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.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Keeping on at 73


Today I've been on the planet for 73 years - kind of to my dismay - considering how I lived much of my life. Many with my resume, including peers and family members, have succumbed to alcoholism or drug addiction.  

So I'm a human being who's understandably grateful for the many blessings I have been my life. I have a wonderful wife, children and grandchildren who love me, friends and business associates who care - and help me achieve my goals.

In celebrating this anniversary I must also acknowledge the 12 step programs without which I wouldn't be here today.  For some 30 years I rejected the idea that 12 step programs could help. Yet, when I admitted I was an alcoholic everything changed for me. From that point forward I've never been arrested, have always been employed, and have enjoyed the promises these programs offer. 

Some ask when I'll retire.  But I'm not sure if that'll happen as long I'm healthy enough to go to the office. In fact, we recently opened a new phase of our business: TLC outpatient clinic. 

This is an exciting new challenge that's just scary enough to keep me interested in working for a few more years. If the clinic succeeds as we project, we’ll be able to help more addicts into recovery.

And helping others recover has been a driving force in my life for over 21 years – perhaps the reason I'm still here today.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hangover?


"How was your Memorial Day weekend?" I asked a twenty-something woman working out beside me at the fitness center this morning.

            "Horrible," she said. "I have a terrible hangover. I got drunk all weekend. I hope a workout will make me feel better."

She looked like she didn't feel well and it took me back over 20 years when I used to sometimes feel the same way. But I didn't feel that way for long.  Because, unlike her, I never suffered from hangovers because I never got sober. And I didn’t work out to feel better. I just drank more and more.

When I finally entered the minefield of alcoholism if I was awake I was drinking. It was that simple. And it continued that way until I finally showed up at a detoxification unit January 13, 1991.

My interaction with her illustrates the difference between alcoholics and non-alcoholics. Once a real alcoholic – someone like me – takes that first drink there’s no turning back. A real alcoholic drinks until something intervenes – whether it's mental institutions, incarceration, or death.

In my case I spent time in a mental institution and was incarcerated for many years. Then I finally went to a detoxification unit because I could no longer stand the pain in my life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Being an Influence...


I was moved to tears yesterday when my youngest daughter talked about a college paper she was writing. The teacher instructed the class to write about the person who most influenced their lives. And prior to writing the paper, each student had to tell about the person they'd chosen - and why.

My daughter started by saying the person who most influenced her had spent 15 years in prison, used heroin for some 38 years and had drunk alcoholically for over forty years….

She said as she started, class members were looking at her in disbelief.  Because she had to explain this person's influence, she said they waited expectantly to hear what she had to say.

She explained that in spite of her father's addictions and incarcerations, he’d gone on to live in sobriety for the last 21+ years – and had become a successful businessman and entrepreneur.  Witnessing this, she learned she could accomplish whatever she wanted if she tried hard enough.

While I had an inkling that my daughter felt this way, it was a bit overwhelming to hear how she'd stood in front of a class to tell about it. I'm gratified and humbled to be a part of her success – any part.

I'll likely use this anecdote in some of my counseling sessions. Because many times our clients don't see much point in getting sober. They often don't look at the bigger picture to see how living sober can have a positive impact on their loved ones -and the rest of the world.

I'm grateful to my daughter for bringing this story to me.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The right Sponsor


The speaker at this morning's 12 step meeting described a 15 year struggle with relapse before he finally got sober. After initially staying sober for some five years he relapsed. For the next several years he kept going kept going in and out. He would be sober for 90 days, then he would relapse.

At the end of his drinking and drugging he was living under a bush. He wrapped himself in shrink wrap to stay warm. When it finally got too cold for him to continue living outdoors he decided that he must be doing something wrong. And that's when he went into a detoxification unit.

But the thing that kept him sober was to find the right sponsor. He said he found a man who was no-nonsense - who made him do each step thoroughly. While doing his fourth step he would periodically call to ask if he should include something.

            "Leave no stone unturned," the sponsor would reply, then hang up. And so he would continue to doggedly work on his fourth step. The last time he called his sponsor to ask about including something the sponsor asked  "if you had cancer surgery wouldn't you want the doctor to get all of the cancer?"

So he continued to dig inside himself till he got everything into his fourth step. After all, he realized it was about saving his life. About staying sober. It didn't matter how painful it was.

He was also thorough about making amends. He'd stolen from a lot of people. If he couldn't pay back directly, he would make a donation in their name to a charity. It took him more than a few years to pay back everything he'd ripped off. But he said it was the best high he'd experienced.

And the fact that he was standing at the podium and sharing his message after many years of sobriety was evidence that he'd found the right sponsor.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

It's about the Newcomers...


I asked a friend about a couple who used to go to the same 12 step meeting that I've been attending for some 20 years. I hadn't seen them in a while and wondered if they were okay.

            "Oh they're fine," he told me. "But they quit coming to this meeting because there were too many newcomers and people who didn't know how to behave."

While on one hand I understand their sentiments about the way people sometimes behave at 12 step meetings, for some reason I don't understand the comment about newcomers.

After all, I was taught that the program is pretty much about newcomers - carrying the message to them. While I think it's good to attend meetings made up of old-timers, I learn more when I'm around people in the early stages of their recovery. When I see how newcomers view the world I'm reminded of where I was when I first came to the program. And I always leave with gratitude that I've been sober for as long as I have.

It would be judgmental of me to criticize someone who leaves a meeting and finds one that they like. After all, this is a free country and a person can go to whatever meeting they like. However when someone is a reservoir of recovery experiences - like one with over 30 years – then I think there's an obligation to share that experience. 

So what if some ignorant newcomer says something stupid? Or if a newcomer happens to mention something about drugs? After all, the literature is full of references to drugs and drug use.

And I know if others had judged me totally on my behavior that I might not be writing this blog today. It says in the 12-step literature "love and tolerance of others is our code."  That's what I want to practice.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Into Action


I became angry at an employee the other day while reviewing his job performance. Rather than deal with him after I calmed down, I pulled him aside after the meeting and told him what I thought of his performance.

And then next day, I went back to make amends.

He told me I didn't need to make amends, that I hadn't offended him with what I’d said or how I said it. But I made amends anyway, telling him that I didn't feel good after I left his office.

While in retrospect I don't think I said anything offensive or that I hurt his feelings I don't believe it's a good policy to communicate with employees when one is angry. I don't think we can be objective when we're trying to deal with anything when we're angry and not focused.

For me, doing a 10th Step as I pass through my day is an easy way to keep myself on an even keel. Even if I haven't done anything  seriously wrong it's a lot easier to defuse situations as they happen than to come back and clean them up later. And my employees appreciate the idea that I'm aware of their feelings.

Another aspect of being in sobriety and working a program is to be a role model for newcomers. When employees see me practicing the principles they understand how I became successful. 

Being a good example is - in my mind - a great way to teach those in recovery how the principles work in daily life. And if they see me making amends, it will be easier for them to clean things up when they do something that requires an amends.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Working wth Addicts


Running a company with a staff of addicts and alcoholics can be a delicate balancing act. On one hand many substance abusers are energetic and creative. Some have good educations and backgrounds.   Others have long criminal histories and have spent years locked up for mostly drug related crimes.

When these diverse personalities work together in the same office or on the same job there are often communication or personality issues.  While many organizations have similar issues they normally don’t have the veneer of addiction that can complicate everything.

We once had a so-called “normal” person – someone not in recovery - doing consulting work for us. He was amazed, when in the middle of a pressing project, we stopped work and had a group session to deal with an addict who was showing behavior that might have led to relapse. After group we reminded him that our corporate mission is help recovering substance abusers rebuild their lives – even if it means shutting down work for an hour or so.

One of our more difficult challenges might be figuring out when an addict is having serious issues – versus simply being lazy or manipulative. However, these situations usually sort themselves out in time.

Whatever we deal with, the reality is that we couldn’t afford to operate TLC if it weren’t for those in recovery who help us run the company while they’re trying to rebuild their lives.

And while we offer no benefits or retirement, those who stick around get something other jobs don’t offer: they have the chance to escape a life of bondage to drugs or alcohol.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Celebrating Others...


Last Sunday I was feeling particularly smug. After all, I'd done about 30 chin-ups, rode my bicycle 8 miles, then came back and did over 100 push-ups – all before 6 AM.  At 73 I’m pretty pleased with my physical conditioning and overall health.

Then I read the morning newspaper.  On the front page was a story about a 73-year-old woman who’d  just completed a trip to the top of Mount Everest.  And she had done it for the second time! All of a sudden my hour and a half workout took on a different perspective.

As I continued reading there was another story that got my attention. A local woman, CEO of a local nonprofit, celebrated her 60th birthday by completing a triathlon. For those of you who don't know, a triathlon is 112 mile bicycle ride, a 26.2 mile run, and a 2.4 mile swim.

I'm not sure how I felt about all of this, because these are world-class accomplishments for anyone of any age or conditioning. And I didn't decide to try to duplicate either one of these feats. But still, these stories had me thinking.

I guess because I look at the world through the glasses of recovery, I'm simply grateful to be alive at this point of my life. Many of my contemporaries and peers succumbed to drug addiction or alcoholism – or are spending their lives in prison for offenses they committed while pursuing their disease.

I mostly look at the world with the idea that everything is as it's supposed to be right now. I cannot compare myself with others and maintain serenity. I can admire what others do without having to be them. I know that my initial gut reaction to the accomplishments of others is an echo from who I used to be. I once envied the accomplishments of others – and felt less than because I wasn't equal to them.

Today, because I'm in sobriety, I can celebrate the accomplishments of others.  All I have to be is the best me I can be. The rest I must leave up to God.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Changes


"One day you're a peacock- the next day you're a feather duster."  Unknown

This week we learned that a manager who had a lot of promise a month or so ago was arrested for shoplifting at Walmart.  Plus she's facing theft charges for funds that were unaccounted for when she left her job at TLC.

There's no pleasure in her arrest, instead another confirmation that when addicts start being dishonest no one knows where it will lead. And in this case it led her back to jail.

When this woman first started working for TLC she was full of enthusiasm. She wanted to dedicate her life to helping others. In fact she once picked "dedication" of the topic of a meeting. So what happened?

The simple explanation is that she stopped doing what she was doing when she was successful. She began showing favoritism to certain clients. She developed questionable friendships. There was speculation about where she went when she was off of the property. Some clients said she was staying awake much of the night. 

However, when she was confronted about her behavior she had a plausible explanation for everything. And our policy is to support our managers unless we have clear cut information but they're not doing what they're supposed to do. In this case, we should have let her go earlier.

We wish this woman well. If she decides to continue with her recovery we'll take her back – once she gets out of jail. After all, we've taken people back who have stolen from us on more than one occasion. And today, they’re working in key positions of trust.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Deadly Addiction


In Las Vegas last week I ran into a former client I hadn’t seen in a few years.  When I asked how he was he told me he’d had a second heart attack and his doctor told him he’d no longer be able to hold a regular job. So he decided to come back to TLC where he’d be able to live on his disability check.

And he added that he’d also been diagnosed with emphysema.

Because I’d noticed him smoking earlier I asked him what he was going to do about quitting, particularly in light of his health issues.  But I guess I asked the wrong question because he immediately came up with a reason for not quitting.

                “Emphysema’s not reversible,” he said, offering that as a reason to not quit. I didn’t point out to him that while it might not be reversible, it could get worse.

Because I too was a smoker until 9:00 am July 25, 1984, I understand the power of the addiction. It killed several close family members, all of whom suffered a lot before dying.

I had withdrawn from heroin many times. Yet quitting cigarettes was much more difficult.

But in spite of the difficulty it's imperative to rid ourselves of this deadly habit. Although I went through some pain at first, it was the best thing I ever did. All of a sudden everything smelled and tasted better. I had more energy. I required less sleep. I had more time because I didn't have to go outside ten times a day to smoke.

I'm not sure what it is about addicts and alcoholic – maybe it's part of our disease. Statistics show that 80% of recovering people smoke, versus 20% of the general population.  And I believe this, because outside the 12 step meetings we often must pass through a cloud of smoke to get inside.

It may sound like pontificating because I haven't smoked for 28 years. But I don't care. I’m happy if I can help one person kick this deadly habit.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Moving On..


A client who'd been with TLC for a few years came by my office to thank me. He was moving into a new apartment with his girlfriend.

            "You’re what TLC’s all about," I told him, as I shook his hand. And I sincerely meant it.

This man’s made a miraculous change. He came to us on parole from state prison. He had no job skills. He had few communication skills, often erupting in anger when he didn't get his way.

But as he stayed sober he began to change. He became more patient. He found a job in the construction field and puts in a lot of overtime. He has a sponsor.  He's developed a sense of gratitude that shows in his demeanor.

While he gives TLC a lot of credit for the changes he's undergone the reality is that he did the work. He followed the simple guidelines we set up many years ago. And while he feels the changes are miraculous, the things he's experiencing are nothing the ordinary person doesn't experience in daily life.

We expect clients to work.  They must stay clean and sober. We ask them to pay their bills and service fees. They can't commit crimes. They must have insurance on their vehicles. We send them to a lot of meetings - both on and off the property - to teach them discipline.

Moving into a new world of sobriety and responsibility brings so many benefits that many feel it's miraculous. And maybe for those who've spent much of their adult lives in a haze of drugs and alcohol it’s true.

However, this new life is available to anyone who wants to pursue it.  Our mission  is to help them get there.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Road to Recovery


A few weeks ago a man called me from a Southern state to ask about coming to TLC. He hadn’t drunk for a few weeks, but he knew he needed time in a sober setting if he was going to remain sober.

After I told him about the program he said he’d wrap up his affairs and be in Arizona by the end of the month.  And sure enough, he called me from the Greyhound bus this evening to tell me he’d be in Mesa on Monday morning.

He also told me that if had money with him he would have gotten drunk already because he’d had a painful argument with his wife before he left for the bus station. He was upset about the altercation to the point that he almost changed his mind about coming. However, he said that his desire to remain sober was still in place and he was determined to get to Arizona to try to change his life.  We’ll find out next week how strong his resolve really is.

His situation illustrates some of the pitfalls confronting those in early recovery. So often family issues, finances, and other stressors will offer what seems to be a good excuse to kill the pain with our drug of choice.

I'm thankful I avoided these excuses and have been blessed with long term sobriety.