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Performing an Intervention


It’s usually not until an addicted person has wreaked havoc with his life and the lives of those around him that his family and other loved ones decide they have to do something about it. In general, it’s tough to confront people. Confronting somebody about their addiction is one of the hardest things of all. It’s likely that the addict has already denied there’s a problem, since denial is usually a component of addiction. There’s also usually an element of shame involved—nobody likes to admit to having an addiction because in the eyes of many, it indicates weakness or bad morals.

But most of the time, the addict can’t stop the addictive behavior alone. Many families, friends and co-workers have found that discussing the problem with the addict in a formal, carefully thought-out way, with the help of a counselor, can help turn things around and get the addict on a path to recovery. This process is called an “intervention.”

“Doing an intervention on my father was the hardest thing we ever did and the best thing we ever did,” says Alicia, now 45. Alicia’s father Howard had been drinking too much for as long as she could remember. He would cause horrible arguments at family gatherings, Alicia says, so that holidays became unpleasant for everyone for years. He was a salesman, and often came home drunk in the evenings after a long day on the road. His wife and children were always worried sick that he was going to cause a car accident. They also worried about his health, because he suffered from coronary artery disease.

It wasn’t until Howard was 70 that the family decided to do an intervention. Alicia was the one who initiated it. She herself had struggled with alcoholism since she was in her early 20s, and had stopped drinking and begun going to Alcoholics Anonymous when she was in her 30s. She was the one who convinced everyone that an intervention was the best way to get Howard to stop drinking.

How an intervention works
Interventions can be initiated by anyone who is close to the person with the addiction. That can include family members, friends and co-workers. Typically, the people who want to take part will meet with a counselor to learn about the specific addiction of their loved one. Then they discuss how the addict’s behavior has affected their own lives. This discussion helps everyone to focus on the consequences of addiction and not on making judgments and placing blame on the addicted individual.

Alicia explains how her family planned their intervention.

“First of all, we met for months with a social worker, Barry, who specialized in addiction counseling. We [her brother, sister and mother] learned from him what alcoholism is all about. That’s really important, because it helped us understand what was going on with Dad.

“Then Barry got all of us to talk about how Dad’s alcoholism affected each of us. These stories helped us concentrate on what we wanted Dad to understand about what his alcoholism was doing to us. Barry explained that it was important that the intervention wouldn’t put Dad on the defensive. It wasn’t about calling Dad a bad person, it was just talking about how the alcoholism had affected the family.”

Another important part of an intervention is for the loved ones to explain what they’d like to see happen next, now that they’ve made it clear how they feel about their loved one’s behavior.

Alicia continues, “Barry said we would have to tell Dad what we expected from the intervention. We agreed that what we wanted was for him to agree to stop drinking and to go to AA.

“When we felt like we were ready to meet with Dad, we did it on a Sunday morning. He and Mom had gone to church, so the three of us, plus Barry, gathered in the living room to wait for them to come home. We were nervous—scared to death. But we felt prepared, and we all believed that it was the best thing to do.

“When Dad and Mom got home and came in the living room, naturally he was surprised to see us there. None of us lives with them anymore. So we quickly said hi to him and then introduced Barry. Barry explained that everybody had gathered together because they had some important things to say to Dad about his drinking. He also explained that we were doing this because we cared so much about Dad.

“We were incredibly lucky with the way things went. We went around the room and each of us told a story about how Dad’s drinking affected us personally. We got teary, and Dad got teary, and when we were finished, Dad said he was overwhelmed but touched. He agreed to stop drinking, and then we all sat down to lunch, and after lunch, he went to an AA meeting with me.”

Not always ideal
The story of Howard’s family is a best-case scenario. Interventions don’t always go that smoothly. Sometimes the addict gets angry and walks out, and the behavior doesn’t change. That’s why it’s so important to work with a counselor to make plans for dealing with all the possible outcomes.

They don’t have to hit “rock bottom” first
A common misperception is that people with addictions have to hit bottom before they can get better. The thing is that most people with addictive behaviors don’t change on their own, and friends and family members don’t deal with it until things have gotten quite bad. But if you have noticed even subtle signs that someone you love may be engaging in a destructive, addictive behavior, it’s never to early to try to do something about it.

For additional information, click on the following links:

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; L. Dodes, The Heart of Addiction, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2002; C. Nakken, The Addictive Personality, Hazelden Foundation, Minnesota, 1996; “Alicia Miller”
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