When I work with families, I often say that there are three keys to a successful intervention: plan, plan, plan. There is no replacement for careful preparation when trying to intervene on an alcohol or drug abuser. In my experience, families that try to rush the process are setting themselves up for failure. Most families can carry out an intervention on their own. But if time is short, or there are other complicating factors, contact a professional.
The intervention itself will take place in a meeting between the intervention team and the alcoholic. The purpose of the intervention is to break through the addict’s denial so that he or she can experience a moment of clarity, admit the depth of the problem, and accept help.
In this article, I will talk about the steps that the team must take to organize themselves and prepare for the intervention. In the next article, I will discuss the all-important letters that each member of the team will write to the alcoholic. These letters become a virtual script for the intervention. They keep the team on track, and deliver a message of love and clarity to the chemically dependent person.
The first step is to choose the members of the intervention team. This group should ideally be comprised of three to eight people who are close to the alcoholic. These may include family members, friends, co-workers, or clergy. The intervention team members must have first hand knowledge of the addict’s problem. They cannot speak from hearsay. Also, the group cannot include anyone who has an active chemical dependency problem.
You may find that an important member of the team is reluctant to become involved. They may be fearful of making the alcoholic angry, or they may doubt if an intervention is the right thing to do. Take time to educate that person about chemical dependency and about intervention. It can be easier to use “expert” references, such as books, to avoid a battle of opinions. Most people will agree to participate in the intervention when they understand that it is a loving process that is aimed at helping the alcoholic.
Some members of the intervention team may live in other cities. If a family is serious about intervention, travel may be necessary. If it’s not possible for an important team member to attend the intervention in person, they may participate by phone, or have their letter read by another team member.
In selecting the members of the intervention team, it is important to know which members have influence and which members have leverage. When we talk about influence, we are referring to the emotional impact that a person may have on the alcoholic. A passage from our book, Love First, will clarify this idea:
“A person who appears to have little power over the situation may have tremendous influence in an intervention. A recent experience of ours is the perfect example. We were conducting an intervention, and as the letters were read, the alcoholic wasn’t showing any sign of emotion. We planned to have his fourteen-year-old daughter read her letter last. When her turn came, she paused and said nothing for what seemed like an eternity. In the silence that filled the room, all of our hearts raced faster. Finally, she looked at her father with tears in her eyes and a wonderful smile. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you so much!’ Instantly, the man’s eyes filled with tears, and he began to cry openly. The room was choked with emotion. Then his daughter cried, ‘I just want my Daddy back.’ Everyone started to sob, and our man of stone melted before the plea of his young daughter. She ran into his arms and hugged him. He immediately promised to get the help he needed. Never underestimate the influence of love.”
Everyone on the team has some form of influence, but not everyone has leverage. When people have leverage, they have the power to precipitate actual consequences in the life of the addict. Obviously, an employer has leverage,which can be used in an appropriate manner, as shown in this example: “Marie, we value you as an employee, but your drinking has caused you to miss 17 days of work in the last three months. We will do everything in our power to help you, including helping you to access treatment. But we cannot employ you if you will not come to work.” In this case, the opportunity and the possible consequences are equally clear.
A spouse may also have leverage, but it must be used gently. For example, a wife may say: “Jack, I cannot continue to raise our children in an alcoholic household. I can see the fear in their faces whenever you come home late. If you will not accept treatment today for your alcoholism, I’m going to have to put the welfare of our children first, and start looking at other options.” Here, the wife has avoided a direct threat, yet she has made her intentions crystal clear. She has put her husband on notice, but she has put the children first, thereby justifying her actions to everyone present. If, in this example, Jack’s parents are present and whole-heartedly supporting the wife, it will have an even more powerful effect on the alcoholic. So, when planning the intervention, determine which team members have influence and which have leverage. It is important that these elements be used wisely.
When the team comes together for an initial meeting to discuss the intervention, the members should talk about their personal experiences with the alcoholic and the negative consequences of the addiction. This is often an eye-opening experience for the team, as different individuals will have different knowledge of the situation. This process helps to get everyone on the same page, and helps the team to develop a better understanding of the depth of the problem.
Part of planning for the intervention will include choosing a treatment center. This process will begin with a number of questions: Is there insurance to defray the cost of treatment? What are the insurance or managed care company’s requirements? Is public funding necessary, and if so, what local agency authorizes treatment? Does the family have private resources to pay for treatment? Who are the best treatment providers in the area?
Prepare to spend some time on the phone. In the case of insurance, you will need to verify that there is a benefit for chemical dependency treatment, and how to access that benefit. In the case of publicly funded programs, you will have to find out what programs are available and how a person can be admitted. If the family has the means to pay for some or all of the treatment privately, then the treatment options will broaden considerably.
In my view, inpatient or residential treatment is almost always preferable over outpatient treatment. By the time that family members start talking about intervention, the addict’s problem is usually quite severe. Few families are going to address Grandpa’s alcohol and Xanax habit in the early stages. So it’s likely that the problem you’re dealing with will be very serious. The Medstat study demonstrated that residential stays of 21 to 28 days were almost twice as effective in preventing relapse as stays of 7 days or less.
Another important step in the planning process is to determine in advance the objections to treatment that the alcoholic will raise. These objections will be answered conclusively by the chairperson during the intervention. For example, an alcoholic living alone might say: “I can’t go into treatment. Who’s going to take care of my dog Spot?” The team will have thought of this objection in advance, and will have a plan. The chairman will answer: “Well, you know how much Spot likes Uncle Harry’s dog Rover. Uncle Harry has agreed to take Spot today, and look after him while you’re away.” The alcoholic will be stunned. Every objection will have a reasonable and workable answer.
To help in the planning process, I am including a version of the Intervention Checklist from the appendix of our book, “Love First.” You will find it useful in keeping track of details during the planning process.
- Bring together three to eight people who are important to the alcoholic and are willing to learn how to help.
- Set up a planning meeting to discuss moving forward with the intervention.
- Choose a detail person.
- Choose a team chairperson.
- Discuss the importance of not alerting the alcoholic to the intervention plans.
- List ways you’ve tried to help the alcoholic that may have enabled the addiction.
- Put in writing all the negative consequences caused by the addiction problem.
- Write a one- to two-page letter to the alcoholic.
- Read your letters to each other, editing out anger, blame, and judgment.
- Determine bottom lines, and write them down on a separate page.
- Test each other’s willingness to follow through with the bottom lines.
- Identify financial resources for covering treatment costs.
- Evaluate treatment centers using the evaluation questions.
- Set a date, time and place for the rehearsal and the intervention.
- Choose a treatment center, answer its pre-intake questions, and make an appointment for admission.
- Make airline reservations if the treatment center is out-of-state.
- Create a plan likely to guarantee the alcoholic’s presence at the intervention.
- Identify objections the alcoholic may use to avoid or postpone treatment, then formulate your answers.
- Pack a suitcase using the guidelines provided by the treatment staff.
- Determine who should drive the alcoholic from the intervention to treatment.
- Compile a list of all prescribed medications the alcoholic is presently using.
- Rehearse the intervention.
- Decide where each person will sit, including the alcoholic.
- Discuss the order in which you’ll read your letters.
- Find a discreet place to park your cars.
- Script the chairman’s introduction and closing statement.
- Review objections and answers.
- Plan to arrive at the intervention location 30 minutes before the alcoholic is expected to be there.
- If the intervention is taking place at the alcoholic’s home, arrive as a group.
- After the intervention, call the admissions staff and let them know whether or not the alcoholic has agreed to treatment.
- Collect all letters and send them to the alcoholic’s treatment counselor.
- Sign up for the Family Program.
- Locate an Al-Anon or Family Anonymous meeting near your home or office.
Not every item on this list has been in these articles. However, the checklist will give you a good idea of the things you need to attend to.
If there are complicating issues however, you may need the help of a professional. For example, if there is a history of violence, if there are concurrent mental health problems, if there is a history of failed treatment attempts, or if there have been threats or attempts at suicide. Generally, any complicating factor that makes the group uncomfortable may indicate the need for professional guidance. Having said that, most families are perfectly capable of carrying out a structured intervention on their own, if they have the time and ability to prepare carefully.
Perhaps the most important part of the planning process is to make sure that all of the intervention team members are able to act with love and concern. If anyone is too angry with the addict to behave in an appropriate manner, then they cannot participate. Intervention is a way a breaking through the alcoholic’s denial, so that they will accept the help that is available to them. But the number one priority must be to preserve the dignity of the alcoholic, so that they can make a real choice. Love, honesty, and clarity are very powerful when used in a group setting. Trust the process. It has worked for many thousands of families, and it can help your family, as well. In this way, you can become a powerful instrument of God’s love in the world.