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.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Suffering Parents...

A father whose daughter is addicted to meth approached me today at the fitness center and asked for my business card.

"I think she's finally ready to do something," he told me. "I heard her yesterday on the phone looking for places where she could go for help."

He and I had spoken a few times over the past year about his daughter's addiction. He was like many parents who had suffered through several bouts of her using, then quitting, then starting to use again. He was perplexed and didn’t know what to do. Finally, though, he decided to back off and let her find her own way.

I'm not sure where he got this idea, but as a parent of an addict I believe this is the best approach. We can't always help because there are sometimes collateral family issues involved. Many times children resist help from a parent simply because it is a parent. In the case of my own children I try to not give them advice about using or not using unless they ask. I once helped one of my adult children get clean and sober. Now that the child is using again there's not much I can say. The child already has all the information needed to make a wise decision. What has to happen is for life to intervene, because that's what convinced me to get clean and sober.

Over the years there were many people who were concerned about me. My reaction to their concern was that they should just mind their own business. I thought they didn't know how to party like I did. I thought they were just a bunch of boring people who didn't know how to enjoy life. It was only later on, when I was paying the heavy consequences of criminal behavior associated with my drug use that I realized that they might have some answers for me.

The great teachers were the consequences of my bad behavior. I learned a lot from days and nights being locked up away from my family. Watching others pass me by while I walked the prison yard was a greater lesson than anything anyone could tell me. It was only after I had paid heavy consequences over and over that I decided to change.

Of course the dilemma for all of us parents is being able to stand aside when we know that our children could be in serious danger. Drug and alcohol use can have serious consequences, sometimes fatal. There will never be a time when we can be 100% right about the decisions we make concerning our children's addictions. We can always second-guess ourselves and wonder if we made the right decision, did the right thing.

And the real question is: do we have any power over our grown-up children?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Don't Break the Cycle of Giving...

A client came to me this week because he was having a problem with his ego. It seems he'd spoken out of turn, before he could think through his situation.

"Some of my family offered to fly me to my son's graduation," he told me. "But for some reason my ego wouldn't let me accept the help. They've done so much for me over the years and through my addictions that I don't want to ask them for anything else. Now I'm not sure how I'm going to get to the graduation. Or if I'll get to go."

My suggestion was to tell them exactly what he told me. When he talked to me he was very transparent and honest and upfront about what was going on with him. I had no argument or disagreement with anything he told me. I knew exactly what he meant. If he talks to his family the same they’ll appreciate his candor and his about-face. And obviously they can afford to help him – or they wouldn't have made the offer.

I'm not sure what he'll do but I believe he should do whatever it takes for him to make it to his son's graduation. This client has spent years in prison and on the streets pursuing his addiction. Naturally, in these circumstances he neglected his family even though he continued to love them. Although he has a job he likely won't have enough money to buy the plane ticket to the Midwestern city where his son is graduating from high school.

My sponsor told me this a long time ago: when people are trying to help accept their help - if I need it. He said one of the laws of the universe is to not break the cycle of giving. If someone wants to help, then accept. He said there’ll come a time when I'll be able to help another - that's how the cycle of giving works.

That’s what I told our client. While I'm not sure if he'll accept my advice, if he does he'll experience growth.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

30 Years Later...

The speaker at yesterday's meeting was a wonderful example for those of us who are working our recovery. When he'd gotten sober some 30 years ago he was on the verge of losing everything. His family was ready to leave. He was broke and about to lose his business. His health was precarious.

Today he is retired and wealthy enough to spend several months each year vacationing at resorts. He is prominent in his community and engages in volunteer work. He’s able to spend time with his grandchildren, none of whom have ever seen him drunk.

The stories we hear at 12 step meetings fuel our sobriety. When a meeting is made up solely of newcomers, while there might be motivation to stay clean and sober, there are not a lot of examples of how the process works. But when a man stands up and talks about 30 years of sobriety, we all know he's been through tough times, good times, and faced the many challenges of dealing with day-to-day life. And the other part of the story is when someone keeps coming to meetings after 30 years, we have hope.

We've all heard of those who get sober and after 10 years or 15 years quit going to meetings because they don't need them anymore. But for those of us who work the steps, the 12th step tells us we had a spiritual awakening as a result of working the steps. The other part of the 12th step is that we carried the message to others. Nowhere in the step doesn't say we carried the message to others for five years, 10 years, or 20 years. There’s no time limitation on how long we carry the message. And the reality is if we carry the message, guess what? We stay sober ourselves by giving away our sobriety.

It’s in the book.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Compassion or Policy?

One of our managers came to me with a dilemma. He wanted to help a client who had diabetes, and other medical issues, but who’d lost his medical insurance because of government cutbacks.

The dilemma stemmed from the fact the client really wasn't doing anything about his own health. He was overweight. He smoked. He did no exercise. At TLC we encourage clients to stay healthy. And we have resisted helping those who have medical problems but who aren't doing anything to take care of their health.

In fact, on more than one occasion we have terminated senior employees because they wouldn't quit smoking when it interfered with their work performance. In one instance a long-time employee had a heart attack and repeated bronchial infections, yet continued to light up. While he was recuperating, another employee had to do his job. He was warned he would be let go if he didn’t take his doctor’s advice to quit smoking. He didn’t quit and eventually was fired.

Another long-term employee, who was regularly taking time off because of emphysema was similarly warned – and ultimately terminated because he wouldn’t quit smoking either. Several days a month he’d be sick and off work because his health was worsened by smoking.

In this present case, though, the client had come in with health issues and had been in the program only a few months. After some discussion, we decided this client’s immediate needs superseded TLC policy. So we arranged medical appointments at clinics and set aside funds to cover prescriptions. In his case it would have been inhumane to not do what we could to help him toward a healthy sobriety.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Recovering Whiz Kids

Over the years new clients have expressed concern about how much money TLC takes in. They come into the program, look around at the number of clients and start multiplying by $110.00.

“My God, these guys are taking in thousands of dollars a week,” they’ll exclaim, as if there’s something relevant about their observations.

Usually those who have an interest in the financial operations of TLC don’t have a lot of interest in getting sober. They forget that a few days before they were broke, hungry, and homeless. They’re starting to feel better physically - but the idea they might have to look at their how they arrived at this point in their life might be too painful for them to confront. So they start looking outside themselves to find fault with the world around them.

Most of those who take this tack have never paid rent anywhere, have lived with mommy and daddy - or have been homeless. They’re finding that being responsible for themselves is a bigger job than they anticipated. In fact, it’s so difficult that many of them revert to drugs or alcohol to cushion them from the pain of work and paying bills.

Nor are they particularly good in their calculations. If they were, they would figure out that it also costs a lot to care for more than 600 people. They might calculate a few of the yearly costs of such care:

Utilities: $700,000
Rental: $750,000
Food: $200,000
Auto Insurance: $60,000
Liability Insurance: $72,000

The list goes on-and-on. And one thing our newly recovering financial whiz kids don’t figure is that 25% of our clients pay nothing. Members of this group obtain jobs and leave with their first paycheck before they pay anything. Whoops! Didn’t calculate that one.

Those who are concerned about our finances are welcome to meet with me at the corporate office; I've always had trouble figuring out how to make this thing work. I need all the help I can get.

Monday, April 25, 2011

We Deserve Better...

In a self-esteem group this week a client said she’d been married three times – each time to abusive men. The first abused her physically. The second and third abused her emotionally by calling her stupid and saying she could never do anything right. She recognized her poor self-esteem was the underlying factor in her selection of abusive mates.

“But anyway, I’m done with relationships,” she said in conclusion.

I pointed out that avoiding relationships doesn’t address the low self-esteem that led to such unions. Avoiding the issue doesn’t help us do the positive things that allow us function as competent and worthwhile human beings. The fact that we’ll be in a relationship with anyone – if they’ll just accept us – imposes a heavy price for surrendering our dignity and self-worth. These kinds of relationships usually involve abuse or long-suffering misery. This is a self-imposed imprisonment that denies us happiness and fulfillment simply because we don’t feel good about who we are. We alcoholics and addicts often endure this reality by existing in a fog of alcohol or drugs.

Nathaniel Branden, author of the Psychology of Self-Esteem, says we’re deserving of happiness and explains how to achieve it. We do it by recognizing and accepting everything about ourselves as a starting point in moving toward a fulfilling life.

If we build our lives upon a belief that we’re competent beings, deserving of a rich existence, positive circumstances and people will manifest in our lives.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Mother's Concern

A mother emailed to ask about her son, a new arrival at one of our Arizona houses. She seemed so concerned about his welfare and progress that I sent a lengthy answer that I hoped would soothe her.

It seems she’s been dealing with his drinking for a few years. So much so, in fact, that she has a well-done blog that deals primarily with her son’s drinking problems.

In my email I explained how our program works and told her I’d met with her son and that he seemed to be doing well.

This communication with the mother, while not unusual is a good example of how our alcoholism victimizes the others in our life. We addicts often have the idea that our disease only hurts us; that it doesn’t impact those around us. This assumption could not be further from the truth.

We wreak devastation and chaos in the lives of those who love us. It doesn’t matter much how we protest, family members and loved ones are profoundly affected by our disease. In our selfishness and self-centeredness we pay no attention to the pain and misery we inflict on others. Sometimes I have to remind alcoholics, even some with extensive sobriety, of how much damage they did to their loved ones.

If we can understand their pain we might hesitate a moment before we pick up the next drink.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Don't Accept Guilt...

A recovery friend of mine was surprised at her reaction to her ex-spouse’s death from cancer when he was only 52. She plunged into a depression for a few days and said she’d felt a rush of feelings she hadn’t expected. To add to the confusion, her former in-laws attempted to blame her for his death because she’d divorced him.

In recovery, the emotion of loss has the potential to interfere with our sobriety. Maybe we won’t relapse, but we certainly might not enjoy the serenity and peace we’ve come to expect in our sobriety.

As she talked of her feelings about his death she said she had good memories from some of their years together. She wondered if I’d experienced similar feelings about a former mate – which I had.

I shared with her that when I was divorced seven years ago many people were much angrier at my ex-wife than I was. They berated her and told me that it was good that I was away from that “bitch.” But I side-stepped those bashing sessions because at one time I loved this person enough to marry her. The fact that we drifted apart - or lost our fascination for one another - didn’t make the former spouse a horrible person. People grow apart, develop different interests, lose motivation and go through other changes. It’s called life.

We’d be less than human if could simply erase all memories of the other person because we’d suffered the pain of divorce.

As to those who are angry over their loved one’s death their reaction is expected. People seem to often experience exaggerated emotion in the presence of illness or death.

I told my friend she shouldn’t accept the guilt they attempted to thrust on her for “causing” his cancer. If she had that kind of power then she might have the ability to cure the disease - an equally bizarre idea.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Change Happens...

“Did I hear you right?” I asked a group member, after he quoted a client who’d long been known for his issues with anger and poor communication.

“Yes,” the group member responded. “What he said made sense. I was facing the same issue today and that’s how I dealt with it.”

The circle had fallen silent for a moment because they had the same epiphany: a recognition that this group member had worked on his issues enough that others were paying attention to his insights.

For more than five years - through four stays at TLC - this client has been known as a chronic relapser. He was a man who’d lived for years along the river banks and in public parks around our city. He’d always been closed up, angry, and defensive.

However, during his past two stays at TLC he began listening. He started attending outside counseling and anger management classes. He found a sponsor and began sharing at 12-step meetings.

While I’ve had a “wait and see” attitude with this client, it was heartening to hear him talk about his small breakthroughs, his recognition that he was the problem, that he had no power over other people or situations. It was gratifying when he spoke of reuniting with a family member after ten years.

Working with alcoholics and addicts is often heartbreaking. But it’s worth it when we can see a client begin to have success in learning how to live differently.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Absent Alcoholics

An acquaintance spotted a missing friend the other day, a guy who’d been absent from the 12-step meetings for a few years. At first this acquaintance didn’t recognize him because the fellow was disheveled, had put on a lot of weight, and had signs of dissipation in his face. This was totally out of character because this man was known for taking pride in his appearance. He was a regular at the gym and ran several times a week.

A while back someone said he’d been seen drinking at a bar in a nearby city. On this occasion they’d spoken to the man. But he was so drunk he couldn't respond.

These sad events transpire in recovery. Someone will be attending meetings. They might even be doing service work. Then, all of a sudden, they're no longer coming around. Of course the obvious is to think that maybe the person has relapsed. And while this is not always the case, it’s a reasonable assumption.

What does one do when he encounters someone who’s relapsed? Do we try to take them to detox?. Or do we take them to a meeting? It probably depends upon the person. If they seem receptive then we help.

We must remember our mandate: carry the message to those who still suffer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recently, one of our managers encountered a ghost from the past, someone he’d used drugs and hustled with some thirty years earlier. The man expressed surprise that our manager was prospering and alive, because the last time he saw him he was running and gunning his way down the path to destruction.

As they caught up with the lost years the manager explained that he’d been in recovery since the early nineties and that life had completely changed. He said he’d had the same job for nearly 20 years, had a circle of loving friends, and lived a relatively happy life. He said someone had once commented that his life seemed “boring.” But he told his friend he preferred boring to the insanity of having his door kicked in by the police, to sleeping on cold jailhouse floors, or working on prison chain gangs.

As the two reminisced, they discovered that several mutual friends had died from either drinking and drugging or a bad lifestyle.

When our manager shared this encounter with me he said he was grateful to be one of the lucky ones who’d been saved by the 12-step programs. He said if he hadn’t gotten sober he would be in an unmarked grave in a prison cemetery as had his friends who never had the opportunity to walk through the doors of recovery.

Indeed those of us who find sobriety are in the lucky minority of those who’ve been spared the miserable existence of living day-to-day trying to satisfy our addictions with another drink or fix.

Recovery transforms us into new beings.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The other day I saw a sports figure on television, a man I had once considered very arrogant, begin to develop some humility. This man is well known in sports circles. He is accomplished in many areas of the sports world. He is a champion in the sport he has selected. But he is not a popular champion because he is viewed by many as egotistical and arrogant.

However, he suffered a serious illness about a year ago. The buzz in the sports world was that he might never compete again. However, after major surgery, he recuperated and started training to regain his title. His quest succeeded. Even though he met one of the toughest opponents of his career, he succeeded in regaining his crown.

When interviewed after the site before the announcer could ask him any questions he made a telling comment. He profusely thanked his wife and family, his doctor, trainer and his teammates for the support they gave him during his recovery. What he said was in stark contrast to his previous post fight statement. After the last fight he had berated his sponsor and made some other tasteless remarks. In my mind his latest comments showed that he had opened the door to humility.

As a recovering person I learn lessons when I see things like this. I know that for many years, early in my disease, I would get beat up by my addiction and end up homeless or in jail. But after a few months or years locked up, I would forget how far down I had gone. My health would return, I would regain my senses, and all the pain and misery would recede far into the background. Had I learned humility, I might not have returned to my addictions.

I believe that arrogance is the opposite of humility. And I believe that arrogance is linked tightly to the ego. And the ego is what separates us from the rest of the human race. One of the things I have learned since entering recovery in 1991 is that part of staying sober is the process of rejoining the human race. When I was in my disease, I thought I was an outlaw, that I was different, that I was unique. The only thing unique about me was that I had probably screwed my life up more than most of the people I knew.

I have heard it said in the rooms of recovery that to have humility is to be teachable. When we are in a state of humility, we are fertile ground for the seeds of recovery. We can hear the truths that are uttered at the podium. We can learn from the pain and misery we hear in the voices of those who have relapsed. We can fill our cup with the lessons of sobriety.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I received a message from God the other day while sitting alone in a doctor’s waiting room. I was there to be fitted for a new kind of brace to help me deal with neuropathy which has affected my right foot for the past few years. I was semi-immersed in self-pity because I’ve always been a runner and racquet ball player and now my aerobic activity is restricted to riding a bicycle or using an elliptical machine. Alcohol and drug use from years ago is beginning to affect my nervous system.

But my funk was quickly dispelled by the next three patients who came in the door.

First in was a man who was only able to walk only with help from his lady companion, who was smiling and encouraging him as he labored into the lobby.

Next came a man with crutches who had braces on both legs. He seemed very angry and was short with the receptionist as she gave instructions on how to fill in the form. As he left the counter he apologized for his attitude, saying, “It’s not about you.”

The third patient, a developmentally disabled young boy with braces, was pushed into the office in a wheelchair by his parents. He seemed frightened and was communicating his fear to his parents, who were attempting to calm him.

My self-pity – like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon – transformed into gratitude for the relative health I still enjoy. God often reminds me to enjoy what I still have…

Sunday, April 17, 2011

When I first heard the word surrender after I went into recovery it was an alien concept. I wasn’t one of those wimps who would surrender to anything. I’d fall on my sword first! The idea ran counter to everything I’d learned, everything I believe in. After all, I was the guy who fought the law for much of his life, even though the law always won.

It seemed like I trusted no one when I was young. I rebelled against everything. Because of the rampant alcoholism in my family I trusted no one's decisions but my own. And instead of surrendering to others ideas, I went to the ultimate and thought I controlled everything. And of course this idea is what caused me to spend a lot of time incarcerated for many years trying to figure out how to successfully drink alcohol and shoot heroin.

The real surrender for me came the day in 1991 that I admitted I was an alcoholic. For some reason, I always held out against the idea of admitting I was powerless over alcohol or anything else. I knew I was powerless over heroin and other drugs. But I only admitted that because I kept getting arrested repeatedly for drug offenses. I think I held out alcohol as being okay because it was legal. Yet, every time I drank I went out the door one more time because when I drank for a week or so I ended up with a needle in my arm.

It’s still a fascinating revelation to me that from the day I admitted I was an alcoholic my life changed. Even though it might sound like some 12 step drama, it was an epiphany when I finally admitted that I was an alcoholic. Although it didn't happen in a flash of lightning, my life entered a path I'd never been on before. All of a sudden I was in acceptance about many things I‘d denied. I no longer had any reservations. There wasn't a molecule in my body that said "oh, you can have a drink."

I had over and over again proved to myself that I was powerless over alcohol, and any other alien substance I put into my body.

Surrender opened the door for me to the promises of the 12 step program. Once I surrendered life started on a different path. Never again was I to go to jail, be homeless, jobless, or living in a muck of despair.

Even though it seems counter-intuitive, my surrender set me free to do a lot of wonderful things with my life.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A client became the focus of a group session recently over a cell phone he’d found on a job site. Instead of turning the phone in or looking for the owner, he viewed the phone as “kind of a gift from God,” an unexpected divine blessing.

Of course group members immediately began pointing out that what he interpreted as a “gift from God,” was simple petty theft on his part. Attempting to defend himself, he said he became honest about the phone after he was confronted by the program manager. That's when he admitted he shouldn’t have kept the phone.

As the group moved along someone pointed out that honesty once one is caught is not honesty. Honesty would have been to turn the phone in immediately.

And the real issue is much larger than a stolen cell phone. When an addict starts behaving dishonestly, where does it go from there? Sooner or later when we start lying to ourselves we might ultimately arrive at the big lie: am I going to be able to use this meth? Can I shoot this heroin? Can I drink this 40? Can I smoke a few joints without it affecting my life?

Our disease creeps on us incrementally. First I'll do something small, then something larger. Pretty soon all bets are off. Sooner or later, if I start being dishonest I’ll one day tell myself the big lie: that I can somehow successfully use drugs or alcohol again.

So, for that reason, we make a big deal of transgressions here at TLC. We are dogmatic about imposing consequences when clients steal, lie, or act out. For the whole thing is about when am I going to use again? And our behavior patterns are one of the best indicators.

So what happened to our client who stole the cell phone? He ended up getting moved back 30 days in his program. And he says that this small setback makes him realize how important it is to be honest.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A client asked to speak to me in private after yesterday’s employment meeting, saying he had “serious issues” to discuss with me. I took him to a separate part of the employment area and asked what was on his mind.

He started off with a list of complaints, one of them being lack of help from the employment staff. Since we were in the employment office I summoned the manager and asked him to join the discussion.

It turned out the client was unhappy because the manager hadn’t spent enough time helping him with his resume – nor had he found the client a job in IT, which he said was his profession. When I told him the employment office provided leads, rather than guaranteed jobs, the client seemed to understand.

As the conversation evolved the client had several other complaints, including the condition of his feet which he said he injured on a construction job when he’d “stepped on nails.” I told him if he was in serious pain we’d drive him to a hospital or urgent care as we were not a medical facility.

He declined, then went on with his complaints, to which I listened for a while. The conversation ended abruptly a few minutes later though when the man asked me, very seriously, if I’d received the “two trillion dollars,” he’d recently donated to the program.

At that moment I understood his real issue and excused myself for a meeting I had to attend.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The speaker at last Sunday’s meeting told how she, in addition to attending 12-step meetings, was also seeing a psychiatrist. She said she believed in getting all the help she could to resolve her problems and get her life on track.

One thing she said resonated with many of us at the meeting: while psychiatry can enhance one’s recovery it is expensive compared to 12-step programs - which are free unless one counts the amount we sometimes put in the basket.

I agreed. I once spent a year in a state hospital in California to resolve a drug-related probation violation. While there, I lived in a 24 hour therapeutic community, exposed to nearly 9,000 hours of therapy. Yet, when discharged I stopped and picked up a six-pack to drink on the way home. While taxpayers footed the bill for my treatment it was still costly in terms of the time I spent not working and supporting my children.

Once I entered a 12-step program and admitted I was an alcoholic, life changed. I stopped going to jail or being homeless. I had money, a car, a job and self-respect. My whole life changed and it didn’t cost me anything more than the time I spent going to meetings.

In terms of mental health I believe participation in 12-step programs will resolve the issues faced by most substance abusers - and at minimal cost compared to psychiatry.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We addicts and alcoholics often have difficulty keeping balance. A good friend, sober for many years, comes to mind. He works a strong program, attends meetings, but also works about 60 to 70 hours a week. His work ethic is full speed ahead until he succumbs to exhaustion.

I understand him, because I also have difficulty with balance. It probably the addictive part of my personality: if a little bit is good, then more is better. And a lot more is a lot better.

Even though I've been sober for over 20 years, keeping balance is at times difficult. On one hand I have goals for myself - and for TLC. And sometimes, when I'm unaware, these goals transform into obsessions.

So how do we find balance? With a schedule? Do we work so many hours a day and so many days a week? Because some days work gets done in half a day. Other days business and life intervene. Then there aren't enough hours in the day to complete everything. There are no easy answers.

One solution is self-awareness. There are times when I walk away when tired or frustrated. I don't have the obsessive need I had years ago to complete it right now. The key is self-awareness. Sometimes I lose self-awareness when phone calls stream in and people are knocking on the office door. There are moments when I'm able to say whoa, but not always. Sometimes the responsibilities of life come rolling in so fast that awareness go out the window.

But this blog started out with my friend and his situation. What do I do about a friend who goes through these cycles of hard work, then crashes from overwork and stress? If I'm a caring, loving friend, I'll do what I have to about changing his situation. Maybe I'll put him on a rigid work schedule, so he can’t wear himself out. I guess the real question is how do I not interfere with my friend’s independence yet still be a responsible employer?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yesterday one of our managers said he was suffering from a “spiritual malady.”

I asked him to elaborate and he said it was about money. To help him sort out what was going on I questioned him further.

“You have a place to live?” I asked. He lived in a comfortable apartment in one of our newer facilities.

“Enough to eat?” He seemed well nourished and agreed he had plenty of food.
He also had money in his pocket to meet his basic needs.

As we went down the list it seemed the universe had provided - not everything he wanted - but everything he needed. Plus he was enjoying the longest period of sobriety he’d experienced.

On a deep level he knew his needs were met, and knew his drug addiction was his real issue. His disease was telling him deserved more.

I ask clients who are obsessing about money to view life differently. Our consumer media seduces us through advertising to want more. We’ll be happier driving this hot car or draped in this designer clothing. Or living at the country club, or carrying this exotic credit card. We absorb subliminal images of satisfied people enjoying these golden enticements and we become restless to possess them. But that’s not reality.

Reality is that my three year old get Prius gets me from A to B just as well as Bill Gates’ limo gets him to his office. Donald Trump’s roof probably keeps the water off of his head about as good as mine does. My closet is populated mostly with clothes from discount stores and not much from Nordstrom’s. But no one ever says I look like crap. They don’t care what I’m wearing; they’re interested in what they’re wearing.

We purge ourselves of spiritual maladies by living by real values. Money and the things we acquire with money are not intrinsically evil. But neither are they an end in themselves. If we live only for the material – setting aside the spiritual – then we’re going to be very dissatisfied when the exigencies of life take our stuff away.

Those who live by spiritual values – and who pursue material things based on needs as opposed to wants - are much happier. And they may stay sober longer.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A friend was talking to me the other day about her daughter, a talented artist who's never had a long-term job and has lived at home much of her life.

The daughter's 30 years old and busy pursuing her dream of being a superstar, a goal the mother supports. The friend, who's raising younger children from a second marriage, is frustrated. She often fights with the daughter about money and getting a job. She asked me what I thought about the situation because the daughter is at times verbally abusive, drinks and smokes marijuana. She sometimes returns early in the morning after a night of partying.

My advice was to evict the daughter. The idea of a capable 30 year old living at home is irresponsible on the mother's part. The daughter's only doing what the mother allows. She knows her dream of future stardom motivates the mother to support her for as long as it takes.

She should give the daughter a deadline to find a job and move into her own apartment. When we don't allow people to grow we participate in their irresponsibility.

If we look out the window we can see mother birds teaching their babies to fly - and they do it when they're young.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

One of our out-of-state clients was complaining because our website says "if you want your life back we make it easy." He said he had a different idea of what the program was like when he read the website. He thought it would be a lot easier to be in recovery than it was when he got here.

I explained to him that he probably read that sentence one way, while we meant it another way. I told him he probably took it to mean that we were something like Betty Ford clinic. Or one of those programs that are located on a beach somewhere populated by clients with Colgate smiles, clear eyes and styled hair. He probably had a vision of waiters bringing his breakfast tray to his room, where he was being gently awakened with soft music.

What we meant by that line, "if you want your life back we make it easy," is we give everyone the opportunity to recover. We accept anyone, as long as they're not a sex offender or an arsonist. They don't need money to get in. They don't need a job to be accepted. Nor do they need insurance. All a potential client needs to get into TLC is a willingness to follow directions and a desire to change. And compared to what it takes to get into some programs, we do make it easy.

I tell people there are few places in this country where one can live for $110 a week. You can't go to Motel 6 for $110 a week. You might be able to stay for two days for $110. And you definitely won't get meals or support for sobriety. Plus, you need money up-front to get in.

I usually explain to unhappy or disillusioned clients that we don't ask anyone to do anything at TLC that the ordinary person doesn't do in daily life. The average citizen works to pay bills. He or she has a responsibility for their children. They must do their laundry and clean the house, simple everyday mundane functions of life.

But in the final analysis the real issue with people who complain about our program is not about program quality. It's usually always about a client who’s not ready to get clean and sober. Some come to us looking for a surrogate mommy or daddy. They're looking for someone to care for them, to cushion them from the realities of life. And when they run into our staff members, all recovering addicts and alcoholics, they are disappointed. All of a sudden they're looking into mirrors of themselves. They discover our volunteer managers are exactly like them: addicts and alcoholics working on recovery. And they learn it is difficult to lie to or manipulate other addicts and alcoholics.

When clients enter TLC they have the shocking experience of coming face-to-face with themselves. And when they face the reality that they’re the problem they were trying to escape then they have to make a decision: do I run away one more time, or do I stick it out and work on myself?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

We sometimes encounter clients who say "I don't want to be here."

"Well then," I'll ask, "why are you here?"

"I'm here because my parole officer put me here. I don't have any choice."

"Why don't you just leave then?" I'll ask.

"My PO will put me in jail," will be the response.

"Then you do have a choice?" I'll ask.

At this point the conversation generally breaks down because the person dealing with the parole or probation officer doesn't want to take responsibility for his choices. On a deep level he recognizes that he has choices. He just doesn't like those he’s presented with. Many of us go through life feeling like we're out of control. But most of us we are presented with a series of choices. If we go to jail we made a choice to commit a crime. We're not victims of the system if we decide to go to a recovery program instead of staying in jail.

If we recognize that we are where we’re at this moment because of our choices then we’ll likely make better ones.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On a recent visit to our Las Vegas facility I was pleased to encounter one of our clients who'd been having serious health problems. He looked much better than he had the previous few times I'd seen him. However, when I greeted him and shook his hand, I noticed the outline of a cigarette pack in his shirt pocket.

"And I see that you've quit smoking," I said, facetiously.

"Well, I've been cutting down," he said. We talked for a few minutes about how quitting smoking would help in his recovery from his heart problems. Even though he agreed with me, I didn't detect any enthusiasm in his voice for my suggestion that he give up smoking.

As a former smoker who quit 27 years ago I don't like the smell of cigarettes nor do I like the effect it has on those still addicted to them. I understand the power of the addiction. As a recovering heroin addict I believe it was harder for me to put down cigarettes than it was to lay down the needle.

However, I was motivated to quit for two reasons. One, smoking was impacting my health. And two, cigarettes took a heavy toll on my family. Some seven family members, including my mother, died early from the effects of emphysema or COPD.

Over 10 years ago, at a recovery conference in New Jersey I heard that the state doesn't fund programs that allow clients to smoke. Someone told me their philosophy was that smoking is also an addiction. While at the time I thought this an extreme position, I thoroughly understand the concept. The addictive properties of nicotine can be stronger than heroin, and just as deadly in the damage it inflicts on those it enslaves.

Before leaving I suggested to this client that the same 12-step principles that worked for him with alcohol and drugs could also work with cigarettes.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The couple was a sobriety success story. She'd gone from being a passing out alcoholic to the married mother of a beautiful baby. He'd went from being a homeless meth addict to become a successful contractor. One of their parents helped them finance a split-level suburban home. Each had multiple years of sobriety. They were active on the 12-step circuit and chaired meetings.

Then one day, for some reason, he obtained a prescription for a highly addictive drug. It was a drug he wasn't allowed to use at the non-profit for which he worked. He was given a choice: stop taking the prescription or leave the company. He chose to leave, angry because he thought his doctor knew better.

Now, less than three years later the couple is reportedly homeless, living in a garage. There are reports of drunken sprees and serious drug use.

This story exemplifies why TLC has a policy prohibiting long-term drug use, even if it's a doctor's prescription. While there are good reasons to take prescribed drugs, we've learned through sad experience that chronic use of narcotic pain medication rarely ends well for the addicts and alcoholics at TLC. Chronic use turns into "lost" pills, acquisition of multiple prescriptions, or excessive consumption. While it might seem unfeeling to not allow our employees or clients to use narcotic pain medication, it so rarely works out well that we either refer them to other programs or - in the case of employees - let them go.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The speaker at Sunday’s meeting told an engaging story of the challenges of being a father throughout his 30 years of recovery. And one thing he said before closing resonated with me and several others at the meeting.

“If I hadn’t found sobriety,” he said, “I wouldn’t be standing here today to share my story.”

When it came time for others to share several related to what he’d said. They attributed the fact they were alive today to their participation in 12-step recovery.

I know that I, with the intensity with which I was destroying my life over twenty years ago, wouldn’t have been writing these words today had I not gotten sober. Sometimes those who aren’t in recovery ask us how long we must to go to meetings. In other words, are we ever well enough to live like normal people? My answer is I go to stay in touch with my sobriety – and also to give back to those who gave so freely to help me get sober.

When I deal with parents of young people who come to TLC I emphasize the seriousness of our addictions, that it is a life and death situation. I tell them of the youngsters, who didn’t make it, who won’t grow old in sobriety.

Some parents, feeling a residual guilt about how their children turned out (where did I go wrong?) attempt to compensate by doing everything for their children. And yes, that sometimes includes buying them drugs to keep them from being sick.

What the parents really need to do is to encourage their children to participate in 12-step recovery where they might join those of us who are blessed by the promises of the program.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Trying to do things to perfectly sometimes gets our managers in trouble.

For example, the other day one of our newer managers created a mess because he didn't follow protocol when handling money. We teach managers to put money they collect into the bank right away. However, this manager decided to do things differently. Rather than deposit the money in the bank, he bought gas for the company van. Then, instead of going to a supervisor and explaining, he asked his assistant and the van driver to not say anything. In other words, to lie for him.

While this might seem like making a mountain out of a mole hill, keeping careful track of money helps us stay in business. Good accounting requires us to have a paper trail when funds come in or out. Our CPA takes us to task when we overlook this procedure. Besides, if we don't know how much money we have coming in or out then we have no idea how the business is doing.

While our manager tried to cover up what he had done so he wouldn't look bad, it turned out he ended up looking worse. Even though he hadn’t stolen the money, he caused his supervisor, the bookkeeper, and others to waste time trying to figure out what had happened. The accounting department, by comparing the receipts, learned the money in question had gone into the gas tank because the mileage didn't match the receipts. The audit proved someone had put an extra tank of gas in the vehicle. And the assumption was, of course, that our manager is the one who had done it.

When he was asked why he hadn't followed procedure the manager claimed it was an oversight on his part - and that he wanted it look like he was doing a good job. Still, he's going to get consequences for his behavior because his "oversight" caused his supervisors to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what had happened.

Monday, April 4, 2011

We ask those who've been in our program a while to give back to the newcomers. In fact, we have a semi-formal structure to see that longer-term residents "volunteer" to help.

For example, to maintain the highest level in our program, Level Two, clients must sign up for a project or chore in the house. But often getting them to sign up is difficult. It seems to be characteristic of those who've been sober for 90 days or longer to stop giving back. It's as if they think "I've got mine, and that's all I'm interested in."

Last week the women's program manager called to say she was having difficulty getting the women to sign up during the weekly level meeting. Because I happened to be in the area, I dropped in to discuss the issue with the clients. I explained matter-of-factly that I was okay if they didn't want to be Level Twos. They could go back to being Level Ones. And the Level Ones could go back to Entry Level. I told them it made no difference to me. After all, to maintain level status requires some "volunteer" work at the house. It's just part of the program.

I reminded them of the help they'd received when they came to TLC. And that those who helped them didn't get paid. However, they received the reward of staying sober - while lifting up another human being.

A principle of the 12-step programs is we keep what we have by passing it on. If we make that concept part of our daily life, then God helps us in our sobriety.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

When I was at one of our employment centers a while back the manager announced that McDonald's had a thousand jobs opening in Maricopa County, Arizona. They were starting a few new product lines and needed extra help.

One unemployed client commented "I'm not working at a fast food restaurant."

We often encounter clients who believe they're too good for certain types of work. I always emphasize that if someone's serious about staying sober the kind of work they do is irrelevant. Being willing to work at whatever comes along, especially in the current economy, indicates to us how serious someone is about rebuilding their life.

When I first got sober at 51 I was willing to take any opportunities which came along. My focus was simply on staying sober and changing my life. I had six different jobs the first six months I was sober. Among them, were telemarketing, day labor, window washing, landscaping, and other menial jobs.

However, the longer I stayed sober the better jobs I was able to obtain. Go figure...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The last Sunday of each month my home group celebrates sobriety birthdays. Each home group member, and others who care to participate, brings a dish for a potluck. Someone else brings cakes. The chairperson has usually lined up a good speaker for this event, someone who'll share for fifteen minutes before picking a topic. This is a great event for newcomers to attend because they are able to observe how those who have been sober for a while celebrate recovery.

In the past all many of us knew about parties was to indulge in drug and alcohol filled sessions that often didn't end happily. The goal was not to celebrate anything. The goal was to get out of our mind and satisfy our addictions.

On these Sundays, though, we get to see living examples upon which to model our sober lives. We hear stories of those who've overcome obstacles, yet remained clean and sober. We learn that death, divorce, loss of job, automobile accidents, foreclosures, are ordinary events in the course of life – not excuses to get drunk or high. We learn that life sober is better than life in the middle of addictions.

We see others who have escaped the downward spiral that nearly took their lives.

Friday, April 1, 2011

For 15 years I watched this businessman's slow descent into drug addiction, alcoholism, and finally jail.

When I first met him, back in the 90s, he owned a successful restaurant, several investment properties, and was happily married. He was a sharp and energetic young man, in good physical health. When I first leased property from him, I knew he dallied with alcohol and cocaine. But that wasn't unusual, many engage in some kind of recreational drug use. However, after five years or so, I recognized his use had progressed into addiction.

There were rumors floating around the community about him being involved in a burglary ring. Then someone shot him, the bullet barely grazing his skull. He claimed it was a random incident, that he didn't know who'd shot him. After that whenever I would see him he was looking rougher and rougher. Where once he dressed neatly, now he many times appeared disheveled, and somewhat disoriented.

Around three years ago we terminated the contract on the property we’d leased from him for several years. He was so angry at losing us as tenants he filed a $300,000 lawsuit against TLC for purported damages to his property. However, after several months of litigation and legal expenses he dropped the suit. In turn, we agreed to let him spend a year at TLC as a client at no charge to him. However, he never checked into the program. Once in a while he would send me a text message, recognizing that he had a problem. However, he never followed through to get the help.

Then last month a news report flashed across the television screen reporting his restaurant was on fire. The restaurant, along with several other businesses occupying the same building, was destroyed.

Two weeks ago he was arrested for first-degree arson, insurance fraud, and probation violation. He's being held in jail without bond.

His saga once more demonstrates for me the power of drug and alcohol addiction over our lives. Stories like this help me stay sober.