Intervention May Be the Nudge People Need to Get Help

Families and friends can hold up a mirror to loved ones

It is extremely painful to stand by and watch someone's life be destroyed. Yet that's the position family members find themselves in when an addicted loved one denies having a problem with alcohol or other drugs. Until that person admits the need for help, there is usually little that can be done.

Professionals who conduct formal interventions into the disease process believe they can help families and friends hold up a mirror to their loved ones, convincing them to confront their problem before they hit bottom—before losing job, health and family.

The power of an intervention comes from having the participants express concern and compassion for the alcoholic's welfare, said Mary McMahon, an intervention specialist for Intervention Services, Inc., in Edina, Minn. McMahon has family members and friends write letters to the alcoholic and then read them aloud at the intervention. The letters allow family members to express their feelings without threatening or blaming the addicted person.

"A family member might say, 'I love you and I care about you, but I'm concerned. These are the things I see happening to you,'" McMahon said. "Then I have each person tie their own feelings to the statements. They might give examples of times they were hurt by the alcoholic. For instance, a child may write, 'You went to my basketball game and everybody knew you had been drinking; I was so embarrassed.'"

Interventions should stress love and concern, McMahon added. They should not take a negative, confrontational approach. "I hear so much of the latter—of people being beat up in the intervention," she said. "If the person had any other illness, there's no way we would do that."

McMahon offers a few guidelines for people considering intervention:

  • Participants need to be educated about the disease of addiction prior to the intervention. Their letters should be concise, well rehearsed, and should accentuate the positive.
  • Interventions should take place on neutral territory.
  • People invited to the intervention should include family members, close friends, and, when appropriate, employers or fellow employees.
  • Limit the intervention to about 60 to 90 minutes. At longer sessions, anger may flare up and compassion tends to decline.
  • Schedule an addiction evaluation to follow the meeting.

Most intervention subjects will agree to the evaluation, McMahon said. But of course that's not always the case. "That doesn't mean the intervention has failed," she said. "Interventions never fail, because family members and friends get help, and the sooner they get help, the sooner their loved one will. The process plants a seed for recovery in the addicted person's mind. It teaches family members about the disease of addiction, how they may be enabling the addicted loved one, and how support groups such Al-Anon can help them care for themselves."

Intervention: How to Help Someone Who Doesn't Want Help, by Vernon Johnson, a pioneer in the intervention field, is a good guide for people considering intervention, said McMahon.

While recognizing the value of formal interventions in individual cases, some treatment professionals caution families to think carefully about whether the process is right for them.

The subject of the intervention is usually grateful, said McMahon. "I often have people sit there and cry and say, 'I didn't know what was happening. I'm sorry I've hurt you all. Thank God you did something for me because I didn't know what to do myself.'"
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