Recovery Connections

John Schwary is CEO of Transitional Living Communities, an 900-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, January 29, 2018

Planning Overrated?

Sometimes I believe that planning is overrated.

For 27 years, I've been working in the same field, helping recovering addicts and substance abusers rebuild their lives. It's been my passion to stay clean and sober, to not use drugs or alcohol. So my personal goals and my work life mesh perfectly. After all, one can't run a recovery or treatment program and be addicted to substances. And while doing the work I love, this program sort of expanded on its own to our present 850 beds and the half-dozen businesses we own and operate.

But often, other business people treat me like I'm some kind of talented entrepreneur. They give me a lot of credit for the success of our organization. Like I'm a great planner or strategist. When I tell them that TLC just sort of evolved on its own into what it is today they think I'm being modest.

But it's true. When our first house on Robson St. in Mesa became full, we responded by purchasing a duplex next door. And when the duplex became full, we ended up leasing an old hospital on Country Club Road. And that's how the program evolved. We'd lease or buy a property and before long it was full. So we'd search until we found another place to put people. In less than 24 months we had 300 beds and were looking for more space.

It's the same way our businesses evolved. A lot of times addicts and alcoholics have a difficult time finding employment. Our response was to start a labor group that today sometimes sends out over 250 people on different jobs. Among the work we do is to clean up after ballgames, golf tournaments, and other events. Most of the businesses we started were related to the needs of our program and clients. We spent many years repairing our roofs and remodeling our own buildings until finally, we decided to get a state contractor's license. Later we were able to obtain our air-conditioning and refrigeration license as well.

And most all of this is been an evolutionary process. Someone would come up with an idea for a business we could do and so we would try it. Many times it wouldn't work. So we'd go on to something else. Much of what has happened at TLC is the result of trial and error – as opposed to a lot of planning on our part. While we had to plan how to do things in the short term – such as how to run our businesses – we've never really had a long-term plan other than trying to help people change their lives.

All we've done is respond to the needs of our clients.

Click here to email John

Friday, January 26, 2018

Opioid Ignorance

A Columbia University psychology professor, Carl L. Hart, claims that people are not dying because of opioids. He says "they are dying because of ignorance."

And he explains why in an article in the November 2017 issue of Scientific American. You can click on this link to go directly to the article because it is quite compelling.

He says it is certainly possible to die from an overdose of an opioid, but this accounts for a minority of the thousands of opioid-related deaths. He says most of the deaths occurred, not because of the opioid itself, but when people combine them with something else like alcohol, benzos or other drugs.  They're ignorant of the fact that opioids mixed with other substances can be a deadly combination.

In the article, he speaks to how other countries, rather than curbing the use of opioids, take a proactive way of dealing with them. He says that in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, that opioid treatment may include daily injections of heroin – while those same countries provide treatment along with the heroin therapy to help addicts lead a better life. He says these patients hold jobs, pay taxes and live productive lives. He also points out that such an approach is not even discussed in our country.

He doesn't endorse drug use by any means. He just believes that ignorant comments by politicians about cracking down on opioid use contribute to, rather than alleviating, the problem.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Freeing the Monster

Once we relapse and free the monster inside of us it's often difficult to come back and start over.

A few days ago a staff member who had relapsed several weeks ago called to ask for help. He said he wanted to come back to TLC. He wanted to change his life. He thought that if he didn't come back he might not survive.

The team that went to his door was confronted with an example of what our addictions can do to us. The man who answered the door was a gaunt shadow of his former self. Because he'd been using meth and hadn't eaten in about three weeks he'd lost an estimated hundred pounds. He was so weak he could barely stand. And at one point fell over when he tried to get up from the sofa where he was sitting. He was so weak he couldn't walk. And a staff member had to carry him downstairs and place him in our vehicle. From there we took him to the emergency room where they kept him most of the day. They likely would have been admitted him to the hospital but he was uncooperative with the medical staff. Finally, one of the doctors lost patience and discharged him.

We placed him in one of our halfway houses so he could sleep and regain his strength. But the next day, after sleeping overnight and eating a few meals he asked to be taken to his apartment.  He wanted to pick up clothing and toiletries and return to the program. Once at his apartment, though, he decided to stay there.

This situation is an example of what happens when we go back out. This man had been clean for some 12 years. Yet he allowed personal issues to take him back to the insanity of addiction. And the sad thing is that this man had everything in the world going for him. He had his children and other family members who cared about him. He had a secure job with a great future. He had investments that many men his age hadn't acquired yet. But he threw it all away because he didn't apply the program to his own life.

While he may be able to get his life back together once he suffers enough pain and misery, his prospects at this point don't seem great. For one thing, he has the financial resources to purchase enough drugs to last for a while. Maybe long enough for him to kill himself.

One more time we witness the power of our disease.

Click here to email John

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Rewards

One of the big payoffs for us here at TLC is when our clients stay sober and experience some success.  But most of the time they just move on to the next phase of their life and we lose contact with them. Once in a while, though, we run into them by accident and hear how they're doing.

And that happened to me today when I was walking through a parking lot and was greeted by a couple who were standing by a nice Cadillac Escalade. I spoke to them, even though I wasn't sure who they were.

The man said, "I'm not sure if you remember us but we were in your program for a while." After he told me about their successful efforts to regain custody of their two children while they were with us, then I remembered who they were. He explained that it been a few years since he and his wife had left TLC and that they were doing very well. He was working for a high-tech company in Chandler and she had some kind of business that she had recently started.

There were both well-dressed, looking healthy and clear-eyed. They had all the earmarks of success, which by our definition at TLC means being clean and sober.

Over the past 27 years, one of the big deals in my life is when I accidentally run into someone like this couple. To see someone change their lives and succeed in becoming productive members of the community is a wonderful reward.

There are many jobs in the world where one can make money and have success. But there aren't too many jobs in the world where can make a living while at the same time helping people rebuild their lives.

Click here to email John




Wednesday, January 17, 2018

This Moment

"There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly, live." Dalai Lama

When clients bring their problems to us, they very seldom have anything to do with today. Generally speaking, their problems involve thoughts of yesterday or anxiety about tomorrow.

They may be reflecting upon the wrongs they've done to their family. Or the terrible things their family has done to them. Maybe it's about how unfair the justice system is because they were sent to prison for drugs or drug-related behavior. Perhaps they are fretting about the way they were raised, and how that caused them to become an addict or alcoholic.

But the reality is that many of us have terrible stories about the past. We drag these stories out, like a dog digging up a bone. We chew on them for a while. Then take them back and bury them, carefully remembering where we put them so we can dig them up later. Many of us spend a lot of time musing about the past, feeling depressed or sorry about what we find there.

But it never serves us to spend time mulling over our past. While bad memories might provide us with good reasons to get drunk or high, they pretty much serve no other purpose. That's not to say that the negatives from our past were okay, or that the things that happened to us were acceptable. It's just that it serves little purpose to trade the present moment for these sometimes dark places.

Same thing when we take a fantasy journey into the future, one that's mixed with fear and anxiety. We may be worried about our job prospects. Or where we're going to live. Or what we're going to do with some aspect of our lives. But does this serve any purpose? No, not if it's also mixed with fear and anxiety. Planning for the future is one thing, something we can do in quiet moments right now. But when fear and uncertainty enter the picture, then we're wasting the precious moments of our lives today.

Living in the moment is when good things happen for us. Today we can have gratitude for our friends and loved ones. For the food on our table. For our homes and our livelihood. And if we're in recovery, for the blessings we've received since we've gotten sober. All the sweet spots in our life happen now. Not when we do archaeological excavations into our past. Nor when we fearfully explore the unknowns of our future.

Click here to email John

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Celebrating 27 Years

27 years ago today I awoke in a detox in Mesa, Arizona. I was going through withdrawals from heroin and alcohol and wasn't feeling very wonderful about life. However, the staff at the detox was keeping me comfortable with some lightweight medications that eased my withdrawal symptoms. Whatever they gave me, it kept me comfortable enough so that I could resist the urge to bolt out the door.

The day before I'd been living in a stolen car with seventy-three cents in my pocket, and in a dark cloud of depression about my life. I was 51 years old, and one more time I'd lost pretty much everything. My apartment. My job. My clothes. My car. All the material stuff. And I really didn't have any friends who wanted to talk to me. Or for that matter, even any family members who wanted to hear from me – except maybe my mother. I was completely demoralized.

While in the detox I was presented with some educational programs that helped me, especially the various twelve-step programs. The detox featured Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and a few others. I was confused about which meetings to go to because I liked all kinds of drugs. But finally, I settled upon Alcoholics Anonymous, because about 60% of its members also use some other kind of drug besides alcohol.

After 11 days the detox referred me to a local halfway house, which accepted me without money. And to them, I am eternally grateful. Because if I'd went back to the streets I'm not sure I would've survived. I spent a year in that program, then left and started my own halfway house. Today it has some 850 residents and operates a treatment program and several other businesses that help support addicts in recovery.

Today I lead almost a dream life. I have family and a circle of friends around me. I have all the material things a person could ask for. At 78 years of age, I'm still healthy enough to show up to work five or six days a week.

Does that mean I don't have challenges in my life? Not at all.

I've lost most of my close family members over the last 27 years. I developed neuropathy in both feet about 10 years ago and must wear braces. I had hepatitis C for 30 years, but new medical treatments cured it a year ago. I had 45 days of radiation treatment for prostate cancer in 2016, and it disappeared. I've faced financial setbacks and suffered my share of ups and downs in the halfway house business. And this past year has been especially tough because I've been going through a nasty divorce that I never planned on. And then right before Christmas, my dog José succumbed to diabetes.

But nothing has made me want to pick up a drug or a drink. And for that, I'm truly grateful.

Click here to email John

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Smoking Rant

When I quit smoking 33 years ago it was among the most difficult challenges of my life. I had gone through heroin withdrawal numerous times between the ages of 16 and 51 – maybe as many as 30 times. But heroin withdrawal, for me, didn't even hold a candle to the pain of quitting smoking cigarettes.

At the time I quit, I was living with a chain smoker, which made it more difficult for me to quit. When I stopped, we were both in recovery. But when I suggested that maybe she quit smoking, she said something to the effect that she had quit everything else that she enjoyed and that she certainly wasn't going to give up cigarettes.

When I said that cigarettes were probably going to kill her she replied that at least "she would die with some flavor on her lips." And that was the end of my efforts to convince her to stop.

She's still alive today but has numerous health problems that her doctors attribute to her heavy smoking habit. She's had more than one heart attack and has had a pacemaker implanted. However, it hasn't convinced her to quit smoking.

Now I know that I'm quite judgmental about smoking. But it's  had a heavy impact on my family. At least seven of my family members – mostly aunts and uncles – died slow, painful deaths from the effects of smoking. COPD and emphysema ravaged their bodies. They literally suffocated from being unable to get enough oxygen. It was painful to see them go that way.

And this comes up for me today because one of the addictions that many of us addicts and alcoholics hang onto is smoking. We have staff members and clients who have health problems because of their smoking – and many of them have been clean and sober for several years. Even though they quit, they didn't stop in time. And many years of smoking had an irreversible effect on their lungs. All we can do now is pray that they recover.

Below are resources to help those who want to stop smoking.

American Cancer Society 
Toll-free hotline: 1-800-ACS-2345 (1-800-227-2345)

American Lung Association
Toll-free hotline: 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872)

MedLine Plus – Stop smoking support programs (from the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health)

Click here to email John

Monday, January 8, 2018

Happy Birthday Larry

Today a former resident, Larry S. dropped by our corporate office to tell us he'd celebrated 25 years of recovery this January 4.  Since I hadn't seen him in all that time, we spent a while reminiscing about the early days of TLC, talking about graduates who were still sober - and some we'd lost because of this disease.

These are the kind of visits that make working with addicts and alcoholics worthwhile.  To see someone who has lived sober for 25 years is the best part of what we do.  It tells us that our program works for those who follow our guidelines.

Many times in this blog we report on those who have failed.  Those who found it difficult to follow our guidelines, or who found the 12-step programs too much of a challenge.  Those who simply weren't motivated to change their lives.

This man's 25 years of success proves that any of us can do it if we put in the effort.

Click here to email John


Friday, January 5, 2018

A Feather Duster

"One day a peacock, next day a feather duster." Unknown

Over the past couple hundred years the above saying has been attributed to several people, including a few well-known philosophers. But I was reminded of it a few days ago after a good friend – who was a top manager at TLC suddenly relapsed – taking us by surprise. Especially me.

I guess the saying came up because this was a guy who had everything. A great job. A lovely family. A great fitness program. A nice income and pretty much all the material things one could want. Everything to lose.

He had over 10 years of recovery and knew the twelve-step programs – as well as the TLC program – inside and out. He was a manager who worked well with others, and had many creative ideas that created income and benefits for TLC's mission. He had even reached the point where he was making personal real estate investments. From the outside, it looked like he had the perfect life.

In the second paragraph I said that he "suddenly relapsed." But that's rarely the case with any of us. My experience over the past 27 years of recovery is that none of us relapse because we had a bad day. We relapse because we've had a period of several bad days, or maybe bad weeks or even months. But when we have over 10 years of recovery, as did this man, it goes deeper than that.

In my opinion this man's life was out of balance. Maybe he was putting in too many hours. Perhaps he was having relationship difficulties. There was something that he wasn't dealing with, something large enough that allowed him to throw it all away, everything he'd worked for over the past several years.

Whatever happened, there's no excuse for us to put a needle in our arm or open a bottle of booze. Especially when we have many years of recovery and have been an example to so many others who were struggling to stay clean and sober.

I can't imagine what it's like for him to be huddled somewhere in a dark room, meth and alcohol coursing through his body, trying to figure out what happened. What brought him to this point.

Of course, what happened is not relevant now. What's important is that this man has a multitude of friends that he can reach out to. He knows where the resources are. And hopefully he can get back into the rooms and into a recovery program before it's too late.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Remembering Kurt

Yesterday I received a poignant message from the mother of a client who passed away about three years ago. She included a picture of him and his dog.

The young man, in his early 20s, was suffering from cystic fibrosis. He'd known since his early teens that he probably wouldn't live past age 27. He had a sister who had succumbed to the same disease at around age 18. Yet he spent over a year at the TLC Treatment Clinic, dealing with his heroin addiction and succeeded in staying clean during his time with us. For many of us, he showed a great deal of courage by staying clean even though he knew he was not going to be around very long. As a longtime heroin addict, even though I've been clean for nearly 27 years, I'm not sure I'd be able to stay clean if I knew I had a terminal disease and not long to be around.

I learned a great deal from this young man about life, death, and acceptance. For one thing, he always had a smile on his face and he never whined about anything. In some of our sessions, we discussed things that were important to him, about his desire to stay clean and sober in spite of his condition. Other times he would talk about how much he missed his family, his friends, and his dog.

Every once in a while his lung condition would overwhelm him and he'd end up in the hospital for 2 to 3 weeks. Before I'd visit I would ask if he wanted me to bring him anything and he always did. It might be a book or magazine but his list also included 1 to 2 rotisserie chickens from a local supermarket. Even though he was forbidden to have food like that I always got it for him because neither of us could see much harm in this small indulgence. And on each occasion, he would eat most of a chicken during our visit in spite of the fact that he only weighed about 130 pounds.

Each time I had a counseling session with him it boosted my gratitude level. Not only that, his quiet acceptance of his circumstances is something I'd use when I dealt with other clients. They realized that they didn't have much to complain about when they looked at the equanimity with which he dealt with his disease.

I don't think Kurt ever realized how much he gave back to the addiction community by the example he gave us in the last months of his life. I still miss his quiet acceptance and pleasant smile.

Click here to email John