor in helping them to get sober.

Usually the message comes via e-mail, so I respond with a brief message and my phone number. I encourage them to call if they have further concerns. Sometimes they write and sometimes they call. I do what I can to help them feel better.

It 's easy for me to relate to these parents. I have children and grandchildren who are having problems. At one time I thought - because I'm in the recovery field - my children would find me to be a good example to help them stay clean and sober. It hasn't worked that way. One is addicted to pills. Another has a problem with alcohol. Still another smokes a lot of marijuana.

So when I talk to those who are concerned about children or other family members I have a deep well of experience to draw from. I use this to try to comfort them and give them some perspective. Virtually all the calls I get are from those with little experience with alcoholism or drug addiction. I seldom get emotional calls from parents who are also in recovery themselves or who are members of Al-Anon. So one of the things I generally tell parents who have little experience with addictions is that they should investigate Al-Anon.

Al-Anon is an organization that helps those who have an addict or alcoholic in their life.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It seems like one of the biggest issues among our employees is communication. Because much of our recovery program is managed by our recovering addict clients communication can sometimes stop everything. This occurred again yesterday when there were some problems in the accounting department. It seems as though two people were trying to do the same job and because they hadn't communicated part of the work didn't get completed. A flareup occurred and one woman said she wasn't coming back to work.

To resolve the problem the department supervisor called for a group. This is an effective tool that we use in many levels of our program. When a situation becomes emotional or complicated we can usually resolve it quickly by having a group. In group the participants often come up with good ideas and in the process they are able to dissipate the emotion that is sometimes generated when people have communication problems.

While most of our employees come from within our program at one point we had an outside accountant who was not in recovery. He was a so-called “normal” person. One day when we had communication problems in the office he was surprised when we stopped everything and called for a group. He said that he had never worked in a situation where this was a way to solve problems. It wasn't that he was against it. But it was new to him. And once the group was over we were able to get back to work and everything ran smoothly for a while.

He was impressed with the results. He thought maybe businesses everywhere should use this technique when they encounter communication problems.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I was surprised the other day when a man asked me a question after the 12 step meeting.

"Are you still my sponsor?" He asked. I was surprised because, while I had sponsored him at one time, he hadn't called me in probably a year.

"I haven't heard from you in quite a while," I responded. "Do you still want me to sponsor you?" When he said yes I told him to call me the following morning.

One of the first things that we hear in the rooms from those who've returned after a relapse is they quit calling their sponsor. I hear it so often it seems to be have become almost a cliche. And the next thing we hear is they quit going to meetings and stayed away from their sober friends.

The idea of getting a sponsor is not something newcomers always understand. And I was one of them. I thought a sponsor was there to help me get through the literature. And that didn't appeal to me because I had a lot of experience in reading, writing, and editing. I'd worked as a reporter and editor. Later I found out there was more to it than simply reading the book.

A sponsor helps us apply the lessons in the book to real-life situations. And the longer the sponsor has been sober the more experience he can draw on to help the sponsee navigate life without drugs or alcohol.

Today I have the same sponsor I've had for 13 years. He is a one-time business associate who is a friend and mentor. When I call him with a question or a situation he usually responds by telling me I probably know what to do. And he is right. But still, it is nice to use his experience to make sure I'm going in the right direction. I always have the comfort of getting advice from a man who comes from similar circumstances, who has children and grandchildren (as I do), and who is totally committed to staying sober.

Sponsors are guides and friends who keep us from having to learn things the hard way. Of course we have to be willing to listen...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I saw the beauty of the 12 step programs in action at last Sunday's meeting. The man who gave the lead had been sober over 35 years. He had an excellent message of how recovery works for him.

Once he finished and picked a topic, which was “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness,” others in the room began to share. A newcomer said he could relate with the man. Even though the speaker was some 50 years older than him, the newcomer said that he was an inspiration. He said that at one time he couldn't have listened to someone from the speaker's background or age group. He said he was a longtime gang member whose lifestyle had finally led him to pushing a shopping cart on the streets of Phoenix.

The man sharing was covered with tattoos and had obviously spent a lot of time on the streets and in prison. He spoke with emotion of his loyalty to the gang that was once the focus of his life. It was only when life became bad enough that he started to listen in the rooms to those who had feelings similar to him. He came to realize that the language of recovery is universal, regardless of one's background.

And for me that is the beauty of the 12 step programs. Regardless of where we come from, our educational level, our ethnic background, or our religion, substances eventually beat us down to the point where God could work with us. Instead of looking at the differences in the rooms of recovery we started to see similarities. And the similarities among us, the feelings we share, are what eventually lead us into the light and out of the devastation of our disease.

Monday, November 8, 2010

We teach our managers the importance of treating clients with respect. This subject came up again the other day when a manager was talking about his surprise when he learned of a former client's arrest history. It seems that the man had spent about 30 years in prison for various offenses. And his prison record showed that while incarcerated he been in trouble for fighting and other bad behavior.

"Now that I know this guy's history," said our employee, "I'm going to start treating him better."

The supervisor who heard this comment had a talk with me later in my office.

"I'm glad that.... told me that," he said. "It reminds me that we need to emphasize respect for all of our clients."

One thing we must do in a non-professional, peer counseling situation is to carefully monitor how our managers treat clients. While it might seem to be common sense that we treat everyone with respect one of the things we've learned in our organization is that for many of our addict/managers this is their first time having responsibility. Many of them don't understand what it is to have even a little power. And some of them, when they get it, think that power means that they are superior to others. They often express this first taste of power by being rude or controlling with clients.

Whenever we encounter this behavior we immediately start paying attention to the manager. On the first occasion we counsel him or her about their behavior. If the manager is unwilling to change we assign them to a job where they're not supervising others.

Our philosophy has always been that we treat all of our clients well. Our mission is to help recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives. We do all we can to help them feel good about themselves. We try to exemplify the benefits of recovery by being good examples.

If we're going to help the newcomer then we need to be living examples of what it means to live in recovery.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In the headlines recently was the story of a gun battle south of Nogales, Mexico. The story recounted that innocent people were shot in a battle between rival drug and smuggling. Another story in another publication told of a Jamaican drug lord who had been brought to New York after 73 people died trying to protect him from extradition. In our world today these are not unusual stories. Over and over we read about the casualties of so-called "drug wars".

These kinds of stories always bring a cry from politicians for more enforcement. Another political group will cry out for tougher laws on drug smugglers and drug dealers. Somehow this approach has never worked. Since I was a boy in the 1950s these kinds of stories have appeared over and over.

Yet drugs are readily available in any city in our country. That's why we should legalize drugs as soon as possible.

Good, law-abiding citizen blanch at the idea of legalizing drugs. They say that legalization will encourage more people to use drugs. But that's a myth. In countries that have partial or full legalization there are fewer drug users than there are here in the United States. What many people don't seem to realize, is that our country has de facto legalization as it is. There never seems to be a shortage of drugs in our neighborhoods or cities. One just has to ask a few questions and he can find drugs in any town.

So if drugs are readily available, anyway, what would it hurt if we legalize them? If we made good clean drugs readily available one important thing would happen immediately. The murderous criminal drug cartels that thrive South of our border would have to find new markets for their poison. There would be no point in buying their adulterated product when safe clean drugs were available here in our country.

Another immediate benefit would be a reduction in the cost of law enforcement. Vast sums are spent policing drug traffic. Besides saving money on enforcement, our country would save money on the cost of prosecuting and warehousing drug offenders. Now many people don't see that as a good thing because all of a sudden many people would be out of work. But there is an upside to all of this. The money that had previously been spent on enforcement could be directed toward treatment.

Because I manage one of the larger recovery programs in the United States, many people might find my view hypocritical. But I don't view the problem as the easy availability of drugs. I view the problem has been the fact some people suffer from deadly addictions. One way or the other, addicts and alcoholics find a way to feed their disease. Availability is not the key factor.

It is time that to overhaul our counterproductive drug laws. In 50 years the situation has not gotten better. How can we not recognize that enforcement isn't working? Our so-called drug problem has remained static all that time.

By treating addiction as a crime - rather than a disease - we've created a criminal subculture. Many of its inhabitants live a dubious existence in the lower tier of our society.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The client in our employment center debriefing group was very negative about his chances of finding employment. He had sleeves tattooed on his arms and a few small ones on his face.

"No one wants to hire me because of my tattoos," he said dejectedly.

The manager pointed out that his inability to find work likely had more to do with his attitude than with his tattoos. He gave several examples of clients at our various facilities who had many more tattoos, but who had found employment. He went on to describe one client who was at our Roosevelt facility last year who had a tattoo of a knife slash across his throat. It was a very graphic depiction of a wound that had red blood seeping from it. The manager of the center believed this man would have difficulty finding employment anywhere outside of a carnival sideshow or a tattoo parlor. Yet his enthusiasm was so infectious he landed job the first day he started looking.

The manager went around the circle of 15 clients and asked each to share their job search experiences that day. Some mentioned sore feet, others talked with little enthusiasm about the applications they'd put in. Some were downright dejected. And a few said they had obtained initial interviews that might lead to employment within a few days. There was a mixed response, but most of it seemed to be about attitude.

And the interesting thing is that two days later the client who was so negative about his tattoos found employment. Maybe the manager's talk did some good.

Friday, November 5, 2010

It's easy to work the 12 step programs when times are good. When we have a great job, a good relationship, and life is wonderful our program goes smoothly. But I believe that when times are tough we learn how much we have really absorbed of the 12 steps.

This was brought to my attention recently when two friends of mine, one who sponsored the other, had a crisis in their relationship. The one who acted as a sponsor was also the sponsee's supervisor. Because of a recent turn-down in his company's fortunes, the supervisor had to terminate the sponsee. At first it appeared as though they were going to be able to continue the sponsor/sponsee relationship. But for several days after the termination the sponsee didn't call the sponsor. And when he did finally call, it was to terminate their relationship. The sponsor hasn't heard from him since.

Relationships are so sensitive for us substance abusers. We get our feelings hurt easily. When a real crisis arises in our relationships we often don't know how to deal with it. Relationships can be difficult for anyone, especially those of us in recovery. But it can be especially difficult when our lives are intertwined in other ways. An employer-employee relationship, where one sponsors the other, can be traumatic if the relationship changes. If one of is terminated, or if one of them gets drunk, then it complicates the other aspects of their relationship.

Of course life is impermanent at best. The economy changes, business changes, relationships change. Hopefully we stay sober through the changes.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The aftercare group assignment was to finish the sentence, "you can tell I'm getting ready to relapse when I..."

A couple of clients in the group groaned when they heard the topic. They knew the structure of the sentence didn't give them much wiggle room. But it made for an interesting group.

The first client who shared gave the usual boilerplate answers. He said that he last relapsed when he quit going to meetings, started hanging out with negative people, and began focusing on things other than recovery. Another client mentioned that when he quit doing the things that he did when he first got sober he knew he was on the path to relapse.

An interesting aspect of the group was when three of the members mentioned that they didn't have a lot to share because they had never relapsed. It was their first time trying to get sober and the only thing they knew about relapse was what they'd heard in meetings or from their sponsors.

Later an older man, a chronic alcoholic who had relapsed many times, shared how he knew when he was ready to relapse. He said that before he relapsed he often looked around and that other situations looked better than the one he was in. He said that even though he was once married to a beautiful woman, he would find other women more beautiful. He said that when he was married he was envious of his unmarried children. He said that when he was divorced and living alone he was jealous of those who were married. He said he had a great job but that he was dissatisfied with it. And eventually that dissatisfaction ended in a fight with a co-worker and resulted in his termination. No matter where he was in life it seemed like he was never content. And this lack of contentment and acceptance led him back to alcohol over and over.

A client who also had relapsed many times suggested that this man get more involved in service work. He thought if the man did service work he'd spend less time comparing his situation with others. He pointed out that when we are never satisfied it might have something to do with a spiritual vacuum within us.

Another client suggested the man look around, not only at those who he perceived as having it better than him, but also at those who have less. He pointed out that we can always find someone to envy or a situation to covet. But on the other end of the spectrum we can see those who are suffering and have less than us.

Our job is to find balance and realize that in God's world we are exactly where we're supposed to be at the moment.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

One day several years ago one of our new clients was assigned to help paint an empty room at one of our facilities. The man, who had been sober for only a few days, was not happy about the assignment. He took his time while doing the job and was not all interested in the project. Finally the crew leader asked what was going on with him.

"I just don't understand what this job has to do with recovery," the client said.

"You're not drinking or drugging are you?" asked the crew leader.

"Of course not," responded the client.

"Well if you're not using right now," said the crew leader, "then you're working on your recovery."

The crew leader, a client of our program who'd been in recovery for a while, was making the point that recovery is not always about being in a group, or in a counseling session. For those of us at TLC one of the primary components of recovery is getting some time clean and sober. We believe that it takes time for us to clear our heads and start feeling good again. Doing chores and maintenance around the facility is a small step toward helping our clients build self-esteem.

Normally after three days, once a new client has completed his orientation into the program, he goes out on his own looking for employment. With three days of positive activity under his belt it is more likely that he will develop the confidence to look for a job.

One of the strong points of our program is that it consists of addicts helping other addicts. Sometimes alcoholics and addicts resent having professionals tell them what to do. After all many of them have been rebels for much of their life. But when another addict tells them how they stayed sober for a month, six months, or a year, the newcomer finds an example he can use in his own life.

To me, that's what peer counseling is all about.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One of the biggest, most gratifying, payoffs comes when we hear from graduates who have stayed sober for a long time.

This weekend I received an e-mail from a man who was at TLC 18 years ago. His message said in part that he had just gone to a meeting "where I received my 18 year chip and talked about my experiences at TLC. I celebrated 18 years of sobriety yesterday that started at EVAC and led me to TLC 18 years ago." He added that we didn't think he'd last a week.

His message was full of promises come true. He's been married 12 years, his family connections are great, and he's had the same good job for 13 years. He finished with "everything is going well."

Prior to his decline into alcoholism this man was a professional who worked for a large public corporation. At one time he had a well-paid position with this company and all of the perquisites. He had a college education and every expectation that things would always go his way. However, alcohol brought him down. Shortly before he came to TLC he was living behind a convenience store dumpster not knowing what to do next.

It's wonderful to receive messages like this from former clients. When we see people whose lives have been dramatically changed, who have escaped from the ravages of drugs and alcohol, it makes everything just that much more worthwhile.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Yesterday I was talking to a couple of our employees, both in recovery, about their plans for Halloween. Both were raising young children and decided to get the kids together for Halloween. In both cases, our employees had progressed from being incarcerated for drug offenses to being responsible parents after spending a few years at TLC.

Stories like this do my heart good. The parents involved in planning the celebration are living examples of what it means to be in recovery. A few years ago a plan like this would've been out of the question.

One of the payoffs of being in the recovery business is witnessing positive changes in the lives of former clients. Nothing is more satisfying to me than when I see recovering addicts acting like so-called "normal" people.

Often I explain to my employees that their sobriety, and the sobriety they help bring to the lives of others has a long-term effect. I believe that sober parents are a powerful influence in raising sober children. For the past 20 years I've listened to stories from clients who claimed their first experience with drugs or alcohol involved their parents. If their parents didn't provide the drugs or alcohol directly, they provided a bad example by their own addictions.

Conversely, parents who live right provide a good example for their children. Not only do the parents provide a good example, they can also recognize the beginnings of addiction in their kids and get them help.