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, October 19, 2019

Loving Mexico

Some friends of mine and I are spending a week in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, planning to return to Arizona next week, on the 24th.

During my conversations with those back home some expressed concern about the violence between the drug cartels and police in Culiacan that captured the headlines a few days ago. Several people were killed, soldiers were kidnapped, and the president of the country ended up freeing the cartel members the government had taken into custody in exchange for the soldiers.

While I agreed with them that it was pretty dramatic, the kind of stuff movies are made from, it didn't bother me anymore than a similar incident in the United States would affect me.

Often, when others find out I plan to go to Mexico on vacation, they ask me whether I'm afraid to come down here. And my answer is always the same: no. In fact, I often reply that the part of Mexico I go to is probably safer than Phoenix – which has 250 to 300 murders per year. Not to count all of the police shootings.

It's probably just part of our human psychology, but the craziness and violence that we're familiar with is probably not near as scary as the violence in other places that we don't know very well. It's not unusual to have 30 to 40 shootings on a weekend in Chicago, yet I never hear any of my friends or acquaintances express much more than a mild concern about such violence.

I've been coming to this area of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta for over 25 years. Sometimes 3 to 4 times a year. In all that time I've had nothing bad happen here, exceptt once I had a brand-new rental car stolen while I was at the gym working out. But other than the mild inconvenience of filling out police paperwork that was the extent of it. And I think in all these visits down here, I've only seen one or two minor auto accidents. Something that kind of surprises me because people seem to drive all over the road down here at whatever speed they want.

This is pretty much a peaceful place and if I didn't have the responsibilities I have back home I'd probably own a place somewhere down here along the beach. The people here are very welcoming, gracious, and friendly – probably attributes they developed because we tourists are how they make their living. But for whatever reason, I enjoy the slow pace of life, the beauty of the beach and ocean, and the escape from the daily routine of the office.

And I'm already planning my next trip back.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019


Sometimes I get messages from clients which I feel like sharing with those who follow this blog because they might help someone's recovery. Here's the first one:

"One day you will tell your story of how you will overcome what you're going through now, and it will become part of someone else's survival guide."

I've been at TLC for 12 years and met you a couple times... And I followed your blog for several years. Today I saw the line above this paragraph on a morning meditation Facebook page and wanted to share it with you, although you may have seen it before. It's a poster that should be in every AA meeting room and on every TLC property. Pretty much says what recovery is all about. And I want to thank you for helping me, through TLC, to stay sober." Bob

And here's the second:

"John, I'm not sure if you remember me or not, but your loving kindness towards me was one of those moments that changed the path of my life. I am clean today but by the grace of God and Narcotics Anonymous. Just wanted you to know I that I have never forgot what you and your staff did for me." Michael

And here's the third and last one:

"I love this blog today. I am a graduate of TLC. I have moved home to Nevada, and have remained clean and sober for over six years now and I have had the opportunity and privilege to work for an organization that manages a 20 bed homeless halfway house." Name not included.

Probably one of the best feelings there is, the biggest reward of doing this work for 28 years, is messages like the ones above where graduates of our program talk about the successful lives they are are living today. It may sound dramatic, but when we help one person stay sober we change the world. And the way we change the world is that those people who get sober at TLC will probably be raising sober children and grandchildren who will by their example carry the message of recovery to those around them.

Click here to email John

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Helping the Homeless

Out of the 800+ clients that we have at TLC, probably 90% of them have been homeless at one time or other. When drugs and alcohol are your priority a person doesn't have money for housing and food and the privilege of living indoors.

I bring this up today because once a month TLC has a business meeting. And today, after our meeting, the entire group, made up of about 35 staff members and managers, got into their vehicles and delivered food and bottles of water to the homeless. Part of this was a way of giving back to others who were in the same situation we were in at one time, and the other part was to give those people an opportunity to come to TLC where  they would have the opportunity to change their lives.

All in all it was a very successful run and everywhere we stopped we passed out bags of food and water and it disappeared within minutes.

On the way home, those in our truck discussed what a lesson in gratitude it was to be able to do what we did. So many people – not just us addicts and alcoholics – take for granted the many blessings we have in our life. We all take for granted the idea that we have food to eat each day. That we have cold water. A job to go to. A place to take a shower and wash our clothes – the basic necessities of life. But the people we saw today were so grateful for the tidbits that we handed them that it was almost overwhelming.

I'm not writing this to advocate that being homeless is a good thing, because it's not. A lot of political people and others get into debates about why people are homeless, or why we should help the homeless, or that the homeless are lazy, or that they are drug addicts. I only write this to say that we should have enough compassion for our fellow human beings to help them on whatever level we can. None of us know the stories of how these people ended up homeless. It may be true that they are drug addicts. It may be true that they are lazy. Perhaps they have mental issues.  Who knows?

But the bottom line is, the core of the issue is, that if people's lives are bad enough that they have to live outdoors and struggle for the basic necessities of life then they need our help. And once they get that help we can later sort out positive ways to help them change their lives permanently. Whether that help comes in the form of providing housing, jobs, education, healthcare, or whatever else they need.

Probably none of these people we saw today woke up one morning and said, "Gee, I think it would be a great idea to become homeless." Within each one of them is probably a long twisted story of how they ended up on the streets. But judging them, condemning them, or looking down upon them, is definitely not going to make their life any better. There are groups out there helping the homeless and doing it somewhat effectively. But much more needs to be done to really make a dent in the problem.

It's so heartbreaking to see our fellow human beings suffering – no matter who caused the suffering or how they ended up on the streets.

Click here to email John

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What's Your Story?

I've been working with addicts and alcoholics for over 28 years, throughout my entire sobriety. And I have yet to meet a one of them who doesn't have some kind of story.

And the stories aren't all bad. Nor are they all good. And I doubt if most of them are100% true: after all, a good story has to have a little drama if we expect people to listen to us.

Yes all of us – me included – have some kind of story woven through our lives, a trail of footprints that show the path we took to get to this point of our life. Many of us who've been around for a while have a pretty decent story. A story of sobriety, of building a new family, of building a business or getting an education – something that we can be really proud of. And for those of you who have this kind of the story this blog probably won't have a lot of meaning for you.

But many people get stuck on a story that's really quite terrible. One of an abusive childhood. Living in juvenile hall. Going without more often than not.

And if you have that kind of a story, one that has led you to live a life of being homeless, of being in prison, and having no self-esteem this blog is for you. Because my point is that you can tell a new story about your life. You can write a new plot for your life. You can use your imagination to create new goals. New aspirations.

I know what I'm telling you is true. Because at one time I had a terrible story. I grew up in an alcoholic and violent home. I never was sure where I was going to be living the following month. I was in and out of juvenile hall and jail for much of my young life. I had a real sad story and it seemed like I told it to anyone who would listen to me.

And it wasn't until I was in my early 50s that I decided that things must change or I was going to die or spend the rest of my life incarcerated. So I wrote a new story for myself. I decided to use what skill and talent I had to become a businessman, a sober member of society, as good a parent as I could be to my already grown children and so on. And the interesting thing is that within 2 to 3 years my whole life was different. I was sober. I was in the first few years of building a successful business organization. I had friends. My family had come back to me. My whole world changed. The only reason it changed was because I changed the plot.

So if you find yourself in that kind of situation try to write a new storyline for your life. Imagine the kind of job you want to have. Imagine the kind of relationship you want to have. Imagine yourself being clean and sober. Before you know it – even though you might have to edit your story a little bit – you'll be a different human being. You'll be able to live up to your potential and have a story of gratitude, rather than a story of negativity.

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Monday, October 7, 2019

Being Bored?

Before I got sober over 28 years ago I had a lot of real anxiety. And my anxiety was: what was I gonna do with all the time I was going to have on my hands?

I wouldn’t have any friends. Not that I had any anyway. I would be so bored out of my mind that I probably go back to drinking and drugging eventually. Things looked pretty bleak.

I would have to work all the time and support myself. Which meant I would have to give up my career as a thief and a drug dealer. What a boring prospect!

I'd have to find a place to live. I'd have to pay utilities and buy food. I'd have to buy my own car, because the law frowns on taking vehicles without the owner's permission – which I used to do whenever I needed a quick ride.

But like many decisions I'd made up until that point in my life I was totally wrong about sobriety being a boring prospect. Instead of not having enough to do, it seems like I rarely complete one project before another pops up.

After my first year of sobriety I no longer had to look for opportunities. It seemed like once people realized I was going to stay sober they kept presenting me with opportunities to do more and more. And because I was helping addicts and alcoholics get sober there were always plenty of people who needed help.

And it wasn't until much later that I realized that there wasn't anything at all boring about helping others. In fact, there's nothing more rewarding than seeing someone start off on a new path.

Quite often I run into people that I don't even recognize, people who went through our program some 10 years back. And they thank me for helping them, for saving their lives. While I'd like to take credit saving someone's life, the reality is that people save their own lives using the guidance and direction we provide them. We get no one sober: what we do is give them an opportunity to live a different kind of life.

And another thing I came to realize is that one can never give away more than life gives them back.

Click here to email John

Friday, October 4, 2019

Being Healthy

One of the reasons I got sober is because I got tired of feeling bad all the time. I got tired of being broke. I got tired of being hungry. I got tired of being homeless. I got tired of living in a cage as a guest of the state.

And as a part of my new lifestyle of sobriety I kept exploring other things that would make me feel better. I began a regular exercise regimen, something that I used to practice regularly during my many years in prison and jail. I learned to meditate and became a certified mindfulness meditation instructor. I also took a course in in hypnosis, which I use – not only with myself – but also with our clients. And in the last few years I've been able to help some 25 people quit smoking – something I feel very good about. And the reason I feel good about helping people quit smoking is that seven of my family members died of the habit – either from emphysema or COPD.

But I made one change I made that a lot of people thought pretty radical –  though for me it was simply an experiment in trying to live a healthier life – when I started eating a plant-based diet. When I became a vegan about 25 years ago.

The first question people always ask someone who's a vegan or vegetarian "where do you get your protein?" In the first few years I didn't have too many snappy answers for them because I never really thought about how much protein I needed. All I knew, was the people that I knew and who had I had read about who ate a plant-based diet always seemed to be quite healthy. And statistically, they were living longer and healthier lives – some of them working into their 90s and beyond. It took me a while to develop some responses that seem to work for me.

Now when people ask me "where do you get your protein?" I tell them something like "the same place the cows you eat get their protein." From plants. And, it as the discussion progresses I point out to them that the largest and strongest mammals on earth get most if not all of their nourishment from plants. That includes gorillas, elephants, whales, bulls, giraffes and on and on.

After being vegan for many years I realized that not many people know much about what they eat.  If it tastes good they'll eat it, regardless of the health consequences.  That's why the  U.S. rates about number 40 on the world health scale.  That's why we have a diabetes epidemic in our  country.  Most people know nothing about nutrition - including doctors who typically get less than 10 to 12 hours of nutritition training in medical school.

The longest lived and healthiest populations on earth eat a plant based or plant rich diet. And that's good enough for me.

I stay sober by doing what sober people do and I stay healthy by eating what healthy populations eat.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Jailhouse Calls

Normally I don't accept collect calls from jails or prisons because I know it's never good news.  But I broke my own rule last month because I was at one time a friend of the guy calling.  And I also was friends with other members of his family.  So, because I was curious about what was going with him and the family I accepted the call.  Besides, these days calls - at least from the prison he was at in Maryland - were only about a penny a minute.  Whereas, many years ago they were very costly.

But I was glad that I took the call. Not because he and I were that great of friends. But more because it reminded me of what I was like 30 years ago - a few years before I got into recovery.

As the conversation began he started down the path of explaining how he was innocent, that he was appealing his case because he was falsely convicted.  He spent much of the conversation rationizing his behavior and trying to convince me of the injustices that had been done to him and his son - who had been sent to prison along with him for an assault and robbery they were accused of.

I mostly listened as he talked because I knew my view of the world and his view of the world were so different that I'd be unable to convince him that there could be a better to live. So I spent the four or five minutes on the phone listening to him explain the case and how his son had also been unjustly convicted.

But the good part is that I realized while listening how much my thinking had changed in the 28 plus years I've been sober.  I no longer rationalize; when I do something stupid I accept the responsibilty.

And I wondered: did my younger self  ever sound like this former associate?

After we hung up I realized just how far I'd come in growing up and accepting responsibility for everything that occurred in my life during my years of addiction and going to jail for my behavior.

It's often a long path for many of us addicts to change our lives. And once in a while, we have an opportunity to confront our former selves in the people we used to know, people who are still doing the same thing today that we were doing many years ago before we got clean and sober.

When it does happen it can be an awakening and a reminder of who we once were.

Click here to email John