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.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Gratitude Heals

I was talking to a recovering client today who told me that she always went back to using drugs or alcohol because she was depressed.

I asked her to tell me about her depression. Had she been suffering from it for a long time? Was there ever a time when she was happy and positive? In her memory, what was the happiest period of her life?

She said that there had been periods when she was happy. But then the happiness seemed to become normal and ordinary and then her depression would creep back.  And she would be off to the liquor store or dope house.

I decided to offer her some suggestions about how to have conversations with herself that would put her life into a more positive trajectory.

Many times people grow up with unrealistic expectations about how life should be. We go to school, get good grades, graduate and expect to land a dream job. But for many people, that scenario doesn't play out.

Instead, they find that it's a tough, competitive job market out there.  And that they're just another face filling out applications. In fact, I often read about college graduates in their thirties still living with their parents because they haven't found a career opportunity in spite of having graduated in the top half of their class.

In this woman's case, she'd been divorced once, was raising a child by herself, and had been successful as a professional person who made a good salary. For a period of time, she had a nice home and car but eventually, drugs and alcohol caused her to lose everything. Plus the state had taken custody of her child until she could prove that she could live a sober life. Which is why she was with us.

I gave her this prescription which I found has helped me and some of our clients to get over bouts of depression. And no, it's not a pill. However, it does require a minimal amount of work. And it goes like this: every morning when you wake up write down five things that you are grateful for.

You might think as you read this that you're not grateful for anything. And that may be true. In fact, the woman who is the subject of this blog asked me what she had to be grateful for. Here she is trapped in this recovery program. She doesn't have her child with her. Her family is angry at her. She doesn't have a car. She's in a minimum wage job at a fast-food restaurant. She's back at the bottom again.

So I asked her to reframe her thinking and stop looking at what she didn't have. Instead, perhaps she should focus on what she did have. And by the look on her face, I could see that I hadn't really reached her. So I continued, asking her why she couldn't see the positive side of her situation right now.

First of all, she is in a safe place where she can focus on her recovery and her psychological issues. Her child is in safe hands. She has a chance to regain custody of her child when she graduates from our program and finds a job and a place to live. She has her freedom, which many addicts have lost because of the crimes they committed while they were using. She is still relatively young and healthy. Her parents are beginning to talk to her again because they see that she's trying to help herself. She's making a few sober friends.

I asked her to start writing a gratitude list every morning for a week, then come back to me with what she had written. She halfheartedly agreed to do it and I told her I was looking forward to see what she came up with.

Many times in life we addicts have a lot of false expectations about how life should be. And therein lies the problem. Because life, if we live it on a daily basis, is an up and down proposition. Everyone on the planet has good days and bad days - some more than others. But if we can develop the perspective that this is just the way life is then we develop resilience and can bounce back much faster when we fall into moments of depression. Any time I start falling into depression I look around me and find someone who's life is a much bigger mess than mine or who is much less fortunate than I. And when I do that I immediately get back on track.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Tough Love

A woman sent me an email the other day about her father, a man in his seventies, who had relapsed and started using drugs again.

She wrote that she and her husband had given him an ultimatum: that they would no longer communicate with him or be in his life until he sought help.

By the tone of her email I could tell that she was quite distressed by having to take that position with her father, who isn't in the best of health.

But in my opinion, that's the most loving thing she could have done for her father – to try to help him salvage the remaining years of his life and live them in health and sobriety. I've never met this lady and admire her courage, because somewhere along the way she has learned tough love and has put it into action. Even though he hasn't asked her for money or for financial help, she doesn't want to socialize with him while he's under the influence of whatever poison is putting in his body.

She's a rare species. Because most family members I deal with are seeking some kind of magic potion that will instantly cure their loved ones without having to do anything painful to them. 

But this woman apparently understands that we addicts will use anyone we can to get whatever we want as long as we are in the middle of our disease. We will lie to our children, our wives, our parents, anyone we can take advantage of. We will steal from our employers, strangers, or anyone else who leaves themselves vulnerable to us. We will risk our health, our freedom or sanity for that temporary rush of euphoria that our drug of choice brings us.

And the best way to help someone who is caught up in addiction is exactly what this woman did. She and her husband got together and presented a united front by taking a position with someone dear to them. Because they realize that the father has the choice. 

And the choice is his family or the poison that he's putting into his body.

Click here to email John

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Finding What Works

Sometimes we have residents who come to TLC's halfway houses more than once. But if they're not committed to recovery they often relapse and leave. I sometimes run into these clients months later and ask them what happened.

And usually, they'll say something like "Oh, the program just didn't work for me."

But when I try to explore it with them and ask them to get more specific the answers I get are usually pretty vague. They might talk about the fact that everyone there was an addict. And there were no professional counselors. They might say they didn't like to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to go to work. They might say something about they didn't like the living conditions. Or, they will bring up some incident that happened between them and one of the managers where they felt they were being disrespected. The answers I get cover the entire spectrum of excuses anyone can come up with.

However, the reality is that most any recovery environment will work if we're willing to put in the effort to do the program. There are literally hundreds of recovery programs in Arizona, particularly in the metropolitan areas. And if a person is serious about changing their life they could do it at any one of these. Some are religious in nature, some are work programs, some are live-in treatment programs, some are mom-and-pop operations and others are parts of nationwide corporations. My point is that there are a lot of choices.

While my preference is that they come to TLC, if they have a problem with us I can help them find somewhere else they might find more suitable

The real thing is to get sober and clean - no matter how or where we do it.

Click here to email John

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Remembering Bill W.

Back in 1992, when TLC first opened on Robson Street in Mesa, we had a resident named Bill W. He arrived during the first few months we were open and passed away suddenly about 17 years later.

I was reminded of his death yesterday when his sister Jane wrote to thank us for all the help we gave him during the time he was with us.

Like many of our residents, Bill had done time in state prison on more than one occasion and was a serious substance abuser. He had a few psychological problems, which required that he take heavy medications to control his behavior. I'm not sure if he was schizoaffective or bipolar, but as my memory serves me he was one or the other. His medication worked most of the time but periodically he would have to see his psychiatrist and the prescription that he was on would be adjusted.

I never realized how serious his mental issues were until during January of one year he called to make an appointment with his psychiatrist. He had been going through a period of depression that was almost visible, kind of like he had a black cloud above his head. However, he was unable to get an appointment until the following June, nearly 6 months away. We didn't know what to do because his depression sometimes left him in tears and unable to focus. However, within about two hours the psychiatrist called back and said that in his case they could see him that same day. That's when we realized the extent of his illness.

Bill was quiet, had a sense of humor, and was a volunteer for us all of the time he was at TLC, from 1992 when he arrived until his death 11 years ago. He was a bright guy, who taught himself how to network computers and managed the office for us for the entire time he stayed with us.

We still miss him. May he rest in peace.

Click here to email John schwary@msn.com

Monday, January 20, 2020

My child's an Addict

When a mother carries her newborn baby from the hospital she's full of love and wants to nurture the baby. She showers him or her with unlimited loving care. She nurses the child. She makes sure the diapers are changed. She made sure the child is fed. She is a protective shield around that baby. And she is full of plans for the child's future.

Never in her wildest dreams would she have believed that her child might turn in to a monster. To a drug addict. To a liar. To a convict. Or to just a common thief who goes out every day and hustles money for drugs and alcohol.

And perhaps one of the most difficult parts of my position here at TLC is talking to women who still trust their children after the child has stolen from them. Lied to them. Disappeared for weeks, leaving them to wonder if they're dead or alive. The misery drug addicts impose upon their parents – particularly their mothers – is incredible.

And this belief and faith in the child can go on for years unless there's some kind of intervention. Once in awhile the intervention comes from a professional who's employed to intervene in the child's addiction.

But more often the intervention comes from life itself. The child is arrested. Maybe goes to jail. Perhaps is kicked out of school. Or maybe just becomes homeless and broke because the parents can no longer afford to have the child in their house. Maybe they're afraid that the kid will keep stealing and sponging off of them while he or she uses drugs in their room and doesn't go to school or work.

When I speak to these mothers on the phone I emphasize that things have to get painful enough before a child will change and seek help for his or her addiction.

If the child is of age, there's no reason why he or she should be mooching off of mom and dad. If they're addicted to drugs they need to figure out how to get the drugs. If they don't have a job that provides enough money for them to pay for their drugs, then maybe they have to learn to steal or sell drugs in order to pay for their habit. And this is where the pain usually comes in. Because most youngsters who haven't been raised by parents or family members who use drugs themselves, entering into the world of drugs or crime can be a very educational experience. And, did I mention, painful?

But this is the point where change usually sets in. Because living on the streets is painful. Going to jail is painful. To panhandle on street corners is painful. That's why I tell parents that I believe pain is one of the most wonderful instruments of change on the planet. Sooner or later the pleasure of being high is far outweighed by the pain it takes to get enough drugs to keep us feeling as wonderful as we want to.

We all have a choice: the pain of addiction or the pleasure of walking the path of recovery.

Click here to email Johnschwary@msn.com

Friday, January 17, 2020

Birthday Tradition

A tradition at the TLC corporate office is to celebrate sobriety anniversaries.

Of course the "tradition" is supposed to be sort of a surprise where the person celebrating an anniversary is invited to come to the corporate office for a meeting. But usually everyone knows what's going on. So it's really not a surprise at all.  But we try to act surprised anyway.

This tradition has been going on for as long as I can remember. And it serves a wonderful purpose. Because it helps to those who are new to the program give recognition to those who have stayed sober and clean for a period of time: usually for a year or more.

Although the anniversary of my 29 years of sobriety was the 14th of this month, we celebrated the occasion today – at the end of the work week. Another fellow also celebrated his birthday at the same time. So I believe – for the sake of saving time – we now celebrate everyone's birthday on Friday of each week.

Another reason we select Fridays is that is when managers usually come to the office to turn in paperwork and pick up their change banks. So usually there are at least a dozen people in attendance.

While sobriety is its own reward for most of us, it is still nice to have a small crowd of sober people seeing us receive a sobriety chip. And also to enjoy a slice of the cake that comes with each celebration.

Once the candles are blown out each celebrant gives a brief talk about how he or she stays sober and how the program has benefited them.  Then, one day at a time, we began working on our next year.

Click here to email John

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Number 29

29 years ago I drove into the parking lot of a local detox in a stolen car.  I'd made the decision to change.  To quit drinking.  To stop stealing anything I could lay my hands so I could buy more heroin.  At 51, I'd essentially decided to live - rather than die in prison, on the streets or in a mental institution.

However, to my dismay, I was told that I couldn't get into the detox because I'd arrived in a stolen car.  For some reason, they asked how I'd gotten to the facility and I told them I found a car with the motor running outside of a convenience store and "borrowed" it to get to the facility.  They told me to move it from their parking lot to the street.  When I walked back in they told me I needed to return the car to where I'd stolen it.

As I left, they said that if I decided to come back that I could call them and they'd come to pick me up with a van they used to transport those who needed a ride to detox.

I was so resentful when I left that I got high for another week before I called them again.  I figured God didn't want me sober, so I kept doing what I was doing.  But eventually, I  surrendered and called the following week and sure enough, they sent a van to the sleazy motel where I was staying.  And that was the beginning of my sobriety 29 years ago.

It was the best decision I've ever made.  After 11 days of detoxification, I went to a local halfway house where I lived for a year, doing volunteer work for them the last nine months of my stay there.

Once I left I started a small halfway house. I worked an outside job for the first six months then quit my outside job.  At that point, the halfway house had become self-supporting.  It has grown from five beds in January of 1992 to 800 beds and six different businesses today. More than half a million addicts have passed through our doors since 1992.

And during all those years I've been blessed with the promises we're given when we enter the 12-step programs.

Click here to email John


Saturday, January 11, 2020

Insecure Addicts

I've always known that addicts and alcoholics are a pretty insecure bunch

And I was reminded of that few days ago when one of our managers was sort of beating around the bush about what kind of succession plans TLC has for when I retire, get killed, or just succumb to the ravages of old age.  Of course, he was concerned about his future.

And actually, that was a fair question that he posed.  After all, I'm not immortal.  Nor do I intend to spend my remaining years pushing paper around this desk I've been sitting at for 28+ years.

Probably part of his question arose because one of our longest-term key managers had semi-retired earlier this year after more than 25 years with the company, due to health issues.  And part of the question probably stems from the fact that I'll be 81 this coming May.

Now my idea is to never retire as long as I'm able to drag my old ass up the stairs to my office six or seven days a week as I do now.  I'd like to be doing what I'm doing ten years from now.

And in pursuit of not retiring, I do things to maintain my fitness.  I spend 45 minutes to an hour a day - either at the gym I have at my house - or the one I'm a member of that's a few blocks away.  I've been a vegan for over 20  years.  And I neither smoke nor drink.  I meditate at least an hour a day, sometimes longer.  I keep my stress down by not making big deals out of things.

Aside from that, TLC has a board of directors who'll be able to keep things functioning once I'm out of the picture.   The board has some six members, a couple of them that manage trusts that rent properties to TLC, and others who have been staff members at TLC for a number of years.  All have an interest in perpetuating the help that TLC has given addicts for over 28 years.

Other than the vagaries of life that can always affect the best thought out plans, there's no reason TLC shouldn't be around for another 50 years.  God willing..

Click here to email John

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Gratitude List

Being grateful that I live in a secure and safe country is on my gratitude list today.

At times like these, when our country is on the brink of another war in the Middle East, I am grateful that I live in a country that is secure and has the power to defend itself.

No matter the political persuasion one follows, at times like this I believe we should rally behind our political leaders and give our military our support. This is no time for us to get involved in partisan bickering.

Governing a country of any size is an overwhelming responsibility. Since this thing with Iran and Iraq started I've talked with many who say that we should do this or that and get it over with. Like we should leave Iraq. Or we should bomb Iran. But people who talk like this don't understand the immense damage that can be done in a war, of the lives that can be destroyed on both sides when people are going at each other with weapons.

I am by no means a liberal. I believe that everybody should earn their own way and be responsible for themselves. I believe we have a right to bear arms. I believe we have a right to earn as much money as we have the ability to earn. To practice the religion of our choice. I believe we should help the sick. The elderly. The mentally ill. But I don't believe the government should get into our lives and tell us how to live or spend our money or what to believe.

So when I think of what I'm grateful for one of the things that's in the top 10 for me is the fact that I'm an American.

And even though our country is not perfect, I believe that it compares favorably with most of the more advanced countries in the world. And for that I have gratitude.

Click here to email John

Saturday, January 4, 2020

We get Emails

I often get responses to my blogs from regular readers who can relate to experiences they're having with family members. And in some cases, I develop long-term email relationships with those readers. The lady below, Mary Moore, and I have been corresponding for what seems to be about five or six years about her 48-year-old son. Anyway, I recently wrote a blog about enabling our loved ones by helping them out when they're drinking and drugging. 

I like receiving emails like this because it lets me know that what I write has a positive impact on some people. In this case, she has at least been able to keep herself from enabling her son any further. Her behavior toward him may cause him to seek change in his life, rather than to rely upon others.

And here's the response she sent me.

"Happy New Year. Praying 2020 will be a year of positive change for all of us.

I just read your blog “Loving them to death”. Your blog was spot on!

I have been guilty of all those enabling issues with my son, Tony Ben, 48 years old. He is still living homeless in downtown KCMO.

I no longer let him sleep in my apt, no longer do his laundry, pick him up, pay his tobacco, and give him $.

It has been difficult lately due to holidays also weather being very cold ( fear for him to get frostbite)

I pray and attend Alanon meetings.

One day at a time. Thank you again for your words of wisdom and support. Take care my friend.

Mary Moore."

What has worked for Mary may also work for the rest of you who may have a problem with enabling.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Meditation Practice

Each morning the first thing I do when I wake up is meditate for half an hour. The practice I follow is called Mindfulness Meditation.

And the first event I attended this year was not a New Year's Eve party or New Year's Day party. Instead, it was a meditation session where 15 or 20 of us gather every Wednesday evening at seven PM for 90 minutes of instruction and meditation practice.

One of the reasons I got into meditation in the first place is because in the 12 steps where it says "sought through prayer and meditation... " there are no instructions about how to meditate. Now when I saw that phrase it seemed kind of strange that it didn't go any further than that. So I started seeking to learn a little bit about meditation.

Eventually, once TLC was about three years old, I employed a Transcendental Meditation instructor for a few days to teach several members of our staff how to meditate. Today there are only four of us out of the 20 who started meditating who still follow the practice. And a few years ago after experiencing a few Mindfulness Meditation sessions, I switched over to that meditation practice. I found it to be much more fulfilling and to offer many more variations in the type of meditation practices that it offers.

I don't believe in New Year's resolutions but I think that if any of you non-meditators want to start something new this year meditation would be one thing that you would find to be beneficial. And I don't ask you to take my word for it. There's an abundance of literature on YouTube and on the Internet about the practice. How to do it. Where to find places to do it. Schools of thought about different types of meditation. Whatever you pick, I would suggest that you try to find something simple that works for you.

There is much scientific evidence out of Harvard Medical School and other well-known universities around the world where the benefits of meditation have been studied in great depth. Studies have included not only brain scans but also the behavioral results in those who practice meditation.

And let's face it: anything that can aid us in our sobriety is worth looking into if we're serious about living a sober peaceful life.

Click here to email John