Recovery Connections

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

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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Still Addicted?

Smoking is one of the most difficult addictions to quit, especially for addicts and alcoholics. Statistics show that 75% of 12-step group members smoke, while only 25% of the general population is addicted.

I constantly preach to our clients and staff members to quit smoking. And once in a while one will succeed. For example, a salesman in our office has over 90 days without a cigarette.

As a former smoker, I don't minimize the difficulty of quitting. It took several tries before I finally stopped nearly 27 years ago on July 25, 1984. It was so difficult that I remember not only the address where I quit, but also the hour and the day. For me quitting was a personal mission. Seven family members died of smoking related causes, including my mother. Emphysema devastated her generation of my family. And my brother, who died at 60 of alcoholism, also had emphysema. It is a deadly habit.

When I discuss quitting smoking with clients and staff members they often have a common response. Many say, "I've given up drinking or drugging, but I'm not giving up cigarettes."

However, the reality is that even though they know it's bad for them, they're not willing to go through the pain of quitting. And we teach in the program that people shouldn't make major changes in their life during their first year of recovery. Too much stress during the first year might lead to a relapse.

Still, we have to look at our recovery and ask ourselves: are we really in recovery if we’re addicted to any kind of substance?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Day at a Time

One of the most brilliant things about the 12 step programs is the concept of "one day at a time."

As a recovering addict I have this magical magnifying mind that makes a big deal out of most everything. If I venture far into the future or try to predict what is going to happen, I return with anxiety. If I journey into the past and start dredging through some of the messy things I've done, I might return with a load of depression.

But the present 24 hours is a chunk of life I can deal with. After all, I can make it through today without picking up a drug or drink or getting overly-excited about anything. But if I try to gaze over the horizon and control or predict what's going to happen - I can create a mini tornado of chaos in my mind.

The founders of the 12 step programs had the wisdom to realize how our alcoholic minds work. They knew our disease wants us to focus on anything but the present. After all, if we're focusing on the present moment we might find a solution. And even if we don't find a solution, before we know it the day has passed and we haven't picked up a drink or a drug.

So does living one day at a time mean I do no planning for the future? Of course not. We always plan for the future. We just don't pack our bags and move there, neglecting the present moment.

The only thing I can deal with is now. I make the general outlines of where I might want to be in the future. But I do what I can today to get there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gratitude is the Topic

"I'm grateful today because I'm not living on the streets," said one young woman at the meeting.

"I was reading a story in the newspaper today that talked about a five-year-old girl dying of leukemia," said a man next to her. "Even though I didn't have any problems this morning, I realize that there are many many people in the world who are facing serious issues. I can't imagine what her family’s going through. "

And so it went around the circle. Each person at the meeting spoke of gratitude and the things they found in life to be grateful for. Each of them agreed that there are different ways to look at life. We can look at life and focus on what we don't have. Or we can look at life and see what we really have in comparison to many others in the world. It's all a matter of perspective.

It says on page 62 in the book that selfishness and self-centeredness is the root of our problem. And for many of us that is true. We often take our emotional temperature. We're often feel sorry for ourselves, or else we're feeling elated and wonderful. It's sometimes difficult to find balance.

However, if we wake up each morning and make gratitude the focus of our day we'll find much to feel good about. Gratitude can be the elixir that helps us focus on the blessings of sobriety.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sponsor's Birthday

On the 24th of June my sponsor celebrated 37 years of sobriety and received a wonderful surprise when his doorbell rang at 7 AM. When he opened the door, standing outside were 17 members of various twelve-step groups with which he is affiliated. They had stopped to surprise him with a happy birthday song.

People like my sponsor are a treasure. When we see people who have decades of sobriety it proves the program works. People with 37 years have seen loss, success, and hundreds of alcoholics and addicts go in and out. They are living repositories of experience who help us when times are tough.

People outside the program sometimes ask me why, at 20 years sober, I still need a sponsor. And my answer is always the same: a sponsor is more than just a sounding board or a guide through the steps. A sponsor is also a friend, a fellow traveler through the sometimes perilous waters of sobriety.

So what questions do I take to my sponsor? A good example of issues I took to him was the emotions I went through during my divorce. Often I would bring him my anger. He would soothe my feelings and explain that separating from someone with whom you’ve been in a long-term relationship is never easy. Other times he would listen to my ramblings, then give me a quiet smile and nod his head. He’d tell me to get into acceptance of my emotions and feelings. He’d tell me I knew the answers.

Other occasions I would take issues to him about my relationship with my children and grandchildren. The discussions in these cases were about them using drugs and alcohol. He and I have something in common in this area as he has three sons in recovery, all of them now sober.

Happy birthday Ralph; I appreciate what you do in my life.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Borrowing Trouble

Today we fired a longtime manager who violated TLC’s policy about borrowing money from – or loaning money to – clients. It was sad to terminate him because he’d helped a lot of clients over the past few years and he was genuinely liked by co-workers and clients alike.

None of us are sure why he violated the rules, although he’d recently started a relationship that might have increased his expenses.

The loan came to light when a client was sent to the emergency room for a suspected drug overdose. Instead of discharging the client for misusing his prescription the manager lobbied to keep him in the program. He said the overdose had been a “mistake” rather than the client attempting to get high.

Anyway, one story led to another and it came out that the client had lent the manager several hundred dollars. And when confronted the manager admitted borrowing the money. He lost his job shortly afterward.

The obvious purpose for not allowing loans or favors between clients and employees is to keep such situations from occurring. Once any kind of under the table transactions occur between staff and clients it creates a social contract that keeps management from enforcing rules or discipline.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What's Important

In 20 years of sobriety I've learned to focus on my recovery. I've been asked what's the most important thing in my life. And my answer is always that it's my sobriety. I think they expect me to say something like my loved ones, my business, or my health.

My answer is always "sobriety" because without it I have nothing. All the work I've done over 20 years, all the relationships, and all of the things I've accumulated will disappear in a flash if I pick up a drink or a needle. I'm where I am today because I put down the bottle and gave up drugs. And when I started on this path I had zero. I was homeless. I had no friends. I was alienated from my family. I was living in a black hole of despair, thinking I might return to prison – unless I died first.

So I view the world pretty much like this: everything I have today flows from the centerpiece of my life - which is sobriety. For those who don't have a problem with drugs or alcohol this might seem to be a narrow focus. And I understand exactly where they're coming from, although I didn't at one time. I had to put myself in other people's shoes.

I didn't understand overeating, gambling, or shopping addictions. My answer was just quit. And that's because I didn't have those problems. If I'm to be compassionate I look at the addictions of others as I look at my own addiction.

Today I'm grateful for my blessings. And one of the main blessings is I'm able to use the 12 step programs to guide my life. There are many in the world who don't have the benefit of a structure to guide them. But those of us in the 12 step programs know what to do when we get in trouble.

It's all there in steps.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Relapse or Mistake?

An issue we regularly deal with at TLC is prescription drug abuse. We allow clients to use prescriptions to treat mental conditions, but allow no chronic use of any kind of painkillers. And under all circumstances drugs are locked in the office and issued at the prescribed time.

However, sometimes clients refill a prescription and try to keep it on them or in their room.

This came up this week when a client who has more than one prescription for mental conditions refilled it but failed to turn it into the office when he returned from the pharmacy. In the morning the staff noticed he appeared lethargic and took him to the emergency room as a preventive measure. As it turned out the client had taken more than his prescribed dosage.

The issue was dealt with as a relapse and the client was given the choice of leaving the program or moving to one of our other facilities in a different part of town to begin the program over. In this client’s case he had the financial resources to leave and did so when told his options.

When we have clients who abuse prescriptions it’s sometimes difficult to maintain a balance between enforcing the rules and having compassion for those who need these kinds of prescriptions. We have to evaluate each of these situations on a case-by-case basis: was the client seeking to get high? Or did he really make a mistake.?

Most of the time we’re able to figure it out. But it it’s not always easy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Karmic Cycle

A few weeks ago one of our managers called to the corporate office to report that a moneybag with $400 was missing. He said he’d left the office for a couple of hours, leaving an assistant manager on duty. When he returned, another staff member told him the assistant had left to go to a 12 step meeting. He said he'd be back in about an hour. That's when our manager discovered the missing money bag.

A search of the office and other places where the bag might have been misplaced turned up nothing. The obvious conclusion, after the assistant manager didn't return from the meeting at the time he said, was that he had taken the bag when he left for the meeting.

Our policy at TLC has been to make those in charge of money responsible for its security. And when the money is missing they are expected to pay it back. While this might seem a harsh policy, we haven't suffered much loss due to management theft. However, paying back a $400 loss can be daunting to a manager doesn't make much money. And that was the case in this situation.

The manager, who had been doing a good job, was understandably depressed because he had lost the money. Then something happened that restored his confidence and faith.

One of the clients at the house, a man our manager had helped on many occasions, replaced the $400 out of his own pocket. All of us were surprised this act of generosity. But from my perspective it was a testimony about the kind of relationship this manager had built with the clients. He obviously had helped this man during their early stages of his sobriety. And in turn, this man reciprocated when the manager was in trouble.

In my opinion three things happened in this incident: the man who stole the money is going to find out how stealing works in his life, the manager learned how the time he invests in his clients is not wasted, and the client who replaced the money gave us a lesson about giving back and being grateful.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Addicts Without Goals

Goals were once more the topic of our aftercare group last night and it was clear that many of us don’t know how to even begin to accomplish even the smallest goals.

When one client started talking about getting his license back he launched into a roundabout story of how he'd lost the license, the past efforts he’d made to regain the license and the jail sentences he’d served since he lost it and on and on. Finally, the facilitator intervened.

“What does all of this history have to do with getting your license back?”

The client looked puzzled at the interruption.

“I don’t know,” he finally responded. “I was just telling you what had happened.”

“The only important thing is what steps you’re taking to get your license back,” the facilitator said.

“I have to get money for fines before I go to court,” the client responded.

“Do you have a job?” the facilitator asked.

“Not yet.”

“So, your first step is to find work.” The client agreed and the facilitator led him through the steps he’d need to take to find employment.

Some of our clients have such a long history of drug and alcohol use that the even the simplest tasks can seem daunting to them. They’ll often spend months talking about achieving a goal without being willing to take the first step. Some of them seem to believe that discussing what they want is the same as actually moving toward their goal.

My admonition to them is to do something. Make a list. Make an appointment. Or go online. Set a deadline. Make a step, even a misstep.

After all, what's the worst thing that can happen?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mismatch?

Sometimes I fail to realize how dysfunctional some of our clients are. I thought of this the other day while talking to a client about a woman he likes. I believe he is dysfunctional for many reasons, which I will go into later in this blog. In my opinion, though, there is no chance of this man ever having a relationship with this woman. While I know many strange relationships exist, there are so many differences between these two it would be a miracle if they ever got together.

For one thing, and this is not the largest barrier, she's half his age. The other part is this man has no social skills, and not much education - at least formal education. She's probably twice as successful financially as our client. She has a car, he takes buses. He's a client in a recovery program, and has another year before he graduates.

I believe this relationship mostly exists in his mind. I think he has romantic interests while hers are platonic. My experience with women says if they're going out with you for a few months they might want to spend the night with you. They're not visiting you every week or so. They talk to you every day, maybe several times a day. If their juices are flowing they express it through regular contact.

The one thing they do have in common is both are in recovery. Although he has more than a year of sobriety, she has less than a year. Perhaps that's why she's attracted to him: she sees him as a wiser, sober member of the program who has experience that he can share with her.

The real thing is that all of this is not my business. But sometimes I have to marvel at our clientele.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Picking up the Tools

A construction supervisor spoke of the reaction he had several months ago when he was on a remodeling job and discovered a meth pipe wedged beneath a sink while looking for leaks.

“I stuck my head under there,” he said, “and there it was, right in front of my face.”

After his initial surprise he disposed of the pipe and continued working. It was only later he realized the difference in his life today and how he would have reacted before he got clean.

“A few years ago I wouldn’t have given a second thought about firing it up to see if there was residue in it. Instead I used what I’ve learned in the program.”

His story illustrates what happens to our clients once they become serious about recovery.

When clients live in our recovery environment long enough they develop attitudes and behaviors we hope will insulate them against the surprises that life deals all of us from time to time.

And the surprises are often much larger than what this man experienced. We might lose a job. Or a loved one gets ill, or worse, passes on. We might get divorce papers. The list is endless.

And when the pain of a bad experience smacks us what do we do? Oh, we knew what to do before didn’t we? A couple of lines to erase the pain. Or maybe a shot of Jack Daniels with a Bud chaser? These would cushion the reality and numb the pain. But now, now that we’re new beings, what do we do?

We call our sponsor or rally our sober friends. We fall back on the 12 steps. We go to a meeting. We have found a blueprint in the steps to guide us though trouble, trauma, and temptation. We use our new resources to survive.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day?

Father's Day reminds us of an important relationship in our lives. For many of us our lives were defined by our relationships with our parents. And for some of us, our relationship with our father shaped our lives.

In my case, this is certainly true. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I began to overcome the negative relationship I had with my father. He was an angry, raging alcoholic. From the time I was a young child I don't believe I ever saw him sober. Even today I can recall the pungent smell of wine that emanated from his pores.

He was what we call today a functioning alcoholic. He worked hard. But alcohol was always present. He drank a particularly sweet wine called Muscatel. He purchased it by the case from the state stores that operated in Oregon during the 1940s.

He taught me anger and rage. I watched as he would burst into explosive tirades, vitriolic fountains of anger that affected everyone around him. When he became frustrated, which was often, he would break things. If one of the farm animals angered him, he would beat or kill it. When he became angry at me or my brother he would hit us. I was so injured on some occasions that police would come to our house to talk to me. And their presence would sober him up. But in the early fifties domestic violence wasn't as large an issue in the eyes of the law so he was never arrested.

This treatment turned me into a very passive aggressive person. Because I was a skinny little kid my only defense against his strength to keep my feelings inside. When he punished me I wouldn’t respond. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of shedding tears. Today I believe that keeping one's feelings inside is self-destructive and leads to behavior problems.

This anger stayed with me through much of my life. From grade school on it was easy for me to vent the residual anger at my father on others. I settled arguments with my fists. Even though I wasn't physically imposing, my anger made me a person to contend with. When I was five years sober I realized I still had an issue with anger. Even though I hadn't attacked anyone physically in many years I realized that my anger was still with me. It usually popped up when I was frustrated or impatient. I would snap at people or say things I didn't mean. It sometimes came out in traffic if I felt that the person ahead of me wasn't driving the way I thought they should.

My father's anger was a legacy etched into my psyche, my nerve endings, my very being. His raging left an imprint upon me that took many years to overcome. I think much of my drinking and drugging stemmed from my inability to deal with my anger and frustration. Undoing the negative lessons our parents teach us is sometimes a lifelong project. In my case it took many years in prison cells, hours in therapy, and a lot of 12-step meetings for me to purge my anger.

Today I look at the relationship with my father from sober eyes. I’ve pretty much unlearned the anger he taught me. I’ve forgiven him for his legacy. In the 1980s I was able to go to his grave in Ohio and spend time there. In a small unkempt graveyard that sat behind an ancient wooden church I was able to speak words of forgiveness and regret, words that freed me to go on with my life.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Our Only Problem

Sometimes at TLC we addicts talk of the "problems" we face or the "issues" we have in our lives.

My response is usually that we only have one problem in our lives: our disease. If we just deal with our addictions, everything else seems to work out fine.

In my own case I spent years trying to use successfully. During those years I built more than one successful business. I was in more than one bad relationship. Yet, because of my addictions I lost everything over and over.

But a strange thing happened when I discovered sobriety: I suddenly started keeping things. I got into relationships that were more than one night stands. Life started being about more than me me me,

Today I treat my sobriety like the precious jewel that it is. I realize that all the good flows from this centerpiece of my life - therefore I take care of it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eating an Elephant

A client in one of our aftercare groups spoke to me the next day about anger he’d felt during our aftercare group while listening to others procrastinate about reaching their goals. Because he was at the end of the circle there wasn’t time for him to share.

“I got so pissed,” he said. “That I told myself I’m not going to be that person. I hated listening to those guys making excuses for not getting things done.

During the group in question a few clients were talking of goals to have their driving privileges restored. Each had reasons why they couldn’t get it done. They didn’t have enough money. Or they had charges in more than one jurisdiction. Or they didn’t have a car. The list went on and on. When I’d try to explain that you eat an elephant a bite at a time, they still had excuses for being unable to take even small, preliminary steps.

The client who was upset at their procrastination went on to say he made a decision right after group to quit smoking, stop eating crappy food, and to continue his exercise regimen.

His comments illustrate something I know about the group process. Even though some don’t get a chance to participate they still benefit by listening to others.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Drugs at TLC

A cardinal rule at TLC says if you know a client is using you must tell management - or face discharge. We believe if you condone drug use in our houses then it's like you're using yourself.

A new client, who came in over the weekend, was offered drugs by her roommates the day she arrived. The first thing she did – a demonstration of her commitment – was to tell the manager. As a result, two women were discharged because they tested positive for meth-amphetamines.

Our policy is we don’t care if people want to use drugs or alcohol. But we object when clients use on our property or while in our program. We aren’t missionaries or anti-drug or alcohol. We believe most of the world is different from us. Most of the world uses alcohol and/or drugs in moderation. However, in our case, we don't understand moderation. We always end up in trouble – either with the law, our health, or the world in general. That’s why we have strict drug testing policies and zero tolerance. When we discover clients using they're always referred to a detoxification facility. Our zero-tolerance policy extends even to prescribed medications. Clients aren't even allowed to use pain medications on a long-term basis.

Once in a while those who bash our program say drug use is rampant in our houses. But that's not true. Anytime I hear stories like this I ask the source to tell me who's using and at what house. Usually these kinds of stories will cause us to drug screen those living at the house. Invariably the information will turn out to be untrue, though we might find one or two people who are unwilling to take a drug test or who are dirty.

Those who listen to – or spread - these stories forget that drugs permeate every area of our society. Even our state prisons, with gun towers, drug dogs, and electric fences, can't keep drugs away from the inmates. So it's not surprising when a few of our clients , all addicts and alcoholics, will sometimes relapse.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Giving it Away

A friend of mine who's in recovery called to tell me he was bored, felt stuck in his recovery. I told him he should go find someone to help, maybe go to a meeting and talk to a newcomer.

"You know," he told me, "that's the same thing my sponsor told me.”

I find that when I'm bored or feel stuck in my program one of the best things I can do is find someone to help. And because I have this peculiar disease called alcoholism, what I usually try to do is find another alcoholic to help. Or another addict of any stripe, because I can relate to most drug users because I also consumed every kind of drug available.

A principle of the 12 step programs is that we carry the message to others who are suffering. And there is something magical and healing, about helping another human being improve their life. When we reach out to others with healing words and advice about sobriety what happens to us? We ourselves receive another dose of healing, another reinforcement of the blessings of sobriety.

I've never come back from a 12 step call without feeling much more blessed than the person I helped. I’m so energized when I give away the good others have given me in this program.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Common Fears?

At a recent management meeting the topic of the discussion was "fear." And the fears brought up in that meeting ran the gamut. Among those mentioned were fears of:

*Failure on the job.

*Speaking at a meeting.

*Health problems.

*Being around people.

*Relapsing.

*Going back to jail again.

*Trying anything new.

These were only a few of the fears mentioned, because the list went on and on. But after listening for a while I began to wonder. Are we alcoholics and addicts different from people in the general population? After all, I hear about these same phobias in the mainstream media. With the exception of going to jail or relapsing, it seems that many of the things that were brought up in our management meeting are common fears shared by the rest of the world.

Perhaps because we addicts are so, so sensitive our problems might seem larger-than-life. And they may also seem so because we pay heavy consequences when we don't deal with our problems effectively. Our solution when we were facing the seemingly insurmountable was to put alcohol or drugs in our body. And then, of course, we pay the consequences.

Perhaps one of the positive things that came out of the meeting, at least in my mind, was that we even admitted we have fears. Some of us addicts and alcoholics are so defensive, and we act so much like we have it all together, that we often won't admit we‘re afraid of anything.

And this in the face of the reality that many of us are afraid of nearly everything we encounter.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Sponsor?

A client wanted my opinion about a sponsor who’d asked her to find someone else to help her through the steps. The sponsor, a recovering alcoholic, couldn’t relate to her because the client’s drug of choice was marijuana.

I told her she should find a sponsor with a similar background, one to whom she could relate. After all, we need to feel like we’re getting what we need from the person we choose to help us through the steps.

This discussion, though, always leads me to the larger issue of orthodoxy in 12-step programs. As one who is grateful to the 12-step programs for saving my life over 20 years ago, I still take exception to those who dogmatically oppose anyone who mentions drugs other than alcohol.

After all, I was taught at 12-step meetings to be tolerant and loving. If I'm sitting at the periphery of the meeting like an old curmudgeon, looking for someone to admonish because they mention drugs, what kind of example am I setting for those trying to get sober? Many times at meetings I hear the term "if you want what we have." But if what I see at meetings is a 12 step cop, who’s angrily monitoring newcomer miscreants, that's not what I want. I came to meetings to save my life and to learn how to be a more peaceful and loving human being - not to get involved in the minutia of rule-making or rule-bending.

Now I understand that so-called "old timers" have a right to set up a meeting anyway they want. And that is fine. That is their right. But in the literature it says "love and tolerance" is our code. I guess I'm not sure how love and tolerance fits in with monitoring all the newcomers and making sure they don't make a verbal misstep.

Me? I’m here to carry the message and to help someone get sober.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sacrifice? Or Act of Love?

A friend of mine and I were talking about an addict who’d given her children up for adoption. He didn't think it was a good idea to give up the children. He questioned how much the mother loved the children.

However, I disagreed with him. I believe one of the best things an addict or alcoholic can do is to make sure their children are in a good environment. To me it takes a lot more courage and love to give up the children than it does to drag them through endless rounds of addiction, trashy apartments, and an unstable life.

My brother and I were raised in an alcoholic home. We experienced ongoing abuse from a raging alcoholic father – and an angry stepmother. Our life was chaos, fear, and the constant anxiety of never knowing what to expect. County authorities intervened on more than one occasion. They offered to put me in foster care. But at the time I was so insecure and afraid that I couldn't make that decision.

Being raised in this environment led me to years of drug use, incarceration, mental hospitals and broken relationships. I was fortunate enough to get find recovery; my brother died of alcoholism at an early age.

It takes great courage and sacrifice to recognize our addiction is destroying our children's lives – and to make the decision to let them be adopted. To me it’s an indication that someone is not blindly self-centered when they’re able to make this kind of decision.

There are many childless couples looking for children to raise. They must be saluted because they're willing to take on the children of addicts and alcoholics with the knowledge these children might have serious emotional issues by the time the adoption is completed.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Father in Pain

I ran into a business acquaintance recently and asked how his daughter was doing. His expression told me she wasn't doing very well. Over the past few years she's been going in and out of treatment programs and halfway houses, attempting to get her life together. And the tragic thing is she has a small daughter, around three years old. The daughter ends up living with her grandfather when the mother makes another drug run.

The sad thing is the father doesn't understand the first thing about addiction. Like many parents who have no experience with alcohol or drugs, this man looks at addiction as a logical process. He thinks she should be able to see the danger she's putting herself and her child in - and quit using. But that's not the way the world works for us drug addicts.

Each time I talk to him I give him encouragement. I know he loves her dearly. And when we talk about his daughter he usually tells me about a new program or halfway house she's found. So far none has worked for her.

I suggest he not help her when she's using – yet to encourage her when she's trying to get clean and sober. As long as he’ll pick up the pieces she has a safety net when things get too bad.

Maybe one day her disease will convince her that getting clean is the better option. I know my life had to become a total wreck before I went into a detox and began to change. I pray this man’s daughter finds recovery.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cunning, Baffling, Powerful...

The last time I visited our Las Vegas facilities I was reflecting about John F., a man who worked for TLC for many years as a volunteer office manager at that location. He was a bright man and had two master’s degrees. He came up with innovative office procedures and helped things run smoothly. He attended 12-step meetings, and served as a good example for the men in the house. He had a small dog he dearly loved. But after being with us some seven years he one day just disappeared.

He didn't take his dog. He took a few changes of clothes. A few weeks later we learned he'd moved to a nearby motel and began drinking. Within a few weeks he was dead.

While this man had been retired for several years and received a military pension that would’ve allowed him to live comfortably outside our program he said he stayed with us because it was the only place he could stay sober. In light of that, I often wondered why he left the program to drink himself to death.

The 12-step literature tells us our disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. I know it was in this case.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Finding Gratitude

Reasons for gratitude can be found wherever we are. And I think it's important for my recovery to look for them - no matter what the circumstances.

For example, last week my neurologist sent me to Scottsdale – Osborne hospital for a lumbar puncture, a procedure where spinal fluid is withdrawn for diagnosis.

It wasn't a painful procedure; most of the pain was in my imagination. The aftermath was much worse, an excruciating headache for five days or so, so severe I couldn’t work. And I had to go back a few days later to get a follow-up procedure to get rid of the headaches.

So find gratitude in these circumstances? Yes, and I didn’t have to look far:

• While waiting to be released I was grateful for having medical insurance that allows me to seek treatment.

• I reflected upon how many in the world don’t have basic health care and how blessed I live in a country where I have this privilege.

• I felt gratitude toward those who’ve spent their careers creating advanced medical technology to treat our ailments.

• And while waiting at the hospital I overheard patients with serious medical problems who were in real pain – much worse than what I was experiencing. It helped me realize my discomfort was minor.

• Also, I was able to see the example of dedicated nurses and volunteers, devoted people with care and concern for their patients.

In summation I found gratitude where I once would have found another occasion to say “poor me.” The beauty of being sober today is that I’m able to find gratitude in life’s challenges.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Accepting Loss

In life, loss is a recurring theme. Recently someone very close to me lost her father. If we live long enough we are all going to lose someone. While the loss of our loved ones is inevitable, how we react to the loss is not.

Some of us in recovery often let grief and loss overtake our lives. While grieving is a natural and healthy process, an intense reaction that threatens our sobriety or recovery is not. Before I got sober over 20 years ago, every loss was an occasion for me to intensify my addiction. My drug use and alcoholism would escalate into another crisis. What could have been a normal healthy grieving process metamorphosed into something larger.

But since I've been sober I have found a different way to deal with this kind of loss. While I still grieve my loss, I know that the person who died would not want me to do something self-destructive in response to their passing. Were this person still alive and speaking to me, they might say something like "go on and lead a good life. Don't destroy yourself over my passing." While this kind of imaginary construct might not work for everyone, it has worked well for me over the past 20 years.

If we believe in a higher power, then we believe our loved one is in God's hands. We can imagine that if they were looking into our lives, they would be happy to know that we are doing well, that we are staying clean and sober.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Addicts Without $

I received an e-mail from an out-of-state counselor, saying she'd referred several "desperate" addicts to our facilities in Arizona and Nevada. And she also made a comment about TLC being the only place an addict can get into without “having a cent." Her remark reveals the secret of our success.

Experience has taught us that when addicts or alcoholics show up with money they probably aren't done. Somehow, the alcoholic brain can find a shred of control in such circumstances. On occasion we’ve told addicts who show up with cars, luggage, and a girlfriend, to go back and continue to drink or drug until they lose everything. While we don't always do this, we’ve done it on occasions when an applicant seems very full of himself. While this might be judgmental on our part, our experience shows us when addicts haven’t hit bottom they have a more difficult time getting sober. For those of us who’ve had our asses beat by drugs and alcohol there is absolutely no question about our control – or more specifically – lack of control.

Some who run programs ask us how we make it financially when we take people in with no money. And you know, that's a very good question. After all, everyone needs to pay their bills no matter how pure their aspirations and goals. But somehow we've always been able to pay our bills. Our experience has been that we collect about 85% of the money we charge. I believe that when we have a strong mission in life somehow God intervenes with help.

We've never been able to obtain grants. Addicts are way down on the list when it comes to passing out money. Even though we live in more enlightened times, somehow the idea of providing funding for those healthy enough to work and care for themselves is not very attractive. I agree. I believe charity should go to the helpless and hopeless. There are children who need financial help. There are senior citizens who can't care for themselves. We succeed because we’ve learned how to economize. Most nonprofits spend 80% of their income on salaries and management, where we spend only 20%.

One way we accomplish this is we use clients to help run the program. The state allows us to use clients to help run our program as part of their recovery process. And it works well for them and for us. Many of our clients have never worked in the real world. Many men don't know how to shave and clean up to go to a job. Often the women don't know how to groom themselves so that they are presentable in a corporate workplace. However, when we hire them to work within our program we teach them basic job skills that will help them become employable once they graduate. This type of training results in savings for us and benefits our clients. Many of our clients have left our program and gone on to find well-paying jobs in construction or in the business world.

We just had to show them they could do it and give them the skills they need to do the work.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Still Working at 72?

The other day I was checking into the financial services department of a local hospital when the intake person said "well I guess you're enjoying a happy retirement?" She was reading my date of birth and because I'm 72 years old she apparently assumed I no longer worked.

"Oh I still work," I told her. "In fact, I have two jobs."

She seemed surprised and I told her I don't plan to ever retire. As long as health permits, I'm going to work. If I sit on my butt I won't be around very long. When I told her my motto was "use it or lose it," she turned red. But I think she understood what I was telling her.

A similar situation occurred a day later when I called to confirm an appointment at an MRI center. When I asked the secretary to give me directions to the facility once more because I left mine at the office she seemed surprised.

"You still work?" she asked. She obviously was also looking at my date of birth on her monitor. Then of course the drill was the same. I explained to her that I didn't want to sit around and rust away.

Even though some may look askance at a 72-year-old who goes to his office every day and who manages a real estate portfolio on the side - I am blessed to be able to do what I do. I love what I do so much that at times, when the economy has been bad, I've done the job for nothing. In fact, for the past 30 months I've taken a complete pay cut and just lived on real estate income. We must challenge ourselves if we want to keep our wits about us. I know if I just watch TV, or play golf, I would go crazy with boredom.

In a recent blog I expressed that I was surprised I lived to be 40. When I finally got sober at 50 I determined I was going to live a full existence. I didn't get sober to be miserable. I got sober to enjoy life, to pay back to the world for some of the wrongs I'd committed.

A lot of clients and managers at TLC appreciate my attitude toward life, or at least they seem to. I try to be an example of good living, of doing service work, and of being an all-around good person. I believe that we exemplify sobriety by the way we live, not necessarily by what comes out of our mouths.

Every day I thank God because I'm still alive. And I know I wouldn't be alive if I hadn't been graced with the gift of sobriety.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Real Clients?

Sometimes those of you who read my blog will write to ask if the person I'm talking about in the blog is a real client.

The information in these blogs is based on current or former clients or managers. I change the circumstances so no one can be identified. My goal is to not embarrass anyone or break their anonymity. The real purpose is to illustrate real-life situations that affect us as addicts. I sometimes cover the successes. Other times, I illustrate the tragedies and disasters that can befall us if we are unable to get sober.

I often will combine elements that I've heard at different times from different people. The goal, as I mentioned in the paragraph above, is to help the readers of this blog understand more about addiction and alcoholism. And at the same time, I want to understand more about my own addiction and alcoholism. And sometimes I get insights that help me through the day.

When I started posting this blog some 320 days ago I had a dual goal. One goal, and not necessarily the most important one, was to force myself to write something every day. I committed to post a new blog every day for a year. And so far, I've been able to do that. The second goal was to give clients, families, and anyone else interested, some insight into how TLC works and how we treat the addicts and alcoholics who live with us. I've been able to achieve both of these goals.

Before I started posting I built up a 30 day backlog. That way, if I got sick or went on vacation I would still have something to post. Perhaps one of the more rewarding, and surprising, things I've experienced since writing this blog is that I developed long-distance relationships with more than one reader. Some of them have been family members of clients. Others have been counselors from recovery programs who send us clients. They understand exactly what I'm talking about because they go through the same things we experience with addicts and alcoholics.

I appreciate my readers and hope you all keep coming back.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Legalize Drugs?

A report released this week by the United Nations Commission on Drug Policy stated the war on drugs has been a worldwide failure. The report went on to recommend a moderate approach to drugs that would encompass treatment and health care for addicts.

The idea the war on drugs has failed is nothing new to us addicts. For years and years we’ve known the so-called war on drugs had no chance of success. Like all efforts to suppress social crimes the war hasn’t succeeded. In fact, if one looks at incarceration statistics in the United States we see a vast population of people who are incarcerated for mostly drug related offenses. We have the example of prohibition: it did nothing to stop people from drinking. And it made millionaires out of mobsters.

So, someone might ask, do I advocate the legalization of all kinds of drugs? Of course I do. While this might seem hypocritical to those who are familiar with TLC I have good foundation for making this kind of statement. The reality is that drugs have been de facto legal for many years. If anyone has doubts, just go to any major city or rural community. Start looking for different kinds of drugs. If your approach is right you'll probably have drugs in your hands within an hour. There are drug dealers all over our country. The only way to put these folks out of business is to make drugs legal, to compete with them, to collect taxes that could go toward treatment and health care for those who suffer from addiction.

One of the arguments we hear against legalization from the moralists is that we will be encouraging people to use drugs. Again, the reality is that people need no encouragement to use drugs. If children are raised right they might not gravitate towards drugs or alcohol. But for those raised in bad circumstances or who have a genetic predisposition, then gravitating towards drugs and alcohol is natural. Addiction is no more a moral issue than is cancer, heart disease, or tuberculosis. Sometimes those who take the moral stance look at addicts as evil people instead of sick people. True, addicts and alcoholics do illegal and immoral things, but this is primarily a result of their substance-abuse rather than an indication of their character.

Although I doubt if this pronouncement by this United Nations commission is going to make any difference in the short term, at least they have put their position on the record. And with all the other changes going on throughout the world, who knows? Maybe our world will change in this area, also.

Friday, June 3, 2011

God as a Friend

A newcomer with no religious upbringing told me he didn’t know how to pray. He wondered if he needed to dress nice or go to church or be formal when he talked to God. He’d turned his will and his life over to the care of God. But he wasn’t sure how to communicate with this new presence in his life.

I told him no one knew positively how to speak to God but that along the years I’d heard a few things I found useful about how to pray.

Once I’d heard a prominent bishop speak on the subject. He said we needed to speak to God as if he were a close friend we’re hanging out with. He said we didn’t need to be formal; we didn’t need to use good grammar. He said if we believe God is all-powerful and omnipotent then we believe he knows our heart and mind. He knows what we need before we ask. In fact he sometimes provides it before we ask.

As to the time or place for prayer someone suggested we pray at any moment in any setting. We can ask God to help us with our jobs, to help us overcome our fears, to relieve someone’s suffering. And we can do this while we’re driving or walking or watching television. He said that God hears our prayers no matter the time or the place.

I suggested to the newcomer that in the morning he say a simple “help.” And that at night he should offer a simple “thank you.”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Surrender to Win

“Surrender” was the topic of a meeting this week, a concept I had a hard time with for many years. Until I got sober I never believed in surrendering anything or to anybody. I fought the law for years and lived like a wild man until I couldn’t do it any longer. It was only when I finally lost everything one more time that I finally gave up, went to a detox, and became willing to do whatever it took to change my life.

When I surrendered and admitted I was an alcoholic I had mixed feelings. On one hand I had an odd sense of relief – a feeling that maybe my life would be different if I just kept the alcohol out of it. But also during that period in detox I had no grasp of reality. For example, I recall thinking that my life would be totally boring. I’d have no friends, no excitement. What would I do with my time? I didn’t stop to think that I had no friends anyway, that my life was a boring round of hustling to get a drink or a fix. When I got sober I had no job and was living in a stolen car. Yet my warped alcoholic brain was telling me that life in sobriety didn't look too promising.

Yet only when I totally surrendered to the idea that I was alcoholic did life change. Today I’m living the promises…

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

More Blessings of Sobriety

My two beautiful daughters are blessings of my sobriety. Though neither has my disease, they have been impacted by my alcoholism and drug addiction - particularly my older daughter.

My oldest lives in California where she and my son-in-law are raising my two youngest grandchildren. Besides their regular jobs, they are pastors of a 200 member church. She’s loved and supported me through all of my addictions and jail terms. Once I got sober I realized how fortunate I am to have a human being like her who stuck with me through all of my insanity.

Because she was growing up during my addiction I never spent much time with her and was estranged from her mother. In spite of my neglect, her love for me never wavered.

My youngest daughter never experienced my addictions. She only has a faint memory of one time seeing me with a beer. She reinforced my commitment to sobriety because when I was sober two years I obtained legal custody of her. I raised her for 10 years - until she went into the Army at 18. She served in mission Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan - and other theaters - for three years. She suffered a hip injury while in Afghanistan and now receives 70% disability. While part of her disability is psychological, she hasn't let that keep her from completing two years of college at Texas Culinary Academy. And she's in the final stages of earning her bachelor's degree from the University of Phoenix. After that she’s going for her master’s degree.

It’s an understatement to say these girls are the blessings of my sobriety. I don't know too many people who have spent 40 years in their addictions and had much left when they got sober– especially relationships with important people.

My relationship with them is part of the promises come true.