Recovery Unscripted Podcast - Episode 10

Featured Guest: John West, Co-Founder, The Guest House Ocala

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Today’s guest is John West, co-founder of The Guest House Ocala and president of Sober Companions, who joined us for this conversation at the Recovery Results conference in Dallas. John shares how he combined his own experience of recovery and his career in Hollywood to establish two businesses that help people with unique lifestyle demands find true connection and heal from their emotional wounds.

In both his own life and the lives of those he’s helped, John has seen the damage that trauma can cause and how the lingering effects of that trauma can lead to a cycle of relapse. That’s why trauma healing is the central focus of The Guest House Ocala treatment program, which he co-founded with trauma expert Judy Crane. “Most chronic relapsers are struggling with issues that are surrounding emotional traumas and PTSD,” John says. “So, at the heart of everything we do…we’re healing the wounds and emotional traumas that have most people stuck.”

But healing from trauma can take time and also requires the building of new, healthy connections that can take the place of coping mechanisms that have been used to cover up the pain. “That’s the art in what Judy does: finding the right thing to connect somebody who hasn’t been able to find [that connection] somewhere else,” John explains. “Once we’re able to connect to something, that to me is what makes all the difference. That changes our lives for the better.”

Finding that true connection is what John believes leads to lasting recovery, and he can say that from his own experience. “I went from doing things in film and theatre, but I wasn’t connected to any of it. And through this work, I found a passion and a connection to working with other people that is beyond anything I could imagine in my past life,” John recalls. “On the outside, it looked like I had a pretty good life, but I wasn’t connected.”

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Podcast Transcript: David Condos with John West

David Condos: Hello and welcome to this episode of Recovery Unscripted. I’m your host David Condos, and this podcast is powered by Foundations Recovery Network. Excited to bring you another great conversation recorded live from the Recovery Results conference in Dallas, Texas. This time, I’m joined by John West, the founder of Sober Companions and co-founder of The Guest House Ocala with Judy Crane. John shares how he and his team faced the unique challenges of helping people who have achieved fame and success on the surface but are ultimately dealing with the same issues of trauma, addiction and finding a real connection as everyone else. All right, here’s John.

Welcome, John West to the show. Yes, thanks for being here, man.

John West: Thank you so very much. This is a pleasure.

David: I thought we’d start off by having you tell a little bit about your own personal story and journey and how you got started working in the addiction treatment field.

John: Basically, I grew up with a mother who had a holistic skincare business and my father was an actor and so I came from these two different worlds of health and then in entertainment. In my 20s, I struggled with my own addictions and some trauma that I had gone through. At 29, I ended up in a hotel in South Florida needing to change my life and in May 17th, 2004, I ended up at a treatment center in Florida with this little tiny woman named Judy Crane who I’d just been banned for life in a hotel and her words to me were even the Rolling Stones were banned for life in that hotel which I found out later that was shame reduction–

David: [laughs]

John: -that she was doing. I got sober in 2004.

David: Yes, man. We’re glad you’re here. Could you tell us a little bit more about what your role would be with The Guest House?

John: I came from a world of working in film and then through recovery and working around people who are healing from trauma. I put these two worlds together in the last 10 years and I started a company called Sober Companions which is we travel with artists and creative people and people who are working to change their lives from the trauma but they’re highly successful in their own right.

Judy Crane had a treatment center that she sold and she was at the time working with families and clients individual and so we put a team together where we would travel the world and work with different clients. This idea came that maybe we would try to put together a holistic luxury center where we could do this trauma work in one place. We teamed up and put this property together, beautiful place. [laughs] It’s amazing in Silver Springs, Florida.

My role is basically- I come in with a bit of the [laughs] fine sheets and the green juice and basically the things that I know my clients have in their lives. It’s not a super luxury. It’s basically healing and trying to think about every piece. Food, environment, everything we do we’re trying to do holistically.

David: Could you tell us a little bit more about the treatment philosophy at The Guest House? I know that may be more of Judy’s role.

John: Yes, not to speak for her but in Judy’s journey in recovery and her therapeutic model, most chronic relapsers are struggling with issues that are surrounding emotional traumas and PTSD. At the heart of everything we do, you don’t necessarily have to have an addiction to drugs and alcohol to be in this treatment center. We’re healing the wounds and emotional traumas, PTSD that has most people stuck.

For myself, I came in with some trauma that had been unresolved. She talks about the dark spot that the pain that most people come in and bounce off of. They get close to it and they bounce back off and they have process addictions and all things workaholism, sex addiction gambling, spending all these things that we used to heal or to deal with the pain and when we get down to doing the work, our lives change. The focus of the entire process is doing this trauma work that Judy is basically one of the pioneers of.

David: Could we talk a little bit about how trauma and some of these other things are intertwined or how trauma can lead to co-occurring emotional mental health substance use?

John: Yes, a lot of the people that we work with are chronic relapsers and have had a hard time and the three different relationships that we have are between ourselves, other people and whatever we choose as a higher power or connection. Finding the modality that will bring us to that connection, that’s where the art in what you need does. Finding the right thing to connect somebody who hasn’t been able to find it somewhere else. One of the things that saved my life was a breath work.

David: Sure.

John: Which is one of the things- [laughs]

David: You can talk about that for a second.

John: – I came in and I was two days in this place and they brought me into this strange group where they said, “We’re going to do some breath work.” In the course of an hour I had an experience that basically was life changing and so I got addicted to that. [laughs] I did it nine times while I was there and I get a sense that this is the connection I need. Once we’re able to connect to something that to me is what makes all the difference. That changes our lives for the better. It did for me. I went from doing things in film and theater I wasn’t connected to any of that and through this work, I found a passion and a connection to working with other people that is beyond anything that I could imagine in my past life.

On the outside, it looked like I had a pretty good life but I wasn’t connected and I was a tough case. [laughs] I believe in her and in this work because of experience–

David: Because she could help you?

John: Yes. Not to be [laughs] egotistical but I was like if she could crack me open– I believe in which she does.

David: Yes. I’m glad you brought up the individualized satisfaction element of that because everybody is filling that void with something every day of our lives and for you when you say you got addicted to the therapy-

[crosstalk]

John: Breath work, yes.

David: -breath work, that’s just it. You’ve got to find something else. It’s not like you’re not going to need anything, you can’t just say goodbye to the negative things and you’ll be fine. You’ve got to find what you can fill that with.

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John: I had this man that I worked with. He was a therapist and he said to us that when people are addicted cross addictions, substances, that as human beings what we’re really doing is we’re trying to find enlightenment but we’re going about it in the wrong way. It’s switching from things that were coping mechanisms and help to survive in tumultuous families or surviving trauma to healthy things that help us do wonderful things in the world and help other people and give us that satisfaction of being a part of something. Being useful in the world and connected and it’s making that shift. The art is: how do we bring somebody who just doesn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel?

How do you bring somebody like that to having an awakening of, I can go another way and have an unbelievable life?

David: I want to touch on something that you’ve talked about because you’re working with people who are really doing well on the surface. How do you get them to see that the success that they’re having doesn’t cover up what-

John: The pain, yes.

David: -else is going on?

John: We put together a team of people, doctors, a safe environment to live, good food to be able to do health, wellness, and treatment for substance addiction and cross addictions on the road and to do that quietly behind the scenes and develop a routine. The basic philosophy is, I’m not going to tell you what to do, I wouldn’t do that because obviously, you’ve got a lot of things figured out. I’m going to walk next to you and give you my best advice. Put a team together that will support the life that you’re living, maybe tweak it a bit in a different direction. We travel and we bring in wherever we go, we come into a new country and find like-minded people, and nobody really knows what I do. I’m just one of them, people traveling with the artist or CEO.

David: They follow this person around?

John: Right, we have a traveling team. We developed a routine and just figure out ways to connect. It’s very difficult sometimes to get somebody to trust because their career could be on the line by going to an AA meeting. The whole goal is as far as I’m concerned is to get somebody to the place where they’re I put myself out of business, that’s my goal and you’re going to be in charge of your life.

David: Yes, that was one thing I was wondering is, how long would you generally have this team together?

John: It’s a concierge, sober companion, company, that can be anywhere from three days to a year and a half. Then eventually we’re just going to be two people who know each other for the rest of our lives and are connected. That’s the goal. I grew up on movie sets as a kid. My father was an actor and I love it. I keep connected to that world and that group of people because in that group there’s a lot of addiction, a lot of- creative people are very highly developed in one area, sometimes there are a lot of addictions as well.

David: That does seem like it’s a specific challenge of working with this type of person that they have such high stature in their field, but they’re still just somebody’s loved one like anyone else.

John: Yes, it all comes down to family systems and trauma in doing that work. A lot of it starts with harm reduction, then moving into some connection and a plan that you can tweak, but moving away from pain, coping to abundance, and flourishing, and healing relationships and being present.

David: You mentioned earlier, helping them establish that healthy routine, because I imagine for a lot of these people, every day is totally different. They’re in a different country, they can’t rely on, this is my hometown way of living. They’re helping to create that safe place wherever they go. It seems a challenge and something that is really important.

John: Absolutely, a lot of it has to do with creating a routine book ending the day with some morning and evening ritual, a check in throughout the day with another person who understands what’s going on and a lot of logistics, preparing the right way and having the right intentions in the right routine no matter where you go. It takes usually 30 to 60 days to set up that routine and the routine I like is based on what I do my own life, morning and evening and trying to incorporate healthy, stress relief, diet routine of exercise, a healthy group of people around who understand what you’re trying to do, and taking guidance.

The challenges only because it’s traveling so much [laughs] and then in a different world. There’s also a camera at all times. To avoid all that stuff and have the anonymity recovery is a challenge. We try to figure that out. It’s all the same stuff- [laughs] I just focus on a certain area because of my background. I joke that I’m trying to save my father who’s somebody in recovery, he was an actor. When I was a little kid, I always looked up to him and loved that life and working with artists is it feels comfortable to me. I love that group of people and I think everybody’s an artist somehow. That’s how I look at it. We gear our works towards that, to finding people’s creativity and coming up with creative solutions to sometimes crazy situations, looking at fame and saying, “All right, what are the rules around this? What can we do differently? Where do you feel sure?”

David: It’s a different kind of normal.

John: Right, some of the work we’ve done is, I’ve worked with people who had a certain amount of fame, and break in through that and saying, “Let’s just go to the movies in the middle of the day, let’s do something that you haven’t been able to do in a while or that you’re afraid of. Look, man, let’s try it. What’s the worst that could happen?” Because everybody feels trapped in a certain way. There’s different traps and so like happy, joyous and free is– let’s find the freedom in your life.

Asking them the question, “Why not?” [laughs] Why not walk down the street without bodyguards? We go shopping, do normal things and see what happens. Sometimes you can’t necessarily do that but you can find ways to break those things that people feel trapped by.

David: Yes, that’s interesting, because that’s something that non-celebrities really- we don’t have to think about at all, that sense of feeling trapped.

John: Or being watched everywhere you go. If you make a mistake and you’re working in trying to recover from something, it’s a very anonymous intimate thing that you don’t necessarily want the whole world to know. That’s one of the biggest things, finding safety and a place to do that.

David: Before we go, before we started recording I learned that you have worked in the production side for some 007 films, is this correct?

John: Yes, I had- it’s one of the things that every few years I go and do that too to clear my head. I step away for a couple months from the recovery business and go do that. It’s a great group of people. It’s an amazing family and I’m honored to be lucky enough to experience some of that because it’s every boy’s dream to be around to watch the stunts and all the things that get done.

David: Any one quick story from the set?

John: Well, I guess on Skyfall one of the biggest challenges that we had. We were filming in Istanbul and we had to shut down the Grand Bazaar. During filming we brought in explosions and cars and rode motorcycles on the roof of the Grand Bazaar and in order to do that, we had to sit down and get everybody to agree. So we had to negotiate with the greatest negotiators on the planet, to let us run motorcycles through the marketplace.

David: Yes, so the bazaar salesmen in the background of the scene, those were the actual bazaar salesmen?

John: Yes, there was a lot of extras, but the shops, everything that was filmed was all real.

David: That’s awesome, yes.

John: It was pretty cool.

David: Yes, just to wrap up, I know that everyone who’s in this treatment world has their own reasons for being involved. I wondered if you could close by telling us a little bit about why helping people in this way is important to you?

John: To work with people a little bit like myself, maybe they have had some trauma that they’re recovering from, any kind of addictions or being stuck in life, to go from that to finding the joy in the world, to share that with other people. The sense of well-being and connection with other people, that’s what I would love to share and give to people. The people in this industry, we have to do our own work and live in a way that is attractive to other people so they want to learn and see what you have got, a sense of well-being and peace. If I can in some small way do that- I’ve tried to do things that are creative and seem fun. [laughs]

To maybe interest somebody else in saying, “I promise you, it gets better. Maybe just try this.” My father used to say, “No matter what you’re doing, you can find a very fun, interesting way to do it and that’s the magic or the creativity or the art of life.” I think if we focus on that it’s attracted to people who are suffering. I was given way too much grace and support and people helped me a lot, so whatever I can do create that in the world. That’s my goal.

David: Awesome. Well, thank you for your time, John.

John: Thank you, it’s a real pleasure. Thank you so very much. What an honor.

David: Thanks again to John for sharing that with us. Now, I’m happy to conclude this episode with another edition of our ongoing series called Minute of Mindfulness. Together we’re going to take the next 60 seconds to slow down, relax and focus on the present moment. Like always, I’ll start this off with a new inspirational quote and then I’ll join you again afterwards to close out the episode. [music]

This week’s quote comes from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who said, ‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”

This has been Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today we’ve heard from John West of Sober Companions and The Guest House Ocala. If you would like more information about John’s work, visit sobercompanions.com or theguesthouseocala.com. Thank you for listening. Please leave us a review on iTunes and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you. See you next time.