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.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Resolutions

I recently read a book by James Clear called "Atomic Habits."

At first, I thought this was another rah-rah book about changing habits instantly and with explosive power. But I had it all wrong.

The "Atomic" in the title actually refers to something small, maybe the size of an atom. And to boil the book down, it refers to making small incremental changes each day.

Instead of quitting smoking cold turkey, for example, a smoker may quit with much less pain and effort by smoking one less cigarette each day. Within 20 days a pack a day smoker would be down to one cigarette a day.

Same way with losing weight. Instead of quitting eating altogether and exercising like crazy, maybe the dieter first cuts out drinking soda, then once he/she is used to that maybe cut out eating deserts one, two, or three days a week. Following this pattern before long, one finds themselves eating healthy all the time while shedding pounds in the process.

Same goes with exercise. Instead of working out for an hour with intensity, start slow for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, something that's within the range of most anyone. That way you won't get sore and give up within a week or two.

The key message about change is to start out with something you can manage. Before you know it you'll you'll be keeping your New Years resolutions without a lot of pain.

Click here to email John

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Gratitude

Today I'm counting my blessings and want to wish a Merry Christmas to all those who have helped make TLC the success that it is.

At this time 28 years ago I was addicted to heroin and alcohol, stealing to make a living, and during the last week of my using, I was living in a stolen car. At that time, my outlook was very bleak. I figured it wouldn't be too long before I died. Or be back in prison.

But January 13 of 1990, I had a moment of clarity and decided to enter a detox in Mesa, Arizona. I'm not sure what happened, but I know that I was miserable. And completely demoralized. I knew that if I didn't change something my life was going to get considerably worse – if I even survived.

When I entered the detox I was totally willing to do whatever they asked. I was going to finally admit that I was an alcoholic. I had known for a long time that I was a drug addict, but for some reason, I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that I was also an alcoholic. I must've thought that if I admitted I was an alcoholic that I would have to stop drinking. Yet when I drank, it wasn't very long before I was back into the spoon, using heroin and quickly spiraling downward into homelessness.

I stayed in that detox for 11 days before they released me to a halfway house that was willing to take me without money. I planned to stay there for 30 days, then get a job and move on with my life. But at the 30-day point, I realized that I knew very little about living sober and that if I left at 30 days it wouldn't be long before I would be back drinking and doing the same old thing. So I made a commitment to stay for three months. But even at that point, I realized that I wasn't ready and I decided that I was going to stay a year and get my life on a solid footing.

And that was what made the difference. At one year my head was clear. I was working at my old job and making plans to start my own recovery program as a sideline. Before long the recovery program I planned to operate as a sideline became so demanding that I quit my corporate job and devoted my efforts full time to run the recovery program.

Within two years we had nearly 300 clients and were becoming known in the recovery community as a place to go if you were serious about recovery.

When I look back on that time in the early 90s, I never realized that TLC would turn into one of the biggest programs in the Southwest. All I know is that we got up every morning and put one foot in front of the other and tried to do the right thing. Sometimes we made mistakes, but we just kept moving ahead.

Today we have some 850 beds and a lot of dedicated staff members who make things work. And I count my blessings because without them none of this would be possible.

Click here to email John

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Suffering Mother

I was talking to an addict today whose 18-year-old daughter is addicted and on the streets.  She hasn't heard from her for about five days, and of course, fears the worse. 

Is she in a ditch somewhere?  Has she overdosed? Is she in a hospital? A lot of scenarios are running through her mind.  And none of them are good.

She says she checks the county jail website each morning when she awakes and each night before she goes to bed, hoping that she's been arrested. If she sees her mugshot there at least she'll know she's alive.

This experience of having a child who's deep into addiction has made her realize what she put her own mother through. In fact, she was affected so strongly that she called her mother to make a second amends.  She never realized the constant worry and suffering her mother must have experienced when she'd disappear for long periods.

Part of our recovery is realizing the hell we put our families and loved ones through. If we can keep that in the forefront of our minds we have one more reason to stay on the path of recovery.

Click here to email John



Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Generous Doctors

This time of year we're grateful for our blessings.

And one of the many blessings we have at TLC is the support of the medical community. Many of our clients come to us suffering from the aftereffects of drug abuse: bad teeth, needing glasses, or else facing other medical problems.

Over the past 10 years, one of our staff members has developed a long list of medical people who help us address these issues.

After a client is with us for a while and acts like they're serious about their recovery, we help them with their nonemergency medical issues through the services of those who so generously help us.

One of the most common problems clients face is dental issues. It has been years since many of our clients have seen a dentist and many of them are long overdue for help. We have about 80 dentists who pull teeth, build bridges, provide dentures, and other procedures at no cost.

And nothing is more gratifying than to see an addict or alcoholic who came to us with missing or decayed teeth who are once again able to smile. And the interesting thing is that clients who are willing to go through the pain of dental work usually stay and spend the time needed to work on their recovery. It seems like when they're able to boost their self-esteem in one area, they are also able to work on other areas of their life.

I'm sure that most of the medical help that we've been given has come from those who just naturally have generous hearts.

But I don't think they realize how much good they really do or how much effect they have on the community when they contribute to an addict who's serious about recovery. Their acts of generosity go far toward changing the course of another human being's life.

Click here to email John

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Living with Trauma

In our treatment program, we deal with a lot of clients who wrestle with trauma from their the pasts.

The number one issue that seems to traumatize clients is if they were abused as children – either physically, emotionally or sexually or a combination of the three.

And indeed, these are some of the toughest issues to deal with, especially when a client also has a co-occurring drug issue. It often takes a long period of therapy for people who have many interwoven issues to make changes.

In my opinion, the best approach is if we are able to help the client see that they should bear no guilt or shame for what others did to them when they were so vulnerable and young. But that's easier said than done.

For oftentimes it's a family member who exploits the vulnerable child, leaving the victim with confusing memories of trauma imposed upon them by those who should be protecting them.

When a victim is very young it's difficult for them to make sense of a world where those they trust and love and depend on are crossing sacred boundaries. Many times they are unable to understand any part of it and are left in a swirl of shame, pain, and confusion.

When a victim carries such unresolved and conflicting issues into their teens and early 20s it's no wonder that they find drugs and alcohol such a relief. We often hear people say in 12 step meetings that the first time they got drunk or high is the first time that they felt like they belonged to the human race. All of a sudden all of their pain is abated and they feel a new sense of freedom.

So is there an easy or simple way to deal with trauma from our early childhood? The answer is that there is a way to deal with it.  But it's probably never going to be painless or simple.

The answer is that we ultimately accept and assimilate what has happened to us. Unless we want to go through life carrying a burden of pain, depression, and sadness, we have to be able to accept the fact that there are many things that happen in our lives over which we have no control. We must accept that there are bad people in the world, sometimes even those who are supposed to protect and care for us.

Sometimes it's a tough choice to make: do we reopen old wounds in our quest for peace? Or do we just wait and hope that somehow time will heal us as our trauma disappears in the mists of the past? Whichever path we take, we must realize that our time on this planet is limited and that we want to live happy and free. 

Otherwise, we might find ourselves doing a lifelong dance with alcohol, drugs, and therapists in our quest for peace of mind in an effort to mitigate our pain.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Ego

At a meditation group the other day, the topic of ego came up.  And the facilitator and others shared their insights on the subject.

It was somewhat enlightening, and after the group, a friend and I talked more about ego.  She had a question was about her own ego and whether she has one.

Of course, you do I told her.  We all have one. Then I suggested that the question she really wanted to ask was if she had an over-sized ego. Which she doesn't.  Her ego seems just right: a balance of humility and healthy self-esteem.

And I believe that is where the line is drawn, having balance.

After all, we need an ego to navigate our way through life and to have a focal point for who we are, to have a sense of "self."

But when we get all puffed up about who we are, what we've accomplished, how smart or good-looking we are, or what we own, then that's an over-inflated ego.

For my ego to work well I have to have a balanced view of who I am:  I'm neither the most wonderful person in the world, nor am I the worst.  I must walk the balance beam of reality that says there are parts of me that do well, parts of me that need work, and yet other parts that are so-so.

It's a daily maintenance project to keep these things in balance - being neither too self-critical nor too self-aggrandizing. Then my life works well.

A large ego erects walls between us and others, something we never need.

Click here to email John








Monday, December 10, 2018

WTF

The other day my four-year-old grandson walked down the hall and into the kitchen when he spotted my daughter at the top of a ladder cleaning the tops of the cabinets.

Apparently surprised to see her there, he exclaimed "What the f....!"

My daughter said it was all she could do not break out laughing.  In her recounting of what he said she asked me where I thought he'd learned to say that.

And, of course, I said something like go look in the mirror or else talk to your husband.  Because most of the things we learn at that age come from mimicking those around us.  And in this case, he probably didn't learn it from the bus driver or his school teacher.  He likely was following dad or mom around and picked up on what they say when they're exasperated.

My daughter wondered how she might get him to forget the "F" word but I didn't have any good ideas.  After all, I think it's a lot easier to learn bad habits than it is to unlearn them.  She might try to avoid using the term in the future but it could take a long time for him to disremember that kind of term

But there's an object lesson somewhere in all of this.  And it is that no matter where we are in life there's always someone who may be listening to us.  And sometimes emulating us.

That's why it's important - especially for those of us who work in recovery programs - to be good examples for our clients and co-workers in everything we do.  While I confess to using the F-bomb myself once in a while -usually when angry - I generally make it a practice to not use profanity.  That's because I never know who's listening and who might find it unbecoming.

Click here to email John

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Meditating

Each Wednesday evening I attend a mindfulness meditation meeting here in Mesa from 7:00 to 8:30 PM.

Everyone is welcome to attend and usually between 10 and 30 people show up.

The first 15 minutes the facilitator of the meeting explains how meditation works those who are new to the process. The next 40 to 45 minutes we meditate. Then for the last half-hour, the facilitator answers questions for those who are new or are relatively inexperienced.

I find it interesting the kinds of questions newcomers bring up. Those who are unfamiliar with the process often look upon meditation as some sort of therapy that will help them heal past trauma, almost as if it were a cure-all. And while it is true that meditation can help make us calmer, more focused on the present, and less anxious, it is by no means a panacea. At best, one might look at it as a tool that supports our efforts to live a more sane and fulfilling life.

Because what meditation teaches us – if it teaches us anything at all – is how to pay attention to our thinking. This continual examination of our thinking makes us realize that most of our thinking is not that important, that thoughts are not something so tangible that we have to react every time one of them passes through our mind. We learn to look at our thoughts from the standpoint of being an observer. And when we observe the thought we recognize it without judgment, then let it pass through our mind like clouds through the sky.

I believe the meditation process is particularly helpful to those of us who are in recovery. And the group I attend has several members who have been in recovery for many years. And I say this because what else got us in trouble but our crazy thinking about our lives and how we should solve our problems? The twelve-step programs recommend meditation as one of the processes of remaining sober, though they don't recommend any specific school of meditation.

Try it, you might like it.

Click here to email John

Monday, December 3, 2018

Not Quitting

July 25, 1984, at 9 AM, I smoked my last cigarette. It was one of the most difficult things I'd ever done. And that's why it's so easy for me to remember the time and the date. But it was also the best thing I ever did for my health.

At the same time, I quit I gently suggested to someone that I was very close to that she should also quit. But her answer was no. She said she had given up alcohol and every other vice in her life and that she certainly wasn't going to give up smoking.

When I pointed out to her that the habit would probably kill her, she said something to the effect that at least she would "die with some flavor on her lips." And I have to give her credit. She stuck to her guns and has never made any moves to quit smoking. At least as far as I know. And she's still alive.
She's breathing and functioning in spite of having had multiple heart attacks, heart operations, pacemakers and, and other procedures on her heart. And the last I heard, she's still smoking around four packs of roll your owns a day. But the reason this comes up for me now is that she recently had what one of her family describes as a "mini-stroke."

And while it's obvious this person has no concern for her health problems they do cause a great deal of anxiety in her family.

And that's the sad part of this whole scenario. Even though it's none of my business because people have a right to destroy themselves however they choose I think that they sometimes forget that loved ones and family members live with a lot of pain when they witness the suffering of a close family member going through medical issues.

I think the addicts among us have all inflicted pain upon others at one time or another, simply because we were using some kind of drug that would eventually kill us. While it's sometimes a sacrifice to give up our drug of choice, it's one of the greatest gifts we can give to those who love us.

Click here to email John