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 many. But it is still a clear illustration of the power of intervention. In the first of this six-part series, I want to begin by telling you part 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 alter boys at St. Paul’s church, I was now homeless and penniless. I had a bleeding ulcer, a bleeding colon, and neuropathy of the legs. I was unable to eat solid food and I was sleeping under bushes in the city parks.
But I still didn’t think that 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 became a problem. That is why people have so little success in trying to reason with alcoholics.
In the end, suicide seemed like a logical solution. I didn’t understand that 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 blackouts, and that night was no exception. I can only report what has been told to me by others. Apparently someone on the street saw me, and realized I was on death’s door. They realized I couldn’t last much longer, and called my parents in Michigan. My mother, just the day before, had had a dream in which she heard a voice that told her: “You must find Jeff.” Imagine then, their reaction to this person’s urgent call.
My parents got the number of the pay phone in the flophouse 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. 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 I was in. In response to their greeting, I said, “I cant’ talk to you now. I’ll call you back.” I hung up the phone, held my head, and walked away.
I cannot begin to describe the depth of my humiliation and depression. I couldn’t even commit suicide right! I headed out to the liquor store across the street, and then to the city park to drink my pint bottle of port wine out of a brown paper bag.
The sun was shining and the birds were singing as I slumped down onto the grass to drink. The tiny park in the middle of the big city was alive with people going to work and 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.
Fortified and determined to carry out my suicide plan, I finished off the small bottle, and got down to business. I would not fail this time. First, I resolved to call my parents, because I gave my word, and I didn’t want to jinx myself by breaking my promise. Naturally, I wouldn’t say anything about my suicide plan, but I would get them off my back. Then, I’d go back to the flophouse and get down to the simple business 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 in talking with me. There was no anger or judgment. They were very calm and concerned. Their tone was disconcerting to me, because we hadn’t had a calm conversation in some time.
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 right 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. On a beautiful day, with the sun shining and the birds singing, and all the people going to work. How, indeed, am I doing?”
For some reason, I finally replied with the single most intelligent thing that I’ve ever said. I’m not sure where it came from, but I answered his question by saying: “I think I need to go into a hospital.”
The next day, I began a medical detox that lasted 10 days. I was then transferred to a 28 day treatment program. Nothing worked until I got down on my knees and asked God for help. I had a spiritual experience that could fill its own book, after which I was able to follow the directions laid out for me by the treatment team. I followed those directions, one day at a time, with tremendous difficulty. Reaching out to others for help was not something that I was used to. But the program that they introduced me to worked, and I have been clean and sober since October 4, 1981.
My story did not involve a classic, structured intervention of the type that will be discussed in these articles. However, 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. Bill Wilson did not go looking for Ebby; Ebby came to him. Dr. Bob adamantly refused to meet with Bill Wilson, and only relented under pressure from his wife and their friend, Henrietta Seiberling. And so on.
One of the most pervasive myths in our culture is that an alcoholic must hit bottom before he or she can be helped. But what is hitting bottom? You might hear an old hand say, “I didn’t sober up until I lost everything: the job, the home, the wife, everything. Then they threw me in jail, and I knew I was at the end. I finally surrendered.”
There can be many things that intervene on an alcoholic, that will 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. In the example above, a series of unconnected and disorganized interventions took place to finally break the alcoholic’s denial. This is commonly called “hitting bottom,” but it is not the only way to start the recovery process.
The alternative is a structured family intervention. Intervention is a way of raising an alcoholic’s bottom, so that they can get help now, before there are any more negative consequences.
My wife Debra and I are the authors of the new Hazelden guidebook on this subject. It is titled, “Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention.” In it we ask a simple question: “If alcoholics and addicts won’t accept help until they’re ready, what will it take to get ’em ready?”
Waiting for an alcoholic to hit bottom can be dangerous, or fatal. In the forward to our book, former senator George McGovern talks about the tragic death of his daughter Terry as a result of her alcoholism. He writes: “we were repeatedly told by well-meaning, supposedly informed friends that we would have to wait until Terry really hit bottom.’ The trouble is that when she hit bottom,’ she died.”
If someone you love is suffering from addiction, whether this means alcohol, prescription medication, street drugs, or destructive behaviors; there is something that you can do about it. You may not be able to control another person’s actions, but you can have a tremendous influence.
First, you can learn 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.
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.
When the intervention team is organized and committed to action, detailed preparations must begin. I like to say that there are three keys to a successful intervention: Plan, Plan, Plan. We’ll describe these plans, and provide a checklist that you can consult.
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 to help break their denial, so that they can make the best choice.
In “Love First,” we have developed a powerful new technique for using love to disarm the addict’s defense system, and to break denial. Everyone has heard of “tough love,” but with a “love first” approach, you may never have to resort to a tough bottom line.
I have helped to facilitate interventions for many years now. It is a beautiful process, and one in which you, the friend or family member, can be a powerful instrument of God’s love in the world. People suffering from addiction are not able to stop permanently on their own. And God doesn’t usually work by lightning bolt. He works through people. People just like you.
In the articles to come, we will talk about this process in some detail. If you have questions or comments, feel free to contact us through the website, here.
Let me leave you now with this thought. When facing alcoholism and drug addiction, we need a miracle. And God sent you.
This article copyright ©2000 by Jeff Jay. Excerpts from “Love First” copyright © 2000-2008 Jeff Jay and Debra Jay.