The time has come for your alcoholic or chemically-dependent loved one to get help— health or work problems, school or legal issues, financial or home life at risk— the telltale signs just can no longer be brushed off while lives are being destroyed. You, the families and friends, are in pain because of the powerlessness of the situation and the denial which extends to the addicted loved one. And, the reality is until that person acknowledges and admits the need for help, there may be little you can do. However, you can set appropriate boundaries for yourself and your loved ones, as well as engaging professionals who can help with formal interventions.
To learn about setting boundaries for yourself and your family, one of the best resources is an Al-Anon/Alateen Family Group. In every state and country, Al-Anon/Alateens suggest their common “experience, strength, and hope” offers “changed attitudes that can aid recovery” (One Day at a Time in Al-Anon). Its program encourages the practice of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. A second program, Families Anonymous, with a smaller footprint, also offers help for those dealing with chemical dependents and family members with unmanageable behavioral issues. Both have extensive websites with meeting lists and recovery literature for sale.
Where to Begin
For some, professionals can be part of the intervention process. Chances are your chemical dependent or alcoholic has been seen by either a physician or mental health provider. Both may be resources to lead you to a professional interventionist or be willing to recommend a therapist trained in intervention. By holding up a mirror and thoroughly addressing the problem in a loving but firm way, these professionals may be persuasive enough to allow your loved one to confront their disease before they lose everything. And, it doesn’t take sitting in too many open Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings to discover the collateral damage of the disease of alcohol or chemical dependency: jobs, health, and families.
Yes, the meetings and intervention organized by family and friends, employers, possibly, aren’t always attended with the patient’s full engagement. Yet, those family and friends who participate by expressing their love and concern for the alcoholic or addict’s welfare may be surprised to learn that if they can frame the intervention as an act of mutual aid, that they themselves are also reaching out for help for themselves, the alcoholic/addict might be more grateful than angry. One family remarked, “We were encouraged to say, ‘I love you and I care deeply about you, but I am concerned. Here’s what I see happening to you and to our relationship. And, I am willing to change my behavior with the help of professionals and Al-Anon.”
During the Intervention
During interventions, families and friends usually give concrete examples of how the disease of addiction is impacting them. One therapist uses letters termed, “impact letters,” that might include an actual scenario, one written by a child or an adult child. For example, an actual letter might read, “I had friends over for dinner one night, and Mom had to escort you to your bedroom; everyone knew you’d been drinking. I was so embarrassed.” By tying their feelings to the statements, the family members are allowed to express their feelings without threatening or blaming.
An intervention may not work, particularly if a negative, confrontative approach is used. If addiction is framed as a disease, which the American Medical Association has termed it, the person should not be “beat up” in the process of intervention. An interventionist expressed, “If the person had diabetes or any other illness, there’s little chance a family would blame the patient.” The last thing, according to Al-Anon, one would desire to do is treat the person “like an irresponsible naughty child” (ODAT 3).
A few protocols to follow for family or friends considering intervention include:
- Educate yourself first about the disease of addiction before you intervene. If you choose to write letters, be concise, provide examples, and accentuate the positive. Rehearse with a friend or relative, or even a professional, before you actually present.
- Interventions are most effective on neutral ground, a therapist’s office, for example.
- Participants should be limited to close family, friends, and if appropriate, employers or fellow employees.
- Interventions should be timed, less than 90 minutes. Longer sessions tend to become eruptive and non-productive. Compassion also tends to decline, according to one therapist, if over 60 minutes.
- Schedule an addiction evaluation or assessment to follow the meeting.
- Be clear about the consequences should the person not choose help, and make sure the addict/alcoholic understands that this boundary is for you, to keep you sane, financially safe and secure, and in good health. Be prepared to act on that boundary whether it is a physical or emotional one.
After the Intervention
Recovery is a process for the addicted person as well as the family. An intervention cannot be counted as a failure, even if the person doesn’t choose recovery, for the family and friends have sought and received help for themselves. They’ve also planted a seed for recovery. Additionally, once families attend meetings such as Al-Anon, they learn what it means to enable which can be a destructive pattern in the addiction cycle. The sooner families get help, the sooner their alcoholic or addict may choose change for themselves.
Whatever form of intervention, therapists caution that families need to think carefully and plan ahead and do the work necessary because the power of an intervention comes from a framework of compassion. Some people can quit drinking on their own and using on their own, but many need to detox medically, under a doctor’s care. Many also need some professional treatment to help them get through those tough first days and weeks.
While the subject is a tough one to approach for families, the reward can be critical to healing their loved one’s brain, as addiction does nothing less than hijack the neural pathways. Recognize that the person is ill, that decision-making has been compromised, and impulsivity or lack of control is the signature of an addicted brain. It’s a tough place to be in—both for families and the addict.
For additional reading, Vernon Johnson authored Intervention: How to Help Someone Who Doesn’t Want Help, as a guide for families and friends considering intervention.
Recovery is one of the largest clubs around. Millions have chosen recovery over dying of alcohol poisoning, of liver damage, or in a car accident, or drug overdose. Many of them are waiting in your community to help your alcoholic or addict, and other programs such as Al-Anon/Ala-teen are just waiting to welcome your family.