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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bring Motivation

One thing we don't provide at TLC is the motivation to change. While we encourage clients to do well and stay sober they must come to us motivated to live a better life. They hopefully have suffered enough from their addictions.
 
When clients go through the interview process they’ll agree to most anything to be accepted into the program. Then-  after a few meals and a couple days of rest - some of them lose their willingness.
 
Today an out-of-state client was sent to the office to meet with staff because he’d refused to work. When I questioned him he had a list of reasons why he couldn't work. He had a bad back. He had a hernia. He couldn't lift over 15 pounds. He had no experience as a janitor.
 
When it was pointed that he might have to find someplace else to live if he couldn't support himself he suddenly had an awakening.
 
Today he still has a place to live and he's doing work that he had initially said he was incapable of doing.  Reality sometimes provides motivation.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

No Defense

When he found the bag of dope at work the first thing he did was tell his boss. His boss told him to throw it away. But he didn't. He put in his pocket and knew that before long he'd open the package. After all, his best friend was in the bag.

But he didn't open it right away.  He took it home, put it on the shelf and went back and forth for a couple days before he finally opened opened it and greeted his friend - the devil drug that had always brought him down.

But for some reason the meth didn't do the same thing for him this time. Oh yeah, he get wired and stayed up all night. And no one noticed the change in his routine. He probably could've gotten away with it, went to work unnoticed. But he knew. Somewhere coursing through his brain was some 48 months of recovery information – and somehow it wasn't quite the same. So he went to one of the managers and confessed that he'd relapsed.

The manager asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to continue to try to stay clean and sober. After a brief meeting with the other staff members it was determined he'd go into a more intensive part of the program for 30 days and then be reevaluated.

That night in an aftercare group he talked of the relapse. He said he put up no defense when he found the dope. He realized he'd relapsed as soon as he put the bag of poison in his pocket. It was only a matter of time before he opened the bag and did about half of it. The group probed him, seeking information to use if they ran into the same situation. They weren't trying to hurt him, to make him feel bad. They were trying to prepare themselves for a similar temptation.

One clear thing that came out was that the man who’d relapsed hadn't been working a program. He had a sponsor he didn't use. He wasn't connected to others in the 12 step programs. He couldn't name anyone he considered a friend. He hadn't developed the network that most of us do when we stay sober long-term. He wasn’t spiritually fit and therefore defenseless.

Those us who’ve been sober have a circle of friends who know us, people we can’t let down, people we reach out to when all else fails. When dope or alcohol tempts us they form a circle around us and give us the strength to resist.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Losing it All. A Good Thing?

            "I lost my wife. I lost my job. I lost my house.  I picked up a DUI. My life is ruined," lamented a newcomer to TLC.

            "That's wonderful!" said the manager while doing his intake. "That'll make it a lot easier for you to do the first step."

            "What do you mean?" The newcomer asked, not believing what he had heard.

The manager explained that once life becomes a train wreck it's easy to realize how powerless we are. We no longer have an illusion of control. We’ve given everything to the dope man or the bartender. When we lose our house, our job, our health, our relationships - maybe our freedom - there's not a lot to say about how much control or power we have. Unmanageability has come to the forefront, slapped us in the face, and taken everything we have.

Once a man showed up at TLC in only a bathing suit. In these situations there’s an aura of humility about an applicant. He can no longer deny that drugs and alcohol took everything.  It's difficult for him to say how wonderful life was. When clients start out at the bottom - with nothing - they’re convinced drinking and drugging didn't work – at least for the present moment.

Sometimes, once the client starts working the program, obtains a job, and starts feeling better he - may start getting the idea he does have power over his disease – that maybe it wasn't so bad out there after all. 

But those of us who remain sober for any period of time remember the demoralization of that last day of drinking and drugging:  it helps keep us focused on our sobriety.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Recovery Miracles

Last night at a birthday party attended by some 25 addicts, alcoholics and ex-convicts I witnessed the recovery miracle in action.

Sitting at one side of the room was an ex-felon, off of meth for over four years, who was holding his 18 week old granddaughter on his lap. The radiant glow on his face said more than any words. Nearby was the son with whom he’d reunited a year earlier.

Two others at the party also had new babies with them, the result of relationships they’d entered after a few years of sobriety. They were typical young parents, quieting crying children, changing diapers, filling bottles, wiping up messes.

And the conversation in the room was like that heard at any social gathering: it was about family, work, health, sports – the minutiae of everyday life that can be heard at any corner of society. No fights, no arguments, no drama, just pleasant social chatter among clean and sober people.

Yet, there was an undercurrent of knowing, an unspoken recognition that this happy gathering wouldn’t have been possible had we not turned our lives over to a Higher Power and entered recovery.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Running Interference

            “The first thing Monday morning I’m calling the Arizona Attorney General about the illegal stuff you’re doing.”  It was an angry father on the phone, running interference for his daughter, who’d been with us for a few months.  She didn’t like our rule that she bring her uncashed paycheck to the office to pay her service fees.

New clients sign an agreement to bring their uncashed paychecks to the office until they’re caught up on their service fees. When we cash the check, we take out the weekly fee of $110. If there’s money left we apply some to their back balance. However we never take all their money. We make sure they have enough for bus fare and incidentals until their next payday.

    "I don't think that's legal," he said, after I explained our policy. This, in spite of the fact his daughter had signed our agreement and was $1,000 behind on her service fees.

 He rambled on, saying I didn't know what was going on in our program, that we didn’t do what we advertised and so forth. When he kept raising his voice and his threats I pressed the end call button.  
 
This parent is an example of why some addicts can't get sober. As soon as his daughter complained about paying he began to run interference. He didn't care if she was being irresponsible. He was okay with her manipulative behavior and dishonesty.

He is not unusual. We often have angry parents who try to micromanage what their children do at TLC. And the reality is that she doesn't have to do what she agreed to do. She can live elsewhere – maybe back home with her father.

We wish them well.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ready to Relapse

            “I have this urge to go back home,” an out of state client said during aftercare group last night. “But I know I’m not strong enough to stay clean. I’ll be using with a week.”

Her statement summed up the dilemma that faces many addicts and alcoholics. We usually have an intuitive warning when we’re putting ourselves in danger. It’s that precarious balancing point where we know if we don’t make the right move we’ll relapse. One more time we're facing disaster.

This client wanted to return home because she missed her adult children. Yet all but one of them had moved on – some to different parts of the country. She missed them terribly because she’d focused on being a mother her whole life – and when they left on she hadn’t filled the vacuum.

One group member suggested she find employment or do volunteer work that would allow her to help others – such as at a hospital or a hospice. Another thought she might benefit from joining a fitness club, a church or social group. These activities might build her build new relationships that – while not not equal to those with her children - might help her fill the emptiness in her life.

As the group wound up she said she knew what she “needed to do,” but that it was hard to make the right choice - even knowing she was on the brink of relapse.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

We Ceased Fighting...

Over the years I’ve found profound wisdom in the 12-step literature. For example, a phrase that has stayed with me is "we have ceased fighting anything or anyone...." While there are other parts of the book that have stuck with me, I've been able to apply this nugget of wisdom often in the last 20 years of my sobriety.

Before sobriety I used to fight everything and everyone because of ego and wanting it my way. It was about control, being right and thinking I knew best. In sobriety I began to realize that the stuff I used to fight about wasn’t worth the effort. After all, who cares who’s right? Who cares who gets to the red light first?

Yet, until I got sober I looked at life as a battle. It was about winning. It was all about being the best. It is about proving you wrong and me right. However, once I got sober and into the literature the idea of not "fighting anyone or anything" appealed to me. 

If I apply this sentence I’m blessed with serenity and peace. After all isn't that what the program is about? When we have serenity we don’t need drugs or alcohol. We are spiritually fit.
We can focus on helping others and enjoying life as God intended.

Does not fighting anything or anyone mean we let people walk all over us? No. We still stand up for ourselves. But we do it, not by fighting, but by being assertive. Often in my business life I have people who get angry to the point where they're almost becoming abusive. I normally shortcut this by making a simple statement: "I hope I didn't do anything to offend you because it seems like you're becoming upset." I make this statement in a calm manner, without becoming confrontational. The statement has always resulted in other person changing their demeanor. And once that happens we go on with our conversation. I've never had anyone walk away or hang up the phone when I've asked them this question.

Using this procedure I've achieved my goal of not fighting about anything with anyone.  I have the peace we are promised in the book.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Season for Insanity?

Is this a time of year when insanity emerges? Is it because Halloween is next month? Are the planets lined up wrong? 

Earlier in this week's blogs I wrote about  a delusional former client who thought he owned part of our program. And then last night, half a dozen members of a notorious bike club showed up in our Mcdonald Street house, wanting to talk to a client who has been writing them fan mail. None of them said what was in the letters, but they didn't appear to be too happy. When our manager told them that the client who was writing them letters was likely mentally ill they seemed placated - at least for the moment. When our manager talked to this client, he denied writing the letters. However he has a history of writing to people he doesn't know very well- if at all.

We frequently deal with clients with various mental issues. We take them in if they seem functional enough to comply with our guidelines - and if they don't pose a threat to clients or staff. We accept nearly anyone who asks for help as long as they have a desire to get clean and sober. We even take clients who are seriously mentally ill as long as they can demonstrate that their medication allows them to be functional. However, we don't accept are sex offenders and arsonists.

Many times our intake staff will question whether someone is sane enough to be admitted to our program. When this question arises I usually ask them to recall how they were when they came in.

And I'll often remind them of something I heard a speaker say at a only meeting one time: "the only difference between us and crazy people is that crazy people say what they're thinking out loud."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Two Way Mirrors?

Yesterday a former client sent an e-mail accusing our staff of videotaping him while he was using the bathroom. He claimed the camera was installed behind a two-way mirror. He also made other bizarre claims. One was that he was owed $130,000 by TLC because he had part ownership of our Sunnyslope property due to an inheritance. He also said that while in the program he was fed sandwiches that contained peanut butter mixed with feces. He closed the e-mail by saying that he was writing this message while traveling on the “Oregon trail." 

After researching our records I suggested in a return e-mail that he contact a lawyer about the $130,000 he claimed we owed him. And I asked that in the meantime he send us money he still owed the program. Our records show he left without graduating or giving notice - and owed TLC $1500.

Even though this e-mail had its elements of humor, for the safety of our staff  we always pay attention when we receive bizarre e-mails or other threats. In the case of this delusional former client it sounded like he was either on drugs or that perhaps hadn't been taking his psychiatric medication. 

Whatever the case, we wish him well. And we’re paying attention.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Program for Everyone

The speaker at yesterday's 12 step meetings said his drinking story was pretty boring. He drank beer at home, staggered around the backyard knocking down shrubbery, and passed out when he had too much. No DUIs.  No arrests. No fights. He simply drank,  passed out, and woke up with terrible hangovers.

 It wasn't until years later that he realized his problem was how much alcohol he consumed. Prior to that discovery he went to therapy and looked in other different directions. He tried drugs, including marijuana. But he could never find the right chemical balance. So he reverted to alcohol until finally discovering the 12 step programs. It was then that life began to change.

While listening to this man I once again appreciated the diversity found in 12 step programs. Many of those who share the podium have a dramatic story of arrests, fights, homelessness, prisons and lengthy hospitalizations. Some of these stories are entrancing. And it's easy to understand how an alcoholic of this type discovers a 12 step program.  But to hear a speaker who didn't experience a lot of drama made me appreciate how the founders designed the program to accommodate all of us.

The stories told in 12 step meetings always have the same plot: what it was like, what happened, and what it's like today. In layman's language that means what our drinking or drugging experience was like, what inspired our change, and how life is today

But the storyline accommodates any alcoholic or addict – just the particulars are different.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Addicts Will Lie

I spoke on the phone yesterday with the relative of a former client, a woman who relapsed within days of leaving our program. My conversation with her confirmed, one more time, how our disease impacts those around us. Apparently the client has been in touch, periodically, with this family member. And because she’s using she's telling the same old lies. One tale she told was that her "roommate was using" and she had to find another place to live. Another lie was that she'd return to TLC, but the program wouldn't accept her back.

And of course the former client was lying. Because our policy is to accept anyone back, unless they committed violence while in the program. Clients who leave and relapse must wait a certain period before returning. But in this client's case she'd been in the program once and had completed her 90 day commitment. She lied to her in-law, possibly to elicit sympathy and maybe borrow money.

The in-law, however, has been in the family long enough to know how our former client behaves. And she's lucky she has that experience. Because so many of my conversations are with family members who have little knowledge of drug addicts and alcoholics. They are baffled and have no clue about how to effectively deal with someone who’s using. And of course the addicts in their lives use every ploy possible to convince them that someone – or something – else is the problem. The addict often uses guilt as a ploy to get help. Or else they will play the victim, claiming the world has it in for them. The stories they weave are creative, but the agenda is the same: to continue feeding their disease until they can no longer do so.

But the nice woman who called knew exactly how to handle the situation because she’s been there before.

Monday, September 19, 2011

We Admitted We Were Powerless...

The first part of the first step says "we admitted we were powerless over alcohol…”  To me this step doesn't just apply to drinking or other substances. It also extends to most other areas of life.

Sometimes I'll be in a counseling session and have this intense desire to impose a solution upon someone who's having problems. Then I have to stop and realize I'm powerless. To me the solution is obvious. But for them, many times, it's like climbing a mountain. So, I make suggestions, try to give them perspective on how to achieve their goals. I can give them all the suggestions I want. However, the outcome is up to them because I have no power.

I only need to look at my own life and remember how many times people wanted to help me change. Even though they had no power their good intentions propelled them to give me suggestions that involved quitting drinking and using drugs. But they couldn't because I wasn't ready. Life hadn't imposed enough penalties upon me. I hadn't spent enough time in jail. I haven't lost enough property or enough relationships. They didn't have the power to change me – only life could do that.

Because their loved ones get sober people sometimes give me or TLC credit. But because I understand how powerless we are I can't pay a lot of attention to their compliments. We only provide an opportunity for people to change. Those who succeed in our program do so because they're doing the hard work. We provide the structure and guidelines; they hopefully take advantage of what we offer.

Our ego says we have power. But life shows us otherwise.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Make Negative Positive

The 12-step literature says "some are sicker than others." It also mentions that some of us are “constitutionally incapable” of change. I was reminded of this yesterday when an old friend called, someone I hadn't talked to in six or seven years.

While bringing me up to speed, she told me of an acquaintance she and I had done business with years earlier. She said this person had organized a community action group involving members who were on an equal footing. However the members all resigned because our mutual acquaintance was so controlling and difficult the organization couldn’t function.

It saddened me to hear this, because this person has supposedly been in recovery for nearly 30 years- yet she's never been able to get along with anyone she can't control. At times she can be charming, friendly, generous - a good example to those around her. But then she will suddenly explode and alienate everyone. And the interesting thing is she’s quick to apologize and make amends. But the amends are empty because before long she does the same thing again. After a while friends, family, and associates give up on her.

I take away a positive lesson from people like this. Negative people redeem themselves by being an example of how I don't want to live. Many years ago, my parole officer told me "John, no one is totally useless – you can always serve as a bad example." At the time I thought he was being funny. But there must've been something in what he told me because that sentence stayed with me. We can use negative behavior as an example.

Today I look at people who behave badly and – without being judgmental – thank God I'm not living my life that way.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Happy Alcoholic

The text from a friend this morning said "I thought the worst thing that happened to me was becoming alcoholic. Today I realize that it was the best thing."

This statement sums up what happens to many of us in recovery after we're sober a while. We begin to realize that suddenly we're having a beautiful life. At first I was dismayed when I recognized that on top of being a drug addict I was also an alcoholic. Because an alcoholic is something I never wanted to be. My father was a violent and angry alcoholic. My brother was an alcoholic. Both died of their disease at 60 years old. The idea that I was alcoholic was abhorrent to me. I was just a social drinker who liked to party a lot, but an alcoholic? Not me.

In retrospect, I was fooling myself. I always had a bottle with me. In prison I used to manufacture alcohol and share with the other prisoners. Alcohol was never far away. And I was never okay until had a buzz on – even if I was full of other drugs. When dope sick, I would drink to cover the pain. Looking back, the evidence of my alcoholism is overwhelming. But I didn't want to face myself.

Today, like my friend, I realize the best thing that happened is I faced my alcoholism -  admitted I was alcoholic. For then the doors opened.  I started experiencing freedom from the insanity that alcohol and drugs brought into my life. Today, no matter what is going on, I wake up sober and have the courage to face the day. I don't pour alcohol on my problems. I don't need artificial courage to face life.

God blessed me with sobriety and allowed me to join the human race. Just like my friend, realizing that I am alcoholic is the best thing that ever happened to me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Helping an Acquaintance

A banking acquaintance left a voice mail yesterday asking me to call him about something personal. Immediately I knew what it was about. I've been banking with this man for five years and while he never said anything – I had a sense that somewhere in his family there was a drug addict or alcoholic. He was very supportive of the work we do at TLC – more than the average citizen.

And sure enough, I was right. When I called he wanted help with a nephew who’d started drinking again, and was downing a fifth of whiskey a day.  He was sure he would die if he continued and wondered if I had suggestions. I told him we'd take him into the program and suggested he have the nephew call me. 

Another thing I suggested was to not enable him with money or support. I told him that one of the things that helped me get sober was when everyone quit helping me. At first I thought they were being mean, but soon I realized I was the problem and began seeking help. He became quiet when I told him this, but in a few moments he started to realize what I was saying was probably true. I told him that 
my experience has been that many family members "love people to death."

I told him to give pass my number to the nephew – that I’d be awaiting his call. I haven’t heard from him yet.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Serenity Gone

A client who considers me a serene person asked what happened when I expressed anger and frustration recently while in a challenging situation.  I explained that while I might appear to be serene, life affects all of us - even those with so-called serenity. 

When I face frustration and disappointment I can get off track. The real secret is not to let such experiences derail us. After all we're human beings with human feelings and emotions. If we never get upset we're probably not being real. 

The secret is to remember that life happens and sometimes it doesn't unfold exactly the way I want. If we realize there are always changes in life then we expect them and deal with them.  At one point in my sobriety I considered anger or upset as a personal failing. But the reality is that none of us are gurus and none of us can sidestep the challenges of life.

The secret of remaining free of trouble is to be aware. When I'm unaware of or don't pay attention to my reactions when I get into frustrating situations then my serenity disappears.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Change or Die?

Change is difficult. I was reminded of that recently while rereading a 2005 article in Fast Company magazine, entitled "change or die."

The author described how nine out of ten patients who've had open-heart surgery - when told they’ll die if they don't start exercising, eat right and quit smoking - will not or cannot change.  They keep up their bad habits in spite of the consequences. At first these numbers amazed me, but then my experience with our clients lent credibility to this author's story.

We have clients who relapse repeatedly even though life has shown them it doesn’t work. Fear of jail, institutions or death – doesn’t deter them.

As an outside-of-recovery example, I see the unwillingness to change with our clients who smoke. Statistics show that 18 to 20% of the general population smokes-in spite of the health risks and expense.  But in the recovery community the numbers are upside down: about 80% of recovering addicts and alcoholics smoke. Non-smokers often pass through a cloud of smoke to get into a 12 step meeting. And often during meetings the real addicts take a smoke break because they can't quell their addiction for the hour it takes to complete the meeting.

In the Fast Company article the author says fear of death doesn't make people change. He writes that people will change if they believe they can have a better life.

“The patients lived the way they did as a day-to-day strategy for coping with their emotional troubles.”Telling people who are lonely and depressed that they're going to live longer if they quit smoking or change their diet and lifestyle is not that motivating," a doctor cited in the article says. "Who wants to live longer when you're in chronic emotional pain?"

So instead of trying to motivate them with the "fear of dying," One of the doctors re-frames the issue. He inspires a new vision of the "joy of living" -- convincing patients they can feel better, not just live longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable, like making love or even taking long walks without the pain caused by their disease. "Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear," he says.

I believe this article correlates with what we try to do at TLC: to show our clients they can have a more joyful existence when they stop their negative addictions – a lifestyle they can gain by living by 12-step principles.