June 2, 2021

Embrace Family Recovery | Margaret Swift Thompson

Embrace Family Recovery | Margaret Swift Thompson

Why is the topic of Embrace Family Recovery so important for everyone affected by addictions? Mental health stress has been considerably elevated and growing since the advent of COVID-19.
For 20+ years, Margaret Swift Thompson has dedicated her life to serving families faced with surviving the impact of addiction.

Why is the topic of Embrace Family Recovery so important for everyone affected by addictions? Mental health stress has been considerably elevated and growing since the advent of COVID-19.  

For 20+ years, Margaret Swift Thompson has dedicated her life to serving families faced with surviving the impact of addiction. 

Knowledge Bomb

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 13% of Americans using substances to cope with COVID 19 related stress


Resources & Links

About the Guest

Family Addiction Specialist, Margaret Swift Thompson, the Embrace Family Recovery Coach, helps family members cope with the disease of addiction and its impact on their families. She was a counselor for 20+ years working at Hazelden Betty Ford.

About the Show 

Podcast Host: Life & Leadership: A Conscious Journey with Michelle St Jane

A podcast for Global and Re-Emerging Leadership creating community/tribe, a circle of influence, transcendency of compassionate leadership in the world and wider universe. A unique destination for learning about Leadership + Conscious Stewardship + Legacy.

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Intro: [00:00:00] you're listening to life and leadership, a conscious journey. The podcast that shares wisdom and strength. Join your host, Dr. Michelle St Jane's weekly conversation on how to have a positive impact on people, the planet, and the wider world. If you want to live a life of intention, to be proactive with your time, and bring your vision for the future to live one today at a time you were in the right place at the right time. Let's get started.

Michelle St. Jane: [00:00:33] Today I am with Margaret Swift Thompson, a family addiction specialist of over 20 years. She is 'The Embrace Family Recovery' coach, founder, and host of the Embrace Family Recovery podcast. Margaret works for family members to develop healthier strategies to cope with the storm created by the disease of addiction within you and around you.

The Serenity Prayer calls us forth to change the one we can and know that one is you. Margaret shows you how to leverage your power and skills to utilize your best strategies for your recovery. 

Her mantra is “take care of yourself. “

Let's explore with Margaret the stories, experiences, struggles, and victories of people who love someone with the disease.

Margaret. Great to have you here today. I would really appreciate you sharing your journey into this space. 

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:01:29] Thank you for having me, Michelle. It's great to be with you. Interesting story, let's put it that way. I've been very diverse, I’ve covered a lot of topics in the early years of my profession. And to your point of covering topics that are not often talked about, I seem to dive headfirst into those topics throughout my career.

I’m born and raised in Bermuda, headed off to university. Didn't know what I was going to do and landed in the world of the helping professions. Soon learned I didn't want to be a nurse. Couldn't do that. I went into counseling, therapy, that type of work. And upon my return to Bermuda, if you remember, the HIV AIDS epidemic was a huge component of our social world, Bermuda's rates were extremely high.

I decided to push the envelope in a conservative world and start talking about subjects that were challenging to talk about in an environment where we know mixed messages, keeping things undercover was important. I don't mean they were dishonest about the rates.

I just mean that we were at a cultural point where people didn't want to talk about something so tantalizing, and yet it was relatable to people's lives. Long story short, came home to Bermuda and got known as the sexy lady in our fair country because I was able to get into most schools and many churches and start talking about a difficult, controversial subject to try to protect and prevent the spread that was so rampant at the time.

Anyway, we pivot from there into doing that along with prevention and work and outreach within domestic violence, sexual assault, first at the women's resource center, and then Pride Bermuda, where I got the opportunity to teach parents and train parents on prevention of use in their youth, which was a great job, a fabulous career move, and really diversified who I was and what I did. Along with that in tandem, I was asked to host the Bermuda youth talk television show, which was scary for me.

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:03:29.11] Full disclosure. I'm someone who struggled with food addiction throughout my life. At that point would have never labeled it that, wouldn't have even called it that.  I was very scared to be in the public light to go through a career change where you were in front of everybody. And what do we do with people on television, tear them apart and wonder why they're there.

I did it because along with that fear was a philosophy in my family of “Pull your bootstraps up, get on with business. You get an opportunity to make the most of it.”  I did. I actually enjoyed it despite my fear and lack of experience doing it. Mainly I focused on giving to young people. Who I found so inspiring, in what they were doing. How they’re growing. Giving a platform to share all the good news about what they were doing. At that point in my life, I was in a relationship, unbeknownst to me, with someone who had an addiction.

That was on the down-low. That was their word. They called it a compulsion. I'm not labeling it for them and it got really public and really uncomfortable. As a result, the relationship ended. I kind of fell apart Michelle, if I were to be fully honest, I was really good at wearing a mask of “I'm Okay.” But I wasn't okay.

 I did what many people do? A great geographical escape. Ran from Bermuda as fast as I could and went to Center City, Minnesota to Hazelden Betty Ford. Bermuda to Minnesota in August of that year, knowing what was coming around the corner. I did not know. I landed at Hazelden Betty Ford, where I was in a year training program, post-graduate school to get certified as an addiction counselor. 

 I need to say off the bat. When you talk to me as a young professional, starting in the helping profession, addiction was not going to be in my repertoire and surprise, how the universe aligns with what you need.  I was given this incredible privilege and opportunity to train under some of the most fantastic people working in the field of addiction and have never left.

It is definitely one of my passions. I have a few. And the reality is I find people who suffer from the disease of addiction and their family members, who are definitely my sweet spot, the family side of the illness, to be some of the most compassionate, resilient, underserved for care and support and stigmatized of this population.

Michelle St. Jane: [00:05:59] I did a family genogram back in the late eighties, early nineties. I was so shocked. Women in my family married alcoholics, and then all the things that come along with that, were their experience, and I'm the mother of two daughters.  I have a granddaughter.  I can tell you when I looked at my daughters, I was like, it stops here.

I need to change that legacy.

I also want to just pop in, I remember what you were doing in the eighties and nineties. Someone close to me died of AIDS. There were all these secrets. Don't talk, don't tell, which is very, very much a way it can be in different generations and in different cultures.

That was a struggle for me. You were not able to take the lessons and the blessings. And work out what to do next, that you were busy dealing with the shame and the shutdown, which is really difficult. And I remember your courage going on TV. I think it might've been around the time when I got invited as a very busy local lawyer to be in a show at city hall called “Phat Girls”.

That was phenomenally hot, phenomenally hot, and together. And it was actually a story around obesity. I had been invited in to talk to them about fundraising.  I ended up with a part in a black theater company. I don't memorize things. I actually stuck my whole script in a giant crossword puzzle book and just about gave the director a breakdown. The play was so, so well received it ended up being a three-part series, 

Sometimes society calls you to step up and be part of it. My three teenagers at the time were like, you are so embarrassing.  I was being sorted of told by the lawyers, “you are not meant to do that”. And I'm like, if they can go to the fancy theater and act, I can go on stage with the black company around issues that were very prevalent for women. These were infidelity and obesity.

 I got called to turn up and like yourself. I showed up and got a chance to do a little bit of healing in terms of being a white woman in a black theatre group space.  I want to also honor the work that you've done and showing up in some of these really taboo tough spots, and now creating your work around that.

 I really appreciate you, Margaret. 

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:08:11] Thank you, Michelle. I have to say the reality for me that I've come to appreciate as I've gained a little experience and wisdom because I was really out of the gate. Just go for it. You don't want me here. “I'll show you. I need to be here” kind of an attitude.

 I look back on that and sort of cringe and think about some of the people I came across with way more wisdom and experience than me that I didn't heed. But one of the players along the path was Allan Vincent Smith, who the foundation (1992-2011) was created over. I had the privilege of working as a volunteer at Agape house at the same time. He was there, and he sat me down and said to me, “you're going to do something with whatever I tell you. So I want you to ask me anything you want to know about AIDS, about Bermuda, an Aids, and I believe it's going to make a difference.” This was a pivotal moment. The man was so forthright, generous, open in wanting to pass on to the future generations, something different than what he'd experienced.

Allan Vincent Smith was a pivotal part of the spirit within me to give back.  I've had many people do that. I mean, even in the addiction world, my mentors along the way, who have since passed, and I'm considered an elder in the field now, which is just shocking to me. I could not have got to where I am, in working with passionate people who have this illness and their family members without the gifts and the willingness to share their experience, strength, and hope with me and so I had just hoped to pass that on. 

This illness is still one of the most stigmatized illnesses we live in, despite it being diagnosed as a disease and progressive, chronic, and potentially fatal, as we see many people losing their lives to it. We don't do well enough at putting faces to recovery and de-stigmatizing the illness as an illness.

Anything I can do to make that continue to heal and improve. It's my responsibility for who gave it to me. 

Michelle St. Jane: [00:10:02] Bless you. I'm a child of an alcoholic. The ex-wife of an alcoholic. Who knows who else is dealing with addictions in my family? I only can lead by example and encouragement. You're exactly right in terms of the families. Families get affected but also given my audience as global leaders, they're in a very isolated spot. If they've got a spouse or a child, they're not necessarily feeling safe enough to deal with that. And more importantly, I'm not sure that organizations bring their best self to the topic of addiction in terms of addressing what needs to be addressed.

This is why I'm underwriting the series for my podcast, and inviting trailblazers like yourself, who are unexpectedly now leading, pioneering the way forward.  I'm certain, it's certainly one of the missions of this podcast is to raise awareness around the person who is dealing with the addiction.

Also the recognition. I think the statistics last century I heard, were like, it affects at least a minimum of four people. Then you get into organizations, I'm like, it's not always going to work to say, go to this outside agency because if it's a senior person, they haven't had the chance to build trust. They’re already under high-performance goals and it might be their way of coping. So this is a long-term project. We take the best of them. How do we invest back into them? 

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:11:24] Another chapter in my career was the Employment Assistance Program work and the collateral damage as I call it off this no-fault disease absolutely affects more than four people per person with it. If we think about just the family, you have the direct family, then the extended family, you then go out to, if they're a professional or in any career. The ripple effect within that organization of performance issues, sick leave, what resources they can get the climate within the country that enables and supports versus offers help in a healthy way. 

One of the other gifts of working at Hazelden, Betty Ford as long as I did, I worked with people from all walks of life, from the very top of the society all the way down the chain from people who were released from prison and ended up in jail and ended up in our facility.

Some of the people who came from the corporate offices were the most ill. In my opinion, the reason that came to be was when you have someone in a high position, their disease is incredibly manipulative and masterful in creating a web of people who will enable and cover what's going on because they're in a position of one down, you can't really confront the person who's in charge of you.

You can't really be honest with them for fear of repercussions in your career. So it has to come from either a parallel person or an upper management person to be the one to intervene along with loved ones to say, “Hey, we're seeing this, this, this, and this. We're concerned for your well-being. We value you and the skills you bring to our company. What can we do to support you?

It takes a person recognizing some of the moral judgment we put on the illness and it also takes a person, a willingness to get past their own bias. “Come on now, clean it up, get done. What's wrong with you? It's just a matter of putting it down. It's not that hard. Don't take it”. 

If that were the case, Michelle, treatments wouldn't need to be here. People like myself wouldn't need to have this career. And I've always said if love were enough to cure this illness. I would gladly give up my career and find a new one, 

Michelle St. Jane: [00:13:29] True enough, and the disease is cunning, baffling, and powerful, as they say in the 12 step programs, it is very challenging.

And I know it outfoxed me as a member of a family with an active alcoholic. It could be alcohol, it could be gaming, it could be sex, it could be shopping. This disease just picks your Achilles heel and goes with it. I know for me, for many years, particularly with a functional person, you don't pick it up because you're enabling and supporting.

So, there are so many programs out there to help families like I'm a multi-winner. I do ALA-NON Family Group and the Child of an Alcoholic and certainly had some years and OA is Overeaters Anonymous because the effect of the disease on me was I stopped eating and logically, and I sometimes still struggle with this, stopping eating, working 60, 80, a hundred-hour workweeks make you fat. 

It's not because you're a couch potato eating potato chips. The disease and trying to cope with the mega stress of it, for me, when I'm in a place of dis-ease, I don't eat. And that was some thanks to another healing facility. I went to Caron and I did 10 years of therapy in a week and blew my mind when they said to go to a twelve-step program to deal with your eating issues.

They're like you are under-eating. This is an experience of a disease that can turn into a disease. Right. So. I got myself on the recovery journey with that one. I've had the opportunities to step through and maintain attendance in at least one or two 12 step programs to support my recovery. Because as the serenity prayer, the only person you can change is you.

And as I tell my adult children, you know, anything you can change about another person is their diapers and the youngest grandchild is out of diapers. So keep your side of the street clean. 

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:15:20] I think that that speaks to also, I'm assuming that you and I went to a similar program with Karen, which I remember going through at the point where my relationship combusted, which I ate my way through that week program, I stuffed every feeling I could by eating my way through that program.

And that was my MO that I was clearly unwilling to look at and face until I had time in ALA-NON Family Group to heal and gain, and then realizing that there was another aspect to my story that I had never been willing to acknowledge. And I have to say. As a professional in the field of working with people with the disease of addiction, though their addiction that I was working with at the time was a chemical one.

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:15:17.77] It's a very painful, dishonoring, dishonest place to be when I am caring for them, working with them while I was absolutely active in my own addiction, doing the same things they did with opiates, but I'm doing it with food. And so that pain got to be too much. And I found myself in a 12 step meeting addressing the real primary illness that I had always lived with since probably around seven, through nine years old.

And so again, another gratitude I have for the trajectory of my life that was beyond my control because had that relationship not combusted, had all the truths not come out, I would have probably, no, I know I would have never moved into working with people with this disease. And so even though it was a horrible time in my life, the pain was really awful.

The work that I've done and been gifted through my own recovery and being willing to be vulnerable and stop pretending, has given me a life beyond what I hoped I could have. And that I'm really, really grateful for it.

Michelle St. Jane: [00:17:00] Oh, absolutely. Yes. And it can sometimes take a while to get there. Last century, I went into ALA-NON Family Group to fix the other person. I left because ALA-NON Family Group clearly didn’t work. 

This century I went in to take care of myself and ALA-NON Family Group led me into adult children of alcoholics. And I was totally amazed, Margaret, to learn about the internal chemical addictions of cortisol, adrenaline. just to name a couple. 

And growing up in a very challenging household. As a teenager, I was off racing cars at 15 on a professional race track. When I was in those spaces, I was calm. I went to school to eat my lunch. You know, you know we have these strategies and it's not until many decades later I'm sitting in an Adult Children of an Alcoholic meeting, going, internal chemicals?  This is a whole other layer to have a look at!

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:17:54] I think that what you speak of, or the way that I interpret that is, we as family members do not get into our own recovery until the things that we have strategized and learned and adapted to are no longer working for us. Just like the person with the addiction, the person with the addiction usually does not surrender to help until some consequence hurts them bad enough that they're going, “I can't keep doing this. I need this help. I am wanting something different”. 

The family's the same. Many family members don't realize the parallel process of this disease, that they have the same symptoms and adaptive behaviors and struggles that the person with the chemical dependency has.

Margaret Swift Thompson, I don't think any high from food has ever come close to the high I felt when I fixed someone in my life's problem and ran the show. That was very hard to give up. 

Michelle St. Jane: [00:18:49] Oh, confession here in my first four-step, I had to make amends to God.  I realized I'd been playing God. I did a pretty good job. I realized I didn't have to do that. I got some relief and said, “Oh, let me give that back.”

Then my sponsor says, “you can write a letter to make a means for that.” I did not realize that my playing God, or enabling, or being co-dependent, could keep someone from their recovery because I'm constantly putting a band-aid, or support in place, for the disease to still be running the show.

The second one was amends to myself, which was well and truly in order.  I had run myself ragged. I think it can be such a challenge when you're in the midst of life, in your twenties and thirties, you're studying, then your thirties and forties and fifties you're raising kids, in your profession. All of this doesn't give you a lot of quarters for being a human being. It's all about the doing. 

I think there is a lot of gratitude for me for the pandemic pause last year. Also huge gratitude for people with addictions who've crossed my path. There were so many blessings that came out of the lessons. As you rightly pointed out, the pain was so huge. I had to stop and say, “what am I accountable for here?” And “what do I need to do about this so that I can have serenity in my life?” That has become extremely important to me. 

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:20:12] Well, to that point, when we get into recovery, as someone with an addiction, we have to take the focus off of the drug of no choice. When we get into recovery as family members, we have to take the focus off the person, which is our drug of no choice.

And that's not an easy task when your whole MO in life has been other-focused, managing, fixing, controlling, manipulating, making things happen for other people out of love. Always, and I need to say that, I do not believe family members do this with any malintent whatsoever. I am desperate. I am watching someone's pain and illness, take them from me and I'm going to dive in and do whatever I have to, to stop it. Not knowing that doesn't work 

Michelle St. Jane: [00:20:52] Such a challenge to share from my own life, watching someone with their drug of no choice. It's like watching a slow suicide in motion and you cannot get through the security screen to stop it.

When I surrendered to that, that was only one part, realized my life was unmanageable. In the second part, there was nothing I could do, but take care of myself. And as you rightly pointed out, that was not something I was trained to do. In my family, I was a little mother to my mother and my brother and other things. So I was trying to take care of people and being an empath, I also could feel pain. So I would do anything for them not to feel the levels of pain, but it kind of hit a full stop because, at some point, those places of dissidence are going to have an impact. And they won't be in the decade they're happening, necessarily.

They might happen to you 20 years later when you come to a crashing halt, and wonder why certain illnesses are present in your life or certain consequences are present in your life and you were not the one drinking and drugging. Well, now I pay a lot of attention to how, whether I trigger internal brain chemicals like adrenaline, but you know, I know I'm very mindful that if I'm okay, then my family would be okay with anything that I could have done for them. Let them work out their own path to recovery.

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:22:08] It's the biggest gift we give the people we love is to honor them with the dignity of their own path. And yet the hardest thing to do, because as you said earlier, many family members fall into the role of assuming they know best. And it's all fear-based, it's all, love-based. The disease eats that up and uses it against the person who has it.

Michelle St. Jane: [00:22:31] And I love the acronym for fear, false evidence appearing real. That's definitely one I've kept on my dashboard to make sure I do the check-in, and if it does look that way, then hand it over. My higher power is in charge of all that. So Margaret you're in the business, share some tools and strategies for this cunning, baffling, powerful area of life.

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:22:52] My business is to embrace family recovery, and it is absolutely focused on the family members. When I look at the paradigm of the illness, there are more resources for the person with the disease. Many more than there are for the family members. One, I don't think family members truly get that they need them and deserve them.

And secondly, the focus being on the person with the illness supersedes an innate need to take care of ourselves. So that's the first piece. It's an education into this disease, being a parallel process that the family member mirrors what they're seeing in their loved one is very specific and similar ways from denial to rationalization, to increased tolerance of bad behavior or for the addict increased tolerance of use and needing more to get that high.

I think that that's a huge strategy is A) educating oneself, understanding the illness, and learning to find the words around triggers. What are my triggers as a family member? And what do I then do with those triggers? Many family members will tell me what they perceive their addict's triggers to be, have never looked at their own.

And again, going back to the principles of recovery, we can only heal ourselves. So how can I support a person and understanding the things they deserve to do to have a different quality of life themselves? The other thing is working on your own recovery. Gives your person with the illness, the best fighting chance to get their own recovery.

And people don't understand that. It sounds counterintuitive. It feels counterintuitive. But if I work a program as a spouse, a mom, a daughter, I role model that out loud. I don't tell them what to do, which is my history. I show them what I'm doing. I share what I'm doing. I treat them in a different way because of what I'm doing.

That is more appealing and potentially healing for them than me ever telling them what to do because as we know, addiction is rebellious in nature. You tell me it's red, I'll tell you it's green and I'll prove it to you, so much better to come at them with our vulnerability, our own recovery, the work we're willing to do to accept that this disease has affected us, then tell them ever what to do.

Michelle St. Jane: [00:24:59] Now you have strategies and there are ways people can contact you. And I'll have all of that in the show notes. But do you want to speak about the services that you offer? If people are sitting here thinking I'm the daughter of, and how can I do this? Where would I go? And who can I talk to? Or any groups that are running.

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:25:18] I'm a firm believer in coming alongside someone in a coaching capacity where I will help them create the path forward that feels healthiest for them. I'll offer my education, my experience of wisdom. They can do that individually. I'm working with parents of people who have the illness and helping them as a couple strategize, set boundaries, communicate more healthily, those types of things.

I absolutely ask all my people who work with me to go through some sort of family program for basic education and to start looking for their support community and building it. I am 150% bias towards the abstinence model 12 step recovery. That is my wheelhouse. However, if somebody comes to me and wants to use Smart recovery. They go through their church recovery. That is their choice, knowing that my lens will be 12 step recovery, AA, ALA-NON Family Group Naranon, Codependents Anonymous, adult children of alcoholics, would be the things that I would absolutely ask people who want to work with me to begin to build that community because alone, we will never change successfully in a way that gives us the rewards we deserve.

Michelle St. Jane: [00:26:26] Thank you, Margaret. I'm just so grateful you're out there because outside of ALA-NON Family Group and our team, there really wasn't a whole lot on offer for family members. And I think you rightly tapped the nail on the head. If you can get them, they're getting past the bias and prejudice or even the ego and the disease.

 It's a high, high jump to get there. So any last words as we wrap up? 

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:26:49] I think that's a really good point. You want to end it with, I mean, I think two things to consider when we're about to walk into a meeting. A), the people in the room are there for the same reason we're going. That's a great equalizer. B) hasn't been working the way I've been doing it. How much pain am I feeling? And do I want someone who understands this innately without me even having to say it, share their experience and how they made it through, because they might help me figure out how to have peace in my life and some serenity and realize that even if my loved one does not get well, which we obviously want them to, I can start getting well? And that is the gift that I give myself if I engage in recovery because none of us can predict the outcome for any other person, but we can work towards a different outcome for us. 

Michelle St. Jane: [00:27:34] Brilliant. And that captures nicely the intergenerational trauma and that pivotable moment for me, where I looked at my daughters and said, am I going to pass it on? Or am I going to work it out? And to the best of my ability, I have tried my hardest to work it out. And now I look at my wee granddaughter and I am prayerful that we've updated the software in the family, and if not I can only model by example, make the path by walking and they're willing to do the work to create the change I want to see. 

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:28:04] Well, and the other beautiful thing you give your granddaughter is consistency, stability, and a woman who's willing to be vulnerable and show that if I need help, it's okay to get help. And this is how I did it. That is a huge gift to give the next generation, which a lot of us never came from because it was stoic, stiff, upper lip. Don't ever show anyone your vulnerabilities. 

And so to do different and say, you know what, it's okay to not feel well. It's okay to acknowledge that there are mental health issues and other issues in life that do get in the way of us feeling okay. And there's help out there. So don't rob yourself of that.

Michelle St. Jane: [00:28:39] Absolutely.  You can go through it, you can grow through it. And at the end of the day, you could even choose to glow afterward and maintain your own sobriety. Margaret, thank you so much for all your contributions and wisdom. I really appreciate you. And we will certainly make sure on the show notes that the audience will know how to get hold of you and find you.

Margaret Swift Thompson: [00:28:58] I would love that. And I'd look forward to working with anyone who reaches out to let's make something work. If it can't be me, I'll definitely commit to everyone who reaches out to me, if it's not me you work with, I will get you resources to help.

Outro: [00:29:18] Dr. Michelle St Jane is a conscious steward as meaningful leadership in the world and the wider cosmos. Tune in every Thursday for real talk around life, leadership, and your conscious journey. Be ready to create and cultivate your dreams and wholehearted desires. Your support is valued. Please follow, subscribe, leave a review and a rating. More importantly, share with your connections. 

Margaret Swift Thompson Profile Photo

Margaret Swift Thompson

Embrace Family Recovery Coach

Family Addiction Specialist, Margaret Swift Thompson, the Embrace Family Recovery Coach, helps family members cope with the disease of addiction and its impact on their families. She was a counselor for 20+ years working at Hazelden Betty Ford.