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.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Baffling and Powerful

A shockwave went over our community today when a key staff member relapsed and vanished from sight.

He'd been sober for over 10 years and had been a TLC client on and off for some 10 years before that.

For years he's been an integral part of our operation. He had many creative ideas and helped build TLC into the kind of organization that it is today. He was loyal and had nonstop energy. He was liked and respected by all of us who worked with him. When asked to do something he never said no.

So what happened? How does someone with this period of sobriety, working for one of the largest recovery programs in the state, up and relapse? He had a ton of resources at hand, had he chosen to use them. He had friends, coworkers, and a network of people in the twelve-step programs that he could've asked for help at any time. He had the support of his wife and family.

But his relapse is one more illustration that if we're not spiritually fit, and our lives are not in balance, that any of us can get caught up in our disease once more. Without extrasensory perception, we can never see what's going on in another person's head. But for those of us who have any involvement with the twelve-step programs, we know that our disease is very stealthy and can creep up on us if we are not spiritually fit.

All of his friends and coworkers here at TLC are praying that he's able to return to recovery and rebuild his life. He's not the first addict who's gone back out because he became overwhelmed by our disease. Nor will he be the last.

We only hope that he's one of those who makes it back.

Click here to email John

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas Gratitude

Christmas is a time for both giving - and gratitude.

And for those of us who are addicts and alcoholics, gratitude is the fuel that keeps us clean and sober.

I remember this Christmas season, 27 years ago when I was a hopeless addict and alcoholic. My routine was to get up every morning and shoplift some kind of alcohol. Beer, wine, whiskey – I didn't care what it was. But once I drank it I found the courage to go steal something larger, something I could sell for enough money to buy heroin. My home was the back seat of a stolen car; all the clothes I owned were on my back. I was miserable, demoralized, and in a lot of emotional pain.

I was in so much pain that I had little interest in going on living. But I'm grateful for that pain today. Because that pain was the catalyst that took me to a detox and started me down the path to recovery.

To say that I'm grateful for my pain might not make sense to those who aren't addicts. But the reality is that the pain of being broke, homeless, and in the midst of a black depression, has given me the life that I have today. And I know that most of my contemporaries – those of you who are in the midst of your recovery and enjoying life – know exactly what I'm talking about.

We're grateful for the life we have today. And we know that if we ever lose that gratitude we might find ourselves at the door of the neighborhood dope house or else sitting at the bar, wondering how we got there.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

R.I.P. Jose

Putting my chihuahua, José, to sleep is one of the hardest decisions I've had to make this year. Yet I had to make it because I could no longer bear to see him suffer from the diabetes that had taken his eyesight, his appetite, and had left him a bony shadow of his former self.

I made the decision today after watching him drink some water and immediately throw it up, as he had been doing for the past few days. Plus, he hadn't eaten for several days either. And those who knew José knew that he never missed a meal.

Even though I knew it was inevitable, I kept putting off the decision to have him put to sleep. And today, watching him struggle to walk back to his bed after vomiting another time, I found the courage to take him to the animal hospital to be euthanized. He died so peacefully that I understand now why they use the term putting them "to sleep."

I'm going to miss José because he was with me since June of 2006. I bought him out of a litter when he was just a few weeks old to serve as a companion to another Chihuahua that my aunt had left me when she died. One of the promises I made her before she died it was that I would take care of her dog. But after a while, I realized that the dog wasn't too happy being home alone all day. Plus she had always had the companionship of my aunt. So I brought José into the picture. And he served as a playful friend to that dog until it too passed on.

While I won't miss giving him insulin injections as I did twice a day for about the past three years, I will miss the greeting he gave me every day when I came home from the office. And I will miss how excited he would get every time I fed him.

And the great thing about him is that he never complained about anything.  I could be in a bad mood and he still loved me.  I could step on his toe accidentally and he wouldn't carry a resentment for more than a moment or two. 

I'll always remember Jose as a lover, not a fighter.While our other two dogs might be growling at visitors, he would be trying to get them to pick him up and pet him while he licked their faces.

His ashes will be spread in the flower beds around the house where he spent his life.

Click here to email John

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On the Road Again

People talk about miracles happening once we get into recovery. We hear it so often at meetings that it almost becomes cliché.

Yet, this week I witnessed yet another miracle in an addict's life. While I've written about this man's previous attempts to obtain his driver's license, yesterday he was finally granted a temporary license and is now driving one of our company vehicles.

The amazing thing is that this man had not driven legally in 21 years. In fact, in the area of the Midwest where he came from, he 'd received 33 citations for driving without a license. By the time he got to us he'd dug himself into a deep financial hole, so deep that he despaired of ever being able to save up the thousands of dollars he'd need to pay the mountain of fines and penalties he'd accumulated for driving illegally.

When he came to my office yesterday he was telling me what a strange feeling it was to be able to go somewhere without asking his wife or someone else to drive him. He's truly grateful. And he told me that now that he's put this behind him, his next goal is to have his civil rights restored. He says he's going to use the same focus and drive to get them restored as he did to get his license back.

This man's story is an example of how we can change our lives once we make a decision to do so.

Over the past 26 years that I've been at TLC I've seen all kinds of changes in people's lives. I've seen them reunite with their families. I've witnessed them graduating from college. I've seen them start businesses. I've seen them quit smoking, lose weight, and regain their health. I've seen them set goals and achieve them.

And it's always the same thing that helps them build success: hard work - and living in recovery.

Click here to email John



Sunday, December 17, 2017

Remembering the Missing

TLC has annual Christmas parties each year: one for the treatment program personnel, the other for the sober living management team. Both are nice events, with good food, and a lot of fellowship.

But, like in years past, I couldn't help but reflect upon those who were missing, the ones who were at last year's events but for various reasons didn't make it to this year's celebrations.

Many moved on to better jobs with more opportunities. But some of those who didn't show up fell victim to our disease in one way or the other. A few disappeared, reportedly because they relapsed. A couple of residents developed medical problems due to smoking and are unable to get out much. Another longtime resident, sober at the time, was killed in a motorcycle accident earlier in the year. Another long-term member of our staff committed suicide. A couple of others succumbed to cancer and heart disease.

And then there is that large group of people that I recall from over the last 25 years – all of them gone because they couldn't do what it took to stay clean and sober. I sat in groups with many of them and listened to them as they said – with all sincerity – that they didn't want to die "with a needle in their arm." Yet, later on, the stories would filter back into the community about them being found in a field or an alley somewhere, dead from an overdose of heroin. Others would talk about not wanting to die drunk, yet we'd get calls from the police or hospitals, trying to identify them so they could contact their families.

I may be painting a somber, dark picture here. But the reality of the recovery business is that our disease takes a lot of our friends from us. It can be daunting at times to think of all those we lose. But what keeps us going - and keeps us from being overwhelmed with depression - is the ones who make it. While we lose many addicts and alcoholics, we also have a lot of successful graduates who are living happy and sober lives today.

And it's these success stories that keep us energized and helps us to show up every day for the new people who keep arriving at our door, asking for help.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Biggest Loser

"Your body is precious. It is your vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care." Buddha

When addicts flush the drugs and alcohol out of their bodies their health usually improves.

They begin to have more energy. Their thinking clears up after a while. They're no longer using toxic substances and their body responds accordingly.

But this doesn't apply to all addicts and alcoholics. Unfortunately, many of our clients find a substitute for the drugs they left behind. That substitute usually is junk food, sodas, or some form of tobacco.

While most of our addict clients were smokers when they came in most of them end up continuing the habit even after a year of sobriety. Food intake is another thing. While many of us didn't eat much while we were using, most of us make up for the meals we missed in short order. It's not unusual to see a client gain 25, 50 or even 100 pounds after being around a short while.

I bring this up today because we have several staff members who are competing in a "biggest loser" contest; the winner will be the one who loses the largest percentage of their body weight rather than a certain number of pounds. First prize is $250, second prize is $150 and third prize is $100. There are already some clear leaders in the contest. A few had a plan from the beginning and have followed through with it.

But there are those who are seesawing back and forth with what they eat and how much weight they're losing. Among those who are seesawing, the term "self-discipline" often comes up.

And, of course, that's always the issue when we're trying to change from bad habits to good ones. Do we have the self-control and self-discipline to follow through with our commitments and our goals?

I guess we'll see who's able to do that at the weigh-in at the end of December.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Using our Time

Student: "how long should I meditate?"

Teacher: "you should meditate for 20 minutes. But if you can't find time to meditate for 20 minutes, then you should meditate for an hour."


At first, I didn't quite understand this exchange between student and teacher. But then, after pondering for a moment, I understood it perfectly.

For me, the message the teacher gave the student means that if your life is so busy and complicated that you can't find 20 minutes, then perhaps you should take an hour and meditate. Maybe that will help you figure out your priorities.

All too frequently I have conversations with people who say they don't have "enough time" to get everything done they want to do.

They talk about wanting to start an exercise program – but somehow they can't find the time. Or they want to take a class, but there's no room in their day.

The idea that we don't have enough time to get everything done is, in my opinion, a fallacy.

After all, how many times a day do we check in on Facebook? We have time to check in online with our friends to see what they're having at a local restaurant. What they're doing at a fancy hotel. Or what they're doing on vacation.

Or we have hours to waste surfing the Internet watching videos of funny animals or to watch human beings making videos of each other doing outrageous things. We have hours to loaf in front of the television each day. We have time to send endless and meaningless text messages to our friends. So how is it that we can't find time to do something that would be really beneficial and important for us?

The answer, of course, is that we can. We just have to find out what's important in our lives. Then cut the digital umbilical cord for a while so we can use our time wisely.

Click here to email John

Friday, December 8, 2017

Common Cold

I don't suffer very well. For the past 10 days, since the 29th of November, I've had a cold. And the bad thing is I got it on the first day of my vacation on the 29th and I still have it some three days after my return. I'm the first to admit that I'm a real wimp when it comes to things like colds and the flu.

And of course, the reason for this is that I very rarely become ill. Last time I can recall having a cold is maybe over three years ago. And I think things like this bother me more than they might someone else because I spend a lot of time eating right and trying to stay healthy. Getting sick to me is almost like a personal failure.

And this is something that I'm almost ashamed to write down. Because there are so many people in the world who really suffer from chronic ailments and diseases from which they'll never recover. But the addict and alcoholic in me say that I must always feel good or else the planet is off-kilter, completely out of balance.

It seems almost unfair that there's no cure for the common cold. The thing the doctors tell you is to drink a lot of liquids and get plenty of rest. And maybe 8 to 10 days later you will start feeling better. It's a true feeling of powerlessness.

Somewhere in the midst of this cold, I have thoughts of acceptance and gratitude. The acceptance is about recognizing that time will take care the way I'm feeling. And the gratitude part comes from recognizing that at 78 I'm blessed to be as functional as I am, to be able to show up at the office every day, to be able to drive fast cars and to enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I mean, other a vacation once in a while, what else can one ask for?

Click here to email John


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Living in a Dump

Today my daughter and I spent several hours of our vacation at a city dump in the hills above the resort city of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was a lesson in gratitude for those of us who live our privileged lives in a clean and safe environment.

A pastor my daughter met at a church service yesterday invited us to visit the facility he manages that provides housing, food, education, and daycare to the children of recyclers that work at the dump. The 70 family facility has five floors. But only one of them is occupied as of today's visit. The others are to be filled as the families are screened before moving in.

The facility, about half a block outside the dump, is modern and new. Yet, many of the families resist moving from the cardboard shacks they've called home for generations to the new facility because they don't want to give up their "freedom." After all, at the dump, they don't have to pay for the electricity and water they steal. Nor do they have to follow any rules – they do pretty much as they choose – including using drugs or alcohol.

While the dump would seem to be hell on earth to outsiders, for many of the families that live there it is the only home they've ever known. Many of them resist the idea of changing to something new and modern, even though their children will have opportunities for an education and better health care.

During our visit, we helped the staff serve lunch to preschoolers and kindergarteners who are cared for at the facility during the day while their parents recycle trash. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Happy Anniversary?

A year ago today I was here in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, celebrating my fifth wedding anniversary with my soon-to-be ex-wife. It was sort of a tradition for us to take a vacation on our anniversary, which also coincided with her birthday.

Today, exactly one year later, I'm here on a one-week vacation with my oldest daughter, enjoying a much-needed vacation after several months of costly dealings with attorneys and lawsuits related to my impending divorce.

And I say "much-needed" because since last February 28 life has had its challenges. The evening of February 28 is when my soon-to-be ex-wife grabbed a large butcher knife and went after my daughter for reasons that aren't clear to me or my daughter. The whole event was over in less than 30 seconds and ended with my wife in jail on domestic violence charges and my daughter and I both traumatized. It was a miracle from God that no one was killed that evening.

I got a restraining order against her the next morning and filed for divorce within days.

For several months after my wife's release from jail, we tried to work out ways of reconciling. We tried a legal separation, and in pursuit of that I shortsightedly purchased a newly rehabilitated house in my area for her to live in – a house that she selected. I filled it with new furniture and appliances and had custom blinds installed. I paid all the expenses and provided her with an allowance. I paid off her credit cards. But somehow it didn't work out.

Things really started declining when I asked her to sign a disclaimer for a company refinancing loan that I have been working on for about six weeks. For some reason, she had the idea that one of the largest banks in Arizona, a bank that had about $13 billion in assets, was out to defraud her. And she refused to sign the document - essentially stopping the loan from proceeding.

That kind of did it for me. And I was quite angry for a short while. Later, I realize that I probably shouldn't be angry at her. After all, the same thinking processes that allowed her to go after my daughter were probably also involved in her deciding to not help me with the loan.

The weekend after the loan fiasco she abandoned the house, stripping it of its furnishings. After that, we dated sporadically, but things never really got back on track. Then July 16 – when we were supposed to see each other – she sent a text saying she could no longer "do this." I agreed, and blocked her from my phone and haven't spoken to her since.

It was a good decision on my part. While I occasionally look back in regret, more and more I come to realize that I have peace and serenity in my life that I haven't enjoyed in a long time. We're supposed to go to trial February 28 to finalize the divorce. But I'm prepared, if necessary, for this thing to drag on for another year or two. Whatever happens, it's going to happen when it's supposed to.

Arizona law is very clear about the division of assets acquired during a marriage: 50-50. It makes little difference to me whether it happens next year or the year after.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Gratitude Moment

While flying to Puerto Vallarta a few days ago I got into a conversation with a 40ish woman who was seated next to me, sipping a vodka on the rocks.

It seemed like she had the ideal life. She worked as a captain for the fire department in San Diego, and in seven years she would be able to retire at 50 with 90% of her salary for the rest of her life. She said she loved what she did.

But then as we got further into the conversation it turned out that her job was very stressful. She talked of working a lot of overtime, especially during the California fire season when she had to work day after day in Napa Valley when fires devastated that area. She said that even though she works three days a week and is off for four days, she deals with emotionally taxing events on an almost daily basis when on duty.

She said that right before she came on vacation she performed CPR on a victim for an hour, but was unable to bring him back. She said the vision of his cold blue face is still burned into her memory. She went on to talk of other events: failing to resuscitate a child that had drowned, consoling a family that had lost all their belongings in a fire, helping extract accident victims from a car, and so on. It seemed like she dealt with a spectrum of human tragedy on a regular basis.

When I asked how she dealt with her stress, she told me she goes on vacations where she does nothing but relax for a week at a time. And she also works out and makes an effort to meditate and do yoga. But it seemed like what she was doing to deal with all the pressures upon her wasn't sufficient. Some of the things she dealt with were so traumatic it's difficult to get them out of her memory.

When the flight was over I had a sense of gratitude that I work in the recovery field. While it has its share of stress, it doesn't compare to what this woman deals with.

Click here to email John