Recovery Connections

John Schwary is CEO of Transitional Living Communities, an 850-bed recovery program he founded in Mesa, Arizona January 9, 1992, when he had a year sober. He's in his 29th year of recovery.

In these posts, he views life mostly through the lenses of recovery. While the blog is factual, he often disguises events and people to protect anonymity.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Helping the Angry

Many of us have angry people in our lives, particularly those of us working in the recovery field. 

How do we stay above the fray?  How do we keep from getting sucked into negative emotions when others go sideways?  When they relapse?  When they do self-destructive things?  Or even when they threaten us?

One thing that helps me is to remember that I got into the recovery field to help others.  To share with others how I've managed to keep a needle out of my arms for 27 years.  To let them know that I was able to rebuild my life, even though I started relatively late - in my early fifties.

Another way to protect ourselves is to not take things personally.  Many of our clients are seriously traumatized and disturbed.  We must always keep in mind that it's not about us.  It's about helping clients to repair their emotions and to learn to live in reality.  When they're disturbed or upset it's generally about their distorted view of life and has little to do with us.  If they were well, they wouldn't need our help.

We need not beat ourselves up if it seems as though we're making no progress with a truculent client.  It helps me if  I look back at all the frustrated people who tried to help me before I was ready to change.  Many well-intentioned counselors, family members, and friends spent time and effort to help me shake the grip of drugs and alcohol.  But, until I was ready to change they were wasting their time.  On top of that, I was angry at them, even though they were trying to protect me from myself.

To shield us from burnout we must practice what we preach.  Use mindfulness techniques.  Get adequate rest.  Take responsibility for our mental and physical health - the same advice we give our clients.



Saturday, October 28, 2017

Being Kind and Loving

Left town on Friday to hang out at my favorite condo in Imperial Beach for four days with friends.

It's wonderful to get back to the ocean, to walk on the sand early in the morning.  It's cleansing and healing to listen to the waves as the sun rises.  So peaceful and soothing after a hot and crazy summer, dealing with angry people, people threatening litigation and more.

As I walk, I pass people of all backgrounds and ages.  Some are surfing. A few older people are fishing off the pier.  Two children are building a sand castle.  A father is collecting seashells with his children.  It's a peaceful scene of people immersed in their lives, people living in the moment.  While I can't see inside their heads, they all appear to be happily enjoying this moment of their lives.

As I continue along the sand, enjoying the morning, I reflect on what I've learned about living in the here and now - in this moment.  And what the people by the ocean seem to be doing is enjoying each minute as it unfolds, oblivious to time.  Exactly what I've been taught in the mindfulness meditation course I've been attending.

During my reverie, I begin to use another technique I've learned in my Vipassana studies, that of loving kindness.  This is a practice where we sending loving thoughts to first ourselves, then our family and friends, then to even our adversaries, until our good wishes cover the entire world.

A loving-kindness meditation goes something like "May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you prosper, may you be happy, may you be free from pain, may you be peaceful..." and so forth.  There are many variations to the meditation and practitioners can be as creative as they want.  It kind of serves the same purpose as praying for those you resent, as described on page 552 in the AA Big Book.  It helps soften the heart and to clear negative emotions.

And as I return to the condo after my walk by the sea I feel purged of negativity, having a sense of peace, of oneness with the world.

Click here to email John

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Recovery Romance

One of our bigger challenges at TLC is helping clients avoid relationships.

You might wonder why we're interested in a client's personal relationships. What's the point of interfering with mother nature?

But experience has taught us that a quick path to relapse is a recovery romance. All of a sudden, instead of focusing on the nuances of staying sober, the client spends most of the day fantasizing about his or her sweetheart. Here's this wonderful creature who has led him out of the bleak landscape of recovery into the hormone-laced joy of a new romance. The world has come alive. Our self-esteem is boosted when we find that somebody, anybody, cares about us.

Some clients rush headlong into romances with little thought. The romance is a substitute for the drug they haven't been successful at using. They don't stop to think that 50% of most marriages end in divorce – and that's among so-called "normal" people. I've never read any statistics about the success of marriages between addicts or alcoholics. My guess would be that they fail at an even higher rate. And when the client is on psychiatric medications or suffers mental illness, the failure rate is likely even higher.

Over the last 25 years, we've seen many clients pair up and live together, or else get married. Many of them even have had children, but I can probably count on one hand TLC clients who have succeeded at long-term marriages or relationships.

Our recommendation to those who are head over heels in love with another alcoholic or addict is to give it a year and simply work on recovery. A year is nothing for people who are truly in love.

If they last that long and are solid into recovery, that's the time to get more serious.

They often accuse us of being mean because we don't understand what they're feeling.  But all we're trying to do is protect them from themselves - to keep them from heading into another relapse.

Click here to email John

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Against the Odds

"If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it." -- Elon Musk, Tesla Inventor

When I got into recovery when I was 51, sobriety was the most important thing in my life.

After using drugs for 38 years and drinking for 42 years I had finally come to the realization that I was the problem. It wasn't my parents. It wasn't my ex-wives. It wasn't the justice system. My idea that I could successfully use kept me in constant trouble in every area of my life.

During the years of feeding my addictions, I served a lot of time on the installment plan. California State prison. Orange County jail. Metropolitan State Hospital, Norwalk, California. And several other jails. I burned through about 16 years of my life trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I could use heroin and drink without getting in trouble. But I was wrong. Nearly dead wrong, because my addictions almost killed me more than one time.

At some point, I decided I wanted to live. I was sick of the pain. I was sick of being homeless. I was sick of being broke. Even though I hated to admit it, those who told me I needed help were right.

I decided to change, even though the odds were against me starting over at the age of 51. But it was very important to me to do whatever it took to change my life. I still had children, even though all but one of them were grown. I still had parents who loved me. In other words, there were a lot of people that I didn't want to disappoint.

In the early years of my recovery, back in 1991, I started out in a halfway house where I lived for a year. And the secret to my success, I believe, is that I kept my eyes on my goal: the goal of staying sober regardless of what I encountered.

And the interesting thing is that when one has that kind of attitude, they can be unstoppable. Within a year, I had gone into the recovery business and was starting to build a team of like-minded people to help me.

Because I had the attitude that I could beat the odds I have a wonderful life today. Yes, I've had setbacks and losses. But none of them have taken my eyes off of my goal of living a sober life.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Flowing with Life

After nearly 27 years of sobriety, it's easy to be a good mood. In fact, I'm pretty much in a good mood all the time. I don't have to work to get there because that's the way I wake up and that's the way I go to bed.

It wasn't always that way. When I first got sober, nearly 27 years ago, I was like many other newly sober addicts and alcoholics. I looked outside of myself to find happiness. If I was unhappy, it was because the external world was not complying with my wishes. People weren't doing what I wanted them to do. No one really appreciated me or understood just how important I was.

As the years went on, and I got further into recovery, I realized that the better relationship I had with my own thinking the better the outside world looked. No longer did I seek material things or other people for my happiness. Instead, I started paying attention to my own thinking and realize that I had to, first of all, get my ego out of the way – as much as possible. I had to learn how to accept others, just as they were – rather than as how I wanted them to be. And that shift – just looking at myself and my part in the world – made all the difference in my life.

I was at a meeting the other day where a gentleman was talking about how many problems he was having with his business partner. He said the situation was nearly driving him crazy.

But someone else in the room pointed out that there's always someone or something in our lives to challenge us. We resolve one problem or situation and another pops up. It's the rhythm of life.

And the way we stay happy and emotionally level is to realize that everything isn't always going to go our way. And if we take that view, we aren't going to pick up a drink, a drug, a cigarette, or engage in self-destructive anger.

Instead, we're going to accept the ups and downs of life and be grateful that we're here to enjoy them.

Click here to email John


Monday, October 16, 2017

Finding Gratitude

I was reminded the other day about how gratitude can make our internal landscape much more beautiful.

It occurred after a meeting where one of the participants droned on about the challenges he was facing. And the challenges were pretty minor, in my opinion. The person was complaining about his employer not paying him enough money. About the job itself. About his girlfriend, and the fact that his car was broken. And there were other issues that he also had mixed into this stew of complaints. When he quit talking, a sigh of relief passed through the room.

Later, after the meeting, a few of us – reacting to this young man's complaints – were talking about gratitude. That it's easy to be grateful for what we have when we look around at the world today.

A horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas that rained death on people having fun on a summer evening. A raging fire that blackened one of the more beautiful areas of northern California, leaving death and destruction behind. A huge truck bomb in Somalia that ripped a city apart, leaving an unknown death toll. Hurricanes and floods slamming the southeastern United States and the Caribbean, causing widespread destruction.

When we go beyond our own petty complaints and challenges and look at the world around us we can find many reasons to be grateful. There are people living in the midst of suffering due to no fault of their own. And the uplifting thing is that survivors of those tragedies are always expressing gratitude that they survived. That they still have their lives.

If we have the sensitivity and compassion to look at what our friends and neighbors suffer through, we can start viewing the world through a different pair of glasses.

Click here to email John

Friday, October 13, 2017

Escaping the Past

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” ~Pastor Rick Warren

It's easy to understand why many of our clients became addicts or alcoholics.

Over the past 27 years, I've heard chilling stories of every kind of imaginable abuse. Many of them were raised by parents who were drug addicts themselves. Because of their parent's addiction, they often were left without food and the other necessities of life. Often they were beaten or sexually and emotionally abused. And the biggest thing they didn't get was any kind of love or nurturing. Some of them bear scars that might prevent them from ever getting over their addictions.

Yet there are some who have decided to become bigger than their past. Somehow they reach down inside of themselves and find the courage to change. They might be so angry at their upbringing that they're determined to show the world and their families that there's a better way to live.

Those are the clients who come to us because they've had enough pain and want to change. These are the kind of clients we can work with and help to achieve success.

It's easy to pick out those who are ready to change. They're the ones who attend 12-step meetings every day. They find sponsors right away. They keep their living area clean. They find jobs and begin to pay their service fees. They don't hang out with the losers; they gravitate toward the winners.

No longer willing to live in the past; they have forged new lives for themselves.

Click here to email John

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Improving Self-Esteem

Our addicted clients often judge themselves very harshly. And why wouldn't they?

Most of those who come to us have lost everything. They lost their jobs. They lost their husband or wife. In some cases, the custody of their children. Some have lost their freedom for a period of time and came to us on parole or probation. Others have used drugs for so long that it has impacted their health or completely ruined it.

And because they have done so poorly with their life they almost always have low or zero self-esteem. In other words, they feel terrible about what they've done with their lives. And it's understandable. If someone else had done to them what they've done to themselves they'd want to harm or kill them.

So how do we help them regain their self-esteem? How do we help them dig out of the emotional hole they find themselves in?

One thing I do is ask them to move into the moment and to quit dwelling on their messed up past. I tell them to quit mucking around into what happened before or how they got themselves here.

Once they're in the here and now, in the moment, I ask them to focus on what they're doing today. Did they go to work? Did they use any drugs or alcohol? Did they go to their meetings? Did they treat others well? Did they exercise? Did they show themselves love and self-care by eating the right foods and getting plenty of rest? Because doing positive things to enhance our life, even little ones like I mentioned here can do a lot to change our view of ourselves.

Taking basic steps, even small ones will help us improve our view of ourselves. And when we feel better about ourselves life seems much more worthwhile.

Click here to email John

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Living with Anger

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."  Buddha

It seemed like I spent a lot of time last week dealing with angry people. Most were clients. But some were longtime acquaintances.

And at times it's hard to discuss anger with those who carry it around in the forefront of their minds. They sometimes are so adamant about being right, and the other person being wrong, that they're deaf to any kind of input.

But still, I feel obligated to try. And I feel obligated because I was raised in a family of angry people. And was taught during my early years that being angry was an okay way to live.  Only when I was older did I learn that forgiving and moving on was the path to peace and serenity. And a much more pleasant way to live.

One client I talked to was angry about how his parents treated him. His focus wasn't on his recovery program, but on how he perceived that they had done him wrong. When I pointed out that he was probably really upset because they weren't letting him have his way, it seemed to fuel his anger. So much so, that he cut our conversation short with an excuse that he had an appointment elsewhere.

I talked to another person about the value of just letting things go. It didn't make any difference whether she was right or wrong, anger was taking a toll. It consumed her thinking. It interfered with her sleep. She was chain-smoking. Her blood pressure went up. And her friends didn't want much to do with her because all she talked about was how she'd been done wrong. People find it boring after a while, having to listen to the same old story of being a victim.

While our anger may sometimes be justified, that's no reason to let it destroy us. Only when we can live in peace and calm can we enjoy the present moment - where we taste the true flavor of life.

Click here to email John

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Stealing our Clients

In the 26 years since I founded TLC, I've spent little time thinking about the competition. In fact, I have very little to say about others or how they run their programs.

But yesterday, I received quite a surprise when I started checking out our Google map information. Just to make sure it was accurate. And as I looked over the maps, I discovered that I didn't recognize some of the phone numbers that were displayed. So I called a couple of the numbers.

And guess what? The person who answered the phone had nothing to do with TLC or any of its houses. The person who picked up the phone answered "Better Addiction Care, how may I help you?"

Then she started asking me about my addiction problem. Could she help me find a treatment program somewhere? Did I have insurance? And what company was providing my coverage? What part of the United States would I like to go to for treatment? The probing questions kept coming until I asked if I could speak to her supervisor. And that's when she got off the phone.

After checking a number on a different map, another staff member and I began investigating Better Addiction Care. We found that it's a client brokerage and referral service out of Florida. Once we learned the name of its CEO, Shane SantaCroce, we gave him a call and asked how our phone numbers had been changed to direct calls to his business. And, of course, he gave us a lot of mumbo-jumbo about how he didn't know how that had happened. He said that a company in Israel and another in Hawaii had been changing the numbers on other program's maps to have phone calls directed his company. After several minutes of mumbo-jumbo about how his company wasn't responsible, he got off of the phone and said he'd look into it further. I provided a link here to a video on YouTube where he's featured talking about ethics and what he's doing to prevent these kinds of things from happening.

While I was looking up his company's name and trying to track him down I ran across a lot of interesting information about unethical treatment programs in Florida. Here's a link to an NBC broadcast about their investigation into the issue.

After I got this incident behind me I reflected upon how sad it is to find such a level of corruption in the recovery business. In the long run, I know that it's going to benefit our program because we've never engaged in unethical practices. Once these kinds of programs are shut down, and there are literally hundreds of them, I know that people will be looking for an ethical program where they can receive professional services.

And when they do, our doors will be open to them.

Click here to email John

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Time to Leave

An employee who's doing well in the program, and who has a few years of sobriety, gives notice that he's leaving to go back home.

When I ask why he wants to leave, he doesn't sound very convincing. He has a place to live, he says. He has friends in the program. Plus, he misses the beauty of his home state.

But he doesn't have much else to say when I start talking to him about his history of recovery. He's never been able to put more than a few months of sobriety together. All the people he knows back home are drinkers, the people he hung out with before he came to us. And now that he has a couple of years sobriety he thinks the place he needs to be is back where it all started.

I tell him I don't agree with his decision because I don't think he's thought through it very well. This is the first time he's had two years of sobriety and all of a sudden he wants to make a change.

He reminds me of another client we had about 10 years ago. One day in a group session he announced that it was time for him to leave. When I asked him why, he said: "well, I've just been here long enough."

I was kind of surprised at his answer. So I asked how much money he'd saved. Did he have a car? Did he have insurance on the car? Did he have a support group where he was going? But it turns out his only rationale for leaving was that he had "been here long enough."

My experience has been that those who are ready to leave make a very gentle and smooth transition back into the community. They have a job. They have a support group. A car and insurance. An apartment or house. Plus a couple of months of savings put away in case they run into difficulty.

A lot of times those who suddenly leave, who have no concrete plan, are destined to repeat the history that brought them to us in the first place.