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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

When it was his turn to share at the meeting, an older man reflected upon how the tsunami in Japan had changed his outlook on life.

"I have this vision of a 70-year-old man, sitting in his garden, going about his daily life. Maybe he was thinking about meeting someone for tea later on. Perhaps he was planning a vacation. Or maybe he was simply thinking about how he was going to take care of himself when he was in his 80s. Then all of a sudden this 30 foot wall of water came and wiped out everything."

The man went on to say the disaster emphasized for him how tenuous life can really be. It made him realize he should relish the moment, and not fret so much about things that might be swept away the next minute.

It’s natural for us to sink into the minutia of day -to -day life. We have responsibilities to our families. We do something to make a living, to earn our keep. We care for our children. Most of our minutes are spent meeting these obligations. It’s the normal ebb and flow of life.

But it is also important for each of us - especially those of us in recovery - to enjoy and appreciate our daily existence. When I'm busily taking care of my obligations to TLC, to maintaining the stuff I've acquired in 20+ years of sobriety, it's easy to become immersed in my responsibilities.

But if I pause to take a deep breathe, to meditate, to savor the fruits of my existence then I’m in this moment God has provided.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In aftercare last night the topic was "overcoming our fears." Even though our fears can become almost palpable, most of those in the group agreed that fear resides in our minds.

One client, for example, talked about fears concerning his three grown children. He had a relationship with them, but he wasn't sure they really loved him. He was afraid that once he was around for a while they'd discover who he really was and wouldn't want him in their lives. And, of course, the group jumped all over him – in a loving way – about his attitude.

"Do you think they'd have you in their lives now," one group member asked pointedly, "if they didn't care about you?"

"Yeah, but I'd like to be sure," the man replied.

"A simple thing you might try," the group facilitator interjected, "is to maybe just ask them how they feel about you."

The man had a puzzled look on his face, as if that were something that he hadn't considered.

"You mean just ask them?"

"That simple," the facilitator continued. "After all, what's the worst that can happen?"

"I'm not sure," the man replied. "Maybe I won't have a relationship at all if I ask that question."

"What's your gut tell you?" A longtime group member asked. "What does your heart tell you? You really believe these kids would let you back in their lives if they didn't care?"

Various group members gave the man feedback about his attitude. The consensus was that he which should take a risk and ask his children how they felt. Another man, with even more insight, suggested he sit down with his children, either one at a time, or together, and tell them of his fears. Tell them about his disease and how it sometimes affects his outlook. Tell them about how insecure he feels and that he wants to have an open relationship with them. Let them know that he's a vulnerable human being and that he needs their support as he moves along in his recovery.

Group members suggested that as he becomes transparent with those he loves he'll remove the mystery about himself. They might realize he descended into the muck of alcoholism and drug addiction because he didn't deal with a lot of these issues when they were much younger.

The group facilitator had an observation of his own. He said he'd once heard a saying that stuck with him: "many of us would rather live with a known misery, than take a chance on an unknown joy." His believed this client's fears might be summed up in that saying.

Before the group closed, the client said he would take the their suggestions and have an open conversation with his children. And he promised to let the group know how it worked out.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The voice mail was so garbled I listened to it twice to understand the message. Finally I figured out the caller was saying he didn’t know how my number had been memorized in his phone.

“I’m not sure who you are,” his message went on, “but I’m really drunk. I need help.”

While I didn’t recognize the name or number I called him. And he was right: He was very drunk, just this side of incoherent. As we talked I learned he’d left TLC about a week ago and had been drunk since. He might've gotten my number while he was in our program, though I don't recall him - or having given him my cell number. However that's not unusual, considering we have over 650 clients.

When I offered to take him to a detox - then let him come back to TLC - he declined.

“I’ve go too much pride for that,” he replied. “I’d be embarrassed to come back.”

“But you don’t have too much pride to call people you don’t know when you’re drunk out of your mind.”

“You’re kind of mean,” he said. When I apologized, he said it was okay. He liked it when people were direct with him.

While I don't normally have discussions with drunks, I pointed out that false pride and ego often show when we relapse or are drinking. Through his drunken haze he seemed puzzled when I told him nobody really cares about his ego and pride. I told him the only reason I called back was to do a 12 step call - to carry the message. And I went on to say that I was okay if he kept drinking, although I didn't think it would work for him.

As the conversation ended he decided he wanted to go to a meeting and was supposed to call me back. However, he never did.

He helped me stay sober today.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The father's voice was hesitant, a hint of pain in his words.

“Can you tell me how my son’s doing?” he asked, when I answered my phone.

He was calling from a mid-western state and was concerned about his son, who’d been using drugs and alcohol and who’d been in and out of recovery programs, including TLC.

I didn’t know the son because we have over 600 clients in houses across Arizona and Nevada. But when he gave me the name I told him I’d make some inquiries and call back – which I did about an hour later. The news was good: the son is sober today, looking for work, and adhering to our guidelines.

But the exchange with this anxious father leads to the larger issue of how our disease impacts those around us.

In counseling groups I conduct addicts often maintain they never hurt anyone when they were using, only themselves. They rationalize-

“I never ripped off my family."
“I never stole anything.”
“I worked hard on the job.”
“I stayed away from my family when I was using.” And on and on…

However, I immediately disabuse them of the idea they never hurt anyone when drinking and drugging. First of all the idea of a nice speed freak, heroin addict, or drunk is counterintuitive. But, even assuming an addict is exceptionally nice and didn’t take money or other assets from the family there are other ways an addict inflicts damage.

When we are in the grips of our disease we aren’t present for others. When we‘re pursuing drugs and alcohol we aren’t emotionally present for our loved ones. Oh, we can say we love our family and friends. But love is not an empty phrase we mumble as evidence of our care.

Love is helping our kids with their homework. Love is paying bills for the family. Love is providing the emotional security our wife and children need when facing the challenges of daily life. Love is not getting arrested and having our family visit courts and jails. Love is being home, instead of being at a crack house while our family anxiously wonders if we’re alive.

If our clients could listen in on the emotional, heart-wrenching, conversations I often have with distraught parents they might change their minds about not harming anyone while they were using.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sometimes I pray for patience and the result is not always good. I say the result is not always good, but maybe that's not really fair. It just seems that often when I pray for patience a lot of things show up to make me very inpatient. But then how's God going to answer my prayers unless he gives me an opportunity to practice patience?

For example, last week I returned from vacation nice and relaxed, knowing there would be a lot of work on my desk. So, while I didn't exactly say a formal prayer for patience, I do recall telling myself before tackling this pile of work that I would deal with one thing at a time, calmly, and not become overwhelmed. But I think God interpreted this thought as a prayer, and he answered it. Because, right in the middle of processing all of this paperwork and preparing some tax forms, a really bad virus showed up to infect my computer.

Fortunately, I remembered my resolution to be patient. Rather than reverting to my old behavior of getting angry and having a strong desire to throw the computer down stairs, I instead switched to another computer and started looking for solutions to resolve my virus problem. So, instead of becoming stymied by this issue, I was able to continue processing the paperwork on my desk while at the same time dealing with the virus. I was pleased to be able to maintain some equanimity during this six hour virus killing process. Once I resolved the virus problem it felt good to give myself an atta boy because I hadn't let this thing get me upset or frustrated.

Still, I left the virus ordeal reminding myself to be careful what I pray for because God normally answers my prayers. Invariably, when I pray for patience, situations or people will shortly show up in my life to test my resolve

The survival value of patience in my recovery cannot be overestimated. If I practice patience in my daily life then I'll be able to invoke the serenity prayer, or else call my sponsor, when issues show up in my life. Patience and overreacting are mutually exclusive.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"What are your qualifications for the job? our supervisor asked a client who was applying for a telemarketing job with TLC.

"Well, I can burp and I can fart," the applicant replied.

"Okay then," our supervisor told him. "You have the job."

While this might seem to be a strange job interview, here at TLC nothing surprises us. Because our mission is to help recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives we encounter all types. In the case of this applicant, he was a man who said he he’d spent all of his life in special education. He said even in special education class everyone made fun of him. Because he was unable to find a job in the community, we made an effort to find something for him to do around the program. Maybe something that would be useful to TLC while helping him build self-esteem.

The interesting thing about this job applicant, is he’s starting to experience some success in his position. Even though he has his issues, he's not unintelligent. And probably one of his best attributes is that he's able to stick to the job and do what he's assigned – which is to obtain work for other clients from local employers. Ninety nine out of a hundred people he calls hang up on him. But sometimes during a week's s time he'll find two or three employers who’ll hire our clients. And when he does make a successful contact he has a glow on his face for several hours.

We've had similar clients in our program over the years. Because our mission is to help recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives, we try to help anyone who shows up. And if we can just help them stay sober today, then we've done our job.

Friday, March 25, 2011

At TLC we keep our men's and women's programs separate. They live at totally different properties, separated by about 1/2 mile. We do this to help avoid relationships between our clients. We know, through experience, that it is a distraction when people get in relationships in the early stages of recovery, usually up to one year. To avoid potential problems, we don't even allow the women to go to outside meetings for the first 90 days they’re in the program.

The one place where a few men and women have some contact is in the corporate office, while they're working at clerical and telemarketing jobs. But that has worked out well because upper management is present all day while they're working. Also, when clients accept employment there they know it comes with a no relationship clause.

Once in a while though relationships happen, and sometimes successfully. We have two staff members - with us for several years - who began dating a few years ago with the blessings of upper management. Each has been responsible during the relationship. They are responsible TLC supervisors. The woman has a preteen age son. The man recently got custody of his six-year-old son, and is coping with the challenges of being a parent. On February 24 they became the parents of a boy.

While many in the recovery community look down on anyone having a relationship with another person in recovery, the reality is the world wasn't really designed around recovery. I believe it is difficult to overcome biology. And once people are sober for a while and are being responsible, I think it’s fine if they develop their lives further and get into a relationship. After all, in relationships we might find out who we really are.

If we can stay sober in a relationship, with all its ups and downs, then we can probably stay sober anywhere.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I opened my e-mail yesterday and was greeted with an angry message. The message was from a woman who'd received a lengthy fax from our organization, one that was unsolicited. As I read through the message I realized she had a good point: our staff member had faxed nine pages of information that had cost her organization paper, electricity, and toner. Her anger was justifiable.

But then, as the message went on, this person described how she'd gone to look for a contact number on our website. Instead, she found this blog and began reading. After reading one of the entries, she realized her anger might be out of proportion with what had occurred. So the last half of the e-mail described how she realized she might be over-reacting. The rest of the e-mail was very complimentary. And of course I always like it when something I share in this blog helps someone in any way.

The message in her email was for me two-fold. First, I realized that no matter how well I train my staff, I have to always monitor their activities. One thing I've experienced over the years is if I don't continually revisit different phases of the program, then things might change to the point where they become unrecognizable. It seems like managers, and staff members, like to put their own imprint and ideas into practice. But my philosophy is that if something is working don't mess with it. This doesn't mean we’re not open to new ideas. But, don't fix something if it's not broken.

The other part of the message, I suppose, it's that we never know what effect we will have on others as we go through our daily lives. I write this blog mostly for me as a way of staying focused on my recovery. And also to practice writing on a daily basis. I've never believed I have the answers for others in recovery.

I like to get things down in black and white, so maybe I can get some insight into what will work for me - or others - as we journey along the road of happy destiny...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An important rule I follow as I move along in my recovery is to take time for myself – time go on vacation, time to meditate, time to relax.

When I was in early recovery I immediately jumped into the rat race with the rest of my fellow Americans. I thought everything I was doing was supremely important and couldn’t be accomplished without my loving and educated hand upon it. I didn’t know how to delegate; I didn’t know how to accept help from those around me. And in most cases my ego said I was the only man for the job.

In addition, I had this residual guilt, this sense of having wasted so many years drinking, drugging, and walking the yards of various prisons and jails. And while it was true I'd spent my earlier years unwisely, there was no way I was going to make up for this time – no matter hard or fast I spun my wheels.

However, it was only after about five years into recovery that I began enjoying the fruits of my hard work. But even then, on that first vacation, I must have stopped at every phone booth in the State of Oregon to make collect calls back to my business. (This was before I thought I could afford a cell phone.)

Today, though, I write this after returning home last night from two weeks on the Mexican Riviera. I know my office is still there. My managers have been staying in touch. The bank account looks fine. And, it all happened without my minute by minute guidance.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can – and the wisdom to know the difference.”

For me, one of great recovery tools has been this serenity prayer.

If I keep this centuries old dictum close at hand when things get too complicated or busy, it helps me to sort things out so they can be easily understood.

Because I’ve worked in the recovery field for over 20 years I’m constantly presented with situations that require simplifying. Often those in early recovery show up in my office with a bundle of problems. They don’t have a job. They have to meet with their parole office. They’re behind on their child support. They don’t have money for bus fare. They’re behind on their taxes.

And when they show up with these issues – just to complicate things even more – they’ve put them all in a bundle and mixed them together so tightly they don’t know why they have so much confusion and anxiety in their lives. But the principles of the serenity prayer help to sort things out.

The first thing I do is have them list their problems. Then I have them go through the list to see which issues they can resolve at the moment. My experience has been that most of our perceived problems lie off in the future and don’t need to be dealt with at this moment. Once they unbundle their issues and look at them in the clear light of day things don’t seem so daunting. Many of the issues they look at as being problems requiring immediate answers are things that can be dealt with over a longer time frame.

Grant me the serenity...

Monday, March 21, 2011

The road to recovery often has many obstacles and can be very bumpy. This was demonstrated again recently when we had to discharge several people from the program. One of those discharged was a man who has spent a total of four years with us during three stays.

He was discharged after his supervisor found an empty bottle of painkillers beneath the seat of his vehicle. Our rule is that medications are turned into the office, where they are made available by staff members at the prescribed schedule. For some reason this man, who was one time a manager, had neglected to turn this bottle in with the rest of his medications - which were prescribed at the same time. When he was drug tested he came up clean. However, he couldn't explain what happened to the rest of the pills and the assumption was that he had used them.

No, we're not doctors and don't decide who needs pain medication. Pain medication serves a purpose. However, our experience has been that when people are using pain medication in our program it interferes with their recovery.

Therefore, we allow clients to use pain medication only on a short-term basis. If they need to use painkillers for chronic medical issues we usually ask them to obtain non-narcotic painkillers from their doctor. Or else, we refer them to another program.

The purpose is to keep the rest of the clients from being tempted to ask the man for drugs, or think it's all right for them to use drugs. It's a difficult situation. On one hand we don't want to be insensitive to those in pain. But on the other hand we don't want our program to become contaminated by drug use. Our experience has been that sometimes even the managers who are supposed to make sure the drugs are dispensed properly succumb to temptation and use the drugs themselves.

It's not an easy issue to deal with.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Yesterday I was shown another example of how alcoholism doesn't just affect those around us today, but how it affects succeeding generations. This came up when I received news of a relative who's ill from cancer. Because this young man's father was a practicing alcoholic who was angry with me until the moment of his death, I never had a relationship with his son.

This relative is angry at me for reasons I don't totally understand. However, I know the father poisoned him against me many years ago. He kept drilling into this young man's head the idea that I was a bad person. The father was angry at me, not for anything overt I did to him. He was angry because I wouldn't support him during his addictions. I believe when a person is drinking and drugging we must leave them to their own devices. The more we do to sustain their drinking and drugging the longer it takes them to get into recovery. He wanted me to give him a job and pay his rent, but overlook his drinking and drugging. Because I've been living sober for so many years it wasn't something I was willing to do unless he was simultaneously trying to get into recovery. I apply the same principles to my own family that I do to clients of TLC.

This may sound cruel. But at TLC we've dealt with many parents who believed all their children needed was more love, more money, or more support. In order for the parents to expiate their guilt about how their children turned out they tried to do everything for them – including support them in their addictions. And as a result, some ended up burying the child. I often ask parents - when they ask me how much help they should give their children: "do you want to love your child to death?" Again, this is blunt. But often it's the only way I can get a parent's attention.

As to my young relative, I have no idea of what to do. While I have ways of getting in touch with him I don't believe I have the right to do that. The last time I saw him – at his father’s funeral - he was very withdrawn and angry at me. While the compassionate part of me wants to reach out and offer solace, I'm not sure I can do that without angering him further.

Maybe I should pray about it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Today, the subject of my morning meditation was gratitude. After reading, I reflected that before I got sober gratitude was a word I could say while also throwing up. Because my life was such a mess I didn't feel I had anything to be grateful about. I was angry at the world. I was angry because I was born. I was angry at the authorities. I was angry at everything. For some reason, I couldn’t connect the mess of my life with my own behavior.

Everything was about everybody else. I was whiny, self pitying, and had no idea why I wallowed in the maelstrom of negative emotion that enveloped my life. Only when I got sober, did I get a clue about what was wrong with me. And what was wrong with me – was me. Once that revelation descended upon me, then life changed.

Today, before writing this, I walked on the sand in front of the hotel where I'm staying while on vacation in Mexico. Of course, it's easy to be grateful when one is on vacation in paradise. I enjoyed the breakers crashing on the beach and was suffused with the joy of my existence.

However, today I also have gratitude because I’m paid to work with alcoholics and addicts – a job I once did for nothing.

Whatever I’m doing, If I live in the moment I’ll appreciate what we have. Gratitude stems from that.

Friday, March 18, 2011

At a recent meeting I saw the beauty of the 12-step program at work. This happened when a newcomer, whose turn it was to share, rambled on for five minutes without alluding to the topic – which was “what God is doing in my life today.”

The fellow, who obviously had emotional issues beyond substance abuse, quoted articles he’d read during his daily meditation, interspersed with random observations about his thoughts and feelings. But nothing that came from his mouth related to the topic selected by the speaker.

Finally the chair person intervened and asked the man to pass to someone else, which he did. His last face-saving comment was “I was just planning on wrapping it up anyway.”

The sixty some participants at the meeting didn’t say a thing. One of the wonderful things about 12-step meetings is participants are mostly forgiving when it comes to the behavior of newcomers. It’s normal for newcomers to say dumb things at their early meetings. And no one is surprised when they do so.

After the meeting I heard someone tell the man as he passed through the front door to “keep coming back.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I heard last night about a long-time business acquaintance who was arrested for fraud. I wasn’t surprised when I heard of his arrest. He has a long history of addiction and has been charged several times for various crimes – none of which resulted in serious time or a prison term. He did receive probation for drug offenses and other criminal activities. But to my knowledge none of his escapades landed him in prison.

However I knew it was only a matter of time before the life finally caught up with him. For me, his arrest was a reaffirmation of something I already knew: if we're really addicts our disease will eventually take control.

And it was only when traumatic things happened to me: arrests, loss of jobs, and broken relationships that life began to change. I don't believe those of us who are serious addicts get over addictions without some life-changing event intervening for us. While at the time they may be painful, they are often a necessary part of getting sober and clean. And that's what has happened for this man. Assuming he doesn't beat this rap - as he has many others - he may eventually grasp the idea that his addiction is the root of all of his problems.

There's nothing obstructing this man from being successful except his addictions. He’s managed to accumulate property in the city in which he lives. For over 15 years he had a successful business that earned him a good living. But his addictions eventually won him the divorce, arrests, and other setbacks that probably led him into his present legal maelstrom.

All of us who know him wish him well. Hopefully, one of these days we'll welcome him into the rooms of recovery.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yesterday was the anniversary of my best friend’s sobriety birthday – his 19th year of living the blessings of recovery. And, while he’ll remain anonymous here -those who know me know who I’m talking about.

This man is a great example of the power of the 12-step programs and their effect upon those who apply the principles in their lives.

When I met him in April of 1992 he was at the end of a 27 year run of drinking and shooting speed. He had a long criminal history. He’d been to prison more than once, for serious crimes associated with the drug underworld.

In many ways, my friend was like any other addict who first shows up at the doors of TLC. He had no resources and not much to look forward to except maybe more crime, prison, and the hopeless downward spiral of drug use.

However, he had a burning intensity about him that many of us don’t have when we first show up. He was looking for answers, for ways to stop the pain and hopelessness that was his life. Somehow, through the haze of withdrawal, he began grabbing on to the offerings of the 12-step programs and the basic guidance we offer at TLC.

Eventually, he became one of the leaders of TLC, a man who developed the Hard Six program and many of the policies and procedures that help clients stay sober today. He’s enjoying the fruits of sobriety and lives in a world that many seek but are unable to find.

He’s blessed to work in a field where he’s able to help others change their lives – and stay sober in the process.

Happy 19, my friend. ..

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Being a typical alcoholic and addict I still live life based on a lot of self will. Many times I want to base decisions on my first reaction, rather than trusting God and his universe to provide solutions for me. I sometimes believe I have the answers - and the answers come from within.

I do this in spite of the evidence I’ve had over the past 20 years that if I accept that life is exactly the way it’s supposed to be everything will work out – no matter what the situation.

While this might seem the esoteric ramblings of a recovering addict I’ve been able to do what I do today because I’ve finally surrendered to the idea that powers greater than us guide our existence. Today the problem for me is not that I have trouble believing this – it’s recognizing the answer when it’s before me.

I don’t care whether the question is personal or if it involves our business, if I try to listen and look for answers they seem to show up right when I need them.

A good example happened recently when I was trying to over-analyze the potential for a new business operation. I was trying to step out of my normal routine of just trying something, anything, to see what will work. In this case I was trying to become technical and over-analytical, which is not how success has come to me in the past. Finally, in the face of my frustration I decided to make a commitment. This week, we’ll have a new on-line store for TLC.

And if it doesn’t work the only loss will be a shredded ego.

Monday, March 14, 2011

While on vacation yesterday my companion and I were on the deck of a party boat that was headed to a small island about an hour from Puerto Vallarta. There was an open bar on the boat and waiters were busily circulating through the crowds.

“Margarita?” a waiter offered, putting a tray of colorful drinks under our noses.

“Gracias” I replied. “But we’ve had enough.”

He smiled as us knowingly, and later brought the juice we ordered. My standard answer when I’m offered alcohol in any situation is always the same: “I’ve had enough.”

And I really mean that. The fact that the last time I drank was twenty plus years ago is of no concern to anyone around me. They never know whether my statement refers to twenty years ago or twenty minutes ago. And the other part of it is that they really don’t care.

I’m grateful for the life of recovery I enjoy each day. And, I’m fully cognizant that if I weren’t sober I wouldn’t here to write this blog. My reality is that I’ve had enough of self-destructive behavior. And because I’ve had enough, I’m able to enjoy the life God has so graciously given us today.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In 12 step programs, we hear the phrase "practice these principles in all our affairs." But what does this actually mean? After all, we go to meetings. We have an amends list. We've found a sponsor. Don't we spend enough time thinking about staying clean and sober? What this means to me is that we don't stay clean or sober in a vacuum.

I think this means we take the principles and concepts we learn in the meeting rooms and from reading recovery literature and apply them in our daily lives. A good guide for us is to use the 10th step. "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it." This is an excellent concept for our daily lives.

Was I short with one of my coworkers today? Did I cut ahead of someone in line? Did I ignore my children when they sought my attention? Was it half listening when my mate was talking to me? Did I cut someone off in traffic? Did I not do my part at work today and let my coworkers carry the load? Did I leave work early without permission?

The actions in the paragraph above might seem minor. But isn't life mostly about the small things?

When I look into the history of my drinking and drugging I don't recall ever relapsing over something big. It was always something small. I never started drinking because our country went to war. I never relapsed over an election. But if the sun didn't come up when I thought it should, or if I broke a shoe lace, then that was enough to send me for a drink or a drug.

So, "practicing these principles in all our affairs," is what my recovery life is all about. If I take personal inventory all day and clean up my messes as I go, then I won't have a lot of garbage to clutter my mind. I won't have to deal with guilt. I won't have a pile of resentments. I can end my day with a clean slate.
This constant focus on the seeming minutia of our lives may seem self absorbed and extreme. But I believe that if I relapse it will likely kill me. I've had too many friends who returned to drinking and drugging, and didn't survive. So I view recovery as a life-and-death battle, the outcome based on how I carry out the mandates of the 12 step programs.

So while I don't do it perfectly, I do my best to practice 12-step principles as I trudge through my daily life.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

12-Step meetings abound all over the world, and Nuevo Vallarta is no exception. Yesterday evening I was able to attend a speaker meeting a few blocks from the hotel.

It could have been a meeting anywhere in the United States, except the group has more transient members because it’s in the middle of a resort area. While many of the members knew one another, several of the were visitors only spending a few weeks before returning to their homes in the U.S. and Canada.

The speaker - a woman from California - spoke for 15 minutes, and then picked gratitude as the topic. The subject resonated with the group and several of those who shared spoke of their gratitude in being able to find sobriety before their disease destroyed them.

As I left the meeting to return to my hotel I was awash in my own gratitude – thankful for being able to spend two-weeks in such a beautiful place with someone I love. I close this with the recognition that – had I not found sobriety – I would be alive today. Let alone have the resources to live the life I do today.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The basic premise of our program is that when clients come in they want help. To enter they fill out an application that says they want to change their lives, and they're willing to follow our guidelines in order to do that. But sometimes a client slips through, sometimes clients who aren't ready to change.

Why do they come to our program? I'm not sure. Maybe they just want to get out of the weather, maybe they simply need to regroup, or maybe they aren't even sure what they want. During a group the other day we encountered a client like this. Our district manager had reported this client to be an ongoing problem. He didn't want to follow guidelines. He would come in after curfew, he wouldn't do his chores, and he questioned everything he was asked to do. Plus, he hadn't paid anything on his service fees. In short he was living with us for free and being a disruption in the process. Many times we don't have a problem with people who live with us for free while they are searching for work, or while they are complying with our guidelines. But when they're not looking for work, they're being disruptive, and they're not really serious about their sobriety then it comes to a point where we have to decide what to do about them. That was the case with this client.

When confronted about his behavior in group the assumption was that he wanted to be in our program. And that was the question that was put to him:

"Do you want to be here?"

"Of course I do," he replied.

"Then you'd need to comply," our manager told him. "You need to do what we ask you to do, to follow our guidelines."

"Well, there are things I'm willing to do, and things I don't want to do," he replied.

"This isn't that kind of a program," her manager replied. "You have to follow our guidelines."

"I'm not sure I can do that," the client said. “I want help, but I want the kind of help I want."

After that statement the group started to wind down. The manager ended up telling him that we determine the kind of help we give people here at TLC. Many times clients come in and agree to do everything they're asked. But after they’re with us for a while, get a few meals under their belt, and start feeling better, then they try to change the guidelines. They want to do what they want to do when they want to do it.

When the client said he was unwilling to do the program our way, he was finally asked to leave. It may take him for a while to realize there's not going to be too many people who are willing to help him on his terms. Life just doesn't work that way.

However, we wish him well. And, he’s always welcome to come back and try again…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Today, while on a two-week vacation to Puerto Vallarta, I find another reason – besides the fact I’m relaxing in paradise - to be grateful for my sober life today.

This epiphany came about while I was talking to a 40 year old man named Jorge, who sells tours, timeshares, and other entertainment to tourists on a downtown corner. My discussion with him began when I complimented him on his superior command of English. His accent was more American than Mexican.

He spoke English so well because he was taken to the U.S. as a four-year-old, where he grew up in the State of Washington, As a teenager he began using drugs and alcohol. Eventually, because of ongoing legal issues, the authorities deported him after they discovered that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. At the time he was thirty three years old, married to a U.S. citizen, and the father of two daughters.

“I wasn’t a very good person,” he told me. “I had a lot of chances. I deserved what I got.”

Still, it was a shock to be deposited in Tijuana, Mexico, with no money or resources - other than his grasp of Spanish. Eventually, he migrated south to Puerto Vallarta, on the Mexican Riviera, where his grasp of English helped him find work selling tours and timeshares to tourists. Today he’s married to a Mexican citizen and has three more daughters with her.

While he understands and accepts that his behavior in the U.S. caused him to be unceremoniously deported, he says life is a struggle today. He admitted he still “smokes a little pot” once in awhile - but plans to “give that up soon.”

His story made me grateful for the life I have today.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The widely publicized antics of actor Charlie Sheen are no shock any of us here at TLC. None of my recovering friends are dismayed by his behavior. The only difference between many of us – including myself – and Charlie Sheen is he’s a talented actor with unlimited resources to pursue his addictions. Actually, a few of us were admiring the man because he's so tough. Most of us agree that if we had his resources we’d have been dead long ago.

I remember one time when I came across $16,000 that belonged to my former wife, while she was out of town. I spent every bit of it in three weeks, wrecked both cars, and nearly destroyed myself in the process. For an addict, unlimited resources are often a death sentence.

While Mr. Sheen has a bully pulpit from which to expound his views on recovery, most of us just smile knowingly when he makes his pronouncements. For example, he says that AA is boring. He says that AA is a cult. He says only five percent of the people in AA remain sober. Some of what he says is true. For example, this latter is borne out in AA Central Office literature. They’ve published pamphlets estimating that only one of every 33 people who walks into an AA meeting for the first time will die sober. So his estimate is actually a little generous. But the rest of what he says is pretty much subjective, the ramblings of a resentful, angry addict.

For example, over the years some have said AA is a cult. Usually, in my estimation, the people making these pronouncements are in a similar situation to Charlie Sheen. Even though they may not have denial of his magnitude, they’re still angry and resentful at AA. As to the cult issue, there have been people who tried to make that point for many years, but to my knowledge it doesn't have widespread currency or acceptance.

And if we think AA boring, that can sometimes be a telltale clue about our own personality. When I was young my Grandmother told me "if you are bored, then it's because you're boring." I agree with my grandmother. If Charlie Sheen is bored, then it's because he's probably deep down a boring human being. When I finally got clean and sober life changed from boring to exciting. I had new perceptions. I had many, many new challenges. Each day became for me an adventure in sobriety. Dealing with the challenges of staying sober after so many years of living in the muck of alcoholism and drug addiction makes my life a journey of discovery.

Finally, my opinion is that Charlie Sheen spends way, way too much time protesting 12 step programs. When I spend a lot of time thinking about something, whether it's my health, aging, or the challenges of running a business, then it's because those things are on my mind. My prediction is, that if Charlie Sheen survives his addictions, we'll see him as the keynote speaker at a recovery conference.

In any event, I believe we all wish him the blessings of a clean and sober life. Hopefully, Charlie, we'll see you one day on the road to happy destiny.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writing a blog each day is an interesting challenge. My goal, when I started this project, was to write each day from the perspective of recovery. After producing a blog for over 200 days I've accomplished this.

But perhaps somewhere, in the back of my mind, I thought maybe more people would read it then the statistics indicate. Is that my ego? Sure. I think every aspiring writer has this vision of people beating a path to the door to read his stuff.

An unexpected and pleasant benefit has been the response from parents. I guess when parents are desperate they will grab onto most anything, even my blog. Probably half the comments and responses I've received are from parents who read this to learn about TLC. And parents who’ve made follow-up calls gave good feedback. So if the only thing I’ve achieved is to help one or two people into sobriety, then I've done some good.

If we do something positive we're going to get a positive result. Many times, though, we don't know what the result will be.

More than one sponsor has told me that my responsibility is to do the work. The results are up to God.

Monday, March 7, 2011

One of our newer managers suddenly disappeared last week. He took with him some $500 of company cash, but nothing else. He didn't even take his clothes or personal belongings.

We're never shocked when managers leave suddenly and take TLC money with them. However, this man's departure was sort of a surprise to us all. He was one of our up and coming new managers. He was energetic, always spending time improving the house. There was rarely a time when we visited when he wasn't supervising a painting project or doing something with the landscaping. He attended meetings and seemed to apply program principles in his daily life.

However, nobody's perfect. And this manager had his flaws, as do all of our managers. But we felt we were able to work with this man’s issues. A major defect was his huge ego. It didn't make any difference if he were dealing with a client or a probation officer, he sometimes let his ego take charge and the communication would end poorly. On more than one occasion we had to send him back to apologize, to make amends for his behavior. This aspect of his character was the topic of several counseling sessions. In fact, he was required – after one incident – to write a daily paragraph about his ego. After a week of writing he was required to write a final paper about his ego, an exercise to help him examine this aspect of his personality.

When he finally called for help, from a crack hotel in the area, we agreed to help him again. We sent a driver to bring him to one of our intake facilities. At intake he told the coordinator he’d relapsed because I’d made him write about his ego.

His remark didn't surprise me at all. Until I was ready to get sober my ego told me that everyone else was the problem. Me? I was just a poor, misunderstood, addict and alcoholic. And the world had it in for me. Fortunately, our former manager made it back alive. And we're willing to help him once more.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Had my brother lived he would have been 70 years old yesterday. However, he could never get the sobriety thing right and eventually succumbed in 2001 from years of drinking, smoking and drug abuse.

Robert made a few feeble attempts at recovery. However, he couldn’t relate to the people in the 12-step rooms. He used to say, “I’m not like those other guys.” And then he would go on to talk about what he used to have before life forced him into a recovery program. However, he had a selective memory, one that recalled what life was like prior to the last few years of his drinking. He was remembering when he had a home in the desert outside Palm Springs, California and a source of income from the odd jobs he held from time-to-time. By the time he finally entered a TLC recovery program in Las Vegas, Nevada, he’d wrecked the truck in which he’d been living and was homeless. He remained at the recovery program for several months, but abruptly left one day in a fit of anger. As he left the program he told the manager, "fuck you, and fuck TLC." He was dead six months later.

In spite of my differences with my brother I loved him and wish today that he’d been as blessed as I have been in finding recovery.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

One influence on the length of time clients spend at TLC is their dependent children. Many times a family sends loved ones to our program in hopes they'll get sober and return to raise their children. But sometimes clients aren't able to spend the time they need working on their recovery before they must leave to care for their offspring. This reality often works to the detriment of all concerned.

This appears to affect women more than men. It seems to be easier for men to find help to care for their children while they're in recovery. Or else fathers have been estranged from their families for so long that the mothers have obtained custody by default. And sometimes authorities have removed the children from the parents. This seems particularly true in the case of clients who are in their mid-30s and older, but still haven’t achieved sobriety.

The was illustrated for me again in last night's aftercare group. A thirty-something woman, whose children live with her family halfway across the country, was torn between wanting to be with her children and the reality that she needed to stay at TLC for her recovery. As she talked about her children, tears began wet her cheeks. But she reaffirmed she must stay where she was. Even though she’d committed to stay in our program for only 90 days, she realized she should stay until she gets it right.

And she was grateful to have family members who love the children and who are willing to care for them while she finishes her program.

Friday, March 4, 2011

In an aftercare group clients were discussing how difficult it is to change behaviors so they can stay clean and sober.

One quoted a saying that went like this: "most people would rather live with a known misery than take a chance on an unknown joy." The consensus was, as the topic went around the circle, that there's a certain amount of security in living with what we know versus facing the unknown of bringing something new into our lives.

Another mentioned an article that had recently appeared in Fast Company magazine. The title was "Change – Or Die." The article described that 9 of 10 open heart surgery patients, when told by doctors they would die if they didn't change their habits, wouldn't change.

Fear, according to the article, was not enough of a motivating factor to make them start exercising, quit smoking, and begin eating a healthy diet. The one thing that seemed to encourage change was not fear of death, but the promise of the better life they would have if they made positive changes. When patients were told they’d be able to play with their grandchildren, enjoy better sex with their wife, or be able to play sports again, then they might change.

From that statement we segued into ways addicts might continue to stay sober. Would they be able to stay sober if someone explained the positive benefits they'd enjoy if they did so? And what would those positive benefits be?

A few, who’d experienced periods of sobriety, mentioned several benefits that came when they finally had a period of abstinence. Among these were better relationships with their families, less anxiety because they weren't afraid of the law anymore, and improved health. All reaffirmed that the threat of incarceration, death, or commitment to us insane asylum, never stopped them from drinking or doing drugs.

And many were living testimonials to the fact that fear was not a deterring factor. Some had spent time in prison. Others had been in mental institutions. And a few had been in comas for more than a week because of drug and alcohol overdoses.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sometimes resentment can be all-consuming. A TLC client held a burning resentment at a relative who'd molested his younger sister. He said he couldn't understand how anyone could have done something like that.

I had several discussions with the client about this issue. I agreed with him that what his sister had gone through was horrible. And what his relative had done was indefensible and deserving of the punishment he received. But then I shared with him what I'd once heard about resentment: it's like taking a poison pill and waiting for the other person to die. When I heard this aphorism in a 12-step meeting, I immediately recognized it as true. And often times, ironically, the person we’re angry at doesn't know we're angry.

I heard a speaker at a 12 step convention one time explain this point so succinctly. He said his sponsor had asked him to make a list of his resentments. He worked on the list diligently. In fact, it grew to several pages. The speaker was so proud of his work that he took it to a print shop and had a fancy cover put on it. When he met his sponsor he proudly presented his work. He said it angered him when the sponsor took the book, and without even looking at it, dropped it in a nearby trashcan.

"What did you do that?" The speaker asked his sponsor angrily.

"You know," said the sponsor, “the people on that list don't even know you have a resentment or that you’re angry at them. And the ones who do know are happy you're mad at them."

The speaker went on to say that the experience with his sponsor made him realize resentments were futile. At that point he changed the way he dealt with them.

Before ending this discussion with our client I encouraged him to forgive the relative who’d committed the offense against his sister. And I explained to him what I had been taught: that forgiving does not mean forgetting or condoning. It's just a healthy step to help us not to walk around with a capsule of poison inside of us.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"So how do you think your house ranked for the month of February?" I asked one of our newer managers.

"Oh we probably came in somewhere around the bottom," he replied, sounding depressed.

"Well," I told him slowly, "I hate to ruin your day. But your location came in number one among the men's houses." I heard nothing on the other end of the phone for a moment but silence.

"I can't believe it," he responded. "I really thought we would come in somewhere around the bottom."

To be honest, I was also surprised he came in number one. Each time I’d talk to him he’d tell me how many problems he was having keeping clients, finding them jobs, and keeping them from leaving when they got paid. Most conversations with him were a litany of how bad things were, and how poor a job he was doing.

One thing we constantly encounter with our managers - and clients - is lack of self-esteem. If I ask in a counseling group for clients to talk about their negative points, most of them ramble on about the terrible things they've done and what bad people they are. However, if I ask them to talk about their good points, most become tongue-tied and can’t last more than a few minutes. And many have done bad things in their addictions. But there is good and bad in everyone's history.

It‘s not always easy for newly sober people to strike a balance between having no self-esteem and having a huge out-of-control ego. Walking the middle road between these two aspects of our personality is an ongoing learning experience. We teach clients to find this middle road in self-esteem groups. Self-esteem seems to be a popular topic among our clients and most participate with enthusiasm.

It‘s refreshing to see a client who’s totally depressed about past behavior start to come to grips with it. Often times they can't see anything positive about their life today. They're living in a halfway house recovery program, they're not making much money, and they're often estranged from family and friends. In these situations I ask them to look at their present situation to find something to feel good about. Many times they are at a loss. In these cases, I ask them to look at the fact that they’re staying sober. They're not in jail. They have a home and they're working on rebuilding their lives. Even though they don't recognize it, this can be the most important aspect of their life – especially at this moment.

When I put it in this perspective most of them can find a way to look at their lives that will help them gain hope and feel a little better. Then their self-esteem might grow.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sometimes I don't realize how good my life is. This came to my attention yesterday when I met a couple at a social event who seemed the epitome of success. They live in a ritzy part of the community, own a business that generates millions, and seem happy.

Yet, when I began talking to the wife I realize that all was not as it appeared. Even though this couple obviously has resources to do whatever they want they seemed to be tethered to their business. I realized this as the wife began excitedly telling me about a two day trip she and her husband are taking to Las Vegas, which is only a few hundred miles from metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona.

"We've never been on a vacation in the 20 years we've been married," she told me. I felt strange when she said that. In fact, it took a moment to sort out my feelings and respond. Then I told her my fiancée and I were leaving soon to spend two weeks at a resort in Mexico. I also told her that we had just returned in December from a 10 day vacation to Maui. Because it wasn't my business how they live I said nothing more. But still, it seemed incomprehensible to me that someone with their resources wouldn't take a vacation every few months.

I believe we should enjoy life every day. I got sober to stop the pain and enjoy life to the fullest. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. While I like having stuff I don’t work solely to possess things. I don't believe possessions, in themselves, can bring happiness. For me, experiences bring happiness. Money, homes, businesses, can all bring pleasure. But owning them doesn't make me happy. It's what I do with these things that bring me happiness. And one thing I like to do is vacation. I like to spend time with my sweetheart in exotic locales. I enjoy unwinding after a long bout of work.

To me it's sad to have everything in the world but not be able to enjoy it. Squirreling money away for a future comfortable retirement is great. But I also need to enjoy what I have while I'm healthy enough and young enough to enjoy it.