In the past, people who had loved ones that struggled with addiction were told that the person must hit “rock bottom” before healing could begin. Often, this meant that family members and friends of people with a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol were asked to simply stand aside and let the addiction take its course. They were told that anything they did to influence the course of the disease would be hopeless at best and harmful at worse.
Now, researchers know that standing aside in this manner can be harmful to everyone involved. Drug and alcohol abuse can take a serious toll on the health and well-being of both the addicted person and his or her family. Family members who are forced to watch the addiction play out also face serious consequences. Living with someone who has a substance abuse problem can cause long-term stress, which can put the family members at risk for health problems of their own.1 Holding an intervention is often the best way for family members to deal with any addiction problem. If done right, the addicted person might get the motivation needed to stick to a treatment program. In addition, the family will learn a significant amount about the disease, which might help them provide help throughout their loved one’s journey to sobriety.
Planning an Intervention
Holding a proper intervention means more than simply talking to your addicted loved one about the problem and pleading for him or her to change. An intervention is a highly structured, formalized conversation that typically follows a specific format. Putting together something this complex often means spending weeks in the planning stages. Families can certainly do this planning on their own, without the help of a paid professional.
Many families may find that it’s simply too difficult (or too risky) to plan and hold an intervention without help. It helps to have an experienced person on-hand to help in case of an emergency, or simply to help things run smoothly. Often, families only have one or a few opportunities to stage an effective intervention, so the help of a supporter can go a long way.
It is a good idea to use an intervention specialist if the addicted person has:
- Resistance to recovery
- Denial of the problem
- A violent history or a history of becoming defensive or angry
- Suicidal tendencies
- A deep sense of denial
- Mental health concerns2
During the planning stages, the family members learn all they can about the addiction. The intervention specialist may provide information, or the family might read books as a group and meet to discuss what they have learned. This education might seem trivial, but in fact, it’s quite important. The family is beginning a journey here, and each member must know exactly what they are fighting and how the disease might manifest itself throughout the journey.
Some family members may need to learn entirely new ways of communicating with the addicted person. Active addiction causes people to break promises and hurt feelings, and the family members may have years and years of anger built up and ready to fly out at any moment. These expressions of anger and hostility might be cathartic in the moment, but they’re certainly not helpful during an intervention and they can drive a person with a substance use problem back to the addiction. If mental health plays a role in the addiction, effective communication is all the more important.
Family members who use supportive, positive language are more effective than family members who express hostility or anger at every turn.3 Revising years of habits begins during the planning stages. It is important to prepare to remain calm during the actual intervention.
The planning phase is the time in which the family also chooses a treatment program for their loved one. An intervention specialist may be able to provide advice on what types of treatment would be best, but often, the family must consult with their health insurance providers to see what services are covered and when they can begin. These are tricky questions to answer, but they’re important topics to handle before the intervention is held. Programs like the one at Michael’s House can verify your insurance coverage over the phone in a short period of time to help with this process.
Once family members have done their research and thought a bit about the language they’ll use in the intervention, they may want to write a letter to share with their loved one during the intervention. These are powerful documents that will form the basis of the intervention. In a typical letter, the family members will:
- Open with a statement of love and support.
- Describe one situation in which the addict’s behavior caused pain or harm.
- Describe the course that the addiction will take.
- Explain how treatment works and why it is important.
- Urge the addict to enter treatment.
In some cases, family members write down consequences that will occur if the addicted person refuses to change. Some intervention specialists ask the family to place those consequences in the main body of the letter, and others ask family members to write consequences on a separate sheet of paper and hold them back in case the addicted person doesn’t respond to the intervention.
Families that choose to share their feelings through letters are able to take time to compose their thoughts and feelings before the actual intervention, when emotions can run strong. Family members can benefit from sharing their letters with each other and helping each other create a cohesive message.
It’s hard to overstate how important these letters are in the intervention. Each family member will read the letters aloud to the addicted loved one, and those letters must be powerful in order to convince that person to accept treatment. An experienced counselor or intervention specialist can help the entire family craft the most convincing letters possible.
Rehearsing for the Intervention
Next, the family chooses a spot for the intervention, and they settle on a date and time. Often, the intervention is held in a neutral location, such as a church or a conference room. Having an intervention in the family home might be convenient, but it’s just as convenient for the addict to simply walk away into a back bedroom when the conversation gets tough. Holding an intervention in a neutral spot makes escape a bit less likely. The time chosen should correspond to the time when the addict is least likely to be impaired. This might mean that the family holds the intervention in the morning when the addict isn’t likely to have used.
Once the time, date and location have been chosen, the family runs through a series of rehearsals. They read their letters aloud and determine who will speak first. The intervention specialist also provides guidance on what to do if the addict chooses to yell, become violent or leave the conversation. These rehearsals allow the family to be fully prepared.
Where to Have the Intervention
The location of your loved one’s treatment intervention should be a safe, convenient space. While your loved one won’t know that the intervention is scheduled, the location for the event should be somewhere that your loved one comes to often.
Home locations are usually easiest and more comfortable for you and your family. Also, since you will need to wait until your loved one is sober before you begin, the location should be somewhere that you can wait a while. In the same way, an alcohol treatment intervention can be highly emotional, so the location should be somewhere appropriate.
The Big Day
When your loved one arrives at the location, the weeks of planning pay off. The intervention specialist or the head of the family tells the addicted person why the meeting has been called, and the family begins to read their letters aloud. At the end of each letter, the family will ask the addicted person to enter a specific treatment program for addiction. As soon as your loved one agrees to enter treatment, the intervention is over.
It’s important to note that while many interventions are successful, others are not. People often move through a series of steps before they make big changes in their lives.Most clinicians recognize five main stages of change, which include:
- Precontemplation- “I’m fine; I don’t need to change anything.”
- Contemplation- “I might have a problem. I might do something about it one day.” Or “I have a problem but I’m too stressed out/busy to change it now.”
- Determination- “I am ready to make a change, although I don’t have a solid plan to make that change happen.”
- Action- “I have called a treatment center and I am in the process of taking steps to change.”
- Maintenance- “I work hard to maintain my sobriety.”
If a person who is already ready to change is approached with an intervention, you might assume that he or she would accept treatment. However, not everyone is in the determination or action phases of change when they receive an intervention. The intervention could make a resistant person open to later conversations about addiction. If a person is so deep within an addiction that he or she cannot see the need for change, an intervention might not motivate that person to change right now. But it could motivate open the door to future changes4.
The Importance of Accountability
Sometimes, consequences can help addicts see the need for treatment. Family members might read the last pages of their intervention letters, all in a row, notifying the addict of the consequences of a refusal. Some addicts might be motivated to enter treatment when they learn that they’ll have no access to their children, home or money without treatment. Some addicts, however, will still not be moved. According to a study published in the journal Substance Abuse and Misuse, addicts were only swayed when they were told to get treatment or go to jail. Since families can’t place their loved ones in jail, they don’t have this option. They can, however, point out that the person could go to jail if he or she continues to break the law in specific ways. This might sway some addicts to submit to treatment.
Once the addict agrees to enter a treatment program, the family members should deliver that person to the program right away. The family has reached a breakthrough, and it’s important to capitalize on that breakthrough while it’s fresh in the addict’s mind. By now, the family has notified the treatment program that the addict is coming, and the family has paid all entrance fees required. There are no barriers to begin treatment. The family can then begin their own therapeutic process, participating in counseling sessions of their own to help the addict on the road to recovery.
Family members affected by a close relative's addiction: The stress-strain-coping-support model. Drugs. 2010. 2 Mayo Clinic. Intervention: Help a Loved One Overcome Addiction. 27 Jul 2017. 3 Falloon, I. Family Interventions for Mental Disorders: Efficacy and Effectiveness. World Psychiatry.2001. 4 Gold, M. Stages of Change. PsychCentral. 2016.