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.

Monday, January 31, 2011

At the TLC employment center last week I was encouraging our clients in their efforts to stay sober during the challenges of being newly sober and finding work. One of the things I asked them to remember is why they came to the program. And the reason, of course, is they came in an effort to try to save their lives.

I shared with them what a sponsor told me a long time ago, that my disease is trying to kill me. I asked them to not pay too much attention to how they felt during this time, to simply stay focused on the fact they were living in a halfway house recovery program and why they were there.

Another point I made was they needed to look at themselves positively. I told them they were all tough people or they wouldn't be sitting in that room. Because of what addiction had put them through many of them had suffered through difficult times. They had lived on the streets. They'd been in jail and lost relationships, jobs, homes. I told them some people don't survive those kinds of negative experiences.

I asked them to realize they could use that toughness, the toughness that let them survive so many bad experiences, and make that work in their behalf. I believe if we addicts use half the energy to stay sober, as we did to ruin our lives, we’ll be wildly successful.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The man who approached me while I was visiting our Las Vegas facility looked familiar. He approached me, smiling, and stuck his hand out.

"I'm not sure you remember me," he said. "I came here about eight months ago from another state. At the time I didn't want to be here. I mean I really didn't want to be here."

At that point I recalled my first encounter with this man. When I met him he was angry about his alcoholism. He'd just gotten off a bus and was upset about everything. He was mad at his family. He was angry at the disease that had brought him to Nevada. He had a story about losing everything - including his job.

But the man who introduced himself to me this week was a totally different human being. His demeanor had changed. The anger was gone from his face and he was positive and upbeat. He went on to explain how the geographical change he'd made was the best thing that had happened to him. He thanked me to the point I became almost embarrassed and had to leave.

However, one of the rewards of what I do comes from encounters like this. The idea that this business, started nearly 20 years ago, has made a difference in a person's life is so rewarding to me. I realize I'm only an instrument. God has given me the privilege and honor of helping others getting clean and sober. At one point I probably fancied myself some kind of guru. But time and experience has taught me I'm here to help people change. Each time I get on an ego perch, life knocks me off. And sometimes the landing is not comfortable.

God has a way of putting life in perspective. Today I don't get too excited about my part in this process of helping people into recovery. For the last 19 years it seems like every time we get into trouble God shows us the way out. Usually, it's a financial or legal crisis, or a management problem. But each time these crises happen, the Director of the universe holds out a benevolent hand and picks us up.

And the result is that once in a while a sober client thanks us because we're here to help.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In last night's aftercare group the subject of relationships came up. One client, who had talked during previous groups about wanting a relationship, was discussing his current situation with a woman he’d recently met.

He said that she seemed to always want something. She needed help fixing her car. She might want to borrow a cigarette or two. Each time she saw him, there was something she wanted. He was dismayed by this.

"Have you ever been in a successful relationship?" I asked him.

"I was married about 20 years ago," he replied. "But we've been divorced for a number of years."

"So it wasn't a successful relationship?" He agreed, and we moved on.

Without reconstructing a lot of dialog the gist of the conversation was he’d never been in a successful relationship. His first marriage disintegrated over his drinking and irresponsibility. He had no experience about what to expect from a relationship.

The group suggested that relationships are give and take. There are few lasting relationships where we get to do nothing. We do things for our mate. They do things for us. We take pleasure in doing these things. If we love someone we want to make their life better. We want them to be comfortable. We want them to succeed in whatever they're doing. Part of contributing to a relationship is getting out of our comfort zone and doing what we might not want to do at the moment. If our sweetheart wants us to carry the laundry upstairs, that's what we do. If they want their car washed, we take care of it. If they're hungry or thirsty, we bring them food, or we make a stop at Starbucks for them. If they want to talk, we listen. This minutia is what relationships are all about.

Our client really didn't have the first clue about where to start. Group members gave him ideas. Among the suggestions were that he would have to be proactive. He was relatively shy and didn't know how to ask her for what he wanted. The women he’d been involved with in the past had initiated the relationship. He had no experience in how to approach this woman.

A few clients came up with good ideas. One idea was to first be a friend to the woman. A client pointed out that being a friend was doing things for others. He believed that what the woman was asking was not unreasonable. Friends need help with their cars. Friends might need a cigarette or money for a snack. Our client said this woman had two children which, as another group member pointed out, can be expensive.

The group concluded with the client unsure about what he was going to do next. Since he seemed quite sensitive about his inexperience with relationships we're not sure what he'll come back with next week.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The raggedy man was in his mid-50s, standing by a broken down old pickup parked near the freeway off-ramp, holding a handmade cardboard sign. Near the edge of the highway sat a five gallon red plastic gas can. Beside him was a black-and-white dog on a rope. The scrawl on the sign read "out of gas. Need help."

I had turned on to the off ramp to stop at a nearby restaurant. When I left to get back on the freeway the man was still there. On an impulse, I slowed to where he was standing and handed $20 out the window. The man thanked me profusely. I went to my next stop, about 15 miles down the road, to a spot where I usually stop to rest during the 300 mile drive to Las Vegas, I pulled over, put my seat back, and shut my eyes.

After about 20 or 30 min. I opened my eyes to the sound of nearby voices. Looking to my left, 2 to 3 parking spaces away, was the man in the red truck. He was standing outside the truck, talking to a woman who was seated in the passenger side of the vehicle. Within a minute a low rider car pulled up and the man went over to the driver and handed him something. The driver handed him something in return. I suddenly realized the man had probably purchased drugs from the man who had just arrived.

For a moment I started to get angry, feeling stupid that my compassion let me be suckered into giving this man money. I periodically encounter people in parking lots who say that they're broke and need money for gas. I sometimes give them a few dollars because, even though I know they might be using the money for drugs or alcohol, I figure if their life is so bad they have panhandle in a parking lot asking for money, then I can help.

Once I was realized what was going on with the man in the red truck I was able to laugh at myself. I applied a saying that I’d heard one time from a motivational speaker who’d given money to a homeless man. His children, who were riding with him, began berating him. They made were making comments like "you know he's going to use that money for alcohol?" "Maybe he should just get a job, instead of begging beside the road."

However, the motivational speaker responded by saying, "when I give someone money, it's between me and God. What he does with the money is between him and God."

Once I recalled that principle I was able to view the incident in the proper perspective. Besides, maybe the drugs the man was purchasing will help him get that much closer to the path of recovery.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A female acquaintance I saw at the fitness center this morning seemed unhappy. When I asked what was going on she told me her oldest daughter had been arrested a second time for driving under the influence of alcohol. She said she and her husband were having financial difficulties paying for the child's legal defense. When I asked her why they were spending money on her legal defense she looked at me in surprise.

"If we don't help her she might go to jail," she said.

"It may be good for her to her face responsibility for her actions," I replied.

The conversation went on this way for a while. The mother seemed to feel she had the responsibility to provide a safety net for this 21-year-old adult. I didn't spend a lot of time trying to convince her she to let her daughter face responsibility. I realized she was dealing with issues that wouldn’t be resolved by a few comments from me.

Many times in my role as a drug counselor and CEO of a recovery program, I encounter parents who keep bailing grown children out of trouble. Many times parents feel guilty about how they raised their children, or feel they haven't done enough for them. As a result, when the child gets into trouble they try to pick up the pieces. While this may help alleviate guilt, it doesn't do anything to help the child face responsibility for bad behavior.

I usually share my own story with these parents. For years people tried to help me deal with my addictions and the resulting problems. My poor parents, God bless them, spent money on legal fees and counseling. They tried to intervene and cushion me from my problems. Only after they stopped running interference did I begin looking at my responsibility for my problems. At first I thought they had suddenly become mean and cruel. People didn't understand me. They didn't know how to party like I did. They didn't realize the justice system was out to get me. Everyone was against me. I kept rationalizing until finally I had to face the reality that I was the root of all of my problems.

Once I accepted this reality things started to change for me. Oh, change didn't happen overnight. But once I had no one to hold the safety net between me and consequences I realized I had to do something different.

Once I accepted reality I entered a detox and my life changed. Hopefully this mother will do her daughter a favor and let her face the consequences of her behavior.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“This helped me stay sober today,” a sponsee told me when he called to tell me of an alcoholic found wrapped in a blanket, dead of a drug overdose. To further compound the tragedy, the man’s father had a massive heart attack when he learned of his son’s passing.

Often our clients say they never hurt anyone in their addictions. They might say they never stole from their family, or they kept their jobs, or hadn’t been in jail.

When I hear this rationalizing I counsel them to reconsider what they are saying because they’re unaware of the impact of their addiction.

In my experience we addicts, even if we didn’t end up in jail or on the streets, took from others. Often we weren’t present for our wives or children. We likely didn’t put in a full day’s work for our employer. We disappointed our loved ones.

And the even larger tragedy is that we didn't live up our potential. We've had many college graduates at TLC, people who were successful in different paths of life. We’ve had attorneys, teachers, and scientists through our doors. How much more successful, happy, and productive would these clients have been had they not been consumed by their addictions?

In the tragic case of my sponsee’s acquaintance, the son’s death was such a shock that it caused his father to have a massive heart attack.

These kinds of sad messages come often enough to remind us in the recovery community of the impact our disease has on others.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yesterday I was happy to see an alcoholic who'd returned to our program after one more relapse. In his case, many of us weren't sure he would make it back. When I spoke to him outside the TLC employment center he seemed anxious about his recovery. All I could do was encourage him to stick around, to stay in the moment, and to use the tools of the 12 step program.

I explained to him that his problem wasn't intelligence, it wasn't money, it wasn't health - it was merely a matter of him applying the tools he had already gained in the program.

While I was happy to see him, the encounter made me realize how serious our disease is. The man had the remnants of black eyes, and the beat down look of one who has tried again to successfully drink, but failed. I encouraged him to stick around and work the program, but realized he was suffering a great deal of inner turmoil. In cases like this many times sobriety is moment-to-moment.

He began explaining what had happened, why he had relapsed. He said he was at a bus depot in Las Vegas, and would have to wait some 5 hours for the bus to Phoenix. Before he knew it he was drinking and wandering the streets in the midst of one more turbulent relapse.

From my perspective of 20 years sober I explained to him it had nothing to do with the wait at the depot. It had everything to do with him not using the tools of the program. I told him he could be sleeping in the middle of a liquor store and not drink if applied the principles of the program. The availability of alcohol or drugs is not the primary factor. Alcohol is everywhere. Drugs are everywhere. People often offer them to us to be sociable. However, if we apply the principles of the program, live one day at a time, call our sponsor when in doubt, make a diligent effort at doing the steps, nothing will deter us in our quest to remain sober.

Early in my sobriety I would despair when I encountered cases like this man's. I would wonder if there is any chance of anyone staying sober. But after a time I came to realize that most of us alcoholics and addicts don't make it. Those of us who do make it are blessed. We are the ones who somehow God has spared. We have picked up the tools that have been presented to us. We use them when we are tempted.

When I encounter a man like this one, men who have repeatedly relapsed and returned, I know the only power I have is in prayer. I pray that one day they'll succeed and stay sober.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The speaker at the monthly awards meeting told an interesting and dramatic story. He described the years he'd lived on the streets of Los Angeles as "a skid row bum."

To watch him speak, however, one would never guess his background. He spoke eloquently, with a smile and enthusiasm. He wore clean, pressed clothing. His whole bearing and demeanor belied his history. He could easily have been a sale representative for a major corporation. The audience followed every word intently, some leaning forward to not miss a word.

When I see such demonstrations of recovery I realize TLC is an effective program. There aren’t many places in America where this man could have gone - with no money up front - and achieve his success. Here's a man who hasn't been sober long, maybe less than a year. He survived the hard concrete of the unforgiving Los Angeles skid row. Yet he’s standing in front of sixty other alcoholics and addicts speaking with charisma about the recovery process.

Because TLC is a non-professional, peer-driven program, each of today’s managers was once a TLC client. Our “each one teach one” philosophy allows us to run the program at less cost than those offering professional counselors, therapists or doctors. Our managers worked their way up through the ranks by volunteering and learning to run peer groups, maintain property, help newcomers find jobs, and provide emotional support. There is much evidence that peer counseling, in the case of substance abusers, is as effective as any other.

The speaker at the monthly awards meeting is a good example of the effectiveness of the TLC program.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I was at an outdoor speaker meeting the other night where clouds of cigarette smoke filled the air.

As a non-smoker I'm very sensitive to smoke, even secondhand smoke. Although I sat on the perimeter of the crowd, tendrils of smoke reached out and enveloped me. I moved my chair a few times, but still the smoke was so distracting it was difficult to pay attention to the speaker.

As a former smoker who quit in 1984, I've become one of those who view smoking as a devastating habit. One reason I find it so offensive is many family members died early or suffered health problems from smoking. My mother died too young from emphysema. Her favorite sister relied on an oxygen tank her last ten years. Even though my aunt died in her 80s, the quality of her life was negatively impacted by COPD. My cousin died at 42 from COPD. My brother passed at 60, partially from the effects of smoking.

An interesting statistic is that while only 20% of the general population smokes, 80% of the recovery population lights up. I was at a recovery conference several years ago in Meadowlands, New Jersey, and learned the state of New Jersey didn't fund recovery programs that allow smoking. The state apparently believes smokers are practicing addicts.

While it's difficult to quit, it's worth the effort. Some reports say our lungs and bodies begin the recovery process within hours after we lay down cigarettes. If the recovery process begins so quickly then why quit now one may ask? But damage accrues with every puff. There comes a time when we do so much damage to our bodies we can't fully recover. I heard a statistic yesterday that smokers die 10 to 15 years earlier than the general population. While we've heard about the grandmother who smoked a pack a day at 100, I believe such tales are always the exception. An intelligent person builds their life on rules, rather than exceptions.

To me living sober means not being dependent upon any substance.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An addict relative of mine has finally left his wife to go pursue his disease.

About eight years ago he entered a recovery program and stayed clean for approximately 6 years. Even though he didn't work a strong program, at least he wasn't using. His participation in the program was limited to admitting the first step. Aside from going to a few 12 step meetings, he also was going to church. But it seemed to be enough to keep him out of trouble. I was pleased he was participating enough to stop using. It seemed to be enough, at least for a while.

But eventually his disease got the best of him. The symptoms showed a few years ago. He started complaining about his employment, his children, his wife and his ex-wife. Nothing was his fault. Everyone was against him. When I would try to talk to him, with the idea that maybe I'd help him get back into the program to start working the steps, he wouldn't listen. He reportedly was spending more time away from home, returning from work late, leaving early. He began associating with family members who were using pills and drinking. His wife finally had enough and the last I heard he's living with a sister who is also using.

I don't necessarily view this long impending relapse a bad, because I believe he'll find out if using and drinking will work for him. On page 31 of the literature it says something to the effect that if we have any doubts whether we can use or not we should go to the bar and have a few. The book suggests it's probably worth a hangover to find out if we can drink. In the case of my family member I believe he already knows he's an alcoholic - and an addict.

However, he's never worked the steps. And if we haven't done the steps or worked a program we haven’t admitted we’re powerless.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Two years ago this morning we received the devastating news that long time TLC employee, Bill W., had passed away.

Bill was at TLC from 1992 until his passing in 2009. When he came to TLC Bill was like many of our new clients. He had few job skills, no money, but did have a burning desire to change his life.

He started volunteering around the program, working mostly in the office, learning about computer systems. Before long he was helping out with minor accounting chores. As time went on he became more knowledgeable than his teachers. He soon was in charge of the accounting department. Bill did that job for many years and created many procedures that remain in place today.

Bill's story is like that of many of our clients. When he came to the program he had virtually nothing. At the time of his passing he had a new Mustang. He was buying his own home. But more important than the material improvements in his life, he’d developed a circle of close friends. Even more significantly, he’d reunited with his family and enjoyed spending time with them.

The other day one of our longtime staff members, who'd known Bill since he arrived at the program, walked into the accounting office and said, "I sure miss my friend Bill."

We all share that sentiment.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

This week at our employment center a new client showed up who is a Vietnam veteran. He'd only been at TLC for a few days and had qualified for 100% disability a few days earlier. I spoke to him after the employment meeting was over.

"When you start getting those disability checks," I told him, "you're going to have enough money to kill yourself."

He agreed but said he was serious about getting sober. He said he had a lot of problems with his back and knew a relapse might be his last one. He talked about his injuries and said he’d been shot with an AK-47 during a firefight in the 1970s, shortly before the United States left Vietnam. I thanked him for his service before he left the employment center.

His situation reminded me of one of the managers we've had at TLC for several years. He is also a veteran who received a retirement pension, an income which caused him problems. It's a problem because he has enough money to pay for his basics - and drink and use drugs. He's probably one of the higher paid employees at TLC, which is not saying much. Yet he works for us at a small salary because he realizes the only place he can stay sober is in a protected environment. He realizes his income allows him to pursue his addiction so chooses to live in TLC’s protective environment.

We addicts and alcoholics must remember this: until we deal with our disease and get into recovery our disease will take precedence over everything else. Our problem is not money. Our problem is not education. Our problem is not health. Our problem is our disease.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This week a friend of 15 years passed away. We knew Darrell since the mid-90s. He was the manager of a large temporary employment service and provided jobs to many of TLC's clients over the years. He was both a business acquaintance and a recovery friend.

We knew for a number of years Darrell had hepatitis C, a condition he told us about early in our friendship. But the condition didn't slow him down. He was an energetic man, had several sons, and liked to spend time in the desert with his dune buggy on long weekends.

Even though I knew him for many years I learned much about his character during the last six months of his life. When he knew he had about six months to live he told us of his condition. He was an example of how I would like to carry myself in a similar situation. He wrapped up his affairs, and made arrangements for the care of his family. His sons have a business downstairs from our office and he showed up regularly to help them process orders and do other chores. He seemed to do everything he could to ease the sadness and pain of those around him. I never heard him complain about pain or any other aspect of his life.

The last day I saw him he was in the rear parking lot behind our office. He was walking very slowly, leaning on a cane his sons had made for him. He spent a few showing me the custom aluminum cane. He was proud of it, and demonstrated the flashlight built into the handle so he could see where he was walking. In his hand he had a small empty box he was carrying to a dumpster about 50 feet behind our office. I started to ask him if he wanted me to carry the box to the trash for him. Then I hesitated. For some reason I thought it was important that he carry the trash to the dumpster on his own.

Before he shuffled off to the trashcan I gave him a hug and asked him if he was in pain.

"It's okay," he replied slowly in a low voice. Then he walked toward the dumpster. It was the last time I saw him.

Godspeed, Darrell. We’ll all miss you.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

After being in recovery for nearly 20 years, I've learned to not let small things irritate me. I do this because it's work to go from being irritated to not irritated.

However, the other day an issue that irritates me a lot came up one more time. Transitional Living Communities is a nonprofit corporation. We started out with this status because we didn't want to pay taxes. Also it's easier to get people to donate to a nonprofit than a for profit. However, many times uninformed people don't quite understand what nonprofit means.

A good example occurred the other day. Our mission at TLC is to help recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives. One of the ways we do this is to help our clients get employment so they can pay their service fees and support our mission. Many times though when clients receive their first paycheck, instead of paying their service fees, they elect to leave the program and start over somewhere else. From an economic point of view this makes sense for them. Instead of paying the $800-$1000 they owe they start over in a new program, usually one with less restrictions. They have enough money to pay the first week or two and maybe a little left over to buy clothes or toys.

When this occurs I recognize it as a simple extension of an addict's dishonest behavior. When I point this out to the client who is on his way out the door they dismiss what I'm telling them. Many times though their decision is a bad one because they go to a program that doesn't have as many restrictions as ours and they soon relapse. They haven't yet realized the problem's not money but their disease. Usually when this happens we take them back but ask them for a down payment on their back service fees before they can re-enter. And sometimes this works out fine for everyone.

The other day two men who owe TLC over $1000 each in service fees chose to leave when they got paid. In fact, one of them even had his mother pick him up to take him to another program. When she arrived she wanted to go to his room to help him pack. When our manager objected because he was running out on the service fees he owed us, she made what I consider was a really uninformed statement.

"Well this is a nonprofit, isn't it?" she asked. Her implication, of course, was that someone else was paying our mortgage payments and electric bills. And someone else was paying for the client's food, laundry, transportation, and the other services we offer. While I give her the benefit of the doubt and realize she's not sophisticated or educated enough to understand that someone has to pay the bills I still get irritated when things like this happen.

Monday, January 17, 2011

As I move into my 21st year of recovery I have the same ambition: to stay clean and sober. But coupled with that is the ambition is a desire to also stay sober and be healthy.

When I got sober I determined that I was not going to be sober and feel bad. I embarked on a regimen of exercising six days a week, and eating vegetarian. Three days a week I lift weights or do calisthenics. The other three I do aerobics. Either I ride a bicycle or spend time on an elliptical to get my heart rate up. While it isn't always wonderful to get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning and go to the gym, the routine is so ingrained that I wake up without an alarm and start my day. The routine works for me.

At 71 there are constant reminders that I'm part of the aging population. Even though I can bench press my own body weight and do 20 chin-ups young people in supermarkets offer to carry my groceries to the car. People defer to me at the doorway, stepping aside to allow me to go first. In my mailbox I find a deluge of mail, sometimes a couple of pieces a day to remind me of my years on the planet. I receive mail for such things as long-term care plans, cemetery plots, retirement planning, and senior dating services. At one point I used to let it bother me because I didn't like the constant reminders. Today I'm grateful that I'm still able to get to the mailbox to throw away the junk.

I also do things to keep my brain active. I manage a real estate portfolio. I work 40+ hours a week directing the affairs of the nonprofit I founded 19 years ago on the anniversary of my first year sober. I write on other projects. I manage our company's website and am constantly researching ways to improve our page ranking with Google. I do things to stay positive and improve my life.

After all I got sober to be happy, joyous and free. And mostly, by the grace of God, I've been able to accomplish that.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

January 14 at our corporate office my employees held an event honoring my 20th year of sobriety. It was a moving occasion. My sponsor Ralph was there. My best friend was there, a man who has been working with me almost since the beginning of my sobriety journey. In fact, he came into my life after I had been sober for about 17 months.

My fiancée of two years was also there. She had gone to great lengths to prepare a beautiful cake commemorating the occasion. They cake was big enough to feed about 40 people and had a large 12 step symbol embedded in the middle of it. Other employees had sent out for a buffet of Mexican food. It was a wonderful occasion on a beautiful day.

When it came my turn to share I talked briefly about how amazing it was that I had been sober for 20 years. I described how I had arrived in a detoxification unit in Mesa, where my sponsor was employed at the time. I stressed to the group, mostly employees of TLC, about how important their jobs are.

A recurring theme to me is the idea that our efforts to help someone stay sober have an impact on more than just that person. When I help someone stay sober by carrying the message to them my actions influence not only them, but everyone in their life. If they are blessed enough to stay sober and reunite with their families they have a positive influence on their families. They might be fortunate enough to raise children, or grandchildren, who've never seen them drunk or high or in jail.

To me, that’s what the program’s about.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last night I was in my office, preparing for a counseling session and witnessed an example of what Transitional Living Communities is all about. One of our long-time employees, with us about 16 years, was helping his young son do some math homework at the table in the conference room. At first, their conversation was distracting. But then as the father went on teaching the son the rudiments of math I realized I was seeing our mission in action.

I say this because the father came to us when he was around 18 years old. He was in and out of our program many times before he could stay stay clean and sober. Eventually he became responsible enough to manage an integral part of our program. In recent years he has been able to take an active part in his son's life; in fact his son now lives with him. Our employee has gone from being an irresponsible drug addict, alcoholic, and ex-felon, to become a responsible and sober parent.

I tell our managers over and over that their work with addicts and alcoholics doesn't just stop with that person. If they're successful in their efforts to help that person stay sober, then that person might go on to be an example to the others, especially their children. I often say that missionary parents raise little missionaries. Carpenters raise carpenters. School teachers raise schoolteachers. I believe that parents become a living example for their children. And if the parents are sober human beings who are living productive lives, then perhaps their children will emulate them. While I know this is not as simple as one and one equals two, the odds are still better that the sober person will raise a sober child.

What I saw in my office last night shows me Transitional Living Communities is accomplishing its mission.

Friday, January 14, 2011

20 years ago today I was homeless and broke, living in a stolen car, and addicted to both heroin and alcohol. I was totally demoralized and knew that if my life didn't change I was going to end up back in prison, dead, or in a hospital. At that black point in my life I made a decision: I decided to enter a detoxification facility in Mesa, Arizona. It was a watershed moment of my life.

I stayed 11 days. The managers of that facility treated me with dignity, respect, and encouraged me in my efforts to change. I attended 12 step meetings.

After my 11 days were up I was referred to a local halfway house, where I spent the next year. While in that halfway house my primary focus was going to meetings and working on staying sober one day at a time. During this year things began to change for me.

At first I had nothing but the clothes on my back. I worked menial jobs, including day labor and telemarketing. I used public transportation. I walked. Finally I rode a bicycle I bought from a thrift store.

But I was happy. For the first time I realized that I had a problem with any substance I put into my body, including alcohol. I focused on living in the moment, just staying sober one day at a time. I was amazed at how my life changed. The change was slow, but it was a change. For the first time in a long time I had hope and a strange kind of happiness that I hadn't experienced before. Even though there had been times in my life when I was free and didn't drink or do drugs those periods didn't last long. And I didn't have the mindset that goes with working a program. In other words, even though I didn't have substances in my body, I still had the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction in my mind and spirit.

I could go on and on about all the wonderful things that have happened in my life. Today I have a lot of responsibility for the recovery program I started after I was sober for a year. I've accumulated a lot of real estate, which keeps me busy. I have a beautiful woman in my life who treats me well. We go on vacations and spend time laughing and playing together. She thinks about the little things that make life better.

Today I don't spend as much time as I used to lamenting that many of my family members are not clean and sober. My brother and father both died at 60 of this disease. My son and some of my grandchildren are now using. But the program has made me realize I'm powerless over others. And acceptance has set me free.

I have a wonderful blessed life today and I'm so grateful to those who helped me get here. What are my goals? How about another day of sobriety?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I was on my way home from the gymnasium at about 5:30 this morning when a radio commentator made an interesting statement. He was asking listeners to go to the radio station's website. He mentioned there was a photo of him to one side of the web page. Then he commented that people should "forgive him" for the photo displayed there. I don't know if he was being facetious, but it seemed he was unhappy with the photo.

His comment made me realize that many people are unhappy with their appearance or other aspects of their lives. And this dissatisfaction runs through our society.

I once read an article about movie stars and the parts of their bodies that they would like to change. These were famous actors and actresses, names we recognize immediately. They represented what many consider to be paragons of physical attraction. Many of them thought they were too fat, or too thin. Some wished their noses were smaller. Others thought their stomachs protruded too much. When I looked at their photos I thought they were outstandingly attractive.

The point is that many of us seem dissatisfied with our appearance or other aspects of our lives. But is there really a perfect human being? The popular media shows us the ideal, the “perfect” human being. This wonderful human is beautiful, rich, brilliant, or strong. This mythical creature may have godlike attributes. But this person doesn't exist.

And this person doesn't exist for one reason: none of us are frozen in time. At the moment we think this perfect creature exists, change sets in. We humans are in flux. We are changing moment by moment. We are becoming grayer, fatter, thinner, smarter or dumber. The story of being alive is found in the midst of change.

As recovering people we need to learn to accept ourselves. Having limitations is part of human existence. While we may think what we have or how we appear is paramount, there are other aspects of our lives that are much more important. Our appearance and the things we have can be very fleeting.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

There is an old cliche that says, "be careful what you pray for, you might get it."

This came up for me last week when I was talking to one of our clients who had been seeking a job for months. He finally found one through personal connections, one that afforded him a good salary in a position that was not physically demanding. At first he was ecstatic. The job paid well, and it would allow him to save money to return home to see his children once he completed the program.

However, when it was his turn to share in group he talked about how his new job had created challenges for him. He is religious and has found himself praying that he will be able to get through the day in this new position. While the job is not physically demanding, it's emotionally draining.

The client has to work 24 hour shifts and, on occasion, he works 36 hours straight. The job is in a quasi-medical setting and he’s at this employer’s beck and call all day. The exception is when the employer sleeps.

While the client was discussing how he was dealing with his job someone asked if he thought he could work there and stay sober. He said his sobriety wasn't in jeopardy. But he knew he couldn't take it personal when the employer, who is seriously ill, is abusive or demanding.

During group other clients had ideas of how he might be able to deal with his charge. And because the client is too close to the situation to be objective he appreciated the input.

Before he was through someone pointed out to him that he had been praying for a job. Someone else suggested that he might be more specific when he prays for something. After all he did get a job. It just probably wasn't what he had in mind.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Last Saturday I did something that I normally don't do: I went to a jazz nightclub where liquor is served. When I received the invitation the thought that liquor is served at the establishment didn't occur to me. At nearly 20 years of sobriety the availability of liquor is not an issue. When I see people drinking it doesn't trigger anything in me. In fact, I often go to Las Vegas, Nevada on business and sometimes the best room prices are in casinos were liquor flows as freely as water. Sometimes it’s even free.

So while we were sitting at the club waiting for the music to begin my companion asked me a question that took me by surprise.

"Does this bother you?" she asked.

"Does what bother me?"

"The alcohol," she told me, looking at the bar at the other side of the dance floor.

At this point of my life being around alcohol or drugs is not something I ordinarily do. But I work enough of a 12 step program that when these substances show up in my life it doesn't make me want to use. There are times in the course of business that I meet people who drink socially and that doesn't bother me at all. On 12-step calls I have occasion to encounter people using drugs. Sometimes we find drugs on clients in our program.

These encounters did not trigger me to want to use, at least they haven't so far.

Often times when we go to a restaurant the waiter will ask if we'd like wine with dinner. My response is always the same: "thanks, I've had enough." To the uninitiated this usually sounds like I've had a couple of drinks and I don't want any more. And the implication is that I might have had those drinks within the last hour or two. They don't know, or for that matter care, that the drinks I had enough of were consumed over 20 years ago. Nor do they need to know.

The idea that substances are readily available doesn't influence my desire to use one way or the other. If I apply the principles of the 12 step programs in my life on a regular basis – which means daily - I can continue to lead a clean and sober life.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Recently I was moderating a peer group at our eighteen month “Hard Six” program where the participants were asked to finish the sentence: “since I've been in the program the most important thing I've learned is...” The variety of responses among the 11 participants was interesting, but most focused on commitments.

Several spoke of never being able to complete anything in their lives with the exception of a jail term - where they had no choice. While finishing commitments was the number one topic it wasn't the only one.

One man talked learning that he didn't have to follow his normal pattern of “running away” when things got tough. For him “running away” meant not only leaving, but also reverting to drug and alcohol use once he did leave.
Another talked of learning that he could stay sober “one day at a time” by attending 12-step meetings and working with his sponsor.

A seriously mentally ill client was happy about his success with moderating his medication to the point where he could tolerate the “voices in his head.”

A man with a long history of prison and violence talked of learning to change his point of view. When he came to the program he thought everyone “was against” him. Now he looked at the world differently and felt that most of the others in the program were trying to help him.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sometimes dealing with men who've been recently released from prison can be difficult. After a man has spent five or 10 years incarcerated he sometimes has difficulty adjusting to the real world. Part of the culture of being in prison is the concept of respect.

In prison if someone disrespects another prisoner there can be problems. If a convict disrespects the wrong person he can be killed. While respect may be a cultural concept that works in prison it often doesn't serve prisoners once they are released. Often parolees in our program adhere to the same cultural concepts as they did in prison and get into trouble. In the real world we can't react to small perceived slight.

This came to my attention recently when I was dealing with a fellow who'd been released on parole after spending nine years behind bars. He seemed willing to adhere to the guidelines of our program. Because he had lived in prison for so long that idea of following the rules and guidelines of TLC weren't too daunting for him. However, he ran into a few problems when he thought someone had disrespected him. The concept of respect eclipsed the issue that was being dealt with. He felt the manager hadn't shown him proper respect when he was disciplining him for an infraction that occurred while the parolee was on a new job.

So now we have two problems to deal with: the first is the issue that arose on the job; the second is about feeling disrespected. In any case, it'll all work out. I just hope it doesn't work out with this man being so offended that he leaves the program or forgets that his mission when he came to TLC was to rebuild his life.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A man who works out at the same fitness center I do is having difficulty with a twenty something daughter who‘s using drugs. We began discussing her issues a few months ago when he was looking for a place for her to go after she left treatment.

Because of her work schedule my referral for him didn't work out. Her schedule required her to work evenings. But our program requires the women to be on the property in the evening to participate in group activities. When we discovered it wouldn't work I told him if she ever needed help for him to call me. I also gave him the names of other programs that might accommodate her work schedule.

However, today when I saw him and asked him how his daughter was doing he didn't look happy. He thought she had relapsed and was using drugs again. I commiserated with him and told him if there was anything I could do to let me know. I also mentioned he could probably benefit by going to an Al-Anon meeting, an organization with which he didn't seem to be familiar.

I felt bad for the man because I understand what he’s going through. It’s very difficult for parents to deal with children who are using drugs or alcohol. I have grandchildren and children who are still using and it's never easy to accept what they do, or to let them go.

The essence of the 12 step programs is the benefit we receive when we carry the message to others who are still suffering. I was carrying the message to this man today. While I'm not sure my advice helped him I know it reminded me of what I'm doing with my life today and the tremendous problem the world has with drug addiction and alcoholism.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A longtime client relapsed recently and of course we were powerless to stop him. We could see the signs. He was becoming increasingly angry and impatient. Everything seemed to frustrate him. When his behavior was brought to his attention he would brush it off by saying that he was "okay."

When he reported to work the morning he left he seemed angry. And before the manager could find out what was going on with him he was headed to the liquor store. The tragic thing about this relapse is the last time he went out he almost lost his life. He was taken to the hospital after being found n the middle of the summer passed out on a Phoenix sidewalk with second degree burns.

His supervisor and others around him confronted him about his behavior, seeing the signs of impending relapse, but to no avail.

This client had been attempting get a full year of sobriety for many years. But each time he has obtained a period of sobriety he gets a craving that overwhelms him. Even though he knows the 12-step programs in and out he is unable to use the tools he has available.

We wish him well and hope he finds his way back. However, the last report on him was that he was spotted drinking on the streets of Las Vegas.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A mother called me last week seeking help for her son. He was stranded in a Midwestern city at the end of a drug run.

“I called,” she told me, “to see if your program is for real.”

I assured her it was. Then I gave her details of how TLC operates on a basis of tough love and peer counseling.

She explained that her son had once been sober for a few years after spending time in a rehabilitation program, ultimately going to work there. However, after he left he eventually returned to his addictions.

She went on to explain that helping her son through his latest issues had caused her and husband serious financial difficulties. Because of this she said they couldn't continue to help him without jeopardizing their retirement. She was relieved when I confirmed we'd accept him without upfront money.

Her story illustrates the dilemma of some of the parents we’ve dealt with over the past 19 years. They love their children but in many cases are unable to continue to help them through their addictions. The cost of 30 day treatment is often $1,000 a day and more. And, the drain on the family's finances can be even more severe if the parents are supplementing an addiction.

When we finished talking she said she would make arrangements to purchase him a bus ticket to Arizona. I suggested she purchase a non-refundable ticket so her son couldn’t cash it in and buy drugs with the proceeds.

The son called me today prior to boarding the bus to Arizona to confirm we had a bed reserved for him.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Once in a while we’re forced to realize our program doesn’t work for everyone. This occurred again when a client who has been in our Hard Six program several times was taken off restriction this week and allowed to seek work.

The first thing he did, however, after nearly a year of restriction to the property, was to find a synthetic form of marijuana, known as “spice” and smoke himself into unconsciousness. He was found passed out in an alley and returned to our Roosevelt property.

After some consideration the staff decided to discharge him because he’d been in the program too many times without being able to leave for even a day and remain drug free. His history has been to immediately get high whenever he leaves direct supervision.

The real question for us is where to draw the line? We have clients who leave and get drunk or high two to three times in succession. Then, it seems like some of them finally get it. Something clicks and they start working a program. They get a sponsor, they start carrying themselves differently. They begin to look at themselves as the problem, as opposed to pointing the finger at everyone else. Some of these formerly chronic relapsers have now served with us for years as staff members and are helping others to walk the path of sobriety.

In the case of this man it seems like he doesn’t make even a minimal effort to change. He’s never been enthusiastic about finding a sponsor or getting involved in 12-step meetings. The other clients seem to resent him because of his lack of effort and his ingratitude.

All of these factors came into play when the decision came to discharge him from TLC.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A big part of being sober and grown-up is learning to follow my own advice. I at timtes have difficulty with this concept. I've been running an aftercare group in our program as a volunteer for more than 15 years. By nature of what I do I end up, ultimately, giving clients a lot of advice

Some of the advice I give them is that we are powerless over others. It doesn't make any difference whether the others are business associates, acquaintances, or family members. We have no power over people, other than the power they give us voluntarily.

I bring up this topic because I have a close family member who has started drinking and drugging again. I don't believe this person started drinking last week or using drugs this month. I believe he's been fooling around for a few years. Because alcoholism and drug addiction are progressive it finally has come to light.

I say this because a few years ago I lived in the same city as this person and was able to observe his life on a regular basis. At the time he lived near me he wasn't using. I believe this because his life was good and he was making nearly $100,000 a year. He wasn't going through the emotional back and forth that he has for the last couple of years. His behavior now is that of the typical substance abuser. He blames everyone else for how he feels. It's because of "that bitch." His boss doesn't treat him right. It's always something other than his own behavior that's the cause of his problems. To me these are usually signs of relapse or drug use.

In terms of following my own advice I'm starting now. I'm committed to realizing that I am powerless over this person. I'm no longer going to wonder about his drinking or drugging. I surrender him to God and understand that he has to learn if he can successfully use.

When we're in a battle and a member of our squad falls by the wayside, if we can't help him then we have to move on. It may sound callous, but emotional and spiritual self-preservation is paramount to someone with my disease.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Yesterday someone close to me said I was being "judgmental" when I confronted him about his drinking. The man has a 25 year history of problems with drugs and alcohol. He's been arrested for possession of drugs. He's gone to jail for drug offenses. He's been homeless, lost jobs, and disrupted his relationships because of his drug use.

As soon as he accused me of being "judgmental" I backed off. I immediately realized I was no longer talking to him, I was talking to the alcohol and drugs he was using. I realized this as soon as he started telling me that he was only "drinking a little."

Even though this man is a close relative the same rules apply to him as to everyone else. Life teaches us whether drinking and drugging will work. He's as serious a drug addict and alcoholic as I am. And in my mind there's no reason why different rules should apply to him. Although it's painful to hear about and to watch, I believe this relapse - which has been a long time coming - might be a good for him. The Book tells us on page 31 that if we have any doubt about our disease we should try some controlled drinking. The page goes on to say that it might be worth a case of the jitters to learn if we really have a problem.

In this man's case I doubt he will turn into a social drinker or drug user. I'm not being negative; I just know that addicts and alcoholics who’ve gone as far into their disease as he has suddenly become normal.

If this relapse doesn't kill him, if it teaches him a lesson, then it will be worthwhile.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

I start this New Year with a deep sense of gratitude. Almost 20 years ago today I was homeless, addicted to both alcohol and drugs, broke, and totally demoralized. On the 14th of this month it will be 20 years ago that I walked into a detoxification center determined to change my life.

God was good to me. After 11 days in that detoxification center I was released to start a new life in a halfway house. My stay at the center was a watershed event in my life. While there I admitted I was powerless over alcohol and nearly every other substance I put in my body. I started going to twelve-step meetings and paying attention to what was said. And it's amazing the course my life has taken since then.

After I left that program I spent a year in a halfway house in Mesa, Arizona. I'm eternally grateful to the folks who managed that program because it was the beginning of a new life. I worked for six months at menial jobs. I rode bicycles and buses. I found a job that allowed me to purchase an old car. After nearly a year I decided to start my own halfway house and found an old property I purchased with no money down.

I started taking in addicts and alcoholics who needed help. I was working another job and putting my money into that program. Before long I had 10 residents, then 20, then 50. Within a year and a half there were nearly 300 people living at TLC. Obtaining property and finding beds and feeding so many people was a challenge. But I remained sober through it all. Not only did I remain sober, my life continued to get better.

In fact, it seemed that staying sober was the easy part. I was going to meetings on a regular basis, I was helping others, and had a mission: to help addicts and alcoholics rebuild their lives. Only once was I tempted to use drugs. I got on my knees and asked God for help. Within hours the urge left and I've never had that experience again.

When I got sober I didn't suddenly get smarter or become brilliant. For a moment I had that delusion. But my sponsor told me I hadn't gotten any smarter; he said that I might even have become dumber. He said what did happen is I got out of my own way and was living the way God intended.

My personal life, my program, and my business all grew. It happened because I got clean and sober.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A client who has been with us for over three years came to me yesterday with tears in his eyes. He told me, that after six years, he’d reunited with his 25 year old son. When the client went to prison six years earlier they’d lost contact.

He was grateful. He discovered that he now had two additional grandchildren. Gratitude was in his eyes, along with a few tears. His story reminds me of so many others we've heard since we started TLC.

Perhaps one of the most gratifying aspects of my job, indeed my life, is when parents are reunited with their children after a period of sobriety. While I'm careful to not take too much credit, it’s gratifying and rewarding to see client’s lives improve.

I often tell our managers of our impact, not only on our clients, but upon their families, friends, and, most importantly, their children. I can't count how many times clients have reunited with their families. Or else they regained a job that they lost because of their disease. Or they’ve been released from probation and parole. We've had clients go to college and graduate. Others have joined the military and served in the Mideast. The message is that once an addict or alcoholic gets sober they can live as God intended for them to live.

The other part of the equation is that when clients are with us as long as this man has been they give back. This man has done much to help other addicts and alcoholics change their lives. He is a key supervisor of one of our most important areas – our construction projects. He's trained more than a dozen men, teaching them the skills required to become a successful construction worker. These men have learned to put in flooring, sheet rock, roofs and tile.

The job skills that he has given these men will serve them for the rest of their lives. So will the lessons of sobriety he has shared with them.