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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Kindness Returned - 30 Years Later

An acquaintance shared a story this week of how a woman’s kindness 30 years earlier had been returned.

She said a friend, in her mid-sixties, had been contacted on Facebook by a man she’d been engaged to in the 1970s. The engagement ended after seven years when the woman realized she’d never be happy with him because of his character defects.  She lost track of him a few years later.

The woman, who’d remained single all her life, wondered why her former sweetheart would contact her after thirty years. What could he possibly want?  However, after some soul searching, she agreed to meet him in a restaurant after he convinced her he had good intentions. In fact, he was bringing his current wife to the meeting.

When she met with them he explained that he had a terminal illness and looked her up because he wanted to leave her a large sum of money. He said that even though they didn’t marry, he never forgot how well she treated him. He accepted that it was his behavior that ruined the relationship, that he was responsible for the breakup. But her kindness during their time together - and through their breakup – stayed with him all of his life. 

We often hear of karma - how what comes around goes around - and sometimes we’re blessed with real life examples of kindness returned.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reach Out

A concept of the 12-step programs is that we give it away to keep it. Helping others is a stepping stone to our recovery. And giving it away works as well outside the meeting rooms as it does inside.

Often at TLC we encounter clients who’ve been sober a few months who say they don’t feel like they’re “making progress.” They feel stuck in their programs. The early rush of being clean and sober has somewhat dissipated, the euphoria of the pink cloud has left. 

Our recommendation is that the client gets busy helping others. Some protest that they have nothing to give because they’ve been sober only a few months. They don’t have enough experience or credibility to help another addict or alcoholic. But that’s not so.

In my early recovery I couldn’t relate to those who had several years in the program. Their experiences were good, but I was too new. However, when I met someone who had six months, I found some common ground. Six months seemed like something doable.

If we have a week sober we can reach out to the newcomer who has but a few hours or days. Our short time of being drug or alcohol free says to the newcomer that it’s possible make it – at least a little ways.  A hug, a cigarette, a smile are little things that make them feel welcome.

Reaching out to others shows them they’re not alone on this path to happy destiny.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Science of Gratitude

Gratitude is often a default topic at 12 step meetings. And many say it is harder to relapse if one has gratitude for whatever life has brought us. And now a mainstream study cites further benefits of being grateful.

This excerpt from an October 20, 20ll press release from the University of Kentucky cites a study on the subject of grateful people:

“Grateful people aren't just kinder people, according to UK College of Arts & Sciences psychology Professor Nathan DeWall. They are also less aggressive.

DeWall proves his point with five studies on gratitude as a trait and as a fleeting mood, discovering that giving thanks lowers daily aggression, hurt feelings and overall sensitivity. 

"If you count your blessings, you're more likely to empathize with other people," said the researcher who is more well-known for studying factors that increased aggression. "More empathic people are less aggressive."

Gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and concern for others and stimulates pro-social behavior, according to DeWall. Although gratitude increases mental well-being, it was unknown whether gratitude reduced aggression.

DeWall and his colleagues conducted cross-sectional, longitudinal, experience sampling, and experimental studies with more than 900 undergraduate students to show that gratitude is linked to lower aggression.

"We tried to triangulate on this phenomenon in as many different ways as we could," said DeWall, who tested the effects of gratitude both inside and outside of the lab.

The study, found in Social Psychological and Personality Science, links gratitude to "a nonviolent heart," with those less inclined to aggression.

Across all, there was "converging support for the hypothesis that gratitude is an antidote to aggression," according to DeWall. The relationship proved consistent even after controlling for general positive emotion.

"We know that grateful people are nice people," said DeWall. "But this is the first study to really show that they're not very aggressive either."

You don't have to be a naturally appreciative person to experience these effects, either.

"I wanted to bust the myth that only certain people are grateful," DeWall said. "Gratitude is an equal opportunity emotion that causes lower levels of aggression."

An activity as basic as writing a letter or mentally counting your blessings can be enough to decrease aggression.

"Take a step back, and look at what you've got," said DeWall. "Don't spend every waking moment being grateful, but one time a week definitely increases your well-being over time. And if you get bad news—you're given a shot that protects you."

DeWall's findings have broad applications and can inform interventions aimed at reducing interpersonal aggression and anger."

This article isn’t going to increase my level of gratitude but it’s nice to have science in our corner.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Easier Said Than Done

I recently had dinner with a recovery friend who’d had a heart valve replaced and a pacemaker implanted.  Prior to dinner we talked of his lengthy hospital stay and surgery. The experience had been so daunting that he was going to change his lifestyle. He talked of exercising and following the doctor’s instructions about his diet.

However, once the waitress put the menu in front of us, his resolutions fell to the wayside. His order included a high-fat meat entree along with a bleu cheese salad dressing and cheesecake for dessert.

I didn’t say anything because what others do with their health and their life is not my business. But this illustrated for me how difficult it is to change long ingrained lifestyle habits – even when facing life threatening health issues.

After working some 20 years with clients who’ve quit using drugs and alcohol I’ve come to realize that many are unable – or unwilling - to change other bad habits. When it comes to smoking, not exercising, and eating fast food many don’t have the self-discipline to change - even when they know it’s a good idea.

When I entered sobriety I made a commitment to live life to the fullest. To me that includes hanging out with my family, working, challenging my brain, contributing to the community.  

I can only do this if I remain as healthy and functional as possible – something I practice each day.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Hard Fall

A few years ago a 20-something alcoholic – the daughter of an old friend - inherited several million dollars from a relative who passed on.  When I first heard of this impending windfall I wondered how long it would take to blow through the money, to drink herself into disaster. And last week, I found out.

Less than three years late she’s sitting in jail broke - serving time for a probation violation. Her husband divorced her and obtained custody of their children. She has mental health issues. She has no means of support.

When she was about to inherit the money relatives tried to prevent her from getting it because they feared what might happen. But they were unsuccessful. And what they predicted would happen came to pass.

This illustrates for me once again the power of our disease. Nothing made a difference in my own life until I got into sobriety. I earned lots of money in business, but gave all of it up for drugs and alcohol. A wonderful woman left me because I couldn’t stop drinking and drugging. Friends and relatives didn’t want me around. Like this young woman sitting in jail, my life was a wreck.

Hopefully, the same thing will happen for her that happened for me. Perhaps she’ll come to realize – as I eventually did – that I was the author of my own misery. When I quit blaming my problems on my terrible childhood, the people around me, the justice system,  or the world at large and realized I was the problem – my life dramatically changed.

Today I’m blessed and I wish those same blessings on this young woman sitting in jail.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

She Qualifies

An out-of-state acquaintance, who’s not an alcoholic and who’s never been exposed to the realities of alcoholism, sent a long email asking if TLC could help the daughter of one of her friends. As part of her request, she sent me “background” information on the woman.

Some of the information included the following:

  • has a severe alcohol problem that is affecting her health and mental state.
  • has an underlying lifelong problem of lying for no reason.  
  •  husband recently obtained a restraining order and filed for divorce. 
  •  has no sense of responsibility and cannot function at all.
  • hasn't worked in 5 years.
  • lost her license a few years ago and hasn’t completed the requirements to get it back.
  • Lately she’s been destructive and combative to her father and her husband
  • verbally abusive to her mother.  
  • Denies she has a drinking problem, says she’s had a mental breakdown.

In other words, she gave a description that describes a typical TLC client – male or female. This woman’s life seems a total mess - like most of us before we got sober. 

I think my acquaintance sent this information to convince us this woman was qualified for our program. I immediately sent a response saying we’d help her – that we were willing if she was willing. I didn’t bother to comment on the “background” information she sent or take the time to explain to her that this woman was not an unusual case in the alcoholic world.

What I hope for this woman is that she take the opportunity to come to Arizona and change her life. But the odds are that she’ll continue drinking until she has no place else to turn.

That’s what happened to me – and most of the alcoholics I know. We didn’t change until we absolutely had to change.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

12-Step Power


The man at the podium, sober some 30 years, seemed like the nicest guy in the world. He had the appearance of a mild mannered professor, a gentle spirit who probably had never put anything into his system stronger than a cup of coffee.

Yet the story he told of his drinking career would have made a great TV drama. Robberies, driving drunk, jail, fights, being raised in a family beset by murder and suicide were all part of his upbringing. 

Then, much later, when he was an adult, a girlfriend told him he was an alcoholic - a connection he’d never made. He started going to 12-step meetings and his life transformed.

How does it happen that an intelligent human being can’t connect the dots? That he can’t see that his problems are related to alcohol?  Sometimes all we know is what we see when we’re coming up. 
Missionaries raise missionaries. Educated people raise intelligent kids. And drunks raise children who believe that alcohol is a way of life – that’s what happened to our speaker.

Later he believed he used alcohol for its medicinal effect. Incredibly, he thought that was the only thing keeping him sane. After all, if you had his childhood you’d drink too.

But since he stopped drinking his life transformed. He’s a key executive with a large company. He’s obtained an advance degree. He hasn’t been in a jail or in a fight and he hasn’t stolen anything.

Another 12-step miracle.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Slow Change

A client who’s 150 pounds overweight came to my office to ask for ideas about losing weight. Because I’m a vegetarian gym rat he thought I might be able to help. Normal activities such as walking up stairs left him winded. He had no energy. His doctor expressed concern at his last visit.

I told him what worked for me and suggested he come back in a few days to check on his progress. He hasn’t returned.

I’m not sure why he didn’t follow up. However, changing bad habits can be daunting. In his case I didn’t offer anything radical – at least from my viewpoint. I asked about his diet and suggested he give up fast food.  That might have been a deal breaker because fast food may be his sole source of nutrition. We also talked of exercise, though diet and exercise should be looked at separately because some people think working out means they can eat whatever. After all, one has to run about a mile to burn an apple.

When I see this client again, I’m going to suggest something easier because changing bad habits is accomplished in small steps. Instead of quitting fast food abruptly, I’m going to suggest he give up certain kinds of fast food.  Chicken or fish in place of burgers. Water or iced tea in place of sodas. Maybe cut out fries and onion rings. And don’t do it all the first week. Incorporate these changes over a few weeks, and then work in more changes.

I quit eating fast food years ago by slowly working healthy choices into my diet.  Then one day I realized I haven’t had fast food in weeks.  I quit smoking 27 years ago by cutting down a little at a time. When I was down to five cigarettes a day I was able to stop completely.  

These slow changes worked for me. And maybe they’ll work for our client.