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October 23, 2020
If you hear the word “intervention,” your mind may go to one you’ve seen on a popular television show or in a movie. “We need to talk,” a character may say as they gently lead their friend or family member into a room full of peers. “Nothing’s wrong,” the other person retorts. “I’m fine.” Tissues are handed out, and a banner unfurls, revealing that it is, in fact, an intervention being staged. After a tear-filled shouting match ensues, the person agrees to seek help.
Is this how interventions typically happen? Not exactly.
An intervention can be an effective way to help someone with a substance addiction. Through an intervention, family members and friends come together for the sake of the individual who is struggling with drug or alcohol misuse, pushing for them to get the treatment they need to address their condition.
Interventions can also help family and friends of the person with a substance use disorder. During a meeting, loved ones can explain how they have been damaged by the individual’s words and actions. Forcing the person to confront the consequences of their behavior can lead to better outcomes for all involved.
Despite the benefits, many people hold back from staging a meeting. The potentially explosive nature of an intervention prevents people from confrontation. Emotions run high. Secrets are revealed. Feelings of shame, anger, and hopelessness come to the surface.
People may also avoid holding interventions because they believe in commonly held myths. Those beliefs can stop them from taking hard but needed steps for their loved ones to get care.
One widely held view is that an intervention is only for those who have hit rock bottom, a point of pain where there is nowhere to go but up. At this point, some believe, the person will clearly understand the need for treatment and eagerly seek help. An intervention will just confirm and encourage the promising path they have now decided to take.
This belief is not only wrong but also dangerous. Experts know that rock bottom looks different for everyone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, even when someone does hit what seems like the lowest low—maybe following an overdose or a drunk driving accident—they will probably continue to misuse substances and refuse help.
Family members and friends should not wait for the most desperate situation to step in and confront their loved one. Don’t wait until it’s too late to help.
Many avoid holding interventions because they are convinced it will be an angry confrontation, and they do not want the person to feel worse than they already do. That is not surprising, because many people who face interventions say that they were ambushed. They feel emotionally abused, shamed, and insulted.
But an intervention does not have to resemble a firing squad. In fact, the most effective interventions are the ones in which the friends and family members speak to their loved one in calm, clear terms.
Make sure the intervention does not become a negotiation, a trial, or an airing of grievances. Present issues logically and offer serious solutions. Also, be sure to make a distinction between the individual as a person and the disease afflicting them.
When an intervention is planned with care and offered with understanding, the individual is more likely to be open to treatment.
Some avoid staging an intervention because they are convinced it will not work. Their theory is that only people who are fully motivated will benefit from treatment. A different but common theory is that they have spoken with their loved one dozens of times about their addiction, but it never results in progress. “They never will accept help, so why try?” they may say.
You should try because you care. You should intervene because it is crucial to the health and safety of the person with the addiction and for your own well-being.
But to have any chance of success with your intervention, plan ahead. For example, do not schedule a meeting for a time or place that may be stressful or triggering for the individual. Also, schedule the intervention at a time when you are more likely to have the person’s full attention. If the person just got out of the hospital, lost a job, or broke up with a partner, the person may feel like you are piling on and increasing their pain.
Families and friends can reach out to professionals for assistance in planning and holding an intervention. In fact, there are trained interventionists who can take you through the process to increase your chance of success.
As an important first step, an interventionist will try get the family to come to a consensus about the need for a meeting and what the meeting should look like. “If only part of the family is on board, I will try and intervene with the other part of the family, usually through conference or individual calls with those other members to try and persuade them to be on board,” explained interventionist Brad Warner, LCSW-R. “Usually they will come along, but if they are immovable, then we will come up with a plan that doesn’t include them.”
Leading up to an intervention, Warner said that he works with individual family members to “get them to change their thinking and perceptions of the problem.” This work, he explained, “includes a lot of education about addiction, mental illness, treatment, and interventions.”
He holds an extensive pre-intervention meeting the night before the intervention with all the participants. “We discuss all of the information about the person, who often has kept certain people in the dark,” said Warner. This process helps keep the meeting focused and provides insight and comfort for family members. “For some,” said Warner, “sitting through the intervention and witnessing the way the person we are intervening with reacts—perhaps with a touch of anger, denial, defensiveness, etc.—is extremely therapeutic in itself.”
Including an interventionist in the process can be beneficial for many reasons. The introduction of an unbiased, helpful person may help convince the person the intervention is for that it should be taken seriously and that their loved ones aren’t overreacting. In addition, having a professional help plan and hold an intervention can make it more likely to run smoothly and have a positive outcome. By having an interventionist join, there’s a greater likelihood of debunking the myths above and having a successful intervention—and having a loved one get the help they need.
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