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.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Benefts of Sobriety

A client with several months' sobriety was ecstatic at how her family treated her this Christmas.

 "Last year," she said,  "I received a call from a family member asking me to promise I wouldn't go to the house for Christmas. And I didn't."

Smiling, she described how this Christmas family members prepared food and drove across the valley to spend the day with her.

“They spent much of their day cooking and driving to make sure I had a nice Christmas. I’m so grateful.”

She attributes the improved relationship with her family to her new-found sobriety. After a long history of drug use and jail terms she's finally on a path to a new life.  

Her story is another illustration of how life can improve once we remove the drugs and alcohol  from our lives.
           

Friday, December 30, 2011

Gratitude for 2011

In the final days of 2011, I'm filled with gratitude.

I'm grateful for another year of sobriety.  For a year of relatively good health,  being able to function as well as I do. For a new marriage to a woman who brings joy to my life.

Further, because  I work at TLC with some 600 clients I have many other reasons to be grateful.

We have clients succeeding in the face of emotional and physical challenges that one time drove them to alcohol and drugs.

We have a team of some sixty employees who find fulfillment - not in money or benefits - but in working in an environment where they help others while staying clean and sober themselves.

I'm thankful our non-profit is still afloat in an economy that's been challenging for even well-funded businesses.

I could go on and on to the point of being boring, but the real message is that if we look at 2011 with eyes of gratitude we end up with a long list.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

We ceased fighting anyone or anything...

A  former client with a history of settling arguments with his fists told  me he nearly had a fight with two men at a convenience store.

      "One of them was  staring at my wife so long that I finally got in his face. He backed down.  But I  was ready to knock him out."

Because he’d recently got back to recovery, he wondered what else he could have done in the situation.

      "Why didn't you just walk away?" I asked.

      "But they were being disrespectful."

      "It  would have been better to ignore him and just leave the store," I told him. “His disrespect doesn’t have much to do with you. It’s not worth reacting over.”

Then I suggested he pay attention to the part of the recovery literature that says we "ceased fighting anyone or anything."

If we're to have serenity we need to avoid situations that might interfere with it. There will always be rude people, angry people, disrespectful people, aggressive drivers.

What will we achieve if we give them our peace?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We admitted we were powerless...

The client sat at the other side of my desk, telling me how great his life is today. He was the picture of health, looking every bit like an up and coming executive on the path to success.
 
He said he loved his job and was spending time helping newcomers to TLC find their way around the program.

He spoke of his sponsor, a man who's legendary in the local recovery community for being a no-nonsense adherent of working the steps and attending meetings. At the moment the sponsor had him doing a "thorough" 4th step - uncovering things about himself he hadn't considered before.

When he left my office I had genuine hope that this client was making progress.  Then the next morning I heard that he'd disappeared during the night. 
 
So, what happened? At one time when clients who seemed to be doing well suddenly relapsed I would go through an agonizing appraisal about whether there was hope for any of us in recovery.

Today I recognize that sometimes relapse is sometimes part of the recovery process. It was for me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Living a Bigger Life

"There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

Nelson Mandela
11th President of South Africa

I read this saying this morning and it spoke clearly to me. Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years as a convict under the harshest conditions, is fulfilling his destiny as a leader of South Africa.
As someone in recovery it’s important for me – in my own way - to do my best in life. And of course, my first challenge is stay clean and sober.

 But beyond that, I'm enjoying a rewarding life by giving back to society. After all, for the first 50 years of my life I was a taker. I self-centeredly pursued my heroin addiction and alcoholism with little regard for anyone – including myself. 

Today, working in the recovery field, I share my experience with newcomers in the hope they won’t spend years walking prison yards before they get the message. I’m blessed that God has given me the self-discipline - and put a wonderful team of people in my life- to achieve this mission of helping others.

As the New Year approaches I encourage those of you in recovery to step out of your comfort zone. Put away the video games. Turn off the TV. Sign up for school. Volunteer somewhere. Look for a better job. Start exercising. Quit smoking. Now that you’ve given up drugs and alcohol find a new challenge!

Remember, our life is not a dress-rehearsal. We’re center stage right now. Let's not play small...

Monday, December 26, 2011

Word Power

A client left suddenly on Christmas Eve, saying he was leaving because of something I'd written about him in this blog. Oh, don't I wish I had that kind of power! If I did, everyone would get clean and sober here.

Something I never do here is to identify anyone by name, for purposes of confidentiality. The only exception has been, on one occasion, when a client passed away because of his disease. In that instance, I used his first name.

I do talk about incidents and situations involving our clients – but only for the purposes of helping someone get clean and sober. Most of the time I'll change the gender of the person, the time frame, or the location, so clients won't think it’s about them. And often I'll use examples from my own life in an effort to make a point.

The other part of this is – assuming the blog was about this client – there's a more appropriate way to deal with a perceived wrong than running away. For example, the client could have confronted me one-on-one, or in a group setting, to resolve his issue. Had he convinced me he was harmed, I'd have made amends.

In this client's case, I think he was looking for an excuse to drink. And the excuse he gave – that something bad was written about him here – is as good as any. I remember that when I wanted to drink or do drugs any old excuse would work. I’d drink if it was too hot. Or too cold. If it was overcast. Or if the sky was clear. Or maybe someone looked at me wrong.

I drank so much that I finally didn’t need an excuse.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Wishes

Merry Christmas! And thanks to all of you who read this blog.

I wish you success with your recovery. And for those of you who are not in recovery - but have a friend or relative in recovery - may your loved ones have success in rebuilding their lives.

Writing this blog each day is sometimes a challenge. But like many things I attempt it can be rewarding. Sometimes, first thing in the morning, I don't feel like writing.

But then I start dictating and often there's something on the screen I hadn't planned. Sometimes I develop it, sometimes I delete it. The only theme I have – whatever the subject – is to write through the lens of recovery. Because recovery is the primary focus of my life and I suspect – the focus of those who read this – I've been able to stay on track most of the time.

On this holiday I’m grateful for my blessings. The promises of the 12-steps have been showered upon me. 

As much as I’m able I want to share this with you.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Remembering Mom

I was in shock when the nurse called from the hospital Christmas Eve of 1994 to tell me my mother had passed away a few moments earlier. Even though she'd been in the hospital for 54 days, she was supposed to be discharged the next day in time for a Christmas celebration.

At her death I'd been in recovery nearly four years and she was proud of my progress. She'd stood by me from the time I was a teenager, not understanding my battle with addiction. She supported me with letters, periodic visits, and the few dollars she could afford during my 15 years of prison and jail. When I finally decided to leave California after another arrest she bought me the bus ticket for Phoenix.

A point of pride for me was that I was able to make financial amends to her before she died. But I could never make amends for the disappointments she suffered while I was using.

The longer I'm sober the more I realize the damage we do to others in our addictions. While we can make financial amends there are many things we can never repair. 

While I was a teenager my mother sacrificed to send me to a private high school. However, I was so wrapped up drinking and drugging that I was expelled after a year and a half when detectives came to the principal’s office to arrest me. She had hoped I would go on to college. But my disease got in the way. Between the ages of 16 and 26 I was only out of custody some 17 months. While she loved me, I sensed her disappointment.

This experience with my mother has made me a better counselor. When clients tell me they never hurt anyone but themselves while using I'm sometimes able to change their perspective. 

Our addictions always impact others.

Friday, December 23, 2011

More Wreckage

Last night when I came home from the office a summons server showed up in my driveway with a stack of legal papers.  It was a court order to garnish the wages of a former employee who'd relapsed a few years ago. This is an example of how we can mess up our lives with a brief relapse.

When he relapsed, this employee worked in our corporate office and had a few years of clean time. He'd rebuilt his credit and was purchasing a nice automobile. He also had a decent apartment, a wardrobe, and a few electronics. While I don't know the intricate details, the story is that he met a woman with whom he smoked crack for a few days. When he didn't show up for work we were alarmed. He'd always been punctual and would call in if he was running late.

When he finally called, it was from the emergency room of a local hospital. He'd checked himself in after smoking crack for a few days. And apparently he'd lost everything, including his car. And now, nearly three years later, he's still paying the price.

It'll likely take him a few years to make amends to the bank that financed the car – and to rebuild his credit.

As I read through the legal paperwork I was happy I’ve been sober all these years.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Quitting an Addiction

When I quit smoking at 9:00 a.m. August 25, 1984, it was the most difficult thing I'd ever done. I had tried over and over through the years to rid myself of this deadly habit. I finally did it by slowly reducing the amount and potency of the cigarettes I smoked. On the day I quit I used Nicorette gum to ease the physical craving. After chewing nine pieces I was done. I've never smoked again. Almost 28 years.

This came up for me today because someone near to me is making another run at quitting. She’s tried different methods. Cold turkey. Cutting down. Electronic cigarettes. Shots to reduce the craving. Limiting the number of cigarettes she smokes. Nothing worked.

Then yesterday she said something that made sense. She said, "I've got to face the fact that I can't quit without experiencing some pain." She’d been trying to quit without pain. At that point I gained hope that she’ll be able to quit. Because the reality is that there's going to be pain or discomfort when we give up an addiction.

There are a lot of ways to find motivation. It might be in a desire for better health, more energy, less stress, saving money or protecting those around us from second hand smoke. For me it was knowing I was going down the same path as many of my family members.

Watching them suffer and die from emphysema helped me quit. I lost a 43-year-old cousin to smoking. She spent her last months gasping on an oxygen tank. The same thing happened to an aunt who died at 56. An uncle’s emphysema was so bad he couldn't walk from the front door to his mailbox without pausing to get his breath.  My mother and one of my aunts both died prematurely from emphysema. Same for my brother. I could go on and on with the list of close relatives who suffered and died from smoking. So I was motivated by those near and dear to me.

Quitting smoking is one of the hardest addictions to quit – perhaps harder than quitting heroin. But a healthier life is the great reward.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Halfway? Or all the Way?

When I went to detox January 14, 1991 I had a plan. Once I got sober I’d go to a halfway house and spend 30 days there. I’d get a job, a car, a cheerleader for a girlfriend, and then back on the fast track with my life. 

But somehow, life intervened. After 30 days at the halfway house I realized I didn't know much about living sober. While I had a job and was paying my way, I had no money saved. I didn't have a car - or even a bicycle. My wardrobe was Salvation Army. So I made a commitment to stay for 90 days. By then I'd surely have it all together.  Wrong again.

When I had 90 days, I discovered I needed a sponsor. And I was still struggling with the fourth step. I'd bought a bicycle and had a fairly decent job. But I didn't have enough money to get my own apartment or put a down payment on a car. So at 90 days I still wasn't ready to leave – and I made a commitment to stay for six months.

However that decision created a problem with my then girlfriend, who had several years of sobriety. She thought I'd been in the halfway house long enough and wanted me to live with her. She wasn't happy when I told her my sponsor didn't think it was the best idea – that I needed to stay and work on my recovery. And that's what I did.

At six months I wasn't ready either. So I decided to stay a year. I did this after taking an honest look at my life and realizing a year was a small investment. After all, I'd spent 51 years screwing my life up. What was an investment of 12 months if it helped me get my life back on track?

 I don't believe we can pursue alcohol or drugs for years, then repair the damage in weeks or months. Even today I'm recovering from my disease - both physically and psychologically. I did a lot of damage in 40 years of using.

But the year I stayed in a halfway house is the best investment I ever made. Today I have a beautiful wife, a great job working in recovery, and all the promises we read about in the 12-step literature.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

1st Step

The speaker chose the 1st Step, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable,” as the topic at today’s Christmas 12-step meeting.  It was fitting because 95% of those at the meeting were newcomers in their first months of sobriety.

One man spoke of his powerlessness over alcohol as he described his drinking adventures. He’d lost everything more than once. He's been to jail, placed in mental institutions, and divorced twice. He said it was clear he was powerless over alcohol, based on his experiences. Others shared similar stories. While their experiences were different, the outcomes were always the same: they lost everything over and over.

A man with over 10 years of sobriety said that, in his opinion, the first step is the only one we have to do perfectly. Because if we realize we're powerless over alcohol then maybe we won't be tempted to pick up a drink again. 

We'll understand the consequences of that first step into insanity.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Love andTolerance

The recovery literature says love and tolerance is our code. It's simple and clear-cut. But practicing it in everyday life isn't always easy.

The other day I took a phone call from a business neighbor with whom we've had a few minor problems over the years. He's not always pleasant to deal with. So I rarely talk to him unless there's an issue between our businesses. And one of my business associates refuses to talk to him at all because he gets angry every time they get into a discussion.

But I changed my perspective about our neighbor after his phone call. And it was a lesson for me.  During our conversation – while he was rambling on and on – he told me he and his wife have a 15-year-old handicapped daughter. He said the child functions on the level of a six-month-old. He talked about the frustrations he and his wife face caring for the child.

When he told me this my attitude changed. Because he's difficult to deal with most of the time it isn't easy to express tolerance or love for him. Yet, when he told me of the difficult challenge his family faces my heart went out to him. I see him in a different light.

I realize I must practice the principles in the 12-step literature. Love and tolerance will allow me to accept people who may carry unseen burdens – emotional trauma that might affect their communication.

Not only did I come away with a desire to treat others with more understanding, I also came away with a new respect for our neighbor. I'm not sure I could bear the burdens he and his wife bear and be civil to anyone.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lying Again


A client who nearly died the last time he was drinking is starting to exhibit the same old behavior. Once again he's begun to distort reality and has started lying.

The last time he was drinking earlier this year he ended up naked in an emergency room. His blood alcohol level was so high that doctors thought he wouldn't survive. When he regained consciousness he had no idea where he was, or how he got there. His last memory was of being in a city of 200 miles from Phoenix.

For the first few months he was back in TLC he exhibited a lot of willingness. He showed up to work on time. He participated in 12 step meetings. He found a sponsor. He did a great job at everything he was assigned to. It seemed like he was on a fast track to to recovery.

Then it was discovered that he was communicating with one of his old drinking buddies. At first he lied about it, but the man who let him use his phone told on him. When he finally admitted talking to the woman, he said he was "only trying to help her" and give her some encouragement. It might seem harsh to not let this man talk to a friend. But each time he's gone out it's been with a woman who's usually his drinking partner.

When later confronted about the phone call he tried to rationalize his communication with the woman. But when the group leader asked how could he help someone else when he hadn't been able to help himself he had no answer.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Grateful for Frustration


Yesterday, while driving through a parking lot full of Christmas shoppers, I was becoming frustrated.  I’ve never done well in crowds or long lines.

Then I stopped to reflect upon where I was at this time 21 years ago, a few weeks before I got sober.

 December 21 years ago I was at the end of a long run of drinking and using heroin. I was homeless. I’d lost everything and was living in a stolen car. I had gone from being vice-president of a nationwide entertainment company to being a homeless bum. 

I’d become a predator, continually looking for something to steal so I could buy heroin and alcohol. In my pocket were tickets for shoplifting arrests. I was facing a DUI charge. A dark cloud of depression hung over each day. Then I went into a detox in Arizona, determined to stop the misery.

And it worked.

Today I have a blessed life. I was married earlier this month. We're spending three days in Las Vegas with my children and grandchildren between Christmas and New Year’s. I have all the material stuff I need – more than I need.

Today I need to be grateful for the frustrations in my life. Because if I hadn’t gotten sober I wouldn’t be here to complain at all.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Long Term Sobriety


Because TLC has over 600 clients in two states, it's impossible to know them all. The only time I really become acquainted with clients is if they work around the corporate office - or if I pesonally help them get into the program.

This happened last year when I helped a client come to TLC from Florida. I talked to his family for nearly 6 months before they convinced him to come to Arizona. We talked so much we were on a first name basis. Now they periodically make a follow-up call to see how he's doing. The last time they called I’d encountered the man earlier in the day so I was able to give them an update.

And the report was good. Because the client's been working a night shift I hadn’t seen him in a month. When I saw him I was impressed by his demeanor and smile. He was positive, upbeat, and talked about how good his sobriety was going. I was gratified at his progress.

When I talked to his family later they were wondering when he would graduate. I told them that because their relative was older and had spent many years drinking, it might be some time before he is ready to move on. 

I explained that he can leave whenever he wants. He's in our program of his own free will. However, he seems comfortable living in a sober environment.  We have clients who've been with us for over 10 years. Many stay because we become a surrogate family. 

Others are older and don’t have relationships or family to return to. So they're happy living with us and working on their recovery.

For most of them their time with TLC is the longest they’ve been sober.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Child's Generosity

A mother told me that after her eight year old daughter visited a church friend’s house and realized the family had little or no furniture she wanted to help.

            “How much do you want to give them?” her father asked after she said she wanted to withdraw money from her bank account to give them.

            “One zero zero,” said the eight year old.

            “That’s fine,” said her dad. “A dollar’s fine. That’s being generous.”

            “No,” said the eight-year old. “A hundred dollars."

For a few weeks the parents put her off, thinking she would forget about it. But instead she kept insisting on withdrawing money from her savings – money she had earned doing chores and selling cookies. When she presented a card with the hundred dollars inside, the woman broke down.

            “And,” said the eight year old, “I want you to spend the money on something for yourself. I don’t want you to give it away.”

The following Sunday the pastor’s sermon was about the little girl’s persistence and generosity.

I’m proud of that eight year old – she’s my granddaughter Lauren.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Another Step


After his second attempt, a long-term client graduated from our nine-month aftercare program last night. When he was in aftercare a few years ago he said that he probably wouldn't be at the meeting the following week. And he wasn't. He suddenly disappeared to begin another long downward spiral of drinking.

It was wonderful to see his success because at one time he was so closed up that he wouldn't communicate much during groups. He’d lived in parks and on the river bottom for over five years. He seemed gloomy all the time. It was literally day-to-day with him. He now projects a quiet confidence. He's undergone extensive dental work and has a new smile. He'd recently lost his position with TLC. But, instead of being depressed, he looked at it as an opportunity to find a better job.

He said that one of the things that made a difference for him this time  is he realized he didn't know everything. He was willing to listen, to take advice. He's learning to trust. He enrolled in outside counseling from Terros, a local outpatient program, and participated in extensive therapy. He also was placed on medication to help regulate his mood.

Our best payoff comes when we see clients move forward - to see them achieve the serenity and sense of accomplishment that many non-alcoholics enjoy in their daily lives.

We wish this client continued success.