Drug and alcohol interventions are often depicted in movies and television as a theatrical affair, with a shocked “victim” surrounded by tearful and, often, angry family members. While this may make for compelling drama, this isn’t an accurate depiction of reality.
Let’s discuss what real-life interventions are actually like, what can be hoped and planned for, and why an Intervention can be a “jumping off” point.
What Is an Intervention?
An intervention is when a family member or friend initiates a conversation with someone whom they are worried is having a problematic relationship with some kind of substance (although this is usually the case, there can be interventions for any compulsive behavior). An intervention is telling someone you can see and notice what they are going through, communicating your concern for them, offering support and care, and giving yourself an opportunity to decide how to protect yourself. The goal of an intervention is to:
- Open the lines of dialogue
- Communicate your concerns for them in a compassionate way
- Set your own boundaries to protect yourself
- Offer love support in terms of access to professional care
An intervention often includes an invitation and encouragement to attend a treatment program. Interventions are not legal or coercive, mandated events. They are simply an opportunity for the family to express themselves, their concern, and to encourage change. People in active substance use are often in a pre-contemplative state, in denial of the severity of their behaviors. The person may not see their relationship with substances as a reason to change, or, if they do decide a shift in behaviour is necessary, know how to reach out for help. In response to shame, many may have pulled away from their families and may not realise that support is available.
A conversation (intervention) facilitated by a trained mental health professional who can maintain a psychologically safe space for all involved can be essential in ensuring everyone feels they have a voice and an opportunity to be heard.
How Interventions Differ from Their Portrayal in Media
Actual interventions are not dramatic scenes full of shouting and confrontation. They’re conversations and not an aggressive ambush. This type of conversation is ideally facilitated by a trained mental health professional, or person all parties trust and who can be impartial so they can mediate between the family members. Family members are often coached to prepare written statements of love, support, and genuine concern as a means of putting their thoughts in order and getting a chance to practice what they would like to say. Often, these letters/speeches are reviewed beforehand for appropriateness.
During an intervention, possible solutions will be provided and organised beforehand. Sometimes, this can include plans to attend a treatment program or possibly even plans to go to the hospital if the substance use has reached a level of severity that requires medical intervention or medically managed detoxification. Also, members of an individual’s support network get a chance to decide beforehand, what feels right to them in terms of where they set their boundaries. Letting someone know how they will change and what they would like to offer, and how they can no longer continue to behave.
Why Interventions Matter
People in active addiction often push away those who care most about them because anger often masks their fear or sadness, and confuses their need for connection and love. Addiction often happens in isolation or with others who are also participating in substance use because there is far less judgement and shame when surrounded by others doing the same thing. This can make remaining close with family difficult for the person in active substance use because of shame and/or a resistance to change. An intervention is an opportunity for the family to come together, communicate and demonstrate support, solidarity, and boundaries, and get assistance from a trained professional to give everyone a chance to feel heard, while maintaining safety.
An intervention can be a positive reminder that there are people who care and want the best for their loved one. Not all interventions end with attendance of a treatment, but it can offer a way to have a tough but important conversation, and plant some seeds of thought. The family can offer support and resources, but “the gates of change only open from within,” only the individual can decide that they would like to make a change, but they can learn that there are people who want to support them.
Recovery is not linear and doesn’t always happen when we want it to. Just because a loved one does not immediately do exactly what we want them to post-intervention doesn’t mean there was no change or the intervention was “unsuccessful”. Often, the learning that there is care and support that comes as a result of the intervention can plant seeds that might come to fruition in whatever way when the person is ready.
Steps for Preparing an Intervention
Step 1. Consult a Professional
Because of the complicated and emotionally charged nature of interventions, it’s best to work with a trained substance abuse and mental health professional when planning an intervention to ensure psychological safety.
Step 2. Involve Other Loved Ones
An intervention is an intentional conversation. There needn’t be many people. An intimate group of trusted, supportive friends and family can help strengthen an intervention.
Step 3. Establish a Game Plan
As previously mentioned, many interventions often end with the individual changing their behaviours. Deciding on what individuals would like to be heard, what boundaries to communicate as a support network, what support can be offered, and what change might be asked for – essentially, putting thoughts in order – is very important so that things that want to be said get said.
Step 4. Follow Through
Whatever change is agreed to or comes out of the intervention conversation, make sure to follow with offering support. For example, if attendance of a treatment program was agreed to, many substance abuse facilities have wait lists and will not be able to accommodate new admissions immediately. What does someone “do” in the meantime? Perhaps access to individual counselling would be useful? Working with an identified professional to reduce barriers and increase readiness to attending treatment after the intervention can help in the creation of a realistic transition plan.
If done correctly, an intervention can be a powerful and potentially life-altering tool. A vital element of an intervention is professional support. If you are in the Vancouver, British Columbia area and want to speak to a trained counselor, contact Hard Road Counselling.
About the Author
Bill Arbuckle has worked in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Bill specialises in treating addiction and trauma using Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (A.E.D.P.) and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (E.M.D.R.).
Bill also has personal experience with addiction and substance use. He found the way out, back to the light, and works to help others do the same. He is the founder of Hard Road Counselling, a practice that specialises in addiction counselling in Vancouver, British Columbia.