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, September 28, 2017

Resisting Change

"One reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up instead of what they have to gain." Rick Godwin

For many years I resisted change. And, as in the saying above, I focused on what I thought I was giving up.

I thought that if I quit using drugs and alcohol and partying all the time I wouldn't have any friends. Even though at the time I didn't have any friends anyway. They'd long ago left me, and I was too drunk and high to notice.

I thought that if I got sober life would be boring. I'd have nothing to do with my time. I had the idea that life would be dismal without my best friends, alcohol and heroin.

And it was only when I finally got sober almost 27 years ago that I realized I was living a fallacy all those years. Had I even dreamed of what a rich life recovery could offer me I would've been sober a long time ago.

And I am by no means unique in my thinking. Many of the young addicts in our program also think that when they're getting sober and into recovery, they might be losing something. Even though many of them are 50 years younger than I am, they sound just like I did when I was their age.

But I've come to realize that life is made up of experiences, the building blocks of wisdom. We sometimes have to go through bad times and punishing experiences before we find a reason to change.

I often hear people at meetings speak about how they got into the rooms. And none of them talk about how wonderful life was right before they got sober. Their stories are all pretty much the same. They lost a partner. Or a job. Or went to jail. They lived on the streets, homeless. They never get into the rooms because things were wonderful.

Those are the ones who are able to change because they figure out that anything would be better than the way they were living.  They know they're  not giving up anything.

Click here to email John

Monday, September 25, 2017

Healing Hep C

I don't know where or when I contracted the deadly virus called hepatitis C – the virus that now kills more people than all other infectious diseases combined, including HIV.

My best guess is that I got it from sharing needles in a dope house. It might've been in East Los Angeles. It could've been in Echo Park or North Hollywood. It might've been in an Orange County barrio. Maybe in a Tijuana slum. In other words, it could have been anywhere, because I shot dope in all those places and several in between over 38 years.

And for a long time, I didn't even know I had it. I only discovered it when my doctor asked me during a medical examination over 25 years ago if I knew that I had hepatitis. At that time they didn't even call it hepatitis C.  It was called non-A, non-B hepatitis.

The doctor went on to tell me that there was no cure for it.  And he sent me for a biopsy to see what condition my liver was in. Fortunately, doctors found that I had minimal scarring and minimal inflammation, something they called stage one. And my liver remained that way over the years of my recovery.

Then there was a buzz of excitement in 2013 when a new pill called Harvoni came on the market that had about a 90% success rate. But at $80,000 for a course of treatment, it was outrageously expensive. Fortunately, my supplemental insurance covered most of the cost, leaving me with about a $6000 co-pay.

So I was able to take an eight-week course of treatment at the first of this year. There were few side effects. After the treatment was done, my doctor ordered three more follow-up blood tests over an eight-month period. Each one came back showing no signs of the virus. And two weeks ago I got the results of my final test. It also was clear.

The medical staff told me I was cured and that I didn't need to see them anymore. What a wonderful feeling.

I encourage all of you out there who were IV drug users to get tested. Even if you used just once. Today there are options that can change your life. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Meeting Ourselves

Some of our clients leave the program, thinking that if they go elsewhere their lives will be better. Sometimes they say they want to go to another program. Other times they want to leave because they are homesick. And some of them simply think that a change, any change, will be better than TLC.

And then there are those who leave just because they want to get drunk or high. They're probably the most honest ones because at least they realize that they're not done using yet. They just haven't had enough pain to motivate them to change.

But the idea that if we leave and go somewhere else things will be better is generally a fallacy. Because wherever we go, we take ourselves with us. And I speak from experience because it happened to me.

When I came to Arizona from California in 1982, some 35 years ago, it was because I thought a change of scenery would change my luck. And I got really angry at someone right before I left. Because she told me that when I got off the bus in Phoenix that I'd meet myself at the bus depot. I forget what my response was, but I remember that I thought that was a very hurtful thing for her to say to me. After all, I was making a geographical change because I wanted to improve my life.

But sure enough, when I got off the bus in Phoenix I met myself there. I remember asking a clerk at the bus depot where I could find a cheap motel since I'd never been to Phoenix and didn't know anything about it. He directed me to Van Buren street, which was a few blocks from the bus station.

And as soon as I arrived on Van Buren, I found myself in my element. The whole street was populated with alcoholics, addicts, and hookers. I was in my element, among my peeps.

And it wasn't until many years later that I realized that the person who said I'd meet myself at the bus depot was absolutely right.

It doesn't matter much what program we're in. Or where we go. We can make all the geographical changes we want. But if we haven't made a psychic change, had a spiritual shift of some kind, then we're doomed to repeat our old behavior - wherever we're at.

And that's the hardest change for us to make. Because it requires us to look squarely at ourselves. To recognize that we're the problem. It's not our family. It's not our parole officer. It's not our job. It's that voice inside of us that says we can successfully drink or do drugs, without paying any price at all.

But once we get rid of the idea that we can get high with impunity we're on our way to success.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Finding Gratitude

In the recovery business, it's easy to find gratitude and recognize that our lives are pretty good.

I realized that today after I talked to a mother who was facing a few issues. One problem was that her drug addict son was getting out of prison in about a week and she didn't know where he was going to live. She said he couldn't live with her because the last time he was free he had stolen a lot of money from the family business. Neither she nor her husband was able to trust him.

Plus, she had another issue that would keep him from living with her anyway. She lived in a part of the country that had experienced severe flooding and she was having to move from her home because mold had settled into the walls. And at the time she talked to me, she wasn't quite sure where she was going to move.

And to top it off, her son's ex-girlfriend said she wouldn't allow the grandmother to visit her grandchildren if she had any contact with her son.

So by the time she talked to me all these things were stressing her out. She wondered what to do. Did I have any suggestions for her?

I told her I could help her with the problem of where her son would live. And, of course, I told her she could send him to Arizona and we'd be happy to welcome him into our program.

As to her grandchildren, I explained that grandparents have legal rights to see their grandchildren, but that she'd probably have to hire an attorney to deal with the issue.  Because that was a matter beyond my job description.

All during my conversation with her, I felt her anxiety and stress. But when we hung up, I had a sense that she felt a little better.

As I said at first, it's easy to find gratitude when we see the issues others are facing. Especially those who have addicts in their lives.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Clearing the Wreckage

A TLC employee, who has been in our program for some 3 1/2 years, flew back to his hometown last week to face the music. He walked into the courtroom with some anxiety, not knowing whether the judge would take him into custody and put him in jail for old warrants.

After all, he'd been before the same judge a few times and didn't show back up after being released on his own recognizance. He hadn't had a driver's license for over 20 years and had been ticketed 33 times for driving without a license.

However, the judge was impressed that he had flown to Ohio from Arizona to face the consequences of his past behavior and didn't take him into custody. Instead, she took what money he had and let him make payment arrangements for the balance of his fines.

He was excited about the outcome because for the first time in two decades he'll soon be able to drive again - this time legally.

This man's experience is an example of what happens when someone sticks around the program and stays sober for a few years. Over 3 1/2 years ago he and his wife, not knowing anything about TLC or Arizona, took a long bus ride from the Midwest into an unknown future. They both ended up working for TLC, eventually got their own apartment, and reunited with their teenage daughter.

Both of them say that the first few months weren't easy. They were in a new climate and a new environment where they didn't know anybody. But they were determined to recover from their heroin addiction, to do whatever they had to do to change their lives, no matter how uncomfortable they were.

And this man's successful encounter with the justice system last week shows that their determination paid off.

Click here to email John

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Joint Commission Accreditation

Today, TLC treatment clinic received notice that it is being accredited by the Joint Commission.

Of course, the entire staff gave each other high-fives because we worked real hard over several months to achieve this honor.

So what is Joint Commission accreditation?

On the Joint Commission's website it, states "Joint Commission accreditation requirements address an organization’s performance in specific areas, and specify requirements to ensure that care, treatment, and services are provided based on quality and in a safe manner..."

The website further states, "The Joint Commission’s accreditation process concentrates on operational systems critical to the safety and quality of care, treatment or services provided to the individual. Surveys are conducted by experienced and licensed behavioral health care professionals, including psychologists, social workers, professional counselors, behavioral health care nurses and administrators. Many Joint Commission surveyors are actively working in a range of behavioral health care settings."

So what does this mean for our treatment program, which is now about five years old?

One of the things it means is that we have a lot more credibility in the marketplace. Some insurance companies don't deal with treatment programs that don't have some type of accreditation. There are only a few types of accreditation that have any meaning across the United States, this being one of the more prominent ones. This accreditation announces to the world that we provide the highest quality of care to all of our clients and adhere to a high standard of operation.

Because our treatment program evolved into what it is today from a small halfway house operation in 1992, we believe it is quite an accomplishment to have this type of recognition in the state of Arizona and across the country.

I'm especially proud of the staff members who spearheaded this project. They worked many long and hard hours doing research, rewriting policies and procedures, and making sure every aspect of the program could withstand the scrutiny of the professionals sent out by the joint commission earlier this year.

They worked long and hard to complete this process. They are an outstanding example of what recovering addicts and alcoholics can accomplish when they set a goal for themselves.

To learn more about the Joint Commission, Click here.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Resolving Differences

Our clients are of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and educational backgrounds.

So, it's not surprising that sometimes clients have differences with one another. And one of our jobs is to help clients from this pool of diversity to get along. And sometimes it's not easy.

When I'm dealing with differences between clients, clients who have gotten angry enough to threaten one another, I take it back to basics.

The first thing I do is deal with them one at a time in the privacy of my office. And my first question is "why did you come here?"

And the answer is almost always, "I came here to get sober." Or, "I came here to get clean."

Having established that they are in the program to get sober or clean we have a basis to resolve differences.

Once I've talked to both parties, I ask if they'd be willing to meet face-to-face. And usually, unless they were over-the-top angry, they agree to meet and talk through their disagreements. And when they talk face-to-face that's generally the end of the issue.

Rarely have we had to discharge clients because they were unable to get along. I think most of them are able to rise above their differences and recognize that their recovery is the priority, something that takes precedence over petty disagreements with fellow clients.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Changing our Story

Our clients sometimes tell us stories of the past.

In these narratives, they tell us what happened, what causes them pain. It could've been an abusive childhood. It could be the loss of a family member. They might have been a rape victim. Maybe they were traumatized by their experiences in Iraq or Vietnam. Maybe a family member succumbed to a heroin overdose. Perhaps they were in a bad marriage. Their sad tales cover a spectrum of experiences.

Whatever story they tell, it's always the rationale for their drug use or their alcoholism. They really believe these events damaged them so badly that they have to drink or use drugs to cover up the pain. In fact, some of them have been cycling in and out of treatment programs, jails, or hospitals for years, not knowing how to get beyond what happened to them. And sometimes people tell themselves these stories for the rest of their lives until they die of alcoholism or drug addiction.

But there are a lucky few who are able to change the narrative. Once they get in the program and start getting sober, they begin to view the things that happened in a different light. They learn to change their story of what happened and stop using it as an excuse to drink or drug.

They may edit their narrative in a number of ways. They may tell themselves that horrible things happen to a lot of people, but they don't propel themselves headlong into drugs or alcohol because of them. Or they may realize that they have been using, almost unconsciously, their terrible narrative as an excuse to drink and drug. After all, who wouldn't use drugs or alcohol if they had lived through our experiences? Or they may come to realize that the narrative that they've been playing in their head will kill them if they don't rewrite the plot.

And those who stay sober are those who succeed in changing their story. They no longer want to suffer and thus are able to break the grips of the past by changing their view of what they went through.  And that helps change their outcome.

Click here to email John

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hanging On

In India, hunters have a unique way of capturing monkeys.

They take a coconut, then drill a hole in it just big enough for a monkey's hand to fit through. Then they place an unpeeled banana inside. When a monkey reaches in and clasps the banana in his clenched hand, he finds that it's impossible to remove it from the coconut, which is secured by a rope or chain. No matter how hard he tries, his hand remains firmly inside the coconut. And the hunter can capture him quite easily because he won't let go.

How many of us can relate the monkey's dilemma to our own issues in life? How many things do we cling to that ultimately get us into trouble?

For example, for years I clung firmly to the idea that I could use substances without paying any kind of a price. I would be going through life doing quite well, not using anything at all. Then a crisis would arise that caused me pain. The next thing you know, I'd have a bottle in my hand or a needle in my arm. Somewhere along the way I still clung to the idea that I could use without getting addicted.

I hung on to the idea that I could use successfully for many years, even though I ended up in prison, divorced, broke, and suffering from health issues.

Of course, in this blog, I use the example of drug use because that is what has caused me the most pain in my life.

But we can also apply this example to other areas of life. How many of us think that we can eat whatever we want whenever we want without turning into a lard ass? I've known people all my life who spend good money and hours at the gym because they try to lose weight that they don't have to put on the first place. For some reason, they have the idea that if they just work out hard enough the pounds won't stay with them. But the reality is that exercise – while beneficial – is a hard way to lose weight. While selecting the right food and eating the right amount is the easiest way to maintain weight. But because they hang onto their ideas about weight loss they keep going through a cycle of losing and gaining.

Same thing applies to anything in our life that gets us into difficulty. Maybe we have a habit of overspending. Or perhaps, we are a gambler or a smoker. Maybe we're addicted to bad relationships. Whatever gets us into trouble repeatedly, happens because we ignore the evidence that what we're doing doesn't work.

We must get rid of the old ideas that we hang on to. The ones we can't let go of. The ones that keep us trapped in a cycle that eventually ruins our lives.