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, November 30, 2011

The Gift of the 12-Steps


I subscribe to a blog called "Daily Brainstorm." I like this blog because it is a compilation of some of the best blogs on the Internet. And probably 25% of the content relates to to living with serenity, to having good values in life, and to enjoying the journey we're on.

As I was reading this morning's offering I recognized that many of the things they talk about achieving we find in the 12 step programs. And we've been getting them for many years, long before the internet came into existence. The lesson for me is that the world hungers for a better way to deal with life's challenges.

From there I segued into how blessed we are to have 12 step programs. For these programs teach us how to clean up the wreckage of our past. They teach us to recognize that we're powerless over substances and most everything else. We come to realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. We have a framework for making amends to those we have harmed. And in the 10th step we are able to maintain peace in our life by taking care of our messes as we go through the day. In the 12-steps we learn how to carry the message, to give back what was freely given to us.

Those of us in recovery are blessed: we have been gifted with a way of life that many others - even so-called normal people - are still seeking.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Passing it On


At yesterday's 12-step meeting a man with 20 years plus of sobriety showed up to speak in his work clothes. He'd come from a remodeling job on an investment property he owned and hadn’t had time to go home and change. Those at the meeting paid close attention because he told a story of coming from virtually nothing, to having an income where he's able to invest in real estate.

Often a speaker like this delivers a better message than someone who comes in well-dressed and very polished. This may be because most of those at the meeting were men in early recovery, probably half having 30 days or less. And some were homeless prior to coming into the rooms.

Even though he'd been sober for over 20 years, he told his story as if he'd only gotten sober days earlier. He said that during the first year of his recovery he had a nearly overwhelming urge to drink each day. But he didn't. Eventually the compulsion left and his recovery was much smoother after that.

He said that what saved him was that he eventually started following the suggestions of those in the rooms. He found a sponsor who was tough on him. He started doing the steps. He learned that the program is about learning how to live without reverting to alcohol.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Live in the Moment?


Over the Thanksgiving weekend I opened a text message from a friend I hadn't seen in over 10 years. Attached to the message was a nice photo of him and his daughter, who was a baby when I last saw them. Part of his message read, "getting older." It was great to hear from him, but later I started thinking about his "getting older" comment. Was it a small lament about the passing years?

To have a good quality of life I think we must have a healthy attitude about ageing. The idea that we somehow are frozen in time and never change is unrealistic. We all change, we all age - and how we deal with these changes is important.

I think that part of accepting our age comes from being in the moment. In group clients often talk of what they did 20 years ago. They will refer nostalgically to when they were in the military or college. To me these reflections are at times an escape from the present – of not accepting where we are at the moment. We reflect upon when it seems we were healthier, happier or more functional – a time when life maybe had more meaning. But my response to these kinds of reflections is "what are you doing now?"  To me, the healthy way to deal with aging is to live life to the maximum - today.

I have a relative who, when we talk about exercise, starts reciting how many push-ups he could do 25 years ago. Or how much weight he could lift in those years. But being a jerk, I ask him "how many push-ups can you do right now?"

What we used to do is a reflection from our past  – but what am I doing right now?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beyond Understanding


After occupying this planet for over 70 years there aren't many things that totally amaze me. But when I heard yesterday about a woman who pepper sprayed fellow shoppers so she could get an Xbox 360 at half price I was amazed. I kept trying to fit this incident somewhere in my brain, find a category where I could store this information so it made sense. I still haven't found that place.

I can't imagine doing this during my worst drinking or drugging days. I can't think of anything on the planet that's so valuable to me that I would assault 30 of my fellow humans to obtain it. The only reason for violence is to defend ourselves, our families, the defenseless, or our country. Other than that, there's no excuse for harming another person. So to commit this kind of act over an electronic toy is incomprehensible. And on top of it, this woman had two children with her.

Living in recovery changes one's values. And I ask myself, am I becoming so self-righteous that I don't understand things like this because I'm in recovery? But in my mind, grasping for material things doesn't make sense. I like stuff as much as the next person. But I'm only willing to go so far to get what I want. And that means not stressing over material things.

For me being sober means living with good values - and trusting that if I do my part my Higher Power will provide what I want or need.

Even if it’s an Xbox 360.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Power of Gratitude

Yesterday I received some 25 or 30 text messages and phone calls from friends and associates, wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving. These messages made the day one of reflection and gratitude about how great life is today.

As someone who's been in recovery for many years, and who works in the recovery field, gratitude is a presence in my life. It's a rare day that someone doesn't show up expressing gratitude for being sober, being thankful for TLC and what it's done for their life. These words are gifts that keep on giving. I have a warm feeling about the messages I received yesterday.

But gratitude is about more than warm and fuzzy feelings. If we are cloaked in an aura of gratitude we shield ourselves from negativity. We are armed against those who are feeling bad and who might bring us down with their problems. Instead of reacting, we can offer positive suggestions to those who are facing difficulties. We can walk through our day relatively unscathed.

We may ask "what do I have to be grateful for?"

But if we open our minds and our hearts can always find something. Many of us have contemporaries who have succumbed to our disease. Some in our lives are suffering from negativity and bad attitudes. If we can't find something to be positive about at least we can be thankful we're not in the same space. We can find lessons from those who are grappling with issues they have difficulty overcoming. 

We can develop the mental and emotional tools to realize that life presents challenges to all of us – but that the right attitude will help us deal with these challenges in a positive way.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Birthday

Yesterday my youngest daughter turned 27, which caused me to reflect upon my recovery path.

While 12 step meetings, having a mission in life, and all-around healthy living contribute to sobriety - my sobriety was also enhanced by having a daughter to love and care for.

When she was born I hadn't gotten sober yet and wasn't sure about anything. I was living with her mother in a small mining town in Arizona and hadn't decided whether to return to Orange County, California. Had I returned, I likely wouldn’t be alive today.  That was the area where I grew and where I got into major trouble over because of my addiction.

But for some reason, becoming a father again at 46 changed my perspective. All of a sudden I had a new responsibility, one I couldn’t walk away from. While it took another five or six years to get sober, having this child helped me focus. In 1994, after I was sober two years, I acquired full custody. And for the next 10 years – until she went into the Army at 18 – I raised her.

Today she receives 70% disability for injuries she suffered while in Afghanistan. She will obtain her bachelor's degree sometimes in the spring of 2012. She's about to purchase her own home.

She expresses a lot of gratitude to me. But I'm grateful to her because raising her was one of the great experiences of my life. And I may be sober and alive today because she came into my life when she did.

Happy Birthday, Veronica…

Thursday, November 24, 2011

All in the Family

A young relative came by the house to explain why he hadn't called or come to visit.  With tears in his eyes he said he'd been using and dealing drugs and had been ashamed to talk to me. He said he wanted help.

But when I asked what kind of help he wanted, he wasn't sure. I told him the only help I'd be able to give him is the help I give anyone else: which is to go to a detox and then enter a long-term recovery program. However, he declined my offer.

He said he had the willpower to do it on his own. And he was honest with me: he said he really didn't want to give up marijuana. I told him I could respect that. Then I told him that using anything never worked for me. I drank for much of my life because it was legal. But the alcohol wasn't enough. Before long I was looking for heroin. Alcohol always served as a gateway, a path back to my drug of choice. I said marijuana might do the same for him.

We talked for a while and I told him when things got bad enough I'd help him. He said things have been pretty bad lately. So far he's lost his truck, he's unemployed, and he’s essentially homeless and living on other people's couches.

I pray that he decides he's had enough before he goes back to jail or...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dancing with the Devil?

In group a client spoke of going on job search in an industrial area where he once purchased and used drugs. He said he sometimes talks with old friends on the street corners who are still dealing and using. He claimed he hasn't used and that he feels stronger because he walks away without getting high.

He also mentioned that when he goes to church, instead of taking a route he knows is safe, he'll walk through a drug neighborhood.

And, of course, the group was all over him about his behavior. Someone suggested he was "dancing with the devil." Most thought he was on the edge of relapse. None of us believed there was any good reason to be in a drug area - even if he was seeking a job in the area or attending church.

And I explained that even though I have over 20 years of sobriety, I still go the other way if I perceive a risk to my recovery. I don't hang out in bars or casinos. I have no reason to be in drug areas unless I'm on a 12 step call – and then I take someone in recovery with me for support. If I have any hint that my recovery or well-being is in danger, I go the other way.

I’ve worked too hard for the life I have today and I do nothing to jeopardize it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

R.I.P.

This past weekend a 26 year-old client living in our sober housing died of a suspected heroin overdose.

It’s always heavy when one succumbs to our disease, especially while living in a recovery program - surrounded with information about addiction. In addition he worked in a detoxification unit where he could witness the results of using and drinking as part of his job.

Sometimes clients suggest we’re melodramatic when we talk of addiction and alcoholism as being about life and death. Yet these past few months we’ve had several friends - and former clients - overdose on substances and not survive.

The death of this young man is a loss to the community. His family spent years nurturing and caring for him. Teachers spent time educating him. Many hoped he would someday contribute to the world.

It’s clear that fear of death isn’t a motivating factor; many of us have faced it over and over. But the promise of happiness - of living up to our potential - can motivate us. Once we stop missing our best friend, the alcohol and drugs that made life so meaningful for a minute, we can find serenity and happiness.

At times like this we can reflect upon the beauty of life and realize we have nothing to escape.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Remembering Early Recovery

Today I’m grateful to my Higher Power for removing the blinders from my eyes so many years ago. I was a homeless lost fool, wandering through a wilderness of self-delusion. I no longer had friends who talked to me. I'd lost my job. I lived in a stolen car. I'd sold my belongings and spent the money on drugs. I was facing criminal charges for petty crimes.

I was at a juncture in my life. It was go back to prison at 52 years old, die a homeless bum on the streets, or try to get sober. Even though deep down I knew that I was an alcoholic and my life was unmanageable, for the first time I admitted it to myself. I entered a local detox in Mesa, Arizona totally demoralized – yet overflowing with willingness.

When I entered that detox I was done. I turned my will and my life over to the care of God. For the first few days I went through physical withdrawal from alcohol and drugs. As my head slowly cleared over the next two weeks I decided to change my life. I was at the bottom emotionally, physically, financially. I had no place to go but up. 

When I finally surrendered and admitted I was an alcoholic and drug addict things began to change. Oh, not overnight. But slowly, each day, I began to get a little better.

Strangers reached out to help. People in recovery came to the detox to speak to us about their recovery. A local halfway house accepted me into their program – even though I didn't have money or a job. I remember the feeling of gratitude when they accepted me.

Today I have vivid memories of those first days of recovery and I’m filled with gratitude.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Earning Trust


When former clients are in trouble they sometimes call for help. They've called from the emergency room, needing a ride or clothing. Others ask for help feeding their families or finding employment. And the other day a client who was with us a few years ago called from the hospital and asked us to pick up a nice vehicle that he didn't entrust to anyone else. So we picked it up and placed it in storage for the few weeks he'll be in the hospital. People have learned to trust us.

While it's not our responsibility to help former clients, the idea they'd call us when they're in trouble shows the level of trust they have in our staff and in our organization. They know we're reliable, that we keep our word, that we're an extended family who won't judge them or turn them down when they're in trouble. It's the kind of trust that we have built over the years in our dealings with our clients.
We've also earned trust from those with whom we do business.

Once a man who owned a nearby hotel told us his manager was stealing the rent money. Our director of operations offered to manage the hotel for him and put the money in the bank. Even though he didn't know us, he decided to trust us. Besides, his manager was already stealing, so he likely thought he had nothing to lose.

After a few months he was so impressed that he ended up selling us the hotel on favorable terms with no money down. He later said he did the deal because he trusted us. In addition he helped TLC finance several other properties over the next few years.

We've earned this trust by practicing good principles and keeping our word.