Interventions: Don’t Love Them to Death, Get Help

Intervention is a highly effective way to get someone into addiction treatment. When it’s led by a professional interventionist, that is.

Plenty of people try on their own to convince the addicted person to stop using and go to treatment. They might even stage their own attempt at an intervention meeting, gathering friends and family together to confront the person about their substance abuse and urge them to enter treatment.

This type of intervention sometimes works, but it can easily go awry. Tempers flare. Walls of resistance go up. The addict (as usual) takes over the conversation and makes one or more of the intervening people the “bad guy.” Or the addict makes promises to get help but doesn’t follow through (as usual).

Professional interventionists are much more likely to get the job done – and with a lot fewer ruffled feathers. They tend to succeed in getting the person into treatment almost every time. The person with the disease typically is escorted directly from the meeting to the treatment location. Arrangements for travel, treatment, and payment are already made by the family, with the help of the professional. Even bags are packed.

Misconceptions are scary 

There’s nothing we won’t do to help you get better but there’s nothing we will do to help this go on.Fear, due mostly to misconceptions, tends to keep people from planning an intervention or seeking a professional to guide the process. Some people assume that an intervention will be a tense, anxiety-producing confrontation with the addict, designed to shame them into seeing the error of their ways. They may believe that the addict will be dragged away to treatment against their will. Or they may fear that the addict will retaliate or hate them forever. Another misconception is that the addict can only be convinced to get help when they hit rock bottom. They’ll even sit by when the addict is hospitalized, jailed, or having liver failure, waiting for that bottom.

Intervention, in fact, is a way to raise that bottom or to get ahead of it, says interventionist Jeff VanVonderen, but in a loving way. VanVonderen has been interviewed on TV by Oprah, Larry King and other talk show hosts and has conducted live interventions on A&E Network’s documentary series “Intervention.” Says VanVonderen, “In order for a family to decide to do intervention, they have to hit bottom first. They have to say this is far enough down. At that point they still don’t have control over what the addict does. They just only have control over what they do.”

A primary goal of the intervention, says VanVonderen, is to leave the addict with this message: “There’s nothing we won’t do to help you get better but there’s nothing we will do to help this go on.” What that does, according to VanVonderen, is “it hands the person’s problem back to them, because through the years they have managed to hand the problem and the consequences to everybody else and that’s why it keeps going.”

Show the whole broken mirror 

The addict’s life is like a broken mirror, say interventionists, and those around them have different pieces of it to bring to the intervention. The intervention professional meets with them the day before the intervention to prepare them to do that effectively.

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“What we want to do on the first day is build one great big mirror and on the second day hold the whole thing up,” says VanVonderen.  Says Justin Diehl, and interventionist and founder of Recovery in Action, a program of support services for people in addiction recovery, “The disease thrives on maybe letting this person know this part of the story and that person know that part of the story but making sure that nobody you know sees the whole picture, and so in that planning meeting we are  getting as much of the picture into focus as possible.”

The next day, the intervention reveals for the addict this stark moment of truth, but not in a harsh way. According to Drew Horowitz, addiction specialist at Drew Horowitz & Associates, “It’s not a confrontation, it’s not a fight, it’s not any of that. It’s a civilized discussion.” He says, “The goal is to empower this person to see they’re cared about and that they have an opportunity to make this change. There’s calmness. There’s love. There’s empathy. There’s support.”

The intervention is thoroughly planned. Where people will sit. What order they’ll speak in. Who will respond if the addict tries to leave. Every detail is anticipated, thanks to the experience and skill of the interventionist. The intervention is typically held at the home of the addict, where everyone shows up together unannounced. Using skills honed over many years, the interventionist takes the lead in a friendly and respectful way to build rapport, asking the addict to sit and listen. Almost always, the addict agrees, even if displaying some resistance.

“You have to go in with respect and dignity,” says Horowitz. “You’re in somebody else’s home, and you have to remember this person is ill, not bad.”

Read letters of truth and love 

The centerpiece of the intervention is the reading of letters written by those who have come. These are not rants about the horrors of the addict’s behavior; they are essentially love letters. VanVonderen says he asks the letter writers “to talk about memories of what it looked like before all this. I want them to talk about how things have changed and how that has affected them.” Each letter ends with a plea for the addict to go to treatment immediately. Says Horowitz, “It’s empowering them, letting them know that we just want to see them at the best version of themselves.”

If the addict interrupts, argues, or otherwise interferes with the letter reading, the strategy is typically to listen to them without commenting and then keep reading. Unless the addict verbally attacks the person who is reading. In this case, VanVonderen says he pre-advises readers to say something like, “Well, I’ll think about that, but today we’re here for you,” and then go on reading. “Otherwise,” says VanVonderen, “If it’s not in your letter, you don’t get to say it.”

The letters and the fact that everyone is so prepared and united in support of the person with the disease tends to stop the addict in their tracks. Says Horowitz, “We usually see the person tear up and cry who’s reading it, and we see the person we’re intervening on cry. It’s very moving. It’s very powerful, and that’s where we see change happen.”

The letters and the fact that everyone is so prepared and united in support of the person with the disease tends to stop the addict in their tracks.Many addicts, after hearing the letters, agree right away to go to treatment. The interventionist then explains what will happen next and takes them directly to the treatment center, where pre-arrangements have been made. This may be thousands of miles away. Says Diehl, “I work with an amazing travel agent. She has all the info, and the seats aren’t booked until I get a ‘Yes.’ And then, as family members or loved ones are hugging the individual, I’m texting her, ‘We’re a go.’”

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Some addicts hesitate before agreeing, wanting time to consider what has been said. But the skill of the interventionist again comes into play. There is no pressure put on the individual, but they are invited to stay and continue to consult further with the family on this big, medical decision.

Most, however, agree to go to treatment by the end of the meeting and, says Horowitz, “they go in with a good attitude because the intervention was effective.” If the addict remains resistant, the last straw, says VanVonderen, is to point out consequences to them. Family members have pre-agreed that they will no longer support their loved one’s addiction, and details are spelled out.It may be that no one will give them money or a place to live anymore or they won’t be bailed out if arrested. The bottom line for the circle of family and friends to communicate, according to VanVonderen, is “I’m not helping this sickness happen anymore.”

Keep up the family support 

Regardless of whether the addict accepts the help on the day of the intervention, the interventionist continues working with the family for another month or more. They may be given advice about how to respond to messages they are getting from the addict so that the family’s enabling behaviors don’t continue. The interventionist may also become an advocate for the family in dealing with the treatment center.

Sometimes families need more than we can offer,” says Horowitz, “and we will refer them to a family coach or family therapist that specializes in what they need.”

“It’s in my contract for the intervention that, if there is a family program at the facility, the family will participate,” says Diehl. He also sends the letters that are read during the intervention to the treatment program staff to use, if needed, to help maintain the patient’s motivation.

Costs for an intervention can range from $2500 upward. Insurance does not cover these services, but some intervention programs offer discounts or other subsidies. Families often have to get creative and work together to cover program costs, but the costs for not intervening can also be very high.

“I’ve sadly lost more friends to this disease than I can count,” says Diehl.

“No matter how it turned out, I’ve never had anybody telling me they wish they hadn’t done it,” says VanVonderen of interventions.

“Don’t wait for them to hit bottom,” advises Horowitz. Seek out an interventionist. He adds, “Our job is to help suffering people to get the care they need.”

Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writer, writing coach, and champion of creative aging. Her website is

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