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.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Changing our Thoughts

“Change your thoughts and you can change your world.” ~Norman Vincent Peale

Norman Vincent Peale is one of the more famous pioneers of the positive thinking movement. And the saying above is an example of the tools he gave those of us who want to change our lives.

Up until I got sober in my early 50s my thoughts were mostly negative and I thought that the world sucked. Even though I had moments of success in business and in relationships my negative thoughts always took me back to drugs and alcohol. And, of course, I ended up losing everything and having to start rebuilding all over.

Now many of us addicts – I'd say probably 90% of us – were raised by people who had no business raising children. And because of our dysfunctional early years, a lot of us turned to some kind of foreign substances to kill our pain. We felt justified in doing whatever we could do to make ourselves feel better, including things that cause us to commit crimes, ruin our health, and often times even lose our freedom. And many of our peers died because they could never get quite enough drugs or alcohol in them to kill their negative feelings.

Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I never thought that I would live to be 40 years old. And when I woke up at 40 years old I began to think a little differently about my life. I wasn't happy doing what I was doing, yet I didn't know what else to do to make myself feel better. It was only after repeatedly going to jail and losing everything over and over that I started to realize that regardless of how I was brought up I was the one who was ultimately responsible for my life. And at that point, I began to change my thoughts, began to think differently.

Because I knew on a deep level that most of my problems were associated with my drinking and drugging I knew that I had to get sober before I could make progress of any kind. In other words, I had to change my thoughts and learn a different way of dealing with my feelings of self-pity that I used to justify living my life as a drug addict and alcoholic.

And, you know, once I took that first step and went into a detox my life became completely different. Today I'm the person that I always wished to become.

And I bring this up today to share with you the power of your thoughts: if you change them to something positive there are no limitations to what you can do with your life.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

80 years

Although my birthday falls on the 31st of May, family and friends decided to celebrate it on Memorial Day weekend this year.

My youngest daughter hosted the event and family and friends showed up from all over. Several came from California. My favorite (and only) niece flew from Reno. One friend was here from Ohio. And there were several friends and relatives from Arizona. There were more than 30 guests in attendance.

We had a bounce house for the kids. Games for the adults. A photo booth.

There was plenty of food for everyone. Street tacos. Colombian empanadas. Cake pops. Plus a decadent chocolate cake.

It was a wonderful event and I'm so happy that everyone showed up to celebrate my eighth decade on the planet.

Perhaps the most amazing thing to me is that I've survived for 80 years. There was a time when I was much younger, probably around 35, that I didn't expect to live to be 40 years old. And that wasn't because something was physically wrong with me. The problem was my alcoholism and drug addiction and lifestyle.

When I finally got sober at around 51 years old I began to take better care of myself in all respects. I start exercising every day. I turned into a vegetarian and later became a vegan. I learned to meditate, and later become certified as a mindfulness instructor.

I lived in a treatment program for a year. After I left that treatment program I started my own halfway house network, which has now been in business some 27 years.

During my last 28 years of recovery, I've been through many challenges that at one time would have gotten me drunk or high. But because of my participation in the recovery field and 12 step meetings I've been able to take things pretty much in stride. I've gone through two costly divorces. I've overcome cancer. A new drug came on the market that got rid of my hepatitis C, which I had carried for 30 some years – before they even had a name for it. Back in the day, they used to call it non-A non-B hepatitis.

Since I got sober I've become successful in the recovery field. I'm blessed to be able to help a lot of people get sober. However, it's not something I do by myself; I have a wonderful circle of friends and business associates who do the hard work of dealing with 850 clients.

Since I've had gray hair since I was in my late twenties, I've always been the "old guy."  So now that I really am the old guy I'm not at all sensitive about it.  I'm just grateful to be relatively healthy and fortunate to still be alive and functional.  And that's something that I really owe to my 28 years of sobriety.

Friday, May 24, 2019

We Remember

Of course, most of us know this is Memorial Day weekend.  But not everyone sees the significance of the holiday beyond a day off work and maybe a picnic or barbecue.

And in a way, this is understandable because only a small percentage of Americans have served in our country's military.  Most of the rest just know what we see in the movies or the media.  Or if we have relatives who have served they may have shared their experience with us.

But our second-hand experience doesn't come close to feeling the genuine sacrifice of those who have served in our military - either here or abroad.

Because of them, we have the security to pursue our dreams and follow whatever path we choose in life.

Because of them we have the freedom to say and do almost anything we want in this country and that's what Memorial Day is about - a remembrance of those who have given us these freedoms.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Saving Lives

Many people have a difficult time understanding how TLC operates. And that's because we're one of a minority of nongovernmental programs in the United States that lets addicts and alcoholics come into our program, whether they have money or not.

Anyone can walk up to our doors with only the clothes on their back and get in if they have a strong desire to get clean and sober. When they arrive it's clearly explained that we're a nonprofit corporation, an unfunded program, that raises all of its own money. None come to us looking for a job.  Each comes to us because their life is spiraling downward because they are addicted, broke and no one else will take them off the streets.

Most have no job skills. Some are on parole. 95% are homeless. Many have hepatitis C, while others are HIV-positive or have some other serious illness. But as long as they express the desire to change and get clean and sober we take them into our program.

However, there are certain things they must do. Once they're able to work, we require them to go out into the community and seek employment because we expect them to pay a fee of $125 per week, which covers their meals, housing, utilities, and other benefits such as peer counseling and other assistance.

We usually give new clients a week or two to find a job outside the program. Many of them, though, are unable to find employment. They may have no skills or education. Some have tattoos on their faces. They may not be able to communicate effectively in a job that would require them to work with the public.

In the case of clients like this, we offer them the opportunity to volunteer for TLC in various positions. They might find themselves cooking, doing laundry, maintenance around the houses, driving, answering telephones, doing telemarketing, or one of the other types of chores that keep a program the size of ours in operation. Or they are free to go their way and seek other opportunities, which some do.

Those who stay and volunteer soon find their lives improving. They are able to build up a wardrobe. Their needs are provided for. They have three meals a day and a comfortable place to sleep. They find themselves making friends in the 12 step programs as well as at TLC.

Those who volunteer with us have an opportunity to learn different job skills. Some learn how to maintain the buildings. Others learn how to cook. Some of them develop skills that they can use outside of the program in the construction trades, such as carpentry, roofing, air conditioning, hanging sheetrock, and so forth. Others learn sales skills by working on the telephone doing outreach to other programs that deal with addicts and alcoholics.

And after a while, many of these volunteers go back into the outside world and practice the new skills they learn, while living with us and working on their recovery.

We're not really unique in the way we operate because many programs like the Salvation Army, Delancy Street, Goodwill, and Teen Challenge operate as we do - with the help of volunteers. Those programs provide housing and other services to their volunteers while providing them with all of their needs and giving them a small stipend so they have a few dollars in their pocket.

While those programs have a slightly different focus than our program does, we all are helping people improve their lives and operate pretty much the same way - working to help people re-join the human race.

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Day at a Time

While visiting my four-year-old grandson the other day I realized how much we can learn from children.

And my observation stems from my connection with Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12-step programs where we're taught to live one day at a time.  In these programs, we're taught to live our lives in 24-hour segments.

The idea behind that is that most anyone who's not using can make it through the next 24 hours without picking up a drink or drug.  In my own case breaking my life down into day-at-a-time segments made staying sober much easier.

As to my grandson, he uses every moment of every day getting into something.  He leaves behind him a trail of toy trains, scraps of food, discarded clothing, and tears when he gets admonished for making too big of a mess.

Yet a few moments later his tears are dry and he's off to get into some other kind of mischief.  He stays involved to the fullest in each moment of his life.  It's only after children are older that we force them to begin unlearning the idea of living in the moment and try to impose a more orderly way of life upon them.  They unlearn some bad habits, but in the process, some forget how to play and enjoy the moment.

This is a mixed blessing.  Of course, we can't spend our lives simply being spontaneous and playing.  But we could at least retain some balance in our lives by remembering that life doesn't always have to be a grind where we're working hard to acquire the next best thing.

And for the those of us in recovery, the idea of living in today makes it easier to walk through anything that might challenge our sobriety.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wasting our Talent

In the past 28 years of being in the recovery business, I've met a lot of talented people.

They literally have had the talent to do most anything they wanted. In fact, we've had three lawyers in our program, a doctor, a rocket scientist, a woman with two Master's degrees and a couple of newspaper reporters. People with education and skill. Yet each of them became so badly addicted to drugs that they literally lost everything. Some of them ended up in prison, homeless, divorced and alienated from their families.

And their history tells me, reinforces for me, that drugs and alcohol are so potent that they can overcome anybody. Something in their early upbringing, education, or childhood programming was so negative that no amount of talent or education or skill could keep them from succumbing to the deadly power of addiction.

As for myself, I'm just an average run-of-the-mill heroin addict and alcoholic. I'm not especially bright and I didn't have a lot of advantages growing up, but then I also didn't grow up in the worst of worlds. Although at the time I thought that all of my problems were rooted in my early childhood. It was only when I was on death's door and headed back to prison that I made a choice to overcome my past and change my life. And it was only with a lot of hard work and perseverance that I was able to put my past behind me and get to where I am today.

But what it took for me to do that, was to bury my ego and realize that I was just another addict. I recognized that I had to work hard to change my life and live up to my potential. That I wasn't smart enough to beat the system and live the kind of been insane life that I was living without paying a heavy price.

As the years have rolled on I've met many people who failed to get a foothold in recovery. Maybe they came to us from prison. Maybe their families sent them to us. Maybe they were sent to us from detox. Every one of them had the opportunity to become a successful and happy human being. Yet something kept forcing them back into their addiction.

I know with a lot of people it comes down to an issue of self-esteem. If an addict lacks self-esteem and self-confidence, no matter how much education and recovery they have a large percentage of them will go right back down into the pit they came out of. And it is so sad to see this because we have a choice when we get into recovery: we can be a contributor to the world and help others change their lives while at the same time changing our own lives. 

Or we can continue to be a pain in the ass to everyone around us and in the process waste what precious years we have left. We can fritter away what little time we do have and expose ourselves to the world as the unmotivated, ungrateful addicts that we are.

And that's a terrible legacy to leave behind.

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Perception = Gratitude

Perception and gratitude go hand-in-hand.

What I mean by this, is our level of gratitude depends on how we look at life. We may be ungrateful because the job we have doesn't pay what we think we're worth.  But we can also take a look around us at those who don't have work. Those who don't have any marketable skills. Those who don't have enough people skills to get along with others so they can get a job. When we look at their situation our circumstances don't look so bad. Do they?

So our perception really controls everything. If we're feeling that our life is not going well, we can look around at others whose lives are really terrible. They may be ill. They may have gotten divorced.  They may have lost their job. If we're observant, we can always see others who have circumstances that make ours look very pleasant and desirable. Our perception is in charge.

Or we can stay in our comfortable nest of self-pity and compare our lives with those who are doing well. Those who own big mansions, vacation homes at the beach, and have a pile of money in the bank. And if we play that comparison game we're all going to come out feeling negative and less than.

For me, the best perspective is to look at the larger world. If I do that I realize I have it very well. Because most of the people in the world live on just a few dollars a day. Many of them live in fear of terrorists. Or in a remote part of the world where getting clean water each day is a major project. Their daily lives are a struggle to find enough to eat, to get adequate medical care, be able to feed their children. With this perspective, I can always find room in my life for gratitude.

But with the wrong perception, I have no room for gratitude.

And if I don't have room for gratitude, I may one day find myself doing something really negative and I don't even want to start down that road.

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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Mother's Day

Sunday, May 12, is Mother's Day. And though my mother died 25 years ago this coming December, I still celebrate her memory.

Even though I was a disappointment to her because of my drug and alcohol use and the time I spent locked up, she never gave up. She would encourage me to do better. But my addictions had such a strong hold that I wasn't able to get sober until three years before her death. I was pleased that I was able to make amends to her. And to repay the money she had loaned me during the last years of my addiction. I was also able to help her move from California to Arizona and spent quite a bit of time with her during her last few years.

Like many mothers today, she somehow felt guilty because I turned out to be an addict and an alcoholic like my father. Like many mothers we deal with in our treatment program, I think she blamed my alcoholism and addictive behavior on my father, who died of alcoholism when he was 60 years old.

His answer to his problems was to get drunk and stay that way. And while he was a negative influence on me, I think I was able to convince her that we are all ultimately responsible for our own addictions, regardless of how our parents behaved.

I credit my mother with giving me many of the good habits that I developed. She taught me to have a good work ethic and encouraged me to work, even as a teenager. I always worked during the summer and after school. I either delivered newspapers or did yard work for the neighbors. She encouraged me to save money, including for my first car, a 1947 Ford which cost me $350. While it doesn't seem like much money today, back in the 50s that was quite a few hours of work.

I bring these things up because I think it's important for us to treat our mothers well and to cherish their memories. After all, they gave us birth and spent many hours helping us survive until we could take care of ourselves. 

Of course, many of our clients report that their mothers were also addicts and alcoholics. And while that may be true, I'm pretty sure that wasn't their first choice for their lives or the lives of their children.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Seeking Help

I get a lot of sad emails and calls from parents who want to help their children get sober. Their words are dripping with pain.

And, of course, it's natural for them to want to help their children. I think we all want to help our children as much as possible, whether they're addicts or not.

But the reality is that parents and loved ones are a lot more interested in sobriety and recovery than those they're trying to help. Probably out of every 10 contacts people make to ask for help with recovery, nine of them are family members or friends trying to be helpful.

There are rare occasions when an addict has had so many bad experiences that they will come directly to us for help. But the bulk of referrals come from parents, husbands, wives, girlfriends, prison counselors or parole officers.

While there are no bad reasons to get help, I think the help that we benefit from the most is the help that we seek on our own. I know that in my own case people were trying to help me with my drug problems from the time I was a teenager. Parents, wives, counselors, parole officers, they all suggested that I could benefit from sobriety.

Yet, what it took for me finally want to change is that I kept losing everything over and over. That includes my freedom, marriages, businesses, friendships – everything I valued - all for the sake of my addiction.

When I finally reached my bottom, when I was homeless and stealing every day to survive and to provide for my addictions, that's when I cried out for the kind of help has kept me sober for over 28 years. I think that when we run out of people to blame, people to help us, that's when we realize the seriousness of our addiction.

Only when I had nowhere else to turn, did I find a halfway house that would take me with no money. And the day I made that decision, is the day that I changed my life.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Selfies

In the newspaper this week I read that over eight days three tourists had fallen to their deaths at the Grand Canyon while taking selfies. It seems amazing to me that someone would lose their lives over a photograph. That they'd be so unaware of their surroundings that they'd not realize that they were risking their lives for a bit of ego gratification.

Later I found myself wondering if anyone had recovered their cell phones and if they'd captured the photo they were trying to get before they fell to their deaths. Even more morbidly, I was wondering if their families were going to end up with the photos and what they would think about loved ones who took such risks.

A primary thing that we learn in mindfulness meditation is to be aware of our ourselves. And sometimes I'm amazed that someone is unaware of the danger their behavior puts them in when they're in a state of self-absorption – almost as if they're hypnotized. During the past month on more than one occasion, someone has walked across the street in front of me while texting, completely unaware of the traffic flowing around them.

It's not unusual to be sitting in a restaurant or other public place and see a group all at the same table, each staring at their cell phones, either answering or reading messages, oblivious to the others at the table that they are supposedly socializing with. While I myself am guilty of paying attention to my phone at the wrong times, it's something that I'm aware of and try to avoid unless it's an emergency situation.

What were once tools of communication and functionality have morphed into the focus of life for many of us. While I think this technology will never go away, I wonder how much of the world around us and the people around us are we missing out on? I can imagine a world where a tiny screen will dominate our time to the point where we miss out on the real life that is at our fingertips.

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