Prevention & Recovery

How to organize an intervention

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

How to organize an intervention

By all appearances, Sarah Brown* has led an enviable life. She's an award-winning poet and mom of twins. Her husband, Mark*, earned a handsome salary as vice-president of a manufacturing company, allowing Sarah to stay at home with her son and daughter. When her children were small (they're now 25), she chauffeured them to soccer games and horseback-riding lessons. "I had a fantasy family," says Sarah.

But behind this exterior, Sarah hid a secret.

Beginning when the children were young, Mark increasingly spent his spare time in the basement, drinking. Then he began drinking earlier and earlier in the day, and if he was asked to go somewhere with the kids, Mark would stop �rst for a couple glasses of wine. He also started to rage. When the twins were about 16, he walked in drunk while they were helping to repaint the living room. He yelled, "You don't know what you're doing!" The pair dropped their paintbrushes and refused to help their dad around the house again.

Trying to help
Shortly after, in an attempt to get his father to see the scale of his drinking, Sarah's son took all the wine bottles in the home and hid them. Mark bellowed when he discovered his son's ruse: "Keep the bottles, but you owe me the money for them." Then he simply went out and bought more.

Sarah knows the desperation felt by family members who will do anything to get their loved ones to quit gambling, or using drugs or alcohol. In the early days, she kept tabs on her husband's drinking, pulling the bottles out of the garbage to show him how much he was consuming. She also pleaded with him. "I said, 'You're an alcoholic and your drinking is fracturing our family.'"

But nothing sunk in. "He said I had the problem," says Sarah, and she then confesses, "I did. I became addicted myself, to trying to change his behaviour."

Does this scenario sound familiar? If you talk with friends, family and coworkers, it doesn't take long to �nd someone who is struggling with how to help a loved one who has an addiction, and just won't get the help that they need. You or a friend may even be thinking about organizing an intervention.

Page 1 of 4 - On page 2: Find out how tough interventions can be.

This story was originally titled "Loved One in Trouble? Should You Call an Intervention?" in the October 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
The truth about interventions
The concept of interventions is now mainstream, largely due to A&E's hit reality show, "Intervention," which draws in millions of viewers on TV and online. The series follows the efforts of friends and family members – with the help of a counsellor – to intervene in the life of an addict and send them off to treatment.

Interventions work on TV. Each episode of the show ends with the sufferer embracing a new, healthier life after a couple of months in recovery. But what about in real life – and in the long run?

A&E reports that many of the people on its show who appear to be on the right path have relapsed – and for good reason. Experts from coast to coast told Canadian Living that the series is promoting a method of intervention that yields little or no long- term success. "It's the 'Jerry Springer' of interventions," says Toronto addiction counsellor Mark Elliot.

Elliot has seen an increasing number of angry individuals in Canadian detox and rehabilitation centres who are there because family members have seen the TV series, held similar interventions, and then ordered their loved ones to go into treatment. "I call them the new addict on the block," he says. "They're not there because they want to be. They're forced. And that's not going to work."

So what does work?
Sadly, there is no right answer, no one-size-�ts-all, say the experts. But there is one common denominator: the addict must want to change. The good news is that family members and loved ones can help move the person toward this realization.

Taking the first step
The ï¬�rst step to helping a loved one with an addiction isn't to rally family and friends and stage an intervention. Instead, experts say it is recognizing what need the addiction is serving for the sufferer. "Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to become an addict," says Gabor Maté, a Vancouver doctor and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Vintage, 2009), a book about addictions. "The addiction (drugs, alcohol, gambling, even an eating disorder, which is considered an addiction) serves some kind of function. It is killing some kind of pain."

The second step, says Gary Nixon, a psychologist, and an associate professor and director of the Addictions Counselling Program at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, is for loved ones to move their gaze from the person with the problem to how they can improve their own lives. "The toughest thing for a family member to hear is, 'You cannot control what that person is doing,'" says Nixon. "But you can control, and you need to take control of, what you are doing."

Elliot, who conducts interventions (albeit very differently from those on television), starts by meeting with family and loved ones separately and studying the dynamics of their relationships with the individual who needs help. "I've seen families held hostage by a child who is using drugs," he says. "They walk around on tiptoes, afraid to say no for fear they will trigger more drug use. They continue to give the child money, afraid he will cut off all communication if they stop."

Page 2 of 4 - Read page 3 to find out why compassion is so important
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Elliot's interventions involve getting loved ones to stop this behaviour. While it appears extreme, Robert Meyers, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addiction, says: "If someone passes out [from drugs or alcohol], as long as he's not so sick he will die, just leave him there. The goal is for the person to see the natural consequences of his behaviour on himself and others. And [this is] not going to happen if you keep covering for him."

Beth Hedva, a psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Calgary adds, "Be very clear and concrete about the behaviours and the impact they have had on you, without belittling or guilt-tripping the person. Then be very clear about your limits and what you will and won't do anymore." (For example, say "I won't help you pay off your credit card debt" if the person has a problem with gambling.) Then, follow through on your word. Hedva adds, "If it is someone you are living with, you may have to say, 'I am not able to help you with this, and I cannot live with you while you are actively using.'"

Maté, who dedicates an entire chapter of his book to family and friends, echoes these sentiments. The point, he says, is to maintain your emotional relationship without allowing yourself to be exploited. "You have to look at your own attitudes and why you are focusing so much energy on another person. If we can look at ourselves with compassion, then we can compassionately look at the addict."

Be compassionate
And it's compassion, all the experts say, that will have the most impact in getting an addict to change. "Motivate them," says Meyers, who then gives an example of a husband whose wife is hooked on Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller, and wine. He can start distancing himself from her. "If she smells like alcohol, walk away," he recommends. "Say something like, 'I don't want to be part of that.' When his wife is sober, the husband can reward the sobriety by spending time with her."

Most addicts, says Maté, know their behaviour has negative consequences. "But our habits are powerful," he says. "The emotional centres in the brain are more hardwired than our cognitive and logical brain functions. Think of how many New Year's resolutions you've started and then broken. Habits are hard to break, even when we know they're hurting us or other people."

Page 3 of 4 - Read page 3 to find out how Sarah's daughter ended up with a drinking problem and how she could help her.

The reality, says Maté, is that most addicts or people with serious problems (think, a loved one who is severely depressed and refuses to take medication or go for counselling) aren't going to give up their addiction or get treatment for an illness simply because they're confronted with the fact. "People are only going to change when there's motivation to change," adds Nixon. "They will do so when healthy and positive alternatives are placed in front of them, and they feel a new way of doing things is possible."

And what are those possibilities? Given that addiction is often a response to a sense of not being loved or accepted unconditionally for who one is, says Maté, his answer is "love them." If someone you care for is using their addictions because they're ashamed of themselves or think very little of themselves, give them unconditional acceptance, Maté adds. "When they see that they don't need to ï¬�ll these gaps in their emotions with their addiction, they will change," he concludes.

Expert advice
Experts recommend that loved ones seek professional guidance in dealing with their own emotional issues involving their relationships with an addict. And most treatment centres and addictions agencies in Canada offer counselling and support groups.

Several years ago, Sarah (remember her husband is the alcoholic who would not get help) enrolled in a group at her local hospital. She herself was beginning to suffer from depression. It took about three years of attending the group, but she eventually learned to detach herself emotionally and physically from her husband's behaviour. Sarah turned her focus from what is wrong with him, to what is good about her life."Mark knows I don't want anything to do with him when he drinks," she says. "And I don't. We lead separate lives."

While Mark has never admitted that he has a drinking problem, Sarah's now 25-year-old daughter did. Two years ago Cathy* was spending most of her time at her boyfriend's house so her mother did not see how much she was drinking. Unlike her dad, Cathy reached out for help after her boyfriend confronted her. "He didn't like my mood swings," she says. "I would go from happy to miserable and lash out at him in a matter of hours. I was going to lose the relationship, so I started looking inward and saw that I had a problem, like my dad."

Cathy returned home and asked her mother for help. Sarah bundled her daughter into the car and took her for treatment at Toronto's Jean Tweed Centre, an addiction counselling centre for women. While Cathy was in her program, Sarah took one, too, for loved ones. Cathy has relapsed once since then, "but my mother stood by me," she says. "She reminds me every day how well I am doing. She's always positive. She motivates me, even when I have bad days and want a drink."

Sarah adds, "My daughter was willing to face her problem while her father never did. And that, from my experience, is the difference between who bene�ts from outside help and who doesn't."

*Names have been changed.

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How to organize an intervention

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