Recovery Connections

John Schwary is CEO of Transitional Living Communities, a 850-bed recovery program he founded in Mesa, Arizona January 9, 1992 when he had a year sober. He's in his 27th year of recovery.

In these posts, he views life mostly through the lenses of recovery. While the blog is factual, he sometimes disguises events and people to protect anonymity.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Happy Birthday?

Today I celebrate 72 years on the planet, a miracle considering how I lived until I got sober over 20 years ago. I was telling someone the other day how I never expected to live to 40, let alone long enough to collect social security.

From my early teens - until I got sober at 51 - life was an emotional roller coaster. Starting with an abusive upbringing by an angry alcoholic father, I escaped into drugs and alcohol in my early teens. I never was a social drinker or druggie. My goal was to pass out, to become oblivious to my perceived pain. I eventually became my father – minus the violence. More than half my teen years were spent in juvenile jails. At age 18 I was chained on a bus and on my way to serve a ten year term in the California prison system for possessing of heroin. By the time I got sober at 51 I’d spent 15 years behind bars for drug offenses - and another year in a mental hospital trying to figure out how to quit using.

Today, because I got sober in 1991, I live a magical and blessed life. I have a beautiful woman who takes good care of me. I have loving children and grandchildren. I live well and share vacations with my family. I’ve had the same job for twenty+ years, helping other addicts and alcoholics get sober.

Do I have regrets about my history? Not too many. At one time I had regrets because others said I’d wasted my life and some part of me wanted to believe them. But then I looked at the education I acquired while incarcerated. I had time to read a book nearly every day. I learned Spanish well enough to work as an interpreter. I learned to write well enough to report for a major newspaper chain. I developed enough confidence working in prison administration to enter the corporate world as a mid-level manager.

One regret is how I disappointed my parents, my children, and those who loved me. They didn’t understand my behavior because they didn’t understand addiction any better than I did. One blessing I did have was that my mother was able to see me sober and successful before she died. And for that I’m eternally grateful.

Where do I go at 72? Hopefully in the same direction I’ve been going. I want to continue to help people get sober and rebuild their lives. Is it about them, or is it more about me? I’m not sure, but I know I feel good helping addicts and alcoholics. It’s healthy for me to be of service, to see men and women change their lives and become what God intended for them to be.

Hopefully, helping others is the kind of selfishness the world understands.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Making a Difference

One of our managers was talking to me about how he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.

“What’s your life like now? I asked him. “Are you happy in your job? Do you have a place to live? Do you have enough to eat? You have clothes? Are you sober?”

“My life’s never been better,” he replied. “I’ve never been sober this long. I live better than I ever have. I’m not in jail. And sometimes I think I help people.”

“Then maybe what you’re doing right now is what you’re supposed to be doing with your life,” I told him.

We also talked of the work he’s doing, helping forty plus addicts who live in his house.

“You're in a position of great privilege,” I told him. “How many people get to work in a job where they might influence the rest of a person’s life?"

I went on to explain to him that helping an addict get sober influences not just him. It also might influence the addict’s children and grandchildren. It’s like the analogy of throwing a pebble in a pond: the ripples keep radiating outward. Helping just one or two addicts can change the world in a small way. What greater blessing can we ask for?

I told our manager he should enjoy the path his life is on. God will let him know if you should change paths – or destinations.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Angels on Buses

A newcomer was talking of his journey to TLC from the other side of the country and of wanting to drink along the way. But each time he started to go to a liquor someone or something would intervene.

Once, at a bus station in Texas, he spotted the neon sign in the liquor store window a half block away. He asked the driver if he had time to run to the store to get cigarettes – though his real intention was to pick up a bottle. The driver told him he probably had time to get to the store. But probably not enough to get back in time to board as the bus was leaving in five minutes.

“And I don’t wait,” said the driver. “I’m on a schedule.” So, he stayed on the bus, not wanting to take a chance.

On another leg of the journey, he promised himself he'd obtain a drink at the next stop. Then, an hour or so before the stop his companion in the seat next to him began telling him his story of being sober fifteen years. He spoke of the benefits of sobriety. He told of living on the streets, of losing jobs and relationships, of jail stays. He marveled at the great life he had today and showed him pictures of his wife and children. Before the newcomer realized it the bus was pulling away from the station where he’d promised to buy himself something to drink. For some reason he’d forgotten about buying a bottle.

As the Greyhound cruised through the flat lands of Texas and New Mexico on into Arizona the newcomer said he had a sense that angels might be looking out for him. Because each time he was ready to drink it didn’t happen. And he was able to stay sober during the three day trip across the country.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

We're Only Messengers

Humility was the topic of TLC's monthly management meeting. As we went around the circle it became clear that a problem with being a manager at TLC is that sometimes our ego gets involved. We start thinking we’re important. We start believing we're the sobriety guru – and forget that we’re only messengers.

This idea, that we know something about sobriety simply because we’re volunteering to be managers, puts us in danger of relapse. Over the past 20 years experience has shown that when a manager starts becoming the authority on sobriety he's in danger. Instead of doing what got him sober in the first place - like going to meetings and having a sponsor - he somehow thinks his management position gives him special status. Some of us forget how we got where we are today.

I've learned in over 20 years of sobriety to keep it simple. Oftentimes newcomers to TLC approach me and seem to expect a secret handshake, or an exotic mantra that will bestow upon them the gift of sobriety. The secret I share is the one I learned when I first got in to sobriety: go to meetings, get a sponsor, and work the steps. That's what's worked for me for 20 years.

I often remind our staff about David J., a young manager who delivered rousing speeches about sobriety and recovery during house meetings. However, he kept relapsing, unable to apply the information he gave others to his own life. We finally barred him from management positions until he could achieve a period of sobriety. He never did get it right and was found dead in the desert a while back - surrounded by empty whiskey bottles.

If we pay attention to the basics of recovery we can enjoy the fruits of sobriety – and not die of our disease.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Follow our Passion

I got lost and so was late today for an appointment with a new doctor in another city. However, when I arrived and offered to cancel the appointment because I was late, the receptionist told me it was okay. The doctor was with another patient and I would be able to see him when he finished with her.

While I was waiting, the receptionist handed me some paperwork to fill out. For some reason, even though I arrived late, I was resentful because I was still waiting. Then I read the last page in the intake paperwork. It was a letter from the doctor explaining his policies. The thing that stood out for me in the letter was where the doctor explained he took as long as he needed with each patient. He didn't believe in rushing. He liked to answer all of their questions before they left. He wanted to be thorough. And because he was a sole practitioner he was able to do this. So I filled out the paperwork and waited another 15 minutes before I was ushered into an empty examination room to wait for the doctor.

From where I was sitting I could hear the doctor talking to the other patient in a nearby office. He took his time with her questions. And I could tell by his tone that is he was a loving and compassionate doctor who cared about healing his patients. After listening a while I pulled out my iPhone and began to read a book. I was in no hurry after all.

This doctor’s love and concern for his patients is a good lesson for anyone – but especially for those of us in recovery. Here’s a man who’s following his passion with love and concern. What better lesson? If we perform work we love, whether it's helping other addicts or waiting tables, if we do it with passion and love and concern for those we are serving we’ll be better human beings. I know I was a better person when I left this man's office - just by the example he set for me.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I'm Responsible

The subject of last night's aftercare meeting was "self-responsibility." Clients were asked to complete the sentence, "self responsibility means to me..."

While a few of the dozen or so people in the circle had a rough time completing the sentence, most did quite well. After being in the TLC program for a while they've come to look at themselves as the source of their misery. When addicts and alcoholics begin to take responsibility for themselves things start to change. Any time I talk to a new client I pay close attention to who he blames for his problems. If he's pointing the finger at others, I know he has work to do.

"It's that bitch I'm married to."

"It's my parent's fault."

"The cops are always picking on me."

"It's because I can't find a job."

An addict serves up a whole litany of excuses for using. But in the final analysis we're responsible for our addictions. Yes, in our early lack of sophistication and knowledge about addiction we might use others as a catalyst to start using. But once we start looking in the mirror at who's really responsible then it becomes a matter of taking the time to reconstruct our lives and work on staying sober.

It was refreshing to hear clients cite the various things they've started doing since they became responsible. One man talked about going to meetings without being told. Another spoke of simple daily routines, like making his bed, cleaning up his living area, making sure that he was groomed and showered. Another spoke of taking care of health issues like dental problems. Still another spoke about going to a free anger management program that is offered in his part of town.

The idea that no one's coming to rescue us, that we're responsible for ourselves, is a critical first step in shedding the bondage of our addictions. If we look at ourselves as the main source of our misery then maybe we'll figure out how to stop the pain.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gratitude on Sunday

Gratitude is the elixir that drives my life. As I was thinking about what I was going to write today I felt kind of uninspired. The well was dry.

Then I heard a duck quacking downstairs, one that shows up every morning and every evening to be fed during spring and fall. As I was tossing bread pieces onto the pool surface I had a sense of gratitude for this small connection with nature. Here I am, living in the middle of a city of a half million people and yet this wild creature shows up to be fed. While the duck never gets too close, he knows enough about me to squawk at the back door or at the patio window until I feed him. He usually stays about an hour, floating about the pool after he consumes the two pieces of bread that I crumble for him.

I went mentally from enjoying the duck's presence to the larger subject of things I'm grateful for.

Since I got sober 20 years ago I've been blessed in so many ways:

- I have a beautiful and charming woman in my life.
-Two of my three children are sober, as are most of my grandchildren.
- I've been the CEO of the same non-profit for nearly 20 years.
-I have the opportunity to pass on recovery to the 600+ clients of TLC.
-I’ve earned several substance abuse counseling certifications.
- I’ve achieved financial independence- not bad for a guy who had 73 cents when he went into a detoxification unit over 20 years ago.
- I'm able to spend an hour at the gym six days a week and can do 25 chin-ups in one set.
- I have realized all the promises of the 12 step programs.

At the beginning of this blog I said gratitude drives my life. Gratitude is my choice. For too many years my choice was ingratitude and negativity and that kept me drunk and high.

Today I reflect on the blessings God pours into my life. And I will try to thank him by displaying my gratitude to others.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sleeping on the Beach

A man who called several times over the past few months about getting sober called again today. He’d called so many times that I immediately recognized his voice and remembered his name. This time though it was different. Instead of dancing around about getting into recovery, he made a commitment to come in, saying his family had bought a bus ticket and he was leaving Florida this coming Monday.

Experience tells me that when people keep calling about coming to TLC they eventually make it. Even though it might take them a while to step onto the bus, the dissatisfaction that kept them calling says drinking and drugging isn't working for them anymore.

In addition, other circumstances may have contributed to his decision. He said he’d lost his apartment and spent the last three nights sleeping on the beach. And his girlfriend had left a week earlier. Often times these experiences are the catalyst for change. In this man's case he not only had recent dramatic changes in his life, he also had pressure from his successful - and supportive - family to do something different.

He gave me his schedule on the phone, which I didn’t bother to write down. I’ll know he’s here when he calls us to be picked up from the bus station upon his arrival.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ten Months Sober

"Before I came to TLC," the client told me, "I'd never been sober for more than 10 days.”

This man's story is one of homelessness, jail, and a drug habit he knew was about to kill him. He’d been living at a homeless shelter where he was discharged when he threatened another man at the shelter who was a known pedophile. He left the shelter handcuffed in the back of a police car. As they were driving away the policeman said he understood why he’d threatened the pedophile. He also said he wasn't taking him to jail, that he would take him home.

When he said he didn't have a home nor friends he could stay with, the policeman said he knew where to take him. Even though this client had never heard of TLC, he shortly found himself in the office of one of our Phoenix properties undergoing an interview. He said it took several weeks to adjust to the TLC program. Change came when he began to realize everyone was there to help him get sober, to help him change his life.

At this writing he's been sober ten months and never happier. He’s grateful he was accepted and shows gratitude by giving back. He runs educational meetings. He escorts new clients to 12 step meetings in the area. He works and pays his service fees. He has hope today.

The man expressed gratitude to the point where it was embarrassing. I thanked him and told him I was grateful to be a part of his recovery. I told him we provide structure for those who are motivated to get sober – that he’d done the footwork.

And it’s true the motivated can get sober nearly anywhere. The real difference between TLC and some other programs is we accept anyone who asks for help - whether they have money or not. It's difficult for men and women to get into recovery unless they have insurance or money up front. And a real addict has often burned all resources before showing up at our door.

All we ask is that they be motivated and willing to go to any lengths to change their lives.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Go Ahead and Sue Us

“I’m going to sue you,” a former client told me, after I responded to several messages he’d left on our company voice mail. He was upset because he’d relapsed and left belongings behind that he said weren’t there when he returned for them. He said his cell phone, digital camera, IPod, expensive Levis, and other items were missing.

“So you left and didn’t take your phone with you?” I asked, not understanding why anyone would leave without at least their telephone.

After a few more minutes I realized what this former client really wanted was money for drugs. He was only asking for $150 in compensation for all the expensive things he claimed he'd left behind. To me it would've made more sense if he would've asked for at least $1500, the amount it would probably take to replace his purported losses.

I had a very calm conversation and let him know I wasn't intimidated by his threats. After all, clients and former clients threaten to sue us a few times a year. None have followed through because no self-respecting attorney will take a case unless it has some merit – or the client has upfront money. I invited him to sue us whenever he was ready.

This man is an example of those who enter our program and focus on everything but what they came for. They find things to be unhappy about. It could be the food. It could be the fact that our buildings aren’t new. They don't like the idea that addicts run the program. They are looking for a therapist or counselor to hold their hand. They come into the program with an entitlement mentality; they expect everything to be done for them. They are already setting themselves up for failure because they're not looking at the reasons they are with us. All they're looking at is the external. If only things were perfect, then they could perhaps get sober.

Before hanging up, I gave him our address and told him that I’d be waiting for the legal paperwork.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Learning the Basics

A client in group was talking about what he had learned while at TLC. What the man came out with surprised some of those in the circle.

"What I learned," the man said, "is how to make my bed for two weeks in a row."

While some might find this simplistic, many times TLC clients are learning the basics of daily life. Many come to our program not knowing how to make a bed or follow a daily routine. Many can't prepare a meal. Some can’t do laundry. A lot of them don't know how to fill out a job application. Or get a bus schedule together so they can look for a job.

Many are virtually starting life over. They arrive without job skills. They have no social skills. Saying “thank you” or “excuse me” is an alien concept. Their life has been focused on hustling drugs or alcohol.

Our approach is to build on what clients have – and in many cases that’s not much. We point out to them that they do have something going for them: they have the toughness that allowed them to survive in the tough drug sub-culture during their addictions. Often times the same negative perseverance that allowed them to survive in the drug world can be turned onto a path to rebuilding their lives.

Sometimes it’s a matter of getting them to change their point of view.

Friday, May 20, 2011

God Created Morons?

A man in aftercare, when asked what he would like to change about himself, said he wanted more peace and serenity in his life. He reacted negatively to irritating people or when he didn't have material things he wanted. He wanted to change this.

The facilitator told him he'd once read that the path to peace and serenity was two-fold: first, don't want much in your life that you don't already have, and second, accept your present circumstances. When we're clamoring for control over others and wanting more “things” we’ll never achieve peace.

The media says we’re okay if we have this luxury car, that fine house, or wear designer clothing. The media onslaught of messages about how much better life will be when we have the latest and best new stuff creates a sense of dissatisfaction within us - if we pay attention to the media.

This also applies to what we want from those around us. For example, we have no power over others – in spite of our best efforts. When we want power or control we’re going to be dissatisfied. Those damn people just won't do what we want. At least not often. If we can accept the way others live their lives, we’ll be happier.

Before closing, one group member asked if the man believed God created us. The man said he did.

"Then if you believe God created us, then you believe he also created all the morons you find so irritating."

While the group laughed at this statement, the man agreed. If we ‘re all God’s creations then we must realize he also created those we find irritating.

And who are we to criticize God’s handiwork? Did he put those irritating people in our lives to teach us about ourselves?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Hungry am I?

“So an M.I.T. graduate with a PhD in Bimolecular Engineering is not "too good" to work at McDonalds?”

This comment was left in response to a blog I wrote a few months ago after one of our clients said he wouldn’t work at a Macdonald’s restaurant.

The point of my blog was if one of our clients is unemployed then any job will do until something better comes along. Food and shelter is our primary obligation. If we can’t take care of ourselves, who will?

A major challenge for alcoholics is dealing with ego. An education is great. But if I can't take care of myself, can't pay my bills, then what good is it at the moment? We have some clients who ignore the realities of today’s job market. They'll say "I'm used to making $23 an hour." Or "I'm not taking an entry-level job." Hello! Those $23 an hour jobs are being filled by people with degrees, people hungry enough to push aside pride and ego and do whatever it takes to make a living.

Our disease tells us we deserve better. We worked hard for our education; therefore we have something coming from the world. But the basic purpose of work and employment is to provide food and shelter. Oh yes, education and degrees provide some evidence of who we are. But if we can't feed ourselves, humm...

When we can’t find the job we want we know how to feel better right now. A bottle. A spoon. A crack pipe. These provide us with immediate gratification. We’ll have a shield against a world that doesn't understand how educated and important we are – a world that doesn't recognize we deserve a better job than schlepping food at McDonald's or Wendy's.

In the meantime can someone loan me some money for a Happy Meal?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lesson in Gratitude

A friend going on a trip waited til the last minute to board the plane. Since it was going to be a long flight she thought it would be better to walk around and get a little exercise, rather than sit on the plane and watch the other passengers board. However, when she did board there were only three seats left. And all of these were in the middle of the row. She said the row she finally picked had a nerdy looking girl sitting in the aisle seat. And the other passenger was an overweight woman, in the window seat, who seemed quite quite uncomfortable.

"Oh well," she thought, "it's only going to be a couple of hours." And she sat between the pair, resigned to a boring, uneventful trip.

However, as the flight progressed she began talking to the younger woman in the aisle. She learned the woman sitting to her left, by the window, was the younger woman's mother. The daughter was traveling with the mother, who was terminally ill and had six months to live, because she wanted to spend time with her before her passing. As the conversation went on, my friend learned the woman had set aside her career and other responsibilities to be with her mother during her last days. My friend was moved to tears. They exchanged phone numbers, and the daughter invited her to come visit if she were ever in her area.

She told me she regretted her assumptions about the couple. Had she not picked their row she might have missed an example of love and sacrifice.

When my friend disembarked she realized God had provided her with a couple of lessons. The first was about not making assumptions. The other was about gratitude for the many blessings she has in her life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

From the River Bottom

Last week during aftercare a client said "I was like a barking dog behind a fence." He used the analogy to describe how closed off he used to be before he entered counseling.

At one time all this client would do during group is sit with his arms crossed and his eyes pointed at the ceiling. In fact, he relapsed a few times before he finally got into the program and started to change. He was fear-based and angry; change came for him very slowly.

The last time he came back to the program though he seemed motivated. He started following suggestions and got a sponsor. Within a short period he completed a fourth and fifth step. He began doing service work and socializing with people outside of TLC. He began to blossom and work the 12-step program.

In addition, he sought out counseling resources in the community. And we know he's paying attention when he's attending counseling because he often quotes things he's heard in his outside sessions.

He's a good example of why we don't push clients to participate during groups. As long as they're not disruptive they're welcome to stay. Even though a man might not participate, he still hears the interaction between other group members and the facilitator. Eventually, like drips of water on a piece of dry wood, something soaks in. And while the result may not show up for a year or two, it’s always worthwhile to see a client wake up.

When I see a client go from being a homeless drunken bum living on the river bottom to become a productive, sober member of the community it makes everything we do worthwhile.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Another Recovery Miracle

I had lunch with a man yesterday who‘s an example of what one can accomplish in recovery. To respect his anonymity I’ll not identify him or his city.

Anyway, some five years ago, after a ten year run of drinking, gambling, meth addiction and manufacturing, he’d had enough. He decided to change his life. And his progress has been dizzying.

After he was in recovery for a few months, he went to a major business in his city and laid his cards on the table. He told the owner he was a drug addict in recovery and wanted to prove himself. The owner gave him a chance.

After several months the owner promoted him because he’d made suggestions that earned the company serious money. Today, some five years later, he’s general manager of that company - making a six figure salary in a down economy.

He married two years ago and has a new baby.

Along with the business he manages, he also operates a recovery program as an avocation. As he told the story of how he started his recovery program it was déjà vu for me. In a city some 300 miles from where TLC began, he started his recovery program - in pretty much the same manner as I did. He didn't worry about licenses. He didn't seek out permits. He simply put beds in an apartment building and started taking in alcoholics and addicts who needed help reentering society. In a short time he had over 100 beds.

This man is doing what any of us can do in sobriety. He found his passion and put it into action. I could see in his eyes and hear in his words the love and passion he has for helping others. He has a blessed life today, not only because he got sober, but also because he helps other people change their lives.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

100% Success

At a 12-step meeting a newcomer seeking a sponsor was directed to a man in his seventies who’d been sober for some 35 years.

“I’m looking for a sponsor,” the newcomer told the old-timer. “I hear you’ve been sober a long time”

“I have,” the veteran replied, “over 35 years.”

“And you’ve sponsored a lot of people during that time?”

“Probably hundreds,” he replied.

“And your success rate?” the newcomer asked.

“100%,” he replied.

The newcomer was astounded. “You mean 100% of the people you’ve sponsored stayed sober.”

“No, but I have,” the old-timer replied.

This apocryphal tale, which has floated around 12-step meetings for years, illustrates the benefits of carrying the message.

I’m often let down when those I sponsor relapse. But my sponsor reminds me that I’m still sober today and for that I should be grateful. And I am.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lesson From the Past

A few days ago, while walking into a supermarket, I was reminded of the insanity that drugs and alcohol can bring into our lives.

A loud and obstreperous drunk was being confronted by two security guards near the store entrance. Within seconds the shouting escalated into a brawl after the drunk punched one of the guards. Within moments he was subdued and handcuffed face down on the asphalt.

After a few minutes I’d forgotten the incident and was going about my shopping when I heard loud shouting near the front entrance. It was the same drunk, still struggling with the guards, being pushed through the store to an office at the rear. All the way through he was shouting things like, “Help me, I’m being kidnapped!” and “these guys are going to rape me!”

After the drunk was escorted into the office, two large police officers showed up to take over. And behind them were paramedics who were probably called to see if the man was injured.

While a few shoppers smiled and shook their heads, I reflected how this man’s life might change if he got into recovery. While I was never a violent drunk I had more than my share of embarrassing incidents where police and ambulances showed up to deal with my behavior.

I breathed a prayer of gratitude as I left the store – gratitude because I found the 12-step programs and haven’t lived like that for more than 20 years.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Back After Two Years

Last week my grandson showed up after two years. Even though I thought we had a good relationship, he suddenly just dropped of my life. His disappearance came right after I loaned him several thousand dollars to buy a vehicle.

I wasn't sure at the time what had happened – why he suddenly quit talking to me. We’d always had an excellent communication - since he was a small boy. At least I thought so. I read Harry Potter to him when he was a child. And we used to body surf in San Diego while on vacation. I used to visit him while he was in juvenile hall. I could have never predicted that we’d not talk.

Because I've been in the 12 step programs for some 20 years I was able to deal with this emotional experience. I talked to my sponsor about what happened. I talked to my friends about this young man's sudden disappearance. It was very baffling to me. But because I've been sober for nearly 20 years I was able to realize that I don't control the universe.

The consensus was that this boy's drug and alcohol use changed his behavior. For me that was the only explanation.

I was gratified when he showed up. We embraced and cried. I told him that whatever was going on in his life, it didn't mean we had to stop communicating. He said he was ashamed because he hadn’t been in touch. I told him shame was not a great emotion. He agreed to communicate no matter what was going on. I believe most anything can be worked out – but it can't be worked out if we’re not talking.

It's good he’s back. And it's great to have the tools of the program when emotional situations cloud my life.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Act of Kindness

The longer I'm in recovery the more deeply touched I am when I see random acts of kindness.

This weekend I was leaving a Walgreen's store when I noticed a woman talking to an elderly man sitting on a bench outside the store. The man, who was there when I entered the store, was well-dressed and in seeming good health. He appeared to be waiting for a ride. However, when I passed by I overheard the woman inquiring as to his well-being.

She asked if he had a ride or if he was waiting for a taxi. Probably because it was very humid and over 95° she was concerned about him. I'm not sure how the conversation ended or if the woman helped the man get to where he needed to go. But I was moved that she showed concern for him - someone who appeared to be a stranger.

Because we live in a world where the best selling news is negative it's wonderful to see a person expressing kindness to others.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

His Family Doesn't Like Her

A woman called from out-of-state today to talk to me about her boyfriend. She said he'd been in TLC for a few months and that he'd suddenly quit taking her calls. She said his family blamed her for his alcoholism and had recommended he quit speaking to her, get her out of his life. She wondered what I thought, did I think she was really responsible?

Since we neither confirm nor deny if a client is in our program I had a general conversation with her about the situation. First of all I told her that she wasn't responsible for his alcoholism. Many times families want to blame others when their relatives have a substance abuse problem. After all, "things like that don't happen in our family" is their rationale. Surely there 's something outside, another factor that's responsible for my family member's situation. It's easy to blame others for things we don't understand.

So what better target than a girlfriend, wife, or husband we don't like? We need some kind of scapegoat. That way we can explain away our loved ones failings.

I told her to not pay a lot of attention to his family or others who might assign her blame. I also suggested she look around in her area for some Al-Anon meetings. In Al-Anon she might find others who've been in her situation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Prison or TLC?

Yesterday I ran into a TLC graduate, a man who’d once held a hotel room full of people at gunpoint, who was still sober after eight years. It was especially gratifying to see this man, who’d once faced multiple years in prison, still clean and sober. And he was no longer on probation or parole.

I was pleased this man was doing well was because we’d worked hard to help his brother keep him out of prison. He avoided prison because it was discovered, during a pretrial examination, that he’d fallen on his head during a drunken binge and suffered brain damage. Because of the seriousness of the charges, though, it was a long battle to keep him from being locked up for several years.

My staff and I periodically submitted reports to a court officer monitoring the client's progress. In addition, his brother hired a psychiatrist to evaluate him and submit reports to the court. Even though the court acknowledged the client’s brain damage, the seriousness of the charges nearly forced them to give him some type of imprisonment – even if it were in a medical facility.

Ultimately though, the court placed him on several years’ probation and let him remain at TLC. After some four years they discharged him from probation. For a few more years he lived in our sober housing, then found an apartment near our corporate offices.

It is always good to be part of a success story. And, in this case, it really felt good because this man stayed out of prison and is still sober.

Monday, May 9, 2011

We Aren't Unique

A client who'd been in aftercare for some time without sharing, suddenly stood up last night and left the circle in anger. He said later he left the group because the facilitator hadn't asked him to share.

This client had sat in the weekly group for months without participating. He would sit, arms crossed, staring at the ceiling, almost appearing to be asleep. During the first few meetings he attended he was asked to share, but declined. After that, the facilitator didn't call on him. Our policy at TLC is to allow clients to not participate in group – as long as they're not disruptive. Our philosophy is that even though someone is not contributing, they may hear something in group that'll help them. We have clients who today who are leaders in our program, who were completely shut down at one point.

In this case, the client is a member of a minority group. He'd expressed to other clients that because he was a minority he couldn't get the help he needed by participating in mainstream twelve-step programs. He didn't believe Anglo-centric recovery philosophy could him or his people. A few clients suggested that if his people were so important to his recovery, why wasn't he getting help from them instead of being at TLC. He didn't have an answer.

Because the client has been a long-term resident and should've known better, he was given a choice of consequences. He was told he could either leave - or he could start the program over.

To his credit, he decided to start over. He apologized to the manager and said that he knew he’d had a bad attitude for some time. He apologized to the group leader and said he would be back in a few months to start aftercare again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Road Warrior Can't Find Work

The client was a character right out of the 1981 movie, "Road Warrior." He had long stringy gray hair, which flowed down his back and was secured into a ponytail. He had the leathery complexion of a man who’d been in the sun for too many years. He wore an old T-shirt with the sleeves cut off the shoulders and raggedy Levi's. Because his voice box had been removed due to cancer, he could only speak by holding his finger over a hole in his throat. The client, in his late fifties, had also had suffered two heart attacks.

He was in my office to tell me he couldn’t find a job. Because he likely wouldn't be able to find employment outside of businesses that hire the handicapped, I decided to see if we couldn't employ him in our office-maybe working on the phones. He seemed grateful until I told him he’d have to clean up his appearance and cut his hair if he wanted the job.

"Can I have some time to think about it?" he asked.

"What's there to think about?" I responded. I was kind of surprised that the man's question, because I knew that he had no serious prospects of a job. Plus, he already owed TLC for several weeks of service fees because he had no income.

"I'm not sure I want to cut my hair," he replied.

I was astounded at his response. Here was a man who'd just been released from prison, who had no money, no outside resources and was in poor health. Yet he was turning down an offer for help over misplaced vanity.

He went on to say that he didn't think it was fair that he had to cut his hair, while others in the house had long hair. I told him if his service fees were paid, we had no problem with how long his hair was. The real issue was that if we were supporting him and giving him employment, then he was going to meet our grooming requirements. We simply wanted to offer him the best opportunity to stay sober, to get his life back together.

I hope this client takes another look at his situation and makes the right decision. If he decides to leave our program over cutting his hair he's going to find it's really a rough world out there living on the streets in Phoenix in 100 degree weather. Especially with his health issues.

When he left my office I thanked God that today I can make decisions that are in my best interests.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Entitlement?

A colleague in another state used the phrase "sense of entitlement" as being one of the primary blocks to clients getting sober. And I couldn't agree with her more.

Clients often show up to our program acting like we owe them something. They have the idea that they‘re not responsible for their own recovery. They want someone to fix them – and to do it for free.

Most of our job at TLC is teaching clients to be responsible for their behavior, for their recovery. Many have never taken care of themselves. Many have lived at home, coddled by family. It's only when clients accept the “I am responsible" concept that they have a chance of changing. We don’t have the power to do it for them.

Often I get the feeling we’re raising other people's children. The only difference is that many of these "children" are over 20 years old – and some of them nearly 40. Those around them haven’t taught them responsibility.

In my own case, until I was about forty I blamed others for my predicament. Nothing was my fault. It was society’s fault. My parents fault. It was because I came from a broken home. It was the world’s fault for institutionalizing me at a tender age. I looked at everything and everyone around me as the source of my problems.

Then one day there was no one left to cushion me from reality. My parents wouldn't let me sleep in the tool shed - or on the porch. No one believed my story anymore, that I was the victim. There were fewer and fewer situations outside of myself that I could look to as the cause of my problem. Only then, did I crack the door to the possibility of change.

And it's interesting. Once I admitted I was an alcoholic and drug addict and powerless over nearly everything, only then did my life begin to change. It was almost miraculous. Within a year my life turned around. The day I had a year sober, I opened my own recovery program. In retrospect, I probably wasn't really prepared to do that. But then, in reality are any of us 100% prepared for new challenges?

In summation, once I moved on to the square of admitting I was responsible for what happened to me things went extremely well. Today I have the great privilege of helping many addicts and alcoholics with their recovery. I have the respect of my children and friends. I have others who help me when times get tough. Responsibility is the cornerstone of my sobriety.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Homeless Addict Becoming Peer Counselor

Miracles constantly occur here at TLC. Last night a client who has relapsed several times told us he had been invited to join a training program to become a peer support provider.

I call this a miracle because at one time this client was so angry he wouldn't open his mouth in group. He would just sit there for an hour and a half, arms crossed, and contribute nothing to the discussion. One time during group he said "I don't know if I'm even going to be here next week." And sure enough, he wasn't. He’d consciously decided to make another run at drinking and living on the streets.

But here, some five years later, the man is nearing a year of sobriety. He is in counseling for his anger issues. He has a sponsor. He is outside of himself. And he can use his extensive experience as a serial alcoholic who lived on the streets to help someone else in a similar situation.

It would be nice to be able to take 100% credit for this man's turnaround. But that's not reality, nor is it the truth. His progress in recovery has been a joint effort. But most of the work he has done himself. Yes, we did provide the framework. But he's done the work. He's the one who didn’t run away and start drinking again, and living on the streets.

I’m not sure what our success rate is. And it doesn't make a lot of difference. No one knows what people do and they leave our program. But to be in the presence of such an amazing change in behavior makes all the failures is worthwhile. Yes, I wish we could help 100% of the people, or 75% of the people or even half the people. But change doesn't come from us. It comes from our clients. We just point the way.

When I see the changes this man experienced I start my day with enthusiasm and vigor. One of the great blessings of this business is being able to help others change their lives. And part of that blessing is the realization that if this man changes it influences those around him - his children, his associates and the others in his life. It is a ripple effect that may be passed down through time.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Honesty as a Solution

The topic at yesterday's 12-step meeting was "honesty." The speaker spent 15 minutes sharing the experiences of his drinking and drugging days. He talked about how, no matter how hard he struggled, he couldn't stay out of jail or keep a job. He gave credit to the 12 step programs for the near normal life he enjoyed today.

Those who shared afterward agreed with the speaker’s assessment: the 12-step program was the key to their sober lives today.

One member summed it up well. He wasn’t sure his core beliefs had changed all that much. But what he developed after joining the 12 step program was guidelines, principles that deterred him from old behavior. He still had occasions when he thought a lie would be better than the truth. But he'd been told by his 12-step sponsor to be honest, that he’d get better results. He sometimes sees things that, in the old days, he might’ve stolen to trade for drugs. But since he's been in the 12 step program he hasn’t taken a thing. Nor has he been to jail. Plus he’s developed a circle of friends who understand what he goes through in his sobriety – a support system he relies upon.

When we look around the meeting rooms and see our brothers and sisters struggling with honesty and other issues we develop a sense of unity, of communal problem solving that helps us stay sober. It’s the idea of “if he can do it so can I.”

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's About the Children

When dealing with clients who have children there are no easy answers. The situation came up for us last weekend when a couple, graduates of our program, were asked to submit a urine sample. The husband had no problem submitting a clean test. But the wife had a myriad of excuses why she couldn't give a sample.

"I have to be to work in half an hour."

"I don't have time right now. I'll be busy for the next few days, but I can give you a test Thursday."

She went on and on with reasons why she couldn't get to the office. When our manager offered to go to our sober living apartments to collect the sample, she had an excuse why that wouldn't work either. However, the bottom line at TLC is when anyone refuses to give a sample we assume they're dirty. It's an admission they're dirty – regardless of the circumstances.

In this situation, though, the dilemma is that this couple has children. And one of the reasons they came to our program was to get clean and sober so they could regain custody of them from child protective services. Child protective services expects a period of sobriety before they'll return children of drug using parents. One thing they accept as evidence of sobriety is when the parents pass multiple surprise drug tests.

Part of our agreement in this case is to monitor their sobriety and report the results to their case worker, which we regularly do.

In this situation, we'll meet with the parents on Monday and discuss with them how to resolve the situation. One question we'll ask of the parent who refused the drug test is how serious she is about having her children returned. She can't have it both ways. She has to decide if she wants to get clean and sober. If she decides that she wants to work toward her initial goal of getting her children back we'll return her to a higher level of supervision in our primary program. If she is unwilling to do that, then we'll have to discharge her. We have no control over what CPS does about these children. But our responsibility is to do our part in reporting the results of the drug tests - whatever they are.

The ultimate goal is for the children to be raised by drug free parents. We'll do our part toward achieving that goal.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Staying Sober by Giving Back

A client who’s been sober a year decided to become a substance abuse counselor because his high-pressure bill collecting job doesn’t do much for his spirituality. However, he confided that he was dismayed at the challenges he faced when he returned to school after 30 years of substance abuse.

“My teacher told me I’d have to improve my writing skills if I expected to succeed as a counselor,” he told me. He said he’d always thought he wrote well enough but asked me how to become a better writer.

I offered to review his schoolwork so he sent me some of his writing assignments. They weren’t that bad but I did have suggestions. I told him to keep it simple, to write as if he were talking to the reader. And to avoid big words that we sometimes use in an effort to impress. He did as I suggested and his grades improved.

He told me he’d started using when he was around 12 and education took last place in his life. The only thing he paid attention to in school was girls and the people who had the drugs and liked to party. But now that he’s been sober awhile he finds purpose in helping others and believes his experiences will help him be an effective counselor. Because of this he’s willing to work hard in school to obtain the credentials he needs.

I’m encouraging him because even if he only helps a few people as a counselor at least he’ll be able to give back and stay sober himself.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Love Letter from Former Client

As I walked up to my car outside the office yesterday there was a fat letter from a former client wedged under the door handle.

The letter described the client’s experience of discovering TLC on the internet and how excited he’d been to find a place that would accept him without insurance or upfront money. However, as the letter went on, he said that he was “dismayed” to discover that as soon as he stepped on the property he was in “debt.”

Many clients have experienced this over the years. They come to TLC without money or insurance and are accepted based on their desire to change. For some reason they don’t understand that it costs money to live no matter where they go.

No one gets into the Holiday Inn or Motel 6 without a credit card or cash deposit and identification. Here at TLC we accept anyone who asks for help – even with no money or identification. There aren’t too many places in the world where a homeless addict can get help based solely on a desire to get sober; however we are one of them. But once a client is employed and getting back on his feet we expect him to pay $110 a week – and make payments toward their back balance.

The letter, which rambled on for five pages described how TLC “had lost its way” because we expected clients to be responsible and pay bills. There were also references to “slave drivers” and “money grubbers.” But if I really summed the letter up it was about a former client – yes he’d left the program – looking for someplace where he could live for free.

I used to spend a lot of time looking for that place myself. If he finds it I hope he leaves another letter telling us where it is.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Not Using vs. Living Sober...

At TLC we teach clients that living sober is about more than simply not using. Many clients come to us with a period of forced sobriety after being locked up for drug or alcohol related charges. Once they arrive they hopefully start learning the difference between not using - and living in sobriety.

And if serious, they discover the 12 step program helps us learn to live with spiritual principles.

As an example we received a client from prison the other day who is serving a term of intensive probation. Part of his obligation is to take his paycheck to his probation officer. Once the probation officer receives the check as proof the man is working, the check’s cashed, and the client receives the balance. The client's next obligation is to pay service fees to TLC. However this client lied to the manager, saying he hadn't been paid. But while the manager was doing a room inspection the following morning he happened upon a receipt from the man's parole officer proving he had been paid.

Had the client been living by 12 step principles he would have been honest and paid his service fees. Now he’s dealing with the consequences of his dishonesty and irresponsibility and may have to find another place to live – or perhaps return to prison.

We have another client who worked for our labor group. While on the job he would put scrap copper and aluminum in a bag and bring it home from work. When confronted about the stolen scrap metal he said the foreman had "given it to him." The foreman, though, said he hadn’t given the man anything and asked us to not bring him back.

It's sometimes a long process to change a client’s behavior. We teach that salvation and freedom from drugs and alcohol is found in the 12 steps. It says in the 12th step that we try to "practice these principles in all our affairs." When we integrate these principles into our lives we have a good chance of staying sober.