Recovery Unscripted Podcast - Episode 6

Featured Guest: John Southworth, Interventionist and Founder, Southworth Associates

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On this episode, John Southworth joins me for a conversation at the Recovery Results conference in Dallas. A renowned interventionist, John shares his intriguing personal story and expands on the themes of his presentation at the conference, titled “Transforming the Past into Powerful Recovery Today,” which explores how adverse childhood experiences and trauma can alter one’s perspective.

As John explains, the first obstacle to overcome is recognizing that the trauma even exists. “If you’re living in a cave your whole life, the cave is very familiar to you…and you adapt,” John says. “In a dysfunctional family, you don’t even know you’ve gone through trauma ‘til you start looking at it from the other side.”

In order to transition from a positive intervention to an environment of lasting recovery, it’s critical to get the whole family involved. This involves everything from preparing at the rehearsal to ensuring that the family is engaged and held accountable for the long term. “It’s like taking a growth of cancer out. If you don’t deal with the families, you’ve only taken a third of the growth out,” John explains. “How well are they going to get? The cancer’s going to grow.”

In his hands-on work as an interventionist, John is able to draw from his four decades of experience so he can be ready for whatever happens once the intervention begins. “They’re very unpredictable,” John says of interventions. “And you’ve got to have a lot of talent to be quick on your feet.” He continues, “I think as a good interventionist, you’ve got to be somebody who’s like a tennis player. It’s like a tennis match; when the ball goes over there, I’ll be there.”

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Podcast Transcript: David Condos with John Southworth

David Condos: Welcome to this episode of Recovery Unscripted. I’m your host, David Condos, and this podcast is powered by Foundations Recovery Network. Today’s guest John Southworth draws wisdom from his own recovery journey and his four decades of professional experience to serve others as a counselor, educator and interventionist. John sat down with me at the Recovery Results conference in Dallas to share his intriguing personal story as well as some of his keys for ensuring an intervention leads to lasting recovery for the whole family system. All right, here’s John.

David: Welcome, John Southworth. Thanks for being here today.

John Southworth: Thank you.

David: All right. I thought we’d start off by having you tell us a little bit about your personal story and how you got started in this world of interventions in treatment.

John: Well, I was born New Year’s Day, in a small Mormon community in Idaho. Oakley, Idaho. Then we moved to Boise that first year. My dad had an alcohol problem and my mother had a non-Al-Anon problem. She never got into recovery for being around us alcoholics. Anyway, I didn’t know at the time, I do now, that she was shielding me from my father’s drinking, he was gone a lot and he played cards and he worked hard as an accountant. I enjoyed school, got straight As, but the eighth grade between the seventh and eighth grade, we moved back to Oakley. My dad bought the flour mill from his father, and for some reason, I started getting in trouble at that time.

They were so different than the schools– boy, she was much more ahead than what Oakley was. I was really having a tough time, nothing to do. I started acting out, and by the time I got in about high school then the cigarettes came by and I tried those and then the alcohol. Since I hit the alcohol, I felt normal, I really felt at home. Sex got involved and it was much easier to confront that with the alcohol and drop my inhibitions. My grades went from straight As to Ds and Fs and I started missing school. I went to Idaho State University to become a pharmacist, got in a car wreck, we hurt some little girls, hit a tree. I came out, became a manual labor person, driving a truck and still drinking and getting in trouble.

I ended up getting eight drunk driving charges through the years. I moved to Boise, and then to Los Angeles, I moved around a lot. I felt like something was missing. When I got to Los Angeles, my uncle was there and I got in trouble there, I lost jobs. It was all around the drinking and the DUIs. Finally, I ended up in Boise in 1972 and opened an office supply store with some money my uncle gave my father for me. I ended up having seven office supply store and did very well, became a millionaire while drunk. Before I opened the stores though, I knew there was a problem so I went to a place called Raleigh hills for treatment. It was immersion treatment and you’d drank and puked, and drank and puked and never drink again.

I picked up marijuana right away. Then marijuana led into prescription drugs. Then in 1980, through inflation, I lost everything and became very despondent. Along came cocaine, which saved my life. I’m sure I’d have committed suicide without cocaine. I was so depressed and cocaine gave me the lift. I heard Richard Pryor say one time he had to go so low, he had to look up for help and that’s what happened to me. Actually, I ended up in treatment, five times of course, be sure they were doing it right. Finally came out of treatment the last time and got involved with Boise State, I became a DUI evaluator and got interested in that, started volunteering, got a job with the care unit, got a job at Nelson Institute. It progressed from there. By 1992, I was asked to take over the doctors program in Idaho for impaired doctors that might have an alcohol drug problem. I’ve been doing that since ’92.

Then here came the dentists, the nurses, the pharmacists, the state bar, the judges, the attorneys. Now, I have it, all those contracts. Then I got very interested in interventions when I was working with a care unit and started doing that really early on. It just evolved where my business grew. Ken Seeley and I started doing intervention training. We can get the family involved and hold the person with the problem accountable. We can get a real good recovery rate. I feel we’ll get 100% recovery rate if we can get the family on board eventually. I started the Vero Beach Conference, probably 25 years ago. Between the trainings, the monitoring, my staff and Boise, I’ve been pleased with my recovery. I’ve got almost 34 years now.

David: Congratulations.

John: Yes. January first, I’ll be 79 years old. Now, I have 34 years sobriety. That’s in a nutshell.

David: Did I catch your sobriety birthday is same as your regular birthday?

John: Yes, I was laying in detox on Valium and prescription drugs and cocaine. I’ve been smoking coke for about nine days and I was completely crazy, a lack of sleep– I’m laying there and I thought, “I just want to make up all one birthday, so I can remember.”

David: [laughs] You just keep it simple.

John: I got to, I got to. Life for me was very simple.

David: Yes. Well, man. It sounds like you’ve been through it all.

John: Yes, good life. It’s a great life.

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David: Southworth Associates is a big part of what you’re doing now, can you tell us a little bit about your current role with them and more about what they do?

John: Well, I’m trying to phase myself out of the contracts I have. I brought a man on to take my place at my age. But I’m still very active with the Vero Beach Conference, Moments of Change conference, all the Foundations Conference. I’m very involved with them. They’ve been very good to me and I hope I’ve been good to them. It’s been a great combination. I’ve been– where am I going? Atlanta to do an intervention on a husband and wife. I’m very involved there, very involved in the monitoring, big consulting business. I’m in the air every day. This week I’ve been in Shanghai and Bali, I was there for a week and I just got back., I’ll be in Boise tonight and then I’ll be in Atlanta on Monday and Tuesday. Then I’ll be back from Boise to Palm Springs the following Saturday. It keeps me busy.

David: Yes, sounds like it. You mentioned consulting. What does that look like?

John: Well, in any way I can raise the visibility of a new company, I can consult with them, I’m 24/7 on that. There’s a place in Thailand that’s using me right now, they want to build that program. I’m helping them get hooked up with the right people. I’m a real networker. I know a lot of people and I’ve been around a long time.

David: Yes. You’re still personally involved with interventions too.

John: Yes, I’ll do it myself.

David: Could you tell us a little bit more about what you found successful in your history as a hands-on interventionist? And specifically, you mentioned getting the family involved. That’d be one aspect?

John: Yes, we have a rehearsal and getting them involved and engaged on a contract where we hold them as accountable as we do the alcohol and drug person. We get the alcohol drug person in treatment and we also try to get the family into some type of help, Al-Anon, CoDA, workshops or whatever. If we can hold them accountable and it really worked successfully, we can get a good outcome. If not, lot of times the families in a crisis will do anything. Boy, as soon as it starts smoothing out and the person’s gone then they’re not in a crisis, they’re not as active. That’s our biggest job is hold them active. We’ve got to hold them feet to the fire, it all falls apart. You take a leper out of a leper colony, put him in treatment, put him back in the leper colony, say, don’t catch leprosy, that’s insane. That’s what we do in treatment.

The treatment centers, they don’t have them long enough. It takes a minimum of 12 weeks to be effective. I know it’s money and time and everything else but it just doesn’t work.

David: Yes, and then the family is what they go back to after that?

John: Families are very crazy a lot of the time. They’re wonderful people but they’ve been so involved in that disease for so long. If you don’t treat all the disease, to me it’s like taking a growth of cancer out. If you don’t deal with the families, you’ve only taking a third of the growth out of the cancer. How well are they going to get? The cancer is going to grow.

David: I was talking with someone else in an interview for the podcast yesterday about the issue of family and creating that baseline normal. I assume that’s part of this?

John: Well, you attempt that. A lot of things aren’t going to be normal anymore because the family is focused in on the disease so much that they feel a loss. It’s like– I don’t know if you’ve given up any addiction but when you lose out addiction, you go through a detox. Your addiction’s been to the other person and they go through detox, we try to get them involved in Al-Anon, CoDA, and that type of thing because the family needs a lot of support, tremendous our support just to keep them active.

David: Related to this. You presented yesterday at the conference with Caroline Smith, a presentation titled, “Transforming the past into powerful recovery today.” You talked about, specifically, the effects of adverse childhood experiences and related things like that. Could you tell us a bit about adverse childhood experiences and how they can impact?

John: You bet. I think a lot of us that were born and raised in alcoholic families, the trauma we didn’t know was trauma. Because if you’re living in a cave all your life, cave is very familiar to you and very comfortable, you adapt. It’s kind of like in a dysfunctional family, you don’t even know you’ve gone through trauma till you start looking at it from the other side. And I started looking at that early on.

I had a meeting this morning, our 12-Step meeting was Adult Children of Alcoholics. Lot of them in the room and we’ve all gone through the same thing. That’s what we talked about yesterday. We even had some people who were in that lecture show up at the meeting this morning. I told him we would have one on ACA.

I’d found it, as I look back and I sure wasn’t smart enough at the time, but that’s wonderful medication. Alcohol, drugs, food, sex, anything to relieve the pain. Emotional pain, physical pain, whatever it is. That’s where the alcohol, drugs or any of the other addictions come in.

David: Yes. And that’s why it’s important to have treatment that cares for the underlying issues and–

John: You got it. That’s why you want to keep them so long. Because as you peel that onion, more will be revealed. And that’s not going to be revealed right at first. Because, remember denial is what’s been saving these people’s lives. If denial was taken away and all this crap came pouring down on you, you’d die.

David: Yes. Because it’s kind of a self-protection.

John: It is. Cocaine also was a good friend of mine. Because cocaine drove me so low that I had to get to the help. That was a wonderful gift. Denial kept me alive and it was a wonderful gift. But it’s learning how to use them in a positive way. That’s what life’s about, is experiences, learning. This planet is wonderful to learn on.

They say that religion is for people who are scared to go onto hell and AA is for people who have already been there. I feel like everything that I’ve gone through has been just an education.

David: Yes. Speaking of education, you said a big part of what you do now is training?

John: Yes.

David: Could you tell us a little bit about why you decided to get into that and how that–?

John: Well, it kind of came by accident. Ken Seeley and I were in London and we started doing some training over there for the UKESAD conference, which I used to be involved in, and it really worked out well. I said, “Ken, so let’s try it in the United States.” We started treating together here.

All we’re doing is sharing our own strength, hope and experiences. What we’ve done, and what works, and what doesn’t work. And each intervention is different, I can guarantee you that.

David: Is this something that if people are interested in, how would they find more information or these help on a regular basis?

John: They can call me. Yes, people can join. We’ve got five different models. Pods to where you can learn how to be an interventionist. Then also get to show that you’re certified. You can have an insurance company pay for it.

David: Okay. So the certification is part of their training?

John: Yes. The monitoring and the case management, yes.

David: I’m not familiar with the Vero Beach conference. You want to tell us a little bit about–?

John: Yes. I have about 60 people come in from about 35 treatment centers. And they get to say three things that they do better than anybody else in ten minutes. And that way they really network and they’re there for two and a half days. It’s been one of the most successful things I’ve ever started. I feel real good about that.

David: Yes. It’s helping people get together so they can help more people.

John: It’s a good gathering point.

David: You have a lot of personal experience with addiction, in your family, in your own history. Could you talk a little bit about how you feel that has shaped your perspective as you help others?

John: Well, yes. There’s nothing like– somebody said to me, “Well you wouldn’t understand.” And I always say, “Well, try me.” This is not my first rodeo. And I think as a good interventionist, you’ve got to be somebody that’s like a tennis player.

People say, “What if, what if, what if?” and I say, “It’s like a tennis match. When the ball goes over there, I’ll be there.” But they’re very unpredictable and you got to have a lot of talent to be quick on your feet to know what’s going on. And your brain working all the time.

You’ve got to be there and handle any situation. If somebody pulls a gun or somebody breaks out the windows or becomes violent, a lot of people break down, whatever. It’s handling all the situations. Been there, done that. I’ve got 33 years of experience doing interventions. That really helps.

David: Yes. That’s a good point about how each intervention is really its own animal. How do you get prepared for that? I know you said the rehearsal is important and obviously experience. Anything else that goes into that?

John: It’s getting the family on board and the employers or whoever it is to put the structure around at work, it will work. Otherwise, it’ll fail. You got to tell them to trust the process. If they don’t go, don’t get upset. Because they’re going to go. We’ll get them in treatment eventually. But don’t give up. Just trust us.

I like to do our, what we call, level two of monitoring and case management where I take over. A lot of times, what I try to do is fire the parents. Get them out of the way in a loving way to where they start taking care of themselves. Leave the problem to us. Because we’re the experts.

I feel sometimes like we’re the doctor. We’re in the surgery room and they come in and take the scalpel out of our hands and say, “You know, I think we ought to do it this way.” We face that all the time. Because they’re so used to it.

David: But that’s why you’re there.

John: That’s right. You hired me as your doctor. Do you want to do the surgery and I’ll go home?

David: That’s a good point. That I imagine most of the time probably there are problems going on with the other family members that they may not even know about because they are so focused on the other problem.

John: They’re landmines. And all of a sudden we find out dad’s a drunk. I did one in Mississippi and dad was a total alcoholic that was never revealed to me. Then I found out he hit his son in the face a week before drunk. It’s something that you’ve got to be ready for the landmines. And try to get the landmines out during the rehearsal. But if you don’t find them all, be prepared for them. Because it could happen and it has happened.

David: That’s definitely something in our culture, to hide that and keep it secret. That’s amazing that, even to the point of an interventionist who you’re calling in specifically to help your family with these types of issues, and still– it’s like you want to hold on to those secrets.

John: That’s right. It is something that people will try to hide, there’s no doubt about it. But I don’t blame them. I mean, I came out of a Mormon family and we did a lot of hiding also.

David: Right. Because in, correct me if I’m wrong, with Mormonism no alcohol use is–

John: Well, I always tell the story. If you take one Mormon fishing with you, you take two cases of beer, when you take two Mormons, you don’t take any beer.

David: [laughs]

John: That’s a joke with Mormons.

David: Alright. To wrap up, you’ve devoted a lot of your life to this world over the last four decades, right? Could you just wrap up by telling us a little bit about why this is important to you? Helping people find recovery.

John: I guess because I found recovery. I should be dead. I got sober in ’82. I had a stroke in ’86 from the wreckage in my past. I had a heart attack in ’96. I had to go in for eight bypasses in 2000. I’ve had three bouts of pneumonia. And where I flat-lined and the family had to come in.

I’d faced a lot of problems but one thing I didn’t do is give up. I just wouldn’t give up. And that’s what I want people to hear is, do not ever give up. There’s hope out there.

David: Yes. Awesome. Well, that’s it.

John: Thank you.

David: Thank you for your time, John.

John: Thank you, appreciate it.

David: Thanks again to John for sharing that with us. Now, I’m happy to introduce another new segment to conclude this episode. This segment is simply called, Minute of Mindfulness. And it’s just that.

Together we’re going to take the next 60 seconds or so to step away from worries and distractions, take some deep breaths and focus on this present moment. I’m going to open things up each time with a new inspirational quote to get us started. And then, I’ll join you again afterwards to close out the episode.

This week’s quote comes from Anne Frank who said, “How wonderful it is, that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today, we’ve heard from John Southworth, interventionist and founder of Southworth Associates. If you’d like more information on John’s work visit southworthassociates.net.

As always, thank you for listening. If you can please share this podcast, rate it on iTunes or your preferred app and subscribe to receive all the new episodes. See you next time.