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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If You Want What We Have...

The guest speaker at Sunday’s meeting said when he first got sober 28 years ago he heard someone in the rooms say “If you want what we have, do what we do.”

He said the statement had a lot of appeal for him because those who’d been sober a while had jobs, nice cars, pretty girlfriends and were well-dressed. And those were things he definitely wanted.

If wasn’t long before he figured out that they were referring to the less material aspects of sobriety. They were talking of serenity, peace of mind, and carrying the message to others who suffer from our disease.

Today he enjoy material blessings. But he also enjoys so much more: a wonderful peace of mind and joy he never expected when he first got sober. He said he would have been happy to simply have the pain stop. But after putting together years of sobriety he says his blessings surpass anything he could have imagined.

His story parallels that of many of us who come to 12-step programs to break our cycle of addiction and remain to receive so much more.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I'm Responsible

“Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.”  Erica Jong.

The idea that I’m responsible for my life was a first step toward getting sober. For years I’d played over and over in my head a version of the “Somebody done somebody wrong song.”

And it was true. I was done wrong in my childhood. I had someone to blame for my screwed up life.  I was severely abused at the hands of my father. So much so that the Sheriff’s Department  would come to the school to make deals for me to testify against my father. But fear held me back.

The abuse was a great excuse to spend years getting drunk and high – activities which kept me in jail for years at a time. Therapists would commiserate with me because of my terrible childhood and understand why I abused drugs and alcohol. However, their sympathy didn’t help me get clean.

The one thing that helped me change was telling myself I was responsible and to stop using my past as an excuse. Sure, bad things happen to us all.  But should we let them kill us today?

 When I accepted that I was responsible, then I began to live the life I enjoy today.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Insignifiant but Important

“Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.“ Mahatma Ghandi.

When someone told me a while back how their recovery seemed unexciting and flat at times I recalled this saying. And I have to admit that it puzzled me when I first heard it years ago.

What did Ghandi mean and how does it apply to those of us in recovery today?

I guess this saying baffled me because I once lived a life fueled by adrenalin and anxiety. I lived on the edge of disaster and everything was very significant to me. Obtaining the large amount of money I needed to keep me in drugs and alcohol created drama and so-called excitement. One misstep could cost me my freedom or even my life.

When I first got sober all of that changed. Life suddenly became predictable and what some might view as boring. The universe moved at a slower pace and with less drama. It took emotional and mental adjustment to see the significance of my daily actions.

It might seem unimportant to go to a meeting after a tedious day at work- yet my recovery depends upon regular support and information from my brothers and sisters in recovery.

Practicing compassion when I’m frustrated or impatient may seem insignificant but acts of kindness may make me a better human being.

Taking out the trash or cleaning house may seem like small things, but it brings order to my life.

My 21 years of living sober didn’t happen at once – it came from living one day at a time and those seeming unremarkable days have brought me the wonderful life I enjoy today.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Social Drinker?

I had a chance encounter with a former client today who left TLC around eight years ago and resumed drinking shortly afterward. He said he’d been drinking a pint of whiskey a day almost since he’d left the program

            "I start at 1:30 in the afternoon,” he said.  "and I'm asleep by 6:30."

When I asked him how drinking was working for him, he said that other than some issues with his kidneys and a little arthritis he was doing great for a man in his early seventies. He seemed to have come to terms with his alcoholism and expressed no desire to change.

As I left him I had some reflections about how I wouldn't have survived nearly as long he has.  I'm an alcoholic who was never able to stick with a pint a day.  I'd soon be drinking a fifth a day and looking for other drugs to go with it.  For me there was never enough.

At 21 years sober I'm grateful for my life today.  And I pray I never get the idea I can do what this man is doing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Addictions Affect Everyone

This morning at the fitness center I talked to a grandfather who’s raising his grandchild because his 20-something daughter is still on the streets using meth. 

She’s been addicted since her teens and in treatment programs and halfway houses multiple times. 

He doesn’t understand why she can’t kick her habit and become responsible for her child.

His dilemma illustrates the chaos we addicts bring to our families and the rest of the world while we’re in our addictions.

            “I never hurt anyone but myself.”

            “I never stole anything from my family.”

            “I only used drugs, I never sold them.”

            “I never used in front of my kids.”

These statements are rationalizations, common cop-outs. When we harm ourselves we harm the world.  When we’re not contributing to our families, when we’re half conscious, when we’re not taking care of our kids, our jobs, our other responsibilities - then we’re doing damage.

This grandfather says, that while his granddaughter is a great blessing in his life,  he hopes that one day his daughter will quit using and return to raise the child.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Spirituality?

A client who’s been sober the better part of a year talked to me about spirituality. He didn’t understand it and wondered if it had to do with religion. Could he identify it and apply to his life?
For me the problem with his questions is that the spiritual is so intangible that there’s no easy answer. The spiritual realm is subjective and personal and - I believe - different for each of us.
For example, a spiritual moment is when I encounter a former client I haven’t seen for a while who’s now enjoying a sober life. The person appears healthy and maybe introduces me to the family or tells of business or educational success. Knowing I was a part of his recovery I experience a sense of euphoria and joy I can only describe as spiritual.

Spiritual moments come upon me when I reflect that I came from prison and the streets to where I am today. 

Spiritual is when I reflect upon the power of a God who’s given my family back and brought me a loving wife.

A spiritual moment is when I’m grateful for my recovery and success and recognize that it comes from a force greater than me.

A spiritual place in my life is when I’m enjoying serenity and peace – for no special reason.

Spirituality, I think, is different for each of us. But it’s a state we can learn to recognize and enjoy with practice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

We get Emails...

A former client with 17 years of sobriety sent an email this week describing his success after leaving the program. In part he said:

"You probably wouldn’t remember me but I am a TLC graduate and celebrating 17 years clean/sober on March 6, 2012. I was just looking over the TLC website and your blog. It has been a while since I have been on it or visited TLC. I was going to comment on one of your blog posts but decided to email you instead. I am grateful for TLC and the gift you all gave me.

"Anyway, the reason I am writing is to say ‘THANK YOU”!!!! There is not a day that goes by that I am not reminded and grateful for my 18 months there. I currently work at a homeless shelter as a shelter manager and I am reminded daily of the life I left. If it wasn’t for TLC I don’t know what I would have done. Since I graduated, I have gotten married to a wonderful wife and we have 5 children now. I went onto college (my dream) and finished a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Christian Studies. I am currently finishing a second master’s degree so I can become a certified chaplain.

"I do not mention these things to brag or boast but to share with you that because of the gift you provided I was able to achieve my dreams…I am SOOO very grateful for all you have done. Feel free to contact me anytime. My information is listed below. Thanks again and God bless you and TLC.

TLC Alumni 1997"

Emails like this make it all worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Keeping it Simple


A client with nine months of sobriety said it was sort of a revelation when the speaker at a 12-step meeting said complacency is the enemy of sobriety.

The speaker outlined key ingredients that help alcoholics stay sober. Among them were having a sponsor, regularly attending meetings, reading the Big Book, and doing service work.

I agree with this. After 21 years in the program I’ve made several friends with those who have years of sobriety and that’s what they all have in common: they’re actively involved in whatever 12-step program they attend. 

Sometimes it seems like newcomers expect a more complicated explanation from those of us who have multiple years sober. But I tell them there is no secret handshake, no hidden code.  What keeps me sober today is what kept me sober in the first year.

I’ve attended the same Big Book study for over 20 years, plus at least one other meeting during the week. And I have several sponsees. And it’s a rare week when I don’t do some kind of service work.

The founders were divinely inspired when they put together this simple 12-step program that helps such a diverse population of alcoholics and addicts. 

It’s worked for me for many years.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Surrounded by Love


I'm always touched when I see people showing love and kindness. And I witnessed this a few days ago while I was in a hospital ward waiting for a minor medical procedure to begin.
 
Behind the drawn curtain at the next bed an older woman's family members were comforting her prior to a lung biopsy she was about to undergo.
 
While the nurse explained what the woman should expect during the procedure, she also kept mentioning that children and other family members were close by for support.
 
As she spoke the family members would say things like "Mom, we’re here with you." or "You'll be alright."  When the patient responded I could hear the gratitude in her voice.
 
The whole scene reminded me of the importance of love and kindness when we're going through difficult times. 

 It’s the same support we see in 12-step meetings as we support one another when we face challenges in our recovery.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Spice? Bath Salts?

During a meeting at the Mac House last week a half dozen clients were asking why they weren’t allowed to use “Spice” and “Bath Salts” while at TLC. After all, they could buy them legally - so why couldn’t they use them?

The managers pointed out that alcohol and prescription painkillers are also legal. But clients can’t use them either.

During a post meeting follow-up several of our managers were amazed that anyone would think it acceptable to use mind altering or intoxicating substances while living in a recovery program.

When clients come in they sign an agreement that says they’re willing to go to any lengths to change. But sometimes - once the painful memories of what happened while they were using subsides - they forget that agreement. Their addictions take them back to the state of mind they were in before they arrived.

So what to do when a group of clients think they can still use? Do we discharge them as an example to other clients? Do we counsel them about why they’re in a recovery program? Or do we take a wait and see approach?

It’s never an easy decision when we’re confronted with clients who have this attitude.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gift from God

God gave me a lesson in gratitude while I was waiting outside a convenience store for a friend who was inside paying for gas.

While there, I overheard a heroin addict on a a pay phone making a drug deal. His clothes were dirty and he kept looking around nervously as if he was doing something wrong and about to be caught.

I heard the stress in his voice as he implored the dealer to hurry up with the delivery and it transported me back to over 21 years.

For at one time that was me. In those years I lived in the insane cycle of being either sick or high and never being able to get enough drugs to keep balance in my life. And then there was the constant fear of being either caught with drugs or arrested while stealing something to trade for drugs.

Before I left I handed him my card in case he someday wants  help. As my friend and I drove away I was awash in gratitude. And grateful to God for delivering me from my addictions...

Friday, January 20, 2012

One Day at a Time


One day at a time is a wonderful concept for those of us in recovery. Because most of us are into instant gratification the idea of one day at a time helps when things get tough. 

When I think about drinking or putting a needle in my arm it can be almost overwhelming. But I'm pretty sure – if the challenges get too tough – I can make it till midnight.

"One day at a time" is a simple mantra, but I believe it has saved many of us from the disaster of crashing one more time.

I'm not sure where this concept came from. Probably way back in the murky history of the 12 step programs someone's sponsor said something like "well do you think you can just not drink for the rest of the day?" And maybe there a tradition was born.

I've found the idea of one day at a time useful in situations other than recovery. There have been times in our business life at TLC when we weren't sure we'd be able to keep the doors open. Yet we would show up the next day and the solution would present itself.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

20th Anniversary Coming March 15

TLC celebrates its 20th anniversary March 15 of this year. That's the day we took in our first client.

The real anniversary of TLC's birth, at least legally, is January 9, 1992. That's the day the nonprofit was recognized by the State of Arizona..

Were not sure how we'll celebrate this anniversary. At the five, 10, and 15 year anniversaries we had a celebration in a park. We had speakers and passed out plaques. This year's celebration is still in the planning stages. Quite likely it will look pretty much like the other celebrations we've had. After all, there's only so much you can do on an anniversary.

In reflecting upon this event it's almost amazing that this organization has survived 20 years. The whole operation has been run by recovering addicts and alcoholics. There has been zero government funding or assistance. In fact, in Nevada and in Arizona various government entities endeavored to close the program on more than one occasion.

And one result is that in Nevada we have no program. The only thing were allowed to do there is run sober housing units. For some reason the idea that alcoholics and addicts can help each other get sober is alien to them. Their belief is that the program needs doctors, psychologists, and professionals to really do it right.

The real thing we're celebrating on this anniversary is that we've helped thousands of men and women change their lives. And we've done it at no cost to the public. Our belief is that someday organizations like ours will be recognized for the service they do to the community in helping people get sober and change their lives.

But even if we're not recognized there are thousands of men and women in the community who are living better lives because of TLC. That's all that really matters...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Constant Vigilance

A client who'd been sober for a year relapsed about three weeks ago, but kept it a secret. There was obviously something going on with him but none of us could figure it out. And he wasn't saying anything about what was going on with him. But in groups and around the program he seemed different. He appeared to be under stress.

However, in group today he came clean. He admitted he'd been smoking marijuana and using spice for about three weeks. Once he admitted he'd been using he was given the opportunity to start the program over or leave to finish what he started. He wants to stay, but only time will tell.

This illustrates how alcoholics and addicts in new recovery must maintain constant vigilance. While this man didn't talk of his relapse, it says in the literature that if we're spiritually unfit we might have no defense against the next drink or drug.

In my early recovery these relapses used to bother me. I took it personal. I wondered if recovery really worked. When I saw how some people who seemed to be working a program could so easily relapse I'd become frightened. I wondered if it could happen to me.

And the answer is yes. If I don't work my program on a regular basis I am in danger.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Recovery Lessons

Yesterday while leaving a 12 step meeting I encountered a former client who was hanging out on the street with one of his former drinking buddies.

When he shook hands and spoke with me it seemed as if he were trying to convince me all was well in his life. He wore an air of false bravado that belied his appearance. Normally neat and clean, he was unshaven and appeared to be under stress.

The client, who left our program on bad terms, has recently been seen in different parts of town leaving convenience stores with what looks like bottles of alcohol. So what's the point of mentioning an alcoholic who’s on another binge?

Probably the only real value is that this illustrates that until we get sober nothing else really works.

While this former client is no longer welcome in our program because we have been unable to help him, his story is a good example. Alcohol has nearly killed him on more than one occasion. He has tried repeatedly to get sober without success. He's an intelligent man – yet his seeming lack of humility keeps him from grasping the simple instructions of the 12 steps.

Until alcohol finally took over his life, he had a great career with a major corporation. Today his life is an endless cycle of relapses and drinking binges that have nearly killed him.

Seeing him reminded me once again to be grateful for my sobriety.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Awareness Helps

Sometimes clients sabotage their recovery without even being aware of it.

This came up this week when a client, who was supposed to be transferred to another facility where he would have more freedom, suddenly started behaving out of character.

For example, the client, who is generally considered to be honest, began lying. Instead of being at work, as he was supposed to be, he was staying in his room. And when his employer showed up to find out what happened to him, he declined to speak to him. Ultimately, he lost his job.

Later when confronted about his behavior he didn't have an explanation. It was suggested he seek counseling in the community and that he stay where he is until his sobriety is on a firmer footing.

This situation illustrates what happens to us addicts and alcoholics when we become unaware of how we feel or of what's going on with us. When we have feelings or emotions we can’t explain we probably need to talk to our sponsor. Or perhaps bring the issue up at a 12 step meeting. 

This is important because our disease is so cunning that it can sneak up on us with little or no warning.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The 12-Step Advantage


At lunch the other day a sober friend told me about a relative who's still angry at him after all these years.

He said that even though he's made amends for things he did to him while he was drinking; the relative is still angry. Although he says he's forgiven him, sooner or later he says something hurtful.

My advice was to return the anger with kindness and love. Tell him he's sorry for what he's done in the past. Ask what he can do to make things right. Never respond with anger or recriminations. Let the relative heal.

I explained to my friend that those of us in the 12 step program sometimes have an advantage over those who aren't in recovery. And this advantage – even though we paid a heavy price to become members of a 12 step program – is that we have guidelines to help us deal with emotional issues.

We learn how to make amends. We learn how to forgive. We learn how to right the wrongs we've committed.

I told my friend to be patient. Then I shared with him my experience with family and friends. It took years for some to realize that I was going to stay sober and clean. After a while they stopped being angry and judgmental. 

They began to support me in my recovery.