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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Personal Connection

It was a powerful moment when a young woman I’ve known since she was a baby received a four year chip at the Sunday morning meeting. At one time we weren't sure she was going to survive her addiction. Before she got into recovery she had run-ins with the law that put her in jail - and nearly in prison.

Today she’s a healthy and beautiful 27 year old, raising a son and daughter with her fiancĂ©e, and attending college while working a full-time job. 

When I witness the transformation she underwent it reaffirms for me the miracle of the 12-step programs. She’s let her life be guided by the program and has diligently followed the steps for the past four years.

Before recovery, she was in jeopardy of losing her son, a bright and handsome boy who was one of the victims of her addiction. It was nearly a year into her recovery before she had him back in her life full-time.

When she shared from the podium she talked about having been around 12 step meetings all her life, yet never believing the principles applied to her. She said she was ashamed to get in touch with her family because she knew they knew she was dealing and using - and also what the solution was.

She spoke of the emotional setbacks she had when old criminal charges she thought had disappeared kept coming back to life. Yet she didn’t let these challenges stop her from working her program. Eventually all of the charges disappeared and she never wavered from her commitment to sobriety.

Each day I witness the power of the 12-step programs. And it’s especially wonderful when that power helps save someone close to us.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Center of the Universe?

Page 63 of the literature says that "selfishness and self-centeredness, we think, is the root of our problems."

I thought of this yesterday while counseling a client who thinks he's the center of the universe. For example, if two people are in a corner talking out of earshot he immediately fears they're talking about him. If he tells a joke and no one laughs he thinks everyone hates him. He doesn't stop to think that maybe it was a bad joke. If no one compliments him on construction work he just completed he's a failure. He lives at the center of a cruel universe. And the reason it's cruel is he thinks it's is all about him.

As we grow in sobriety we come to realize that very little of the world is about us.  We discover we live in a diverse world made up of billions of unique personalities – of which we are only a minor one. When we recognize this we're free. Because all of a sudden we're not taking offense at every perceived slight. We realize that life is a journey, not a moment in time where we're offended by minor slights cooked up in our addicted mind.

We shed some of our self-centeredness by seeing that while we may be good at one thing, we're not good at everything. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. For example, I may be a competent businessman but I'm not so good at dealing with people. The next person may be really wonderful at dealing with people but may not understand the ins and outs of business. One may be a better technician than his immediate supervisor, but the supervisor has the ability, the people skills, to get the most out of those working for him.

When we achieve  sobriety we come to realize we are but a tiny thread in the fabric of society. Yet the part we play is important because each thread is what helps hold our world together.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tough Love?

This week one of our managers told two clients they could no longer communicate with one another, something they thought was unfair. They’d been friends for some time and had become very close. However, the manager thought the two were focusing more on each other than on the reason they came to the program, which was to work on getting sober and changing their lives.

One of the clients spoke with upper management about the communication ban, believing it was an intrusion into her “personal” life. However, it was explained to her that once clients come to TLC their “personal” life is second if it interferes with recovery. The client had several reasons why the relationship was good for them, that it wouldn’t get in the way of their recovery. But a reality she had to accept was that the strong feelings she had for her friend took focus from her program.

Our philosophy at TLC is that nothing is more important than learning to live clean and sober. Anything that gets in the way of sobriety – family, jobs, friends, whatever – must be pushed aside. And for those who think this is extreme or dictatorial, they need to hear the sad tales of those who didn’t make it.

We have many tragic stories of those who overdosed, died drunk, or went to jail. So many promising people have returned to their disease and never came back. We don’t mind taking what some feel aare harsh measures if we can save someone from disaster.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Recovery Works

Even though it was 110° at 6:30 in the evening the audience paid close attention as the young man told his story of achieving some 18 months of sobriety.

His journey to sobriety started when he was a young man with only one mission in life: to stay blasted on drugs and alcohol. No matter what obstacles stood in his way he was always able to achieve his goal of getting high. In jail or prison, his one thought was that he would get high the minute he was released. If he received a probation sentence he never completed it because as soon as he left jail he ran directly to the dope house. He lived to be high.

For those of us who've been involved with the management of TLC over the years this is one of the best payoffs we can have. It is gratifying to see a man in his early 30s who can stand in front of an audience of 50 and talk about how he finally discovered that the answer to his addiction was to get into a 12 step program and practice the principles he learned there. An even more important aspect of it is that newcomers in the audience saw a peer experiencing success because he's sober.

In the 12 step programs it's important to find someone we can relate to. And because this man was in early recovery newcomers could find hope in his words. When I was in early recovery when I would hear someone with 10 years of sobriety it was difficult to relate. Ten years seemed a lifetime. But when I heard someone who had six months or a year talk about recovery, then I could feel what he was telling me. The man with the shorter time had recovery experiences that were still fresh to him – something he communicated as he spoke.

When we heard the story this young man told on this sweltering night, it reaffirms that what we do is important – it shows that recovery works.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Going Home

I was talking to a client recently who was excited about completing the first 90 days of his program. He was looking forward to getting back with his family. I could see by the look on his face that he was mentally there already.

            "So you're excited about returning home?" I asked him.

            “I am," he replied.

            "And what do you think will be different?" I asked him.

            "Well, for one thing, I've been sober for 90 days."

The conversation went back and forth like this for a while. He was proud of the fact he'd been sober for 90 days and justifiably so. But I explained to him that he's the one who’s changed – but things back home might not have changed. He might have great expectations that his family will welcome him as a returning hero. And if that doesn’t occur, he'll be disappointed.

My experience has been that once we return to our old environment clean and sober, we sometimes have expectations that aren't met. One reality we encounter is that the same issues we left behind are still there. We have a stack of bills. Our spouse may not totally trust us.  We may have to find a new job.  The same personalities we dealt with before we left are still there.

When we return our families may finally be relieved that they're not competing with alcohol or drugs for our attention.  Our children might be expecting us to make amends for all of our absences. They may think we're going to spend more time with them, instead of drinking with our buddies or being at the dope house. They may also look forward to a period of increased prosperity because now we're not supporting a habit.

These are real challenges that can sometimes send us back out if we're not careful. My advice to our client was to live in the present moment and be prepared for unexpected challenges and changes when he returns home. 

If he expects some dreamlike scenario to be awaiting him he'll surely be disappointed.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reasons for Gratitude

I received a text this morning about gratitude and was reminded of all the things we have to be grateful for. I heard over the years that gratitude is an attitude - a viewpoint that works for me. If we think we have something coming, feel sorry for ourselves, and don't recognize the blessings we have in our life then we're not going to be grateful.

For example, we hear a daily drumbeat in the news about how many people are unemployed. But if we turn it around and take the attitude that more people are employed than unemployed, then we have a different perspective on the employment situation. If 20% of the people are unemployed, then that means 80% are employed. It's a group the unemployed will want to join.

If I'm struggling with my recovery maybe I can find gratitude in the fact that I'm still alive to struggle. Many of my contemporaries and using friends are no longer with us because they couldn't get this simple program. We must be grateful we're still alive to struggle.

Ever since a huge windstorm blew through our area about a month ago, I've been cleaning my swimming pool and replacing equipment that was damaged by the sand. Each time I get frustrated or angry about the situation I can always stop and say I'm lucky to have a pool to take care of, something that I didn't own until after I got sober some twenty years ago.

Opportunities for gratitude abound in our lives. On the way back from the gym this morning I was listening to the news about Libya. And I thought it was wonderful that I live in a country with political stability. We are lucky we don't live in life-threatening chaos wondering where we're going to get fresh water or food.  If we look at those who live in bad circumstances we can find a multitude of reasons for gratitude.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Drunks Call

When I answered the phone it was another call from a drunk. The voice was hesitant, the breathing was deep.  His words were slurred. Finally, when he was sure he had the person he wanted to talk to, he launched into a diatribe.

            "You're the mo - - - - - - - - er ," he screamed into the phone, "who started TLC. You're the guy who's hiding behind your staff. You're afraid to come out and talk to us drunks. I know who you are! But you don't remember me. I'm the guy you tried to sponsor one time." He then gave me his name, but I didn't recall meeting him.  He blathered on for a while, describing creative things he’d like to do to me, all the while not making any sense.

There wasn't much I could do to help.  He was too far gone. I stayed on the line with him anyway, trying to direct him to a detox so he could get back on track.  I listened to more of his abuse until I realized I had no power to help him. Then I hung up.

We get these calls every once in a while and – if they weren’t so sad- they would almost be humorous.  I take away the lesson that “there but for the grace of God go I.”  He helped me stay sober today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Progress or Perfection?

A TLC client told me he would "get down" on himself because he was always trying to do everything perfectly. He said when he would build something if he didn't measure the pieces exactly, he would be depressed all day. And if he would see the work the next day he would be aware there was an slight miscalculation in his measurement. He would sometimes awake in the middle of the night obsessing about the imperfection.

Living this way was making him crazy. He knew logically that a slight miscalculation didn't make a "hill of beans" in the real world. But this feeling that he had failed would color his whole day to the point that he would sink into a depression. Even though it didn't make sense it affected his self-esteem.

To help him understand the situation I shared my own experience with him. At one time when things weren't perfect it really made me crazy. I would address an envelope 10 or 12 times if the address wasn't exactly right. But one day I got over this by telling myself that my behavior was crazy. I realized the recipient of the letter probably didn't pay any attention at all to a slight mistake, let alone a minor misspelling or punctuation error. I overcame this by forcing myself to address an envelope only one time. If I made a mistake so be it. I would cross out the error with a pen and write the correction beneath it. And I think that probably most of the time the recipient of the letter probably just threw it in the trash anyway - and maybe didn't even look at it. Before I took this attitude my ego said that anything that had to do with me had to be perfect – a fallacy that kept me depressed much of the time. I was on this tightrope of self-evaluation that nobody really cared about.

My counsel to our client was to lighten up on himself. We alcoholics and addicts have enough trouble dealing with real problems in life.  There are plenty to go around without manufacturing them in our own head.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stress Attack!

Despite my best intentions – even after being sober 20 years – stress sometimes attacks me. A benefit of being in the 12 step programs that I've achieved some serenity. In fact, I pride myself on not getting upset very often. But a main component of serenity is awareness, and when I'm unaware stress can ambush me and steal my peace of mind.

And this happened last Saturday when I arrived at my office to start the day. I hadn’t a care in the world. I'd been to the gym for an hour. I'd enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. I was looking forward to dispatching a few things and then moving to other projects. But wham! The best laid plans sometimes go awry. The first thing I usually do in the morning when I arrive is access company and personal bank accounts online. And part of that process is moving money to the accounts of out-of-town managers for their expenses. But when I went to initiate the transfers some accounts were missing from the display screen. That seemed odd and I investigated further. After a brief search I found them and started the transfers. But now I wasn't allowed to transfer between certain accounts. I could feel my blood starting to boil. The heat began rising under my collar. I said unkind things out loud.

After nearly an hour on the phone with a customer service representative I was told to call the bank on Monday. The worker bee who handled front line calls didn't have the authority to access certain accounts. I was totally frustrated and for a few minutes I went through several scenarios in my head, visualizing computer nerds in cubicles in the bank's corporate office in Texas making meaningless changes to accounts, changes that made no sense to consumers who only wanted access to their funds.

 Finally, I realized I was letting an incident over which I had no control frustrate and upset me. My routine of eight years had been derailed for reasons I didn’t understand. I told the representative that I would do as she suggested and call Monday when the bank opened. And I apologized to her if I seemed impatient and upset.

Then I took several deep breathes and went into acceptance. I reminded myself that a few years back all we did nothing online because there wasn’t internet banking. We wrote checks and mailed them and business kept moving just fine. And whatever happened I would somehow get done what I needed to do. And I could do it with joy and peace in my heart.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Closing Old Wounds

The client sitting across from me at my desk had a long-term project going on, excavating resentment from his past.

One that he frequently dug up and revisited was his relationship with his former wife. He’d come home one day from work fifteen years ago to find her in their bedroom with one of his friends. A long angry divorce followed. The wife eventually married the friend, had two children with him, and moved to another state.  But the pain and anger on the client’s face made it seem as though the incident had happened last week - instead of the mid-nineties.

            “How much pleasure do you get from this resentment?” I asked him.

            “What do you mean?” he asked, puzzled at the question.

            “No, really,” I told him. “There’s some kind of payoff for you in revisiting this betrayal. I’m just trying to understand it.”

            “I’m not sure,” he replied. “But it’s almost as painful now as when it happened.”

            “Have you ever looked at your part in this divorce? Were you drinking at the time?”

He admitted he was drinking daily, that he was working two jobs and was rarely there for her. But still he felt betrayed that she would cheat on him in his home with his best friend.

As the conversation went on I asked him to start looking at his contribution to the problems between them, rather than looking only at her and his friend. After all, there's more than one dimension to a relationship and we can only do something about our part in it.

I suggested he – in effort to remove his resentment – start wishing her well, perhaps praying for her on a daily basis. I explained that while what she did was an unacceptable and shocking betrayal- there wasn’t any benefit in his staying stuck in that small slice of time. She seemed to have moved on with her life and here he was choosing keep his pain alive by not dealing with his resentment.

The real point of my discussion with him was to help him get perspective on his past so he can stay sober today. After all, there’s nothing like a healthy resentment to start us drinking again.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Teach Others How To Treat Us

            "I'm so stressed out," the young woman said in a TLC aftercare group. "People don't treat me with respect, and they're always picking on me."

            "Why do you let them do this to you?" I asked. "After all, we teach people how to treat us."

She said she'd been treated this way all of her life, since she was a child. And she really didn't seem to know how to change this aspect of her behavior that made her seem a powerless victim.

I suggested she let people know how to treat her. They need to know when they crossed her boundaries. She claimed she didn't like to be "confrontational." I asked if she knew the difference between being confrontational and being assertive. I told her it's okay to let people know when they offended her. She could simply tell them "I'd appreciate it if you didn't speak to me that way."  Or else, she could say "I don't appreciate it when you joke around with me like that."  I pointed out that her behavior let people know it was easy to push her buttons, to get her irritated. And some people took advantage of her because it might give them a sense of power. She listened to what was said but I knew that it was going to take a while for her to put these ideas into practice.

A characteristic of  addicts and alcoholics is we are overly sensitive about nearly everything. Many of us have have lived for so long in a world of chaos and uncertainty that we are super sensitive to those around us. The reality is that most people are thinking about their own lives and their own issues and aren't concerned about us. But our fragile egos tell us otherwise.

I tell those I counsel that the best way to resolve many communication problems is to let people know, in an appropriate manner, exactly how we feel and what's going on with us. When we do this, two things happen: one, we let people know where we stand; and two, we let them know we respect them by wanting a clear communication with them.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Parents Call

One of the most intense aspects of my job as CEO of TLC is calls from parents and family members. The voices at the other end of the phone are seeking reassurance, seeking answers, trying to understand the mysteries of addiction. And there are no easy answers for these callers. I simply share with them is my own experience of many years of addiction and 20 years of running a recovery program. I do my best to give them hope.

I  encourage them to keep their distance, to be tough. Many feel they're somehow responsible because their loved one has an addiction. They may be expressing guilt for some perceived breakdown in their parenting skills.  Some of them say "I don't know what I did wrong." I point out that whatever happened years back, their loved one is currently an addict or alcoholic. Trying to make up for the past does no good in the present when an addict is busy drinking or drugging and on a downhill slope to nowhere.

There is a heartbreaking website set up by the mother of an alcoholic.. Her love for her son shows in every word she writes. She chronicles his various relapses and talks about her efforts to help him. She's torn apart because he can't get sober, yet she keeps picking him up and dusting him off, trying to save him one more time. I'd like to tell her of my experience: I didn't get sober until my parents and everyone else quit helping me. Only when I had absolutely no one to pick me up did I realize that I must be the problem. Only then did I finally get sober over 20 years ago.

Today I have an alcoholic family member in my life who's been in and out of sobriety for the past few years. I apply the same advice to my relationship with him that I give to others. I don't want to hear his whining about how everyone else is the problem. I don't care how his wife treats hm, how his boss treats him, and how sensitive he is to perceived slights. Until he gets off  the drugs and alcohol, and starts living by some principles of sobriety he and I won't have much of a relationship. I don't need the drama of a practicing alcoholic in my life – even if I'm related to him. While he may have resentment for a long time because of the way I've treated him – he may one day thank me because I've helped save his life just like someone helped save my life by being rough on me so many years ago.

Friday, August 19, 2011

We're Still Responsible

Below is an excerpt from the website MedPage Today. http://www.medpagetoday.com/Psychiatry/Addictions/28070.

More to Addiction than Substance Abuse, Group Says
By Kristina Fiore, Staff Writer, MedPage Today
Published: August 16, 2011 

Addiction is a chronic brain disorder that should be treated like any other chronic disease, according to a new definition from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

In a public policy statement, the group emphasized that neurological mechanisms -- disruptions in neurotransmission, interruptions in the reward system, failure of inhibitory control -- are the key drivers of addiction.

"At its core, addiction isn't just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem," ASAM past president Michael Miller, MD, said in a prepared release. "It's a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas."

The statement describes addiction as a primary disease and not the result of other emotional or psychiatric problems. Addiction hijacks the brain's reward system, which involves areas of memory and emotion, and stifles areas of executive functioning, such as impulse control, the statement says.
And genetic factors account for half of the likelihood that a patient will develop addiction.

For those of us who’ve spent years of our lives battling addictions this confirms that we’re dealing with more than just bad behavior. I don’t think anyone grows up with the goal of being an addict, alcoholic or gambler.

This news will not have an immediate effect on how society and the justice system view addicts-or how they’re treated by the justice system. But it’s a step in helping the world to understand that substance abusers are as powerless as any other sick person when their disease is active.

Nor will there be an awakening among those who’ve long suffered at the hands of us addicts: namely family members and friends.

And it still doesn’t remove from those of us in recovery the responsibility of dealing with our disease. Probably the ultimate result of this pronouncement is that the world might look at substance abusers with a bit more tolerance and compassion.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Better Communication

Last night in aftercare we talked about what we do when someone hurts our feelings. The majority of the eight group members said they "got angry" and either retaliated or withdrew. The point of the discussion was to learn positive ways we might deal with situations in which our feelings got hurt. Rather than doing something as counterproductive as becoming angry or getting even maybe there was something else we could do to get through a tough situation.

The facilitator gave examples of how he deals with people who try to hurt his feelings or who might be getting angry during an exchange.

"Excuse me," he said as one example. "Did I say something to hurt your feelings? Because if I did I didn't mean to."

Or, as another example he used the phrase "it sounds like you're getting angry. If there's something I said to offend you, forgive me. I didn't mean to."

The facilitator said that he uses this technique probably once a month in business dealings. And one of the interesting things, he found is that nobody has ever hung up the phone on him or walked away from the conversation. He said that usually there is a moment of silence, then the conversation continues – but on a totally different tone. He said that when he uses this technique he is showing respect for the other person's feelings. He also walks away with his self-esteem intact and feeling like he got through a tough communication without getting angry.

The consensus was that if we can keep our ego out of the way when we feel hurt, we might can have a productive exchange with the other person.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Brainstorming

During our monthly business meeting yesterday we had a brainstorming session. We were discussing ideas about how to retain clients, many who leave within a week or two of arrival.

One of the issues we've always encountered at TLC is that we're considered to be a "tough program." We ask much of those who come to our program. We enforce a curfew. We expect them to find work and pay service fees. We tell them to find a sponsor. We require them to attend 12 step meetings. We don't allow threats. We expect them to attend some 11 hours of meetings a week. We ask them to maintain the property and keep their living areas clean.

This is contrary to what many other halfway houses and recovery programs offer. While I don't believe in beating up the competition, many have few or no restrictions on movement or behavior. As long as the residents pay a weekly fee, the managers are pretty happy. Residents come and go pretty much as they please. They are not drug tested. One "religious" program in our area allows clients to use narcotic drugs on the property as long as they have a doctor's prescription. These kinds of programs, in my opinion, don't do much to help recovering addicts and alcoholics rebuild their lives.

However the "strict" requirements we have in our program really jibe with what people do in the larger community. While most citizens might not go to 12 step meetings, most of them work, take care of their property, and don’t break the law. But for some reason, many of our clients think were being pretty rough on them when we ask them to do the same thing that the typical citizen does.

Our managers came up with 20 or 30 different ideas of things we could do to maybe motivate clients to stay longer. While we started the meeting with the idea that there were no bad ideas, there were several interesting contributions. One was that we should try to do more to make clients feel more like they're part of the community. At one time we had a strong community at our Roosevelt property. The clients there enjoyed barbecues and movies on a regular basis, and engaged in other types of positive social activities. They made the newcomer feel like part of the community. While this was not a new idea, it was something we'd somehow gotten away from over the years.

We'll sort through the ideas to see if something will help with or retention. But maybe the best ideas are those that worked a few years back when we had a larger population.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Getting Over It

Those of us in recovery might look to the animal world for examples for our own lives. And, having written this, I know it’s a fantasy to equate animal and human behavior.

But for example, today our two Chihuahuas got into a huge disagreement over ownership of a bone. They were fighting with one another until the male finally took possession of the prize and carried it off to his part of the yard. The female sulked off to her bed, looking dejected, licking her wounds – acting as if it were the end of the world.

Yet, less than an hour later they were running, playing and wrestling with one another as if nothing had happened.

And yesterday I was watching a documentary in which lions attacked a zebra on the African veldt, intent on having it for lunch. Luckily, the zebra escaped with a few wounds on its hindquarters. And it was filmed the next day grazing with the rest of the herd - as if nothing had happened.

Now if someone had taken something I valued I’d have been resentful for several days. I might have had a session with my sponsor. And I definitely wouldn’t have been able to trust the person – in fact I might not speak to them again.

And if I’d have been injured – like the zebra, I’d of been on disability for months if not forever. I definitely would be seeing a therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder after suffering such a trauma.

While there’s surely survival value for animals behaving as they do, wouldn’t it be wonderful if those of us in recover could move on with our lives as quickly as they do?

No longer would we respond with drama, self-pity, drugs, alcohol or resentment.

While it might be fantasy, it’s still something we might try to emulate.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Look to the Positive

The client sat at my desk, an emotional wreck because he believed he "couldn't do anything right." He recited a list of things he couldn't do. He felt "totally useless." I could almost see the cloud of depression floating over his head. He also said he was "stressed out."

We talked for a while about his depression, which seemed to be fueled by low self-esteem. He didn't feel good about himself and felt he wasn't accomplishing anything. Finally, I pointed out that he was a skilled tradesmen, very good at his craft. Sometimes I do this to show a client they've done something positive, that they're not nearly as bad as they think. I asked him to consider, for a moment, the idea he could apply the same abilities that allowed him to be a skilled tradesmen to other areas of his life. He reflected on this for a moment and agreed it was something to try.

Many of our clients let depression permeate their life. It colors their whole existence and saps their energy. They believe they do nothing right. In these cases I often point out, even to the least accomplished, that they have something positive going.

But how do I do this with someone who's covered with tattoos, who's spent years in prison, and who has little education? It isn't that difficult. When I encounter someone with this resume I point out that they have a core toughness about them. The toughness that helped them to survive through years of addiction and living on the streets or in jail. And it is not a stretch to do this. After all, when we witness what some of our clients have been through it's almost like they're graduates of the world's meanest survival school. They were often abused as children, both physically and emotionally and have few social skills.

So I suggest they reach inside themselves and use the skills that allowed them to survive thus far and take positive action – if they want to enjoy life and grow into their potential.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Another Graduate

Last night I witnessed one of the miracles of our program. A longtime resident, a Hard Six client, graduated from the 18 month program last night at our Roosevelt facility.

I use the term "miracle" because at one time his chances for successfully completing anything seemed dim. During aftercare groups he'd sit, arms crossed defensively across his chest, red-faced, looking at the floor and not saying much. When he did express himself, he was a volcano of anger, spewing frustration. His emotions were predictable: anger, frustration, denial, always looking at someone else as the source of his problems.

But over time, because he didn't run away and drink again, this man began healing. Where at one time he was on serious medication to control his mood, he eventually weaned himself off of medication. While this is not something we get involved with or recommend - his decision to get off of the medication seemed to have a salutary effect upon his behavior and his recovery.

In time he became the manager of one of our outlying facilities and works at that job today. Is he now a totally rational human being? Is he a man who has it all together? Does he always make the right decisions? Of course not. At times he's still a pain in the butt. But he's an example of the kind of changes we like to see in TLC clients.

I often mention in aftercare groups that it took most of us years to screw up our lives to the point where we came to a halfway house. So the idea that, all of a sudden, we undergo a dramatic change and become "normal" is unreasonable. For many of us it took years to get into the totally demoralized mess that we became before we arrived here. Therefore, it is fantasy to expect that a few months' sobriety will reverse the damage.

But when clients stick around a while, and make reasonable efforts to change, we get to see them graduate.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dilemma? Or Non-Issue?

Sometimes there are no easy answers when dealing with recovering addicts and alcoholics. Most who come to TLC stick around for a while, until they get their lives together, then move on. But others stay for a few years, sometimes as long as 10 years. This is a dilemma because our mission is to help people rebuild their lives. And while it's not stated in our mission – part of rebuilding would seem to mean returning to society and becoming a productive citizen. After all, "Transitional" is part of our name.

But some of those who come to get sober stay for years, sometimes up to 10 years. Many who stay this long are older and have no family or friends. In essence, we become a surrogate family. While they stay sober, stay out of jail and don't revert to drinking or drugging they often seem to be stuck in their recovery. They don't attend a lot of meetings. They spend much of their free time watching TV, playing video games, or reading. Many are isolated in their apartments or rooms and don't seem to want to do much else.

And for me this is where the conflict comes in. These men – and it's always the men – aren't breaking our rules or guidelines. We have no upper limit on how long people can stay at TLC. Most of those in this category are useful to the program; in fact many are employees. And several say they've never been happier in their lives. Is this a situation where we’re trying to micromanage people’s lives? After all, isn't being happy what it's all about? Who are we to say that one-size-fits-all? If they're happy and staying sober isn't that enough?

Most of us on the staff don't believe we should ask these people to move on. But some of us think they should want to do something more with their lives. To enjoy the fruits of sobriety is what it's all about. What do we do in these situations? Do we asked them to leave? And maybe expose them to drinking and drugging once again? This likely won't happen.

As I said in the open paragraph, sometimes there are no easy answers.

Friday, August 12, 2011

I Want It My Way

When new clients come to TLC, beat down, homeless and hungry, they usually say they’re willing to do whatever it takes to change. But after they're here a few weeks they sometimes lose that willingness.

We had an example of that this week with some clients who'd been with us for a few months without paying service fees. It’s not uncommon for clients to owe us money, sometimes more than a thousand dollars before they finally find work and begin to pay service fees. In the case of these clients, they’d been working on labor tickets. And while they still owed TLC for several weeks of residency, they were working and chipping away at their back balances. But then all of a sudden things changed.

One of those who'd been working on a regular labor ticket decided he didn't want to to work that day;he wanted to look for another job. However, a rule at TLC is when clients owe a back balance they must work the job we provide until their service fees are zero. While we understand people want to find their own jobs, the more important factor to us is for clients to pay back service fees before they seek different employment. Because what happens when people get a new job is it takes two to three weeks for them to get paid and start taking care of their responsibilities.

Often have clients claim that "it's all about the money." And, of course, we've heard this for years. But what many people don't understand or care about is that TLC is a nonprofit corporation that receives no funding. We are a self-supporting organization; one that has barely broken even over the past three years. So when someone says "it's all about the money" they are right in the sense that we need to collect what they owe us in order to continue operating.

What many unhappy clients don't look at it is that TLC is one of the few organizations where one can get help for drug or alcohol problems without having money or insurance. However, once they recover from their initial demoralization, the ego comes back into play and they once more are in charge of their lives.

Our disease is so strong that within a few weeks – after being homeless, jobless, demoralized and hungry - we can be back in charge. And maybe ready to pick up another drink or drug if we don't get our way.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bad Sponsor?

I counsel our clients to be cautious when picking a sponsor, the person who'll help guide them through the steps and help them work on their sobriety. We recently had an example of what happens when someone picks the wrong sponsor.

An angry and resentful client, who’d been with us for many months, recently left the program on her sponsor’s advice. Not only did her sponsor advise her to leave, she referred her to another program that doesn't offer as many services as TLC – nor does it have the same restrictions. While we're not sure what the sponsor's rationale was for recommending she leave, this is advice that goes beyond sponsor – sponsee relationships in my opinion.

Central Office literature describes the sponsor-sponsee relationship as that of a friend and also a guide through the steps. On many occasions though, I've seen sponsors set themselves up as demigods, authorities on everything under the sun. I've heard sponsors tell people where they need to work, where they should live, and how they need to manage the minutest details of their lives. I even heard of a sponsor in Arizona who advised his sponsee to get off of psychiatric medications – with tragic results.

While I believe a sponsor can give advice to a sponsee the about different aspects of his life, I believe think it should be pointed out that the decision is really up to the sponsee. After all, in some cases there is an imbalance in the relationship because the sponsor has an inordinate amount of power over the sponsee. I believe that in the presence of a powerful personality who has been sober for years, a sponsee might believe the sponsor has great advice about everything in the world - far beyond the realm of recovery.

The sponsor who took our client is no longer welcome on TLC property. Nor is she allowed to sponsor TLC clients.