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How to Have an Intervention


How do you have an intervention? The best first step is to consult with or hire a trained and experienced interventionist who can guide you and your family through the process. You will then develop an appropriate strategy for talking with your addicted loved one about going to drug or alcohol treatment. The surprise method was done historically, but is not the only option, and actually might be detrimental to your overall goals in many cases.

The overall goal of any intervention is to convey how much you love your addicted relative or friend and that you want them to get healthy by going to treatment. A way to do this by sharing how the addiction has affected your life and your concerns for them if they choose not to get help. It is also important in the process to set strong, healthy boundaries and state them clearly, as well as be prepared to follow through with maintaining them. Having an experienced interventionist with helps you navigate any potential safety issues that may arise if your addicted loved one becomes agitated.

When someone you care about has a serious substance abuse problem, confronting her through a formal intervention could be the only way to convince her to seek treatment. Many addicts go through months or years of denial about the severity of their substance use before they become aware of the devastating effects of their addiction. The New York Times estimates that although federal and state governments spend over $15 billion on rehabilitation programs each year, there are at least 20 million people with substance abuse problems who don’t receive the treatment they need. An intervention may make an addict angry and defensive, but it might be the wake-up call that he needs to get treatment.

Developing a Strategy

An intervention should never be held spontaneously or arranged casually. Getting the best results requires careful planning, preferably with the advice of a doctor, therapist, spiritual advisor, interventionist or other professional who has experience in interventions or addiction treatment planning. One of the ground rules of an intervention is that there’s strength in numbers — you should always have a team of at least three to five people to give you the support you need to stand up to the addict in your life.

In some ways, staging an intervention is like arranging a business meeting. You need to decide who’s going to attend, where the meeting will be held and what the goals of the intervention will be. If an intervention isn’t properly planned, it could make your loved one even more defensive and self-protective. As you plan your intervention strategy, think about:

  1. Who should be present. In addition to yourself, you’ll want to have one or two of the addict’s close friends or family members and someone who’s knowledgeable about addiction treatment there. Ideally, the people who participate in the intervention should have direct experience with the addict’s behavior, but should be able to control their feelings during the meeting so that the intervention doesn’t devolve into an argument.
  2. Where and when the intervention will be. By necessity, an intervention should have an element of surprise. If you tell an addict in advance that you and a few friends want to talk to her about her substance abuse problem, it’s unlikely that she’ll be willing to meet you. Arrange a time and place where you can talk with her in a private, confidential setting.
  3. How you’ll describe the effects of her addiction. As you plan the intervention, write down the specific circumstances that have led you to this point. Make a note of destructive behaviors or harmful incidents that justify the intervention. At the same time, try to frame your experiences in a non-judgmental way. For the best results, you’ll want to be able to present your case in a convincing yet compassionate manner. Rehearse your intervention at least once before the actual meeting.
  4. What the plan of treatment should be. The purpose of an intervention isn’t to bombard your friend or family member with evidence of destructive behavior; it’s to convince him or her to get help. Before your meeting, you should have a clear idea of what the treatment plan should include. A counselor or doctor can help you decide whether outpatient therapy, a 12-step program or inpatient rehab would be the most effective option.
  5. What the terms and conditions of treatment should be. Your loved one should understand that if he or she refuses the treatment plan, you’ll need to take action to protect yourself or your children. This may include leaving the home, changing the terms of your custody agreement or asking your loved one to move out until he or she agrees to get help.

Managing Your Emotions

An intervention can be a tremendously emotional event. When you’re talking with a loved one who has a drug or alcohol problem, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with frustration, anger or sadness. It’s also easy to lapse into begging, wheedling and bargaining. When you have an intervention, it’s important to state your point of view as clearly and effectively as possible. Although you don’t have to be a blank wall, you should try to keep your stronger emotions in check as you state your terms.

People who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction can be extremely manipulative. The disease can drive otherwise honest people into emotional blackmail, broken promises and outright lies. Chronic relapse is a hallmark of addiction, and by the time you reach the point that you’re ready to have an intervention, you’ve probably heard the addict promise to quit drinking or using dozens of times. This time, the addict must know that you won’t accept hollow promises anymore. He may cry, yell or beg you not to leave. Keep in mind that you’re not being mean, unfair or cruel — you’re trying to save the life of someone you love.

One of the advantages of building an intervention team is that you’ll have a support system to back you up if you feel emotionally overwhelmed. As each person on the team states his or her concerns, sit back and take a quick break from the intensity of the situation.

Preventing the Damage of Alcoholism

When it comes to planning an intervention, your family doctor may be one of your biggest allies. According to American Family Physician, screening and intervention on the part of family doctors can help alcoholics avoid the serious consequences of alcoholism, such as:

  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Family conflicts
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Chronic unemployment
  • Financial instability
  • Divorce and custody conflicts
  • Drunk driving
  • Accidental injuries
  • Arrest and legal problems

Standing Your Ground

It’s not easy to present an ultimatum to someone who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol. If the addict isn’t ready to quit, he or she may try to bargain for more time (“Couldn’t I have one more chance to quit on my own?”) or request a less intensive form of treatment (“If I promise to go to AA meetings every day, can I stay out of inpatient rehab?”). Before the meeting, have the terms of your agreement set down in writing, so that there’s no room for arguing or bargaining.  The addict should be given the opportunity to accept or refuse the treatment plan at that time. Giving him a few days or a week to make up his mind will probably result in a failed intervention.

If your loved one refuses the treatment plan, you must be ready to follow through on your terms. Don’t give in to tearful outbursts, angry threats or promises to change. For your own safety and your loved one’s well-being, it’s crucial that you don’t back down.

Help for Families of Alcoholics and Addicts

Watching a spouse, child or sibling destroy their health with alcohol or drugs can be heartbreaking, but at some point, you have to detach yourself from a loved one’s addiction in order to protect yourself mentally and emotionally. Detaching from addiction while remaining supportive and caring is tough. Programs like Al-Anon, a 12-step recovery group for the loved ones of alcoholics, can help you maintain a healthy balance by:

  • Providing emotional support for those whose lives have been affected by someone with alcoholism
  • Giving you strategies for coping with an alcoholic
  • Teaching you how to maintain healthy boundaries, so you can be supportive without compromising your safety or sanity
  • Helping you see that ultimately you can’t control another person’s alcohol or drug abuse, as much as you might want to

Protecting Your Safety

Violent behavior isn’t uncommon among addicts and alcoholics, especially when they feel threatened or attacked. If the person you’re addressing in the intervention has a history of violence, make sure you plan the meeting in such a way that you minimize the potential for angry outbursts. Choose one or two people to join your team who can help subdue the addict, if necessary. Your loved one shouldn’t be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when the intervention takes place.

If you believe that your loved one may try to injure himself or others during the intervention, have an addiction specialist attend the meeting. We can help you connect with professionals who have experience in planning interventions. You should feel confident that your intervention team can handle angry or violent episodes if they occur.

Following Through

After you’ve described your concerns, stated your requirements and proposed a plan, you need to follow through by making sure the person you love receives the agreed-upon treatment. Getting someone you care about to go to rehab isn’t easy. You may feel that it isn’t really your place to convince someone else that they need help, or that treatment won’t be effective if your loved one doesn’t initiate it.

Once an addict or alcoholic starts rehabilitation, the success of treatment is in his hands. While you can stage an intervention, convince your loved one that he needs help and get him to check in to treatment, you can’t force him to complete the program or hold his hand every step of the way. As you help your spouse, partner or child get the help they need, don’t neglect your own self-care. Self-help groups and individual therapy can help you maintain your personal boundaries and protect yourself emotionally while you’re supporting someone else in recovery.

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