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, July 31, 2017

Emotions

"Emotions are temporary states of mind. Don't let them permanently destroy you." Unknown

Many of us addicts take actions based on our emotions. Sometimes these actions can radically change our lives, many times permanently.

At TLC we deal with many clients who make decisions based on emotions. They may become angry because all of a sudden they have to become responsible and pay their service fees. And many of them never had a job in their lives so their idea of giving us part of their paycheck is totally alien to them. Instead of wanting to pay, they become angry and decide to leave.

Clients often are emotionally upset because of their present circumstances. Here they are in their mid-20s or 30s, and still living in a halfway house trying to get their lives together. The important people in their lives have cut them loose because they can no longer deal with their addictions. No one can really blame them for being in an emotional state. But it's when they act on these emotions that they get in trouble.

Many go to the dope house. Or else leave, violate parole, and go back to prison. An impermanent emotional state has derailed their lives. Had they waited five minutes, the emotional fires may have subsided and they'd have made a different decision.

One solution to these emotional states can be found in mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness teaches us to observe our thoughts in a certain way. When we are meditating we find thoughts popping up, seemingly from nowhere. When we see these thoughts what do we do? All we do is observe them without judgment and let them pass, like leaves on a stream. They may pop up again. And we do same things with them: observe them without judgment and let them pass.

If we start practicing mindfulness for 10 or 15 minutes a day we'll find that our emotions become much more manageable. Because we take what we learn from our regular practice of meditation with us throughout the day. When we see crazy thoughts popping up in our head we become adept at simply observing them and recognizing them for what they are: just more stuff bubbling up from our subconscious, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Our emotions are impermanent.  But decisions based upon them can have lasting consequences.

Click here to email John

Friday, July 28, 2017

Responsibility

While walking into a drugstore the other day, I run into an old acquaintance that I hadn't seen in some time. He was slouched on a bench outside the store, apparently bumming money off passersby. He looked like he hadn't bathed or changed clothes in a few days. So I assumed he was probably homeless and using something.

I asked how he was doing – though it was pretty obvious – and he told me that he'd relapsed five years earlier. He said that eventually he turned to crime to support his habit and finally ended up in prison for a few years. It was a long story and I didn't have time to listen to all of it. But I did offer to help him get into recovery and when he declined my help I gave him $20 and moved on.

But one consistent theme that ran through his story is that everything that happened to him was someone else's fault. He started using because the doctor gave him opiates for a back injury. His wife kicked him out because he was using drugs. He went to prison because he had to steal to support his habit. Nowhere in his story did he accept responsibility for his behavior. Nothing was his fault.

And his story reminded me that the big divide between those of us in recovery and those who are not is that one word: responsibility. A responsible person would have told the doctor that he was an addict and couldn't use opiates. A responsible person, once he became addicted, would have gone to a detox. Then he wouldn't have had to steal to support a habit and he wouldn't have gone to prison.

This story reminded me that until I accepted responsibility for my behavior I always had a problem with drugs and alcohol. Only when I surrendered to the idea that I was an alcoholic and addict was I able to change. That's when I went into a detoxification unit.

Today I work in the field of recovery, something I've done for more than 26 years. And because of this long experience, I find it easy to recognize those who are going to make it.

As soon as an addict crosses into the land of responsibility and quits lying to themselves about how they got into trouble I know they have a chance of making it. And they use every resource at their disposal to become responsible. They get a sponsor. They go to meetings. They quit blaming their bad behavior on their parents or family members. They accept that their situation in life - whatever it is - is nobody's fault but their own.

For an addict to become responsible for their life right now, they must be willing to forget whatever terrible things happened to them in the past. Only then can they enjoy the freedom and beauty of recovery.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dealing with Disrespect

The mother of an addict calls me, with a question about how to deal with her adult daughter. Once again, the daughter is asking more of her than she is willing to give. What should she do?

The daughter, who's been addicted to some kind of a substance for much of her adult life, is very demanding. When she's in a tight spot financially she expects her mother to help her. When she's angry, she curses at her mother and treats her disrespectfully. All their lives it's been a one-way relationship: the mother giving and the daughter taking. In photographs of them taken when the daughter was quite young, the daughter always appears to be well-dressed in new clothes. While the mother is wearing second-hand clothing or hand-me-downs.

One of the issues between these two is that the daughter plays on the mother's guilt – or the guilt she had at one time. The mother, who never used drugs or alcohol, married a drug addict who's spending the rest of his life in prison. When the daughter was young her mother wished she was able to provide for her better than she could as a single mother, something the daughter sensed. From early on she placed blame for their circumstances on her mother, rather than the drug addict father who never took care of them. She played on her mother's unconscious guilt for years until the mother was no longer willing to take it.

I give the mother the same advice that I've given over the years. Whenever she's asked me how to respond to her abusive daughter I've always given her the same advice: don't do anything for her until she learns how to treat you with respect. There are no good reasons to allow anyone to treat us with disrespect. Especially, when all we've done is give to them.

This kind of dynamic could play out between these two for the rest of their lives – but only if the mother allows it.

Click here to email John

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Promises

My teenage granddaughter, who graduated from high school a few months ago, called this weekend to tell me that she was going to into the Air Force in about two weeks.

She'd been talking about entering the service for a few years. Now, all of a sudden, it's becoming very real. She's really going to do it.

We make small talk for a while and plan to get together next week for lunch. I want to see her one more time before she goes off to Texas for basic training.

I bring this up because this is one of the benefits of sobriety. When I got sober going on 27 years ago, this girl wasn't even born. She's never seen me high. She's never seen me drunk. All she knows is the grandfather who's always worked hard in his business and lived a sober life.

When I first got sober in 1991 I never looked very far ahead. Maybe three or four years at most. I did my best to live my life in the moment. I went to meetings. Stayed sober. I applied the twelve-step principles to my life.

Now, years later, I look at the many blessings that have been given to me because I stay sober and clean. Had I not got sober in 1991, I know I would not be alive today. I would not be able to visit my children and grandchildren and spend summer and Christmas vacations with them. I have been blessed over and over again, and it all started when I made the decision to go into a detoxification unit.

And I use this experience to try to encourage newcomers. I suggest to them that they be patient. That eventually their family will come back to them. They'll be able to find a job. Maybe go to school. Perhaps raise a family. Maybe never have to be arrested or go to jail again.

The Big Book tells us in the Promises that we will know "a new freedom and a new happiness." I'm pleased to say that the promises have come true for me.

Click here to email John

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

R.I.P. Todd

A staff member sent me an obituary of a man who was in our program less than a month ago. He'd been with us for two years. He had a job. He lived in one of our sober living houses, doing quite well.

But about a month ago we got a message that he was in his room at the sober living house, drunk and disorderly. A staff member asked him to leave or to go to detox - telling him he could come back later when he was sober.

But he refused to leave. In fact, we had to call the police to remove him from the premises.

Normally we don't let people who drink on the property and refuse to leave, to come back into the program. Especially when we have to get the police involved.

But because he'd been a good resident prior to his relapse, his manager brought him to my office. The man was quite pleasant and convinced me that if allowed to stay he would make every effort to be an exemplary resident. That I shouldn't judge him on just that one relapse. And he was so pleasant and convincing that I told him he could return – but that this was his last chance. He left my office, saying he was going to get some things from his home and then return.

That's the last I heard of him until a staff member sent me an obituary that was published by the mortuary.

In his photo, he looks like someone's next-door neighbor. He's wearing a suit and tie and has a big smile, appearing to be the picture of success. The obituary goes on to describe that he was a father, that he graduated from a major university, that he loved motorcycle rides, Golden Retrievers, and ice cream.

So what happened after two years of sobriety that made him pick up a bottle? And what made him never return again, even after we gave him permission to come back? No one really knows the answers.

All we really know is that alcohol took another alcoholic's life at the age of 55.  But his untimely death demonstrates that as sober people we can never let our guard down.

We send our sympathies to his family and wish him Godspeed.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A new Addiction

Often the addicts coming into our program have poor self-esteem.  And they're also depressed about their prospects for the future.

Many spent their late teens and early twenties out of school - and without jobs. Maybe they've even done time in jail or prison. Their anxiety about the future is understandable. Without at least a basic education or job skills their feelings are warranted.  And a criminal record makes things worse.

Yet there are those who find their way back to school or into the job market. TLC has many graduates who found jobs while with us ten or more years ago and are still with the same companies today. Several of our graduates own successful small businesses or have gone on to careers in highly technical professions.

I mention this because I read about a recovering heroin addict who's done remarkable things with his life.  He ended up in jail and had many of the other bad experiences that heroin addicts go through.

Yet today he's the head of a 15 million dollar company that he started after he got clean.  For those of you in new recovery click here to see what one addict has done with his life.

His inspiring story gives anyone a reason for hope.

Click here to email John

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Upside of Stress

I just finished a book that I'd recommend for any addict or alcoholic.

The title is "The Upside of Stress," written by Kelly McGonigal.

She's a psychologist and university professor, who for many years, taught that stress was a bad thing. Something that we should avoid. But her thinking eventually changed after she saw some research describing how stress can also have a positive effect on us. That it's not as terrible as we might think.

And while I can't put all the details in the short space of a blog, the idea that stress might be good for us makes sense from an evolutionary point of view.

After all, hundreds of thousands of years ago, when we were still living on the prairies and in the jungles, it was stress that kept us alive. And the stress was generated by the reality that we might be by eaten by an animal if weren't constantly on point and having an anxious awareness of the world around us.

The author describes how stress helps us perform better in certain situations, that it's something that we don't need to hide from. She cites studies that show that those who believe that stress is bad for them die earlier and suffer a lot more negative effects from stress than people who have a positive attitude toward it.

In many cases, she demonstrates that stress improves our performance, especially if we embrace it and learn to use it to our benefit.  She teaches us how to become good at it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Needing a Job?

A halfway house client, a man I've known for years, calls me in the middle of the night to ask for help.

He's so drunk that I can barely understand him. He's alternately crying and blubbering.

I finally get him to calm down enough so that I can understand what he's saying. He says he wants me to come and get him, help him to get into a detox. I tell him I'd be happy to do that.

But when I ask him where he's at, he says he doesn't know.

All he can come up with is that it's "a really nice hotel." I tell him to look on the hotel door and see if he can find an address or name of the hotel. Or else he could call the front desk and ask them where he's at. Then the phone goes silent, even though he hasn't hung up yet.

I finally hang up because I can't get him to respond. But I figure that if he was able to call me once, he'll be able to call me again when he's ready to be picked up and taken to a detox.

This man has been going in and out of the twelve-step programs and detoxes for years. As soon as he gets sober and back on his feet he thinks he's okay and can return to work.

This man is a classic example of an alcoholic or addict who thinks his only problem is finding a job. For the past 26 years that I've been working with addicts and alcoholics, I've seen this happen over and again. Once we men get sober, we think our only problem is finding a job and making money.

But if that were true, why would we have gotten drunk or high in the first place? If a job or career is what would keep us sober we'd probably never end up in a rehab or in jail or on the streets.

But one of the problems with this attitude is that most addict's families have the idea that they need to go to work also. So they will agree with, and even encourage, the alcoholic or addict in their life to find a job and go to work.

And while work is an honorable and necessary thing in our world, it's not the most important thing for someone who can't stay sober. The most important thing for us addicts and alcoholics is to get our recovery straight. Then the relationships, jobs, money, and all the other things in life come back to us.

A life that's built on a shaky foundation is always going to fall apart. And that's especially true for us addicts and alcoholics.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Letter of Gratitude

Normally I don't publish emails this lengthy.  But I'm doing it now because these words exemplify what TLC is all about.  Skip is moving on to a counseling position at another program and we wish him the best.  His friends here at TLC will truly miss him.

"John, I wanted to let you know that I am extremely grateful to you for starting TLC because it gives alcoholics and addicts like me a chance to rebuild their lives.

Myself, I came to TLC in late April of 2011 a broken man, hopeless, homeless, previously suicidal, and recently released from a psych unit in Colorado where I ended up after detox where they told me about your program.

When I got here I did not know what it would be like, although at that point I had endured so much pain in my life that I would do anything to change it. I got a few odd jobs that paid my rent for a week and then worked at a call center which I couldn't stand because I thought I was "above those people." I stayed there a week and then came to your job center at the house and you came in a mentioned a job in corporate.

I told you I was interested - along with another man - and he got that job. Well, I didn't give up because I heard the word corporate and knew it was for me because of my degree and banking experience and also because my health was not 100%.

A few days later the man that got the job quit and I went straight up to that office and you gave me a chance even if I wasn't your first choice. I worked with a gentleman staff member as my boss involving your successful temporary labor company within TLC and I couldn't even write my own name (literally).

I had drunk and did drugs most of my adolescent and adult life and did not know how to function in life as a sober person and my brain was mush at 52 years old. The guy that was my boss was so patient with me and I know he was frustrated, stuck with me and helped me until my brain started to recover. I will always be grateful to him as well as his boss and the many other staff at TLC that put up with me.

You provided me with shelter, food, a shower and toiletries, even clothes when I needed them. And I would hear other clients complaining about the food or other basic needs that were getting met for them as if it was expected.

I then ended up after 4 months or so in corporate, at another successful venture of yours within TLC which was right up my alley, a convenience store clerk that paid slightly more. I worked there for about 21/2 years with another patient man that accepted me as I was. And that is what helped me stay because I could be myself. I originally only planned to come for 90 days and I was still there. In those years I learned about AA and other sober support groups, went to outside therapy and started to accept the principles of the 12 step program into my way of life, I learned about meditation and being involved with the community of TLC by doing small groups, car washes, other required activities, and GI. I stayed at the halfway house for my first seven months and then the word came that it was time to live in a 3/4 house with my own room and more freedom.

In a short number of months, I became manager of the house which I truly loved and was there for over 5 years until I got my own apartment in December of 2016. From late 2011 to December 2013 I was working at the store and one day I asked you what it took to be a counselor at your newly formed Outpatient Clinic.

The next thing I knew I worked there as an assistant group facilitator, then facilitator, and ultimately to a case manager - handling nearly half the patients.

You and your organization are like family to me and always will be. I am deeply indebted to TLC for their kindness, compassion, structure and even discipline which helped me to live a wholesome, healthy way of life, helping others like me. A life that I never dreamed could be so grand. Thank you so very very much from the depths of my heart. P.S. Sorry this was so lengthy but I reminisced as I wrote it."


God speed, Skip.  We're grateful for your contributions. You always have a home with us.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Peers helping Peers

A few weeks ago a friend was asked by a group of non-addicts what kind of work she did. When she replied that she worked at TLC, one of the group asked: "Isn't that the place that's run by drug addicts?"

When she told them it was, their reaction wasn't very positive. My friend got the impression that they thought that professionals, such as psychologists or therapists, could do much better with addicts and alcoholics. My friend realized that the discussion would probably not be going in a positive direction, so she changed the subject.

We run into this attitude every once in a while. For some reason, the average non-addict has the idea that addiction and alcoholism can only be dealt with by professionals. However, studies have shown that peer counseling is just as effective – if not more so – than professional counseling.

And if one thinks about this it makes a lot of sense. After all, who understands addiction better than one who's already been through it and has stayed sober?

A good example of an organization that's saved millions of lives, is Alcoholics Anonymous. And it's totally nonprofessional, simply one alcoholic helping another. The only professionals involved are those with drug or alcohol problems. And indeed, one can meet any type of professional in the world in a twelve-step meeting – including doctors, lawyers, and scientists, plus the average everyday workingman. But the one thing they have in common is that those who have been around for a while understand alcoholism on a deep level. And that's the knowledge that allows them to help each other get their lives back on track.

And the same principle applies here at TLC. We get all sorts coming through our doors. Everything from homeless addicts and alcoholics to those with masters degrees in various fields. But their common desire to stay sober is what helps our organization to succeed.  And allows them to help each other.

And a final point is that peer counseling organizations, like ours and the twelve-step programs, are readily available at little or no cost to those who are seeking help and have a genuine desire to change their lives.  Giving everyone a psychiatrist or psychologist is unaffordable - nor has it proved to be more effective. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Angry in Recovery

Most of the time I'm very peaceful and easy-going.

The first thing I do in the morning is 45 minutes of mindful meditation. In fact, I'm so into meditation that I took an 11-month course to receive my certificate as a mindfulness meditation instructor. I also practice yoga for 20 to 30 minutes first thing in the morning. Then spend another 45 minutes in my home gym. In other words, I spend a lot of time on self-care aimed at keeping myself peaceful and serene. And usually, it works.

Because anger got me into a lot of trouble when I was much younger, I like living the way I do today. In my early years, anger caused me to use drugs and alcohol to mask my feelings of frustration and rage. I used to fight a lot and hurt myself and others. So being peaceful is the way I try to roll.

But the other day I let my anger get out of hand.

And it came about because I've been dealing with a person who has caused me a lot of emotional and financial issues over the last four months. Over the years I've spent a lot of money and done many things to enhance this person's life. I've been generous to a fault. I've never taken advantage of her. To the contrary, I recently spent a lot of effort helping her avoid a jail sentence for domestic violence. A sentence, that in reality, she truly deserved.

So my anger erupted when I asked her to sign a simple document that I needed for a business transaction and she refused. Her refusal won't stop the transaction from occurring. But it will slow it down because now lawyers have to get involved, which will cost time - and both of us money.

But the anger didn't come from my failure to complete the business transaction in a timely manner. As I said earlier, it will get done even though I may have to go to the expense of taking court action.

What really angered me was the sense of betrayal I got from someone who should've totally trusted me because I've never given her a reason to do otherwise.

But when I said above that I let my anger get out of hand what I really meant was that I allowed it to suffuse every part of me for an hour or so. Instead of doing what I know how to do, which is breath and let the anger subside, I instead let it get the best of me. So how did I get rid of it?

Well, the first thing I did when I got home was to go into my gym and begin wailing on a punching bag that I've had for several months. It's one of those rubber kind that looks like half a man. And I beat on it for several minutes with all of my energy until my anger began to dissipate. But I wasn't quite done yet. Next, I went into my swimming pool and swam furiously back and forth, back and forth, until I ran out of energy. Then when I regained my energy I realized that I still wasn't done. So I went back into my gym and put on some 14-ounce boxing gloves and beat on the bag some more until I could've sworn I heard it asking for mercy. After working out hard for the next day or so my anger has pretty much dissipated.

Plus, I've had a chance to think about it. And I came to the realization that when a person is terribly damaged it's difficult for them to trust anyone – no matter how kindly that person treats them.