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 30th 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.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Loving Him to Death.

A lot of people don't understand or are in denial about how they support the addictions of their children and family members.

I've been managing one of the largest drug programs in Arizona for nearly 29 years. And people ask over and over how they can help their loved one kick a habit. And the first thing I tell them is to stop supporting their habit.

"Oh, we don't," they usually reply. "We told him we don't want him doing that kind of stuff. We get angry when he doesn't listen. We cut off help. We threaten to quit talking to him if he doesn't get help."

But when I start digging deeper I find out that's not necessarily the case. Maybe they don't give them money. But I ask them to take an inventory of what they do give him. Do they let him sleep on the couch because he's lost his apartment? Do they feed him? Do they do his laundry? Do they buy him cigarettes? Do they give him rides to strange neighborhoods? Do they give him pocket money?

I'm a person who used heroin and other opiates for about 38 years. And alcohol for 42 years. And as long as people would enable me with any kind of help at all I used them to support my habit.

It was only when my dear mother, God bless her soul, said she was giving me no more help until I got sober and clean that I began to change. And I mean she cut me off cold. And I was very angry, but she didn't care. She was tired of seeing me dying from drugs and alcohol. She wouldn't feed me. She wouldn't buy me cigarettes. She wouldn't even let me sleep in her toolshed. And I thought she was cruel and had no understanding. Why had she turned so mean?

But see, when people quit helping me, that's when I began to change. When I could no longer borrow money, or bum rides, or get any kind of help I began to change. At first, I thought the world had turned against me and that everyone was just becoming downright evil. That they had no understanding of my substance abuse problem and my abusive upbringing.

But when people stopped helping me, that's when I changed. It took a while for people to notice.  But when they did see those changes then they began to give me real help. They saw me planning businesses. They saw me going to work. They saw me going to twelve-step meetings. They weren't stupid. They realized that I was trying to do something with my life and they gave me 100% encouragement which made me want to continue to do even better. That's the only kind of help to give an addict: get behind him or her 100% when you see that they're really making motions to change their life. And when they stop trying to change their life once again that's when you quit helping.

But too many people have the idea that their loved one will no longer like or love them. That their relationship will somehow fall apart. So they continue to help them no matter what. And that's why I gave this blog the title "Loving Them to Death."

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Resolution

So here we are once more on the cusp of a new year. And it seems like January of 2019 just kicked off yesterday.

I don't know if I accomplished anything this year, though I did complete a divorce. Which was a relief from the anxiety of court appearances and wondering how much my legal bills were going to be for the next month.

I've never made New Year's resolutions. I'm not sure why I don't engage in that tradition. But when I got sober I made one big resolution: to live the best lifestyle I could. And I knew that I didn't have to wait till the beginning of the year to kick it off.

When I got sober almost 29 years ago I made a resolution to live the best life I could. And for me, the best life I could live is one where I was fit and healthy in all ways. Emotionally. Physically. Financially. Spiritually.

So I did things to maintain my sobriety and recovery by going to twelve-step meetings. After I had a year sober I started a side business running a recovery program while working a 9-to-5 job. However, circumstances changed and I ended up having to leave my 9-to-5 job to run the recovery program full-time because it grew so rapidly it required my full-time attention.

But I did more than just go to meetings and build a business. I began reading one to two books a month. I got involved in weightlifting and playing racquetball at the YMCA, a gymnasium I used for nearly 20 years until they sold the building. I also took a course in transcendental meditation, a practice I did for about 15 years until I switched over to mindfulness meditation. Meditation was a practice that was so good for me that I eventually obtained a certificate as a meditation instructor.

The picture I'm trying to paint here is one of being involved in constant improvement. I guess it's all right to set goals or make New Year's resolutions. However, that hasn't been my best way to get things done. I believe that we improve our lives by getting involved in something that we can do one day at a time, bit by bit, inching along with progress and not necessarily hurrying toward a goal where we stop moving when we reach our destination. I believe that a well-lived life is one where we can continue to grow, where we can be a benefit to the community and give others the opportunity to improve their lives.

I'm not saying don't make a resolution because you're not going to listen anyway. For if you're an addict like I am, you'll learn your own lessons as you try different things. But for your sake and the sake of society do something positive – no matter what it is – because whatever you do positive will contribute to us living in a better world.

When we're out there living positive lives other addicts and alcoholics might notice us and want to follow our example. What better gift could you give the world?

Click here to email John

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Sadness

One of the things we learn in recovery is that life is a series of ups and downs.  And the 12-steps teach us - if we use the tools - how to handle the roller coasters of life without having to resort to  drugs and alcohol once again.

This is always a rough time of year for me because my mother died on Christmas Eve 25 years ago. 
Her death was unexpected, even though she'd been in the hospital for 54 days.  She'd entered the hospital for a one-day procedure to have a pin removed from her thighbone which had been put in years earlier when she broke her leg.  The doctors figured the bone had healed well enough that they could remove the pin and relieve her of her pain.

It was supposed to be a simple procedure, but they ended up keeping her overnight for observation.  To make a long story short, the operation didn't go well and she developed complications that put her in a coma from which she eventually emerged.  The doctors had to put in a new pin and she required extensive rehabilitation to get back to normal.

Finally, she was scheduled to return home on Christmas Day and my brother and I were looking forward to her release from the hospital.

On Christmas Eve I had just left work and was preparing to visit her when I got a call from the hospital.  The nurse told me that my mother had died 15 minutes earlier.  She explained that she'd suffered a pulmonary embolism - a form of blood clot in her lungs which killed her almost instantly.

Of course, I was in temporary shock because she seemed so healthy when I'd visited her the evening before.  That she wouldn't come home was the last thing on my mind.

Regardless of the years that have elapsed, memories of her passing are with me at this time of year.  I long ago accepted her passing as a natural part of life but her memory is still with me this time of year.

She was a wonderful example for me and taught me much.  She was proud of me for having been clean for nearly three years at the time of her passing.  And for that I thank Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Saying Goodbye

At 4 o'clock this afternoon I attended a viewing of my grandson's body at a crematorium in East Mesa. It was a four-hour event, the first two hours being reserved for family.

He looked peaceful, his hands across his chest with his fingers intertwined, and dressed in a Dallas Cowboy's T-shirt. Of course, his eyes were closed, but he had a hint of a smile that was a part of his natural features. If it weren't for the slight pallor of his skin he almost appeared to be peacefully sleeping. Several letters and photos had been placed in the coffin by friends and family members.

His father spoke to the gathering about how it was "the worst thing that had happened to him in his life." We could all see the pain on his face and realized that he would grieve for some time over the loss of his only son. I also spoke about some of my experiences with my grandson and of my conversations with him about his drug use. It is difficult for anyone to put into words the pain of losing a loved one for any reason, especially one who dies of an accidental overdose of a seductive substance.

Because I work in the recovery field and have for 29 years, burying addicts who overdose is not uncommon for me. But somehow, when it's a blood relative it takes on a different dimension and meaning and has an even deeper impact. One reason it has such an impact is that for years we'd tried to convince him to get into treatment. To do something different with his life. To come into our program, which he could have done by simply picking up the phone and calling me. When I walked out of the crematorium I felt once again the deadly impact that drugs have upon families and friends.

All those who attended will carry his loss with them during a period of grieving. And when the grieving process is over they will still have the memory of losing a loved one. This time next year they will still remember the brightness that he brought into their lives, a brightness that will only live on in their memories.

By the time I post this blog, all that will be left of him besides these memories will be his ashes – which will be placed in two urns - one to be given to his mother, the other to his father.

Click here to email John

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Grandson's Overdose

On the 15th my daughter called with a message that my grandson had been found dead in bed from a drug overdose at 2 PM that afternoon. Without stating the obvious, I was stunned for a moment and broke into tears.

At this writing, no one knows exactly what the drug was and I found out somewhat later that he had taken some alcohol with him to the apartment where he was found dead. Although I know he favored benzodiazepines and opiates, at this point no one knows exactly what killed him or if he was drinking. But if he was combining Xanax, Valium, Fentanyl, or Percocet with alcohol that is definitely a deadly combination. Plus, he had a history of overdosing on opiates over the past five years; in fact, I think he went to the hospital four times in one year for heroin overdoses.

Like many people I know, he had a susceptibility to overdose quite easily. For some reason, I only overdosed one time in 38 years and I stupidly combined various drugs and alcohol. Life can be so random.

The sad part of my grandson's death is the pain and grieving that he left behind with his parents, four sisters and the rest of us. Much of this day was carried out in a background of tears as we drove around visiting family members.

My grandson and I had only been talking for a few weeks prior to his death. And the reason we'd been talking is that he had gotten out of prison a few months back and wanted to re-establish a relationship. I was hoping that the months he'd spent in prison had maybe changed him to some degree and decided we should give it a try.  And it seemed that he had changed. He looked clean. He acted clean. Had a positive attitude. He was working and under the supervision of the parole department.

One thing we learn in the twelve-step programs is to forgive and not carry resentments. And I decided that this was the opportune time for me to put the program into practice.  I'd always had a lot of confidence in my grandson's ability to succeed at whatever he tried. He was a hard worker. He had a good personality. He was healthy. He was a handsome 28-year-old who could have done anything with his life.

The only good that can come of this is that I can use his example when counseling others; maybe someone will listen and avoid the same untimely passing.

Go with God, Mijo...

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Saturday, December 14, 2019

Peer Counseling

Although TLC has a treatment program, the bulk of our staff is made up of volunteers who themselves are addicts or alcoholics. In other words, they are peer counselors who help others get sober.

Many families and parents don't have experience with drugs or alcohol and don't quite understand this concept. How can another addict or alcoholic give my little darling the help he needs? After all, he's never been in serious trouble because of his drug and alcohol use. He's never been to prison. He never lived in the ghetto. He's never belonged to a gang. He just partied too much and maybe got into a little trouble.

How can these nonprofessional, untrained managers – some of them with only a GED – bring the best level of care and attention to my child or loved one? After all, he's a very bright child who was raised with all the advantages.

While I have nothing against professional counseling or training for those who deal with alcoholics and addicts, there's much research that shows that peer counseling is as effective – if not more so – than that delivered by the best trained professionals.

In my opinion our peers have a much better grasp on addict thinking and behavior than those who have never lived in the drug world.

Professional counselors are good at at telling us why we put a needle in our arms or drank ourselves into unconsciousness. But in the final analysis – to use a well-worn cliché – does it make a hill of beans why we used drugs or alcohol? My thinking is that the more important thing is where I go from here?

And the reality is that no one can spot addict behavior like another addict. Our volunteer peer managers – those who have been there themselves so many times – have an almost animal instinct about when one of our clients is about to use or if they have used. After the client has used, one of
our trained therapists can do a postmortem on the person's behavior and speculate upon why they relapsed. But is that a great deal of help?

It may help a little after the addict gets sober again and reflects upon the behavior that led up to his using. But in my opinion analysis of past behavior has never served much purpose unless we're really motivated to change. All the knowledge in the world doesn't mean crap if we don't apply it.

Click here to email John 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Irresponsible

I know that for the many years that I used alcohol and drugs I always found some reason that my substance abuse was someone else's fault.

It was because my father was an alcoholic.

It was because he beat my mother when he would get drunk, and set a bad example for me when I was a child.

I drank because I was raised in a poor environment by poor parents who were not very well educated.

After I started getting arrested for crimes committed so that I could obtain drugs and alcohol then I would blame it on the system.

"The police just have it in for me," I would say. I said that to my mother one time when she asked me why I was always getting into trouble. And that's what I told her: "the police just want to mess with me, they have it in for me."

But I never told her that again after she asked me why they didn't have it in for her.

A long time ago people could could see through my façade of blaming others for my behavior, of not wanting to be responsible for myself.

But I'm here to tell you today, after having been sober for nearly 1/3 of my life, that there's only one person who's responsible for our recovery: and that person is us. I'm the one responsible when I crack open a bottle of whiskey. Or pick up a bag of dope.

I'm the one who was responsible when the jailhouse doors slammed behind me. I'm the one who was responsible when I lost a job, or got divorced, or got fired from my job.

And it was all because I didn't want to quit drinking and doing drugs and live a normal life like most of the people I knew.

Click here to email John

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Reflecting

It was about this time of year in 1990 that I decided that it was time for me to get sober. Nothing in life was going right. I didn't have a job. I had to steal every day to survive and get enough alcohol and drugs to carry me through till the next day. And probably the biggest thing of all that made me get sober is that I was just plain unhappy with my life.

There'd been times before I fell deep into my addictions when I'd owned businesses, houses, and had good relationships with friends and family. But I was at the point in my life in early December 1990 where I had nothing but the funky clothes on my back in and a serious drug habit to maintain.

And I guess I bring this up today because this time of year always reminds me of the last days of my using, and the beginning of my recovery. It's not really like I'm reflecting upon an anniversary but it does remind me of how far I've come from those many years ago when I was sleeping in the back seat of a stolen car.

I think reflecting upon the twists and turns of our lives is good for us because it reminds us of where we might go if we don't pay attention to what we're doing each day. The Big Book has a line in it that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And while I was sure I fit that definition of insanity I certainly didn't think I was crazy. I just thought that I was having some bad luck or maybe that the stars weren't quite aligned in my favor. It took a lot of painful experiences before I decided to take a chance on recovery. And, I think it's probably the best thing that I ever did. For that reason I don't forget where I came from.

So January 2020, on the 14th, it will be 29 years ago that I walked into a detoxification center on Bellevue St. in Mesa, AZ. And I had with me one of the most important things an addict can have if they want to get sober: and that was a willingness to go to any lengths to change my life. And I had that willingness.  And today my life is unbelievably wonderful thanks to all of those in recovery who spent the time to teach me how to live without substances.

Click here to email John

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Surrender

A lot of times at AA meetings we hear the word "surrender "

Today I understand what surrender means, but at one time the way I walked through life was with the idea that I'd never surrender anything. And I didn't.

I was one of those arrogant, egotistical, people who thought they knew everything and thought they ran everything. No one could tell me anything about my lifestyle. About getting an education. About using drugs and alcohol. From the time I was a teenager I did things just the way I wanted to most of the time.

And playing captain of the universe as I did showed me just exactly how smart I was. Because nearly everything I put my hands on, I messed up. My know-it-attitude and unwillingness to listen to others resulted in me spending something like 16 years locked up in various types of institutions for stupid drug charges and the crimes associated with obtaining drugs.

Yet today, I follow the dictum in the big book that says "we ceased fighting anyone or anything..." And you know, for some reason the world is a much easier and pleasant place. I finally came to the point where I realize that cause-and-effect is a reality. That there's a purpose and a lesson behind nearly every challenge that we meet.

And I sometimes wonder – in moments of whimsy – why it took me so long to learn the simple lesson that there's a certain kind of sweet victory when we surrender in these unwinnable battles with ourselves.

For example, I used to have a bad habit of wanting to be right about everything – even if it didn't make a bigger difference one way or the other. It was just my fragile alcoholic ego at play and I wasn't even smart enough to recognize that.

Today I have strong opinions about things just like before; but the main thing is that I keep my mouth shut because no matter what I say I'm not going to convince anybody that I'm right or wrong. And even more than that nobody gives a crap because they have their own opinions.

To be sober and happy I believe that one must flow with life. I need to give up the idea that I have to always be right about everything. I believe that whenever we have a chance we must express kindness rather than anger over silly things that mean little or nothing. After all, life is short and we need to do our best to enjoy it without fighting with ourselves or anyone else. And that's how we surrender.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Carrying the Message

I've always understood that the primary purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers. And my definition of "still suffers" is that someone who may not be drinking, but may be so new that he or she doesn't understand how to apply the tools that are in the big book. The tools that have led millions over the past 75+ years onto the path of sobriety.

For someone new, the environment of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting can be intimidating. There are strange slogans on the wall that say such things as "One Day At A Time," or "Easy Does It." People are friendly. Some of them are laughing and virtually all extend their hand to welcome newcomers. Even though the group may seem friendly, there are many newcomers with a lot of social anxiety and are still suffering from withdrawals on top of that.

Yet, over the years I've seen several alcoholics with decades of recovery who behave so poorly in the meetings that it makes these newcomers so uncomfortable that I'm surprised to see them at the next meeting - if ever again.

Almost all of them fall under the category of what is known as "old-timer." One fellow, whom I haven't seen in probably a year, used to carry a dogeared big book around in a custom-made case and and collar a newcomer and begin to tell them exactly how to read the book, tell them loudly what was wrong with them, and generally badger them until they were looking for a place to hide – anywhere to get away from this pesky, overbearing loudmouth.

Last week, I saw an old timer approach a group of newcomers and do something similar. It seems this fellow has a fetish about where people sit in the meetings. He gets really upset if anyone sits in the back of the room when there are open chairs in the front. I think he's gone as far as to remove a couple of the back row chairs so people are forced to sit in the front of the room. However, at the meeting I'm talking about there were maybe one or two empty chairs in the front two rows when five or six people came in at the last moment, just as the meeting was starting.

So a few of them went to the back and brought chairs forward so they would have a place to sit. However, this old-timer jumped up and ran back and pointed to the front of the room and told them that there were plenty of chairs up front for them to sit in. Then I guess he noticed that there were only a couple of open chairs and allowed them to bring extra chairs forward so they would have a place to sit.

While I'm not sure what this old-timer's problem is, it probably has something to do with control and power. But the reality is that our goal in AA is to help people get sober. And anything that affects them negatively might interfere with that process.

I know that when I first came to 12 step meetings I didn't necessarily want to be there. And anything negative that would happen would be just one more reason for me to not be there. Today, after more than 25 years of recovery, I don't give a crap where anybody sits in a meeting or if they sit at all. To me, the important thing is that they're inside the room.  And hopefully some of the words they hear will sink into their subconscious.

The alcoholics and addicts who are not quite sure whether they want to be there will use any excuse at all to avoid having to come back. Especially when longtime members treat them rudely or embarrass them.

Click here to email John