A substance abuse intervention can be a very difficult and painful process for everyone involved. When framed and presented in the right way, an intervention is the beginning of a journey of healing, and it restores relationships between the addict and his friends or family. But getting to that point doesn’t come easily, and troubleshooting a difficult intervention requires insight, grace and skill.

The Goals and Focus of a Drug Intervention

There are many factors at play during an intervention, so the National Institute of Health codified the most important goals that everyone should be on board with for an intervention to be successful:

  • Offer love and proper, healthy support to the addict
  • Motivate the addict to seek treatment or return to treatment
  • Compel the addict to acknowledge that her drug habit and resultant behavior have damaged relationships
  • Remind her that refusal to seek treatment will have social, financial, or other consequences

Notwithstanding the many layers of hurt, resentment, betrayal, and anger bubbling under the surface, the point of an intervention is never to shame or condemn an addict, as this will merely serve to drive her further into the deceptive comfort and sanctuary of her substance abuse. Instead, the intervention should be used to draw the addict out from that shadow.

Of course, that is easier said than done, and that is where the services of a professional interventionist come into play. An emotionally distraught family and a potentially defensive addict do not know how to navigate those channels. There are natural problems that arise during an intervention. With the guidance of an intervention specialist who will oversee preparation, debriefing, rehearsing, and moderation, even a difficult intervention can be a successful one.

Appointing a Spokesperson

Everyone who attends an intervention has, at some point, been disappointed or hurt by the addict’s behavior. As a result of this, everyone may have something they want to say to the addict. For their part, addicts may counter claims of wrongdoing with lies or accusations of their own. If the intervention devolves into a shouting match, with people trying to be heard over each other, then it will be a lost cause.

The way to get around this, says the Mayo Clinic, is for one of the attendees to be appointed as a spokesperson. This appointment should be made during the preparation and rehearsal stage of the interview. Having an individual speak for the interests of the group ensures that people who are not comfortable with making themselves heard can contribute to the intervention in as minimal a capacity as they feel comfortable. If the addict turns belligerent, the spokesperson and the intervention specialist can work in tandem to weather the storm and keep the intervention on track.

Writing Letters and Playing Devil’s Advocate

Another problem that may occur during an intervention is that the addict refuses to believe that his drug or alcohol habit is anyone else’s business or concern. The addict may claim that his habit is hurting no one, or that complaints about his drinking and drug use are exaggerated or unfair. He may go on the offensive, refuting the claims being made during the intervention and instead pointing out instances of wrongdoing by various family members.

In the former case, the way to get around this is, again, in the preparation and rehearsal stage. Common practice is for the group members of an intervention to write out their grievances in the form of a loving, but firm letter. They will list details and examples of how the addict’s behavior has embarrassed them, hurt them, disappointed them, betrayed them, or otherwise let them down. “Be as specific as possible” when it comes to this step, says Psychology TodayThe intervention specialist will coach the participants on how they can strike the right tone of being very straightforward with the examples of their hurt, and doing so in a way that reiterates their love of the addict, while maintaining that they will no longer tolerate that behavior.

To prepare for the possibility of the addict becoming attacking and confrontational, the interventionist might role-play as the addict during the preparation stage. By playing devil’s advocate, she can help the group members anticipate the counters and attacks from an addict who is defensive, fearful, and possibly resistant to the idea of giving up her drugs or alcohol.

Professional interventionists aren’t just good at conducting a group – Addiction Treatment Magazine explains that these people are specialists who are licensed in very relevant fields. In some cases, they may be former addicts themselves, who went through the process of intervention and treatment. They are well versed in how an addicted mind works, and they know how an addict would react in an intervention. With this insight, attendees can know how to respond when their loved one starts looking for a way out of the intervention.

Standing Ground

Family dynamics can complicate interventions. A mother may balk at the prospect of cutting off her child unless he agrees to seek treatment. A husband may back down from the idea of kicking his wife out of their home if she continues to drink or use drugs. These are perfectly understandable and natural reactions to the ultimatum that is an intervention, which is how the Huffington Post puts it. When any threats to penalize the addict until he cleans up his act lose their teeth because family members do not – or cannot – stand their ground (due to what a CNN article entitled “Intervening Against an Adult’s Will Is Complicated, Painful” called “misguided love”), the intervention is weakened.

This is another area where the intervention specialist can help. She not only knows the ins and outs of the addicted mind, but also knows how to work with conflicted and agonized families. In the weeks leading up to the intervention, the professional will speak

with each member of the group individually. She will know how to present the intervention to them in such a way that they fully understand the importance of applying punitive measures against the addict. Every overture of hospitality or kindness towards someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol is an enablement or endorsement of their behavior, no matter how good the intentions behind their action. It is incredibly difficult to look a loved one in the eye and promise to cut him out of your life if he continues doing what he has been doing; but it is the job of the intervention specialist to impress upon the family that the alternative is so much worse.

This needs to be done with grace and care. In an intervention, the addict is not the only one suffering. A professional interventionist has the training and skill to help family members believe in their decision, no matter how much it may hurt them to do so.

Immediately After an Intervention

An important element in the success of an intervention is that the next steps need to be clearly marked out and presented to the addict. Failure to cover this base can undermine the entire process and defeat any progress that may have been made up to that point. Again, this is where the services of an intervention specialist come into play, as he will know not to overlook this point; upset and emotionally drained family members may not be as diligent.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, over 90 percent of addicts make a commitment to seek treatment following a successful, professional intervention. If the family has no plan in mind for the addict, they are unwittingly opening the door for their loved one to withdraw back into substance abuse. Similarly, the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence reported that participants in a study who received an intervention had a 67.7 percent lower rate of drug use at a six-month follow-up point, and “heavy alcohol use” was 38 percent lower.

If an addict agrees to seek treatment, the next phase should begin immediately – perhaps immediately after the intervention or the following morning. Not a second later, in case the addict changes her mind and tries to get out of her commitment, or in case the addict decides to have one more drink or drug hit before she cleans up, and then becomes resistant or belligerent again. In order to make good on the successful intervention, the transition from intervention to treatment must be as quick and seamless as possible.

When a patient checks in to a treatment facility, a doctor will perform an intake evaluation. This will involve:

  • Urine tests
  • Blood tests
  • Asking the addict about the drugs or alcohol he has been taking
  • Observing the addict for symptoms of possible mental health conditions (a substance abuse problem and a mental health disorder that occur together are known as co-occurring conditions)
  • Interviewing friends or family members who can provide pertinent information before treatment begins

Once the doctor has completed the evaluation, the patient is ready for detoxification. This is process that can last anywhere from a couple of days to a full week, as the patient is methodically deprived of her drugs or alcohol. For an addict, this process can be very stressful, causing severe stress, anxiety, pain, and mental discomfort. The doctor may choose to administer carefully prescribed anti-anxiety medication to ease the process, a decision that will likely be influenced by the details obtained during the evaluation process.

After the patient has completed detox, she is free from the constant physical craving for drugs or alcohol. Her mind is clear to begin therapeutic rehabilitation, where she will learn coping skills and new and healthier ways of thinking to keep the temptation of addiction at bay.

Finding Out More About Interventions

You may know someone who is struggling with an addiction to illicit substances or even prescription medication. Whatever your concern, you are not alone. At Orlando Recovery Center, we know how daunting the prospect of challenging your loved one about his substance abuse can be, and that’s why we want to help you as much as we can. We have trained mental health professionals just a phone call away, who can answer your questions about interventions, treatment, and rehabilitation. Working together, we can make the journey of healing and recovery start now.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.