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Why Interventions Fail: Avoiding Pitfalls

I’ve turned down a lot of jobs as an interventionist. When you’re on the outside looking in, you have an objective view of what people’s expectations are and can contrast them to what’s likely to happen.

Real Intervention Isn't Like TV

I’ve spoken to too many families that were inspired by watching shows like Intervention and Dr. Phil. These shows would have us believe that people always change for the better when confronted. This simply isn’t true.

Sometimes folks just bolt. Other times they deflect or attack the character or behavior of those who confront them. Family intervention scenarios can devolve quickly and leave well meaning (but ill prepared) folks feeling like they’ve failed. A well conceived and executed intervention never fails in the sense that the addict understands that people gathered out of concern and at the very least, a seed has been planted.

Healthy Expectations

The jobs I’m most likely to take are ones where the family is hopeful but is not expecting huge changes from the active addict. Rather, they seek clarity and demonstrate a willingness to explore how they may need to change. This requires intervention preparation and a willingness to identify ways in which (well intentioned as it may have been) we’ve protected our loved one from the natural consequences of their actions.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, I urge folks to apologize for the ways in which they have enabled and to develop resolve regarding what they are and are not willing to do in the future. They are then free to express clear boundaries to their loved one regarding what they can anticipate moving forward. This must be done holistically. It can be painful to consider removing basic need fulfillment (food, shelter) but to not do so is to rob the addict of motivation for change.

Cohesion is Vital

The most effective interventions I’ve done were with family and friends who presented a truly unified front. They put aside other conflicts in favor of what they could all agree on. A good interventionist knows that divisiveness creates opportunities for splitting. If an active addict or alcoholic can pit folks against each other they will. Deflecting attention toward other conflicts is the most efficient means by which to avoid taking responsibility for themselves.

The Elephant Needs Naming

One of the most common mistakes that people make in addiction intervention is walking on eggshells. They’re so afraid of upsetting the addict that they speak in euphemisms. They express concerns that something bad will happen instead of saying, “I’m afraid that you will die.” Honest and direct statements of concern are far more beneficial. Subtleties lend themselves to being minimized and rationalized away.

"Shame On You"

While I encourage honest expressions of emotion, I strenuously object to guilt tripping or shaming an active alcoholic or addict. In the best of circumstances, it’s redundant. Active addicts already have excessive amounts of shame and guilt that are alternately repressed and overwhelming. The predictable responses to shame are either defensiveness and/or to shut down emotionally, neither of which support the mission of an intervention.

It’s vital that we allow folks to speak for themselves. If we say, “Look what you’re doing to mom!” , then we’re speaking for her and guilting the addict. I urge folks to use “I statements.” Talking about self (my feelings, wants, needs) does not as readily trigger defensiveness. When we say to our loved one, “You…”, there’s a far greater likelihood that their walls come up.

No Carrot, No Stick

Successful interventions do not include ultimatums, threats, or coercion of any kind. Nor do they include incentives, rewards, or bribes. If support is to be offered, it’s reasonable to place conditions relating to your loved one being clean/sober (Example: "I will only meet with you when you’re not using"). It’s important to consider measures that ensure personal safety if there is a history or indications of potential for violence (I will meet with you in public places).

Set clear limits as to what is being offered. Offer the invitation without expectation that it will be accepted. Attempting to force a course of action or attempting to manipulate a person into getting sober is guaranteed to fail.

Leave the Door Open

I encourage folks to choose ahead of time what lines of communication they will leave open. Things said in anger or haste during an intervention potentially result in severed ties.

If future contact will be allowed, how will it be welcomed? Get specific: email, text, phone, in person... Under what circumstances? Contingencies: After a set period of time, once they’ve entered treatment, anytime they’re sober, when they want to go to a meeting, or other stipulation that works for your family.

LCSW, CCS
Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: recoveryrocks.bangordailynews.com Thanks! Jim

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