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Intervention: A Powerful Tool to Combat Alcoholism and Addiction
by Jerry Gjesvold, Interventionist and Manager of Employer Services at Serenity Lane.
A few years back, Jack, an area businessman, had just about lost hope that he could ever reach his son, Justin. Addicted to alcohol and other drugs, the 19-year-old had become manipulative, dishonest, angry and disconnected from the family.
Jack decided to try one last approach. One afternoon, Justin came home to find his parents, his grandmother, his brother and a drug and alcohol counselor in the living room. The counselor explained why they were all there and encouraged the young man to listen. Referring to written lists, each family member talked about what they appreciated about him. Then they reviewed specific instances of how his disease had affected each of them. They talked about their pain, fear and frustration.
Then came Jack’s turn to talk. After only a few words, he was overcome by emotion. Through the tears, though, he said what he had to say: he deeply loved his son, but couldn’t watch the abuse continue. Justin had to accept treatment or leave the family, not to return until he had gotten clean and sober. The family just wasn’t going to support his self- destruction anymore.
In 19 years, Justin had never seen his father cry. And while he was shocked, he could see for the first time that the family was serious about no longer tolerating his behavior. A few hours later, the family drove him to Serenity Lane. He has been sober ever since.
This process is called intervention, and it’s the way many people begin long-term recovery. I’ve facilitated more than 100 of these meetings over the years. More than 80 ended in the person accepting treatment.
Successful interventions generally have several common characteristics:
They include a professional interventionist.
Professionals know what works, are familiar with the latest techniques and can give anxious or frightened families a clear understanding of what to expect before, during and after the intervention. This perspective can be invaluable when strong emotions, many held under the surface for years, come up. Interventionists also help families listen to each other much more effectively than they have before ? crucial in this highly charged situation.
They’re carefully prepared.
Thorough advance preparation is critical. This includes interviews for family members with the interventionist to determine if a problem actually exists and why each family member wants to participate. Preparation also involves choosing a time of day when the addict will be most receptive, developing written lists of specific events that have affected each family member, and role playing to practice staying focused when confronting the alcoholic or addict directly. Finally, the team pre-arranges admission to a treatment facility, taking care of insurance details and setting the date of the intervention when space will be available.
They include non-negotiable bottom-line boundaries.
As master manipulators, alcoholics and addicts will almost always try to confuse the issues at hand, deny reality, call a bluff when their addiction is threatened, and try anger, threats and intimidation as a last resort. That means family members and friends must be very clear about their own “bottom line”: the real consequences that will occur if the abuse of drugs or alcohol continues. Sometimes this means separation from spouse and children, or loss of a job. Whatever it is, it must be clearly defined and more than an idle threat. Nothing renders an intervention ineffective faster than a spouse or employer giving the addict “just one more chance to change.”
In one case, a wife of 22 years packed two bags prior to the intervention: one for her husband to take to the treatment center and one for herself – just in case. When he refused to go, to his total disbelief, she picked up her suitcase and walked out the door. He hesitated, then ran after her when he saw she was that serious. He entered treatment the same day.
They’re a surprise.
It is extremely important that no one “leak”information to the addict/alcoholic that an intervention is being planned. This sometimes happens when a family members feels guilty about going behind their loved one’s back. Preparing for an intervention is an extremely caring act; it’s often done as a last resort by people who are trying to save someone?s life. While people being “intervened upon” often complain about the deception at the time, later they see that being the last to know was probably best. It also reduces the opportunity for the alcoholic/addict to plan a defense.
They’re done by people the addict/alcoholic respects.
The team should be made up of people who the addict respects. That increases the chance that he or she will be able to hear difficult information about the damage the disease has caused.
They’re conducted by people prepared for “emotional retaliation.”
The weeks following an intervention can be very difficult for everyone concerned — that’s one reason why alcohol and drug abuse often continues for as long as it does. Families and friends who intervene should expect a period of sullen, withdrawn or angry behavior and ask for extra support from those around them.
Interventions come from people who love the addict enough to face him or her honestly about a very serious problem. While high levels of fear, anger, frustration and resentment are part of any untreated alcoholic or addicted family (and often come out during an intervention), families intervene because they care. A professional interventionist can help keep the group focused on this fact during every step of the process.
These days, there can be fear that there may be some kind of violence during an intervention — especially true if the person typically carries a weapon (as do many drug dealers). This can be averted by choosing people that the addict or alcoholic respects and cares about. In the interventions I’ve facilitated, I’ve been threatened, but never injured. Certainly, this requires a judgment call on the part of the interventionist and the others involved to determine safe options.
It is important to note that whether the addict or alcoholic enters treatment or not, interventions always succeed to some extent. Abusers can no longer deny that they have harmed those around them or to say they didn’t know there was a problem. Sometimes, the addict will refuse treatment and leave — generally finding someone else who will support the addictive behavior but allowing the rest of the family the opportunity to get on with their lives. Whatever happens, an intervention breaks the silence. Hopefully, it’s the first step to healing the family.
The previous article, written by Jerry Gjesvold, was first published in the Register Guard newspaper, Eugene, Oregon as part of “Straight Stuff” a monthly newspaper column about substance abuse and related topics. Serenity Lane, Inc. 1997