6 Articles on Intervention
by Jeff jay
I am passionate about intervention for a very simple reason: intervention saved my life.
My story is somewhat unusual because I went further down the scale of addiction than most. But it is still a clear illustration of the power of love and the power of a loving family intervention. In the first of this six-part series, I want to begin by telling you a bit of my story.
After years of chronic alcoholism and drug addiction, I was unable to help myself in any way. Although I had been a national merit scholar, president of my high school student association, and head of the altar boys at St. Paul’s church, I was now homeless and penniless. I had a bleeding ulcer, a bleeding colon, and transient neuropathy of the legs. I was unable to eat solid food and I was sometimes sleeping under bushes in the city parks.
But I still didn’t think I had an alcohol or drug problem. I just thought I had a little cash flow problem. Sitting on a park bench on a cold and rainy day, I thought: “If I can just get another twenty bucks together, everything will be all right.”
There is nothing unusual in this thought process because denial is the hallmark of addiction. For me, drinking was a solution, not a problem. On the contrary, anyone who got in the way of my solution was the problem. —Which is why people have so little success in trying to reason with alcoholics on a one-to-one basis.
In the end, suicide seemed like a logical solution. I didn’t understand I had a disease, much less that effective treatment was available. All I could see was that I couldn’t go on, and that I couldn’t turn to my family and friends. I was alone in the world, bleeding internally, and wracked with pain. An old friend of mine had recently committed suicide, and it seemed like a good plan to me. I was twenty-six years old.
A miraculous confluence of events prevented my death. I had resolved to kill myself in the same manner as my friend, and I had made all the necessary preparations, including renting a dingy flophouse room to insure privacy. The next day would be my last, and like any good alcoholic, I decided to give myself a one-man going away party.
I frequently drank myself into a blackout, and that night was no exception. I can only report what has been told to me by others. Talk about a string of miracles. Here’s what happened:
My younger brother’s friend was vacationing in San Francisco, where I was living, and saw me on the street in the North Beach neighborhood. He also saw the flop house I went into. He could see by looking at me, apparently, that I was on death’s door and wouldn’t last much longer, so he called my parents, back in Michigan.
Just the day before, my mother had had a vivid dream in which she heard a voice that told her: “You must find Jeff.” Imagine then, my parents’ reaction to this urgent phone call from my brother’s friend, telling them I was on my last leg.
My parents tracked down the number of the pay phone in the flophouse (this was long before the era of mobile phones) and called me at 8:30 the next morning. I was passed out on the bed when someone pounded on my door and bellowed something about a phone call. I stumbled down the corridor and down three flights of stairs to the basement of the building. There was a pay phone on the wall with the receiver hanging down by its cord. I picked up the phone and was shocked to hear my father’s voice. I hadn’t spoken to my parents in many weeks, and I was sure that they didn’t even know what city or state I was in. In response to his greeting, I said, “I can’t talk to you now. I’ll call you back.” I hung up the phone and walked away.
I cannot begin to describe the depth of my humiliation and depression. I couldn’t even commit suicide properly! I headed out to Coit Liquors across the street, and then to Washington Square Park to drink my small bottle of port wine.
I slumped down onto the grass cross-legged to drink from the bottle in the brown paper bag. The tiny park in the middle of the big city was alive with people going to work or taking their morning exercise. My first chug brought up bloody sputum, as usual, but I continued to pull on the bottle, drinking the only medicine I had. It seemed my whole life—my very soul—was being sucked down into that bottle, with no hope for redemption. Without warning, I did something I hadn’t done in many years. I started to cry like a fool in the middle of the park.
I stopped that soon enough and renewed my determination to carry out the suicide plan. I finished off the bottle and got down to business. I would not fail this time. First, I resolved to call my parents, because I didn’t want them call the police. Naturally, I wouldn’t say anything about wanting to kill myself, but I would get them off my back. Then I’d go back to the flophouse and get down to the simple task of ending my life.
There was a small kiosk of pay phones in the corner of the park, and I placed a call back to Michigan. I learned later that my parents had been consulting with someone about intervention, so they had a new approach to talking with me. There was no anger or judgment in their tone. They were very calm and concerned. It was almost disconcerting to me because we hadn’t had many calm conversations in those days.
My father asked me a very simple question, which momentarily stunned me. There is nothing magic about this question, but at the time it stopped me in my tracks. He asked, “Jeff, how are you doing?”
I simply couldn’t reply. I thought to myself: Well, how am I doing? I’m bleeding from both ends, I can hardly walk, and I’m getting ready to commit suicide. But it’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all the normal people are going to work. How am I doing?
I finally replied with the single most intelligent statement I’d ever made in my life. I’m not sure where it came from, but I answered my father’s question by saying: “I think I need to go into a hospital.” That’s all it took. Later that afternoon, my parents arranged for me to fly back to Michigan.
The next day, I checked into Hurley Hospital and began a medical detox that lasted 10 days. I then agreed to transfer to a month-long treatment program. The residential program helped me a great deal, but I hadn’t surrendered. As I was getting to the end of my stay, I had a terrible realization: I was going to drink again—and I was going to die. I didn’t want to drink, but I knew I would. The realization became like an obsessive thought: I was going to drink again—and I was going to die. The thought ran through my brain all day and into the night.
I was desperate to find a solution, but I kept coming up empty. I didn’t believe in God anymore and I still wasn’t fully onboard with the 12 Steps. Only much later would I hear the term, “the gift of desperation,” but I experienced it later that night while still in treatment, and it finally drove me to do what I never would have done otherwise.
Pacing back and forth in my room, I knew I couldn’t stop myself from drinking when I got out, and I didn’t want to die an alcoholic death. I was doomed, and I my alcoholism would kill me. The fear and dread finally drove me to get down on my knees and cry out to the God I didn’t think I believed in. In the next moment, everything changed. I had a white-light spiritual experience that completely reorganized my thinking and my life. I was in the presence of God, and I knew I could stay sober, because it wasn’t just me anymore. I realized there really was a power greater than myself, and that power would help me stay sober. My experience could fill a book, and in fact, I finally wrote that book, which is titled Navigating Grace.
As a result of my spiritual awakening, I came to a point of complete acceptance, both of my illness and also what would be required for recovery. The day I got out of treatment, I went to my first outside 12 Step meeting (I had been to two meetings while I’d been in treatment). The people were incredibly kind, and they invited me to come to another meeting the following day, which I did. The people in the 12 Step groups really helped me. I went to a meeting every evening and did my best to work the program they laid out for me. Taking it one step at a time, I got better, and I have been clean and I’ve been clean and sober since October 4, 1981.
My story did not involve every element of a classic intervention, but it was an intervention nonetheless, and it made the rest of my recovery possible. Intervention in one form or another has been an integral part of the recovery movement since the beginning. AA co-founder Bill Wilson did not go looking for Ebby; Ebby came to him. Dr. Bob did not want to meet with Bill Wilson, and he only relented under pressure from his wife and their friend, Henrietta Seiberling. And so on. AA number three didn’t ask for help, either.
One of the most pervasive myths in our culture is that an alcoholic must hit bottom before they can be helped. But what is hitting bottom? Even living in a flophouse in the depths of depression didn’t bring me to some magical bottom. It was only the active intervention of my parents that made the difference.
Many things can intervene on an alcoholic to break their denial and help them to accept help. It may be the loss of a job, a relationship, or health. It may be a legal or financial problem. The better and more effective alternative is a good, structured family intervention. Intervention is a way of raising an alcoholic’s bottom so that they can get help now, before there are more negative consequences.
My wife Debra and I are the authors of the Hazelden guidebook on this subject, now in it’s third edition. It is titled, Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention. In it we ask and answer a simple question: “If an alcoholic or addict won’t accept help until they’re ready, what will get them ready?”
If someone you love is suffering from addiction, whether alcohol, prescription medications, street drugs, or destructive behaviors, there is something you can do about it. You may not be able to control another person’s behaviors, but you can have a tremendous influence.
First, you can learn more about the illness. Knowledge is power when dealing with this disease. Next, you can identify and stop your own enabling behaviors. These are often subtle and unconscious. Most families, operating out of simple love and concern, will do all the wrong things when trying to grapple with this illness. We’ll talk about enabling in the next article.
The next step is to put together an intervention team. This means contacting the most significant people in the addict’s life, and getting them all on the same page. Most family interventions fail because everyone has a different theory of addiction and a different approach to the problem. This is a recipe for disaster. Don’t hesitate to get some professional help — even a one-hour consultation and strategy session with a clinical interventionist.
When the intervention team is organized and committed to action, detailed preparations must begin. I like to say there are three keys to a successful intervention: Plan, Plan, Plan. We’ll describe these plans, and provide a checklist you can use.
One of the primary goals of an intervention is to preserve the dignity of the alcoholic. Ultimately, they must agree to accept help. Our role is to help break their through their natural defenses and denial, so they can accept the help that we’re offering.
In Love First, we have developed powerful techniques for using love to disarm the addicted person’s defense system. Everyone has heard of “tough love,” but with a “love first” approach, you may never need a tough bottom line. And if you do, it will not be the classic ultimatum, but a message of support.
I have facilitated interventions for many years now. It’s a beautiful process in which you—the friend or family member—can be a powerful instrument of love. People suffering from addiction are almost never able to stop permanently on their own. So remember, God doesn’t usually work by lightning bolt. He works through people. People just like you. Let’s get started.
Jeff Jay’s story
How to stop enabling
How to write an intervention letter
What to expect
Focus on long-term sobriety