Many a parent or spouse have faced this dilemma. They realized that a family member has become addicted to drugs or alcohol, causing serious health problems for themselves, generating a tornado of stress and anxiety that is disrupting the entire family dynamic.
Fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, siblings want their loved one to stop misusing substances but they don’t know what to do. Simply demanding they stop or reprimanding them rarely works. Often, a more structured approach is required. You may need a formal intervention.
“People who struggle with addiction are often in denial about their situation and unwilling to seek treatment,” warn the staff of the Mayo Clinic. “They may not recognize the negative effects their behavior has on themselves and others. An intervention presents your loved one with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse, and it can motivate him or her to seek or accept help.”
Interventions should be meticulously planned. Choose a team of people—usually friends and relatives—and once you have the team assembled set a date and location. Work together to present a consistent, rehearsed message and a structured plan. Your chances of success increase if you get a person with experience involved. A professional interventionist will consider your family’s particular circumstances, suggest the best approach, and help guide you in what kind of treatment and follow-up plan is likely to work best for your loved one.
A professional facilitator can also help avoid pitfalls in the process. “Many family members believe that the drugs and the alcohol are the problem but that’s inaccurate,” says interventionist Sam Davis. “Addicted people use substances because they see them as the solution to their problems. The family often focuses on the drug and alcohol use but that’s not what’s really driving the addiction.” Indeed, most addicted people are primarily self-medicating emotional pain and consequently any intervention and treatment need to consider that trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues frequently drive substance use disorders.
Davis likens the addicted person to a wild mustang. “The family has this saddle called ‘sobriety’ that they are trying to put on this mustang. And they have been chasing this mustang around the Great Plains, but there’s no corral. Families are just tossing the saddle into the air, hoping the mustang will somehow run under it! But that will never work,” explains Davis. “A professional interventionist helps family members build a corral around this mustang. If you build a corral strong enough around that mustang, you will get it saddled every time.”
Part of that corral is designing an effective plan to get the addicted person into treatment. That plan should include setting healthy boundaries. Since there are a lot of misconceptions about addiction, anybody invited to take part in the intervention should gather as much accurate information about substance misuse and addiction as they can—possibly with the help of the interventionist. Many addiction professionals are in long-term recovery themselves and can speak from experience. They will prepare your family for attempts by the addicted individual to manipulate the process to avoid the necessary hard choices.
“To the professional it doesn’t matter whether the addicted person is male, female, the husband or the wife, whether she is 18 or 70 years old or whether he makes a million a year or $ 20,000,” says Davis who has facilitated around a thousand interventions. “The reasons addicts give why they don’t want to go to treatment are almost always the same.”
Family members should avoid negotiating with the person in active addiction. “We never negotiate with the disease of addiction because we lose every time,” says Davis. Instead of bargaining or expressing their resentment, friends and family members should write letters spelling out clear boundaries: “I am willing to support you if you go to treatment but if you don’t I won’t finance you anymore, won’t bail you out, or be in an emotional relationship with you.”
Try to contain any strong emotional responses you might have to your loved one’s behavior. You may discuss the toll of your loved one's behavior while still expressing care and the expectation that he or she can change. Keep all preparations confidential: don't let your loved one know what you are doing until the day of the intervention.
Execute the Plan
Without revealing the reason, ask your loved one with the addiction to the intervention site. Members of the team then take turns expressing their concerns and explaining their boundaries. Your loved one is presented with a treatment option and asked to accept that option on the spot. Each team member will say what specific changes he or she will make if your loved one doesn't accept the plan. Don't threaten a consequence unless you're ready to follow through with it.
Watch the timing: many families want to act as soon as possible because they are in acute crisis mode. “But the best success comes from a well-laid plan,” says Davis. “We take a look at the situation and decide whether it is the opportune time to proceed. We need to know, is the family ready? If the family is prepared to follow through on the advice of the interventionist and if they are prepared to set healthy boundaries and do their part, then we do the intervention right away.”
Follow up: the intervention is just the beginning. Involving a spouse, parent, other family members, or friends is critical to help someone with an addiction stay in treatment and avoid a relapse. This can include changing patterns of everyday living to make it easier to avoid destructive behavior, offering to participate in counseling with your loved one, seeking your own therapist and recovery support, and knowing what to do if a relapse occurs.
Addiction is a family disease that is not easy to contain, but there is no reason to lose hope. Recovery is possible.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use and could benefit from addiction treatment services, please contact The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place at 757.280.1303 or fill out our admissions request form.