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Helping Those Who Resist Help: Do Interventions Work?
I still remember two different times when people point blankly asked me about my drinking. One was my Mom many many years before I became sober. And one was my sister, after walking in on me and my ex in mid violent fight. There were also a few other times in my life where people reached out, thinking things might be wrong, but not wanting to bring it up. By the time I actually needed help, I was so accustomed to hiding my issues, and my family was so accustomed to just believing me, that it was almost too late.
There were many nights throughout my years with my husband- also a functioning alcoholic and drug addict- that I would go to bed knowing that there was something wrong, that I was probably an alcoholic and I wished something would happen to get me out of this life. I knew I couldn’t do it myself, but I had no idea how to get out. I used alcohol and drugs to help me cope with my emotions- depression that had gone long with no treatment. What started as a coping mechanism quickly became a dependence and though I would often promise myself that it would end tomorrow, tomorrow would come and I wouldn’t be able to make good on those promises. Deep in the night I would Google rehabilitation centres, but the thought of contacting them made me sick with fear. I would push these thoughts out of my head by cleaning up for the week and lied to myself saying- I cannot be alcoholic if I can go a week without drinking.
After suffering the deep tragedy of losing a child, instead of tail spinning into oblivion, I made a conscious effort not to drink. I was mainly sober for a few months, though pot remained a multiple times a day ritual. I even told my family of my not drinking and they were all proud of me. I assumed after a few months of not drinking, I really had proven that I was not an alcoholic. But that is the problem with addiction. It lies to you so that your addictive behaviour continues. It feeds off your vulnerabilities like a vulture- waiting until you are down to pick off whatever might be left. When I plunged back into active addiction, I had nothing holding me back- I felt I had already lost my life when my child passed, so I really didn’t care about what happened, nor did I care if I were an addict. Despite this, inside I desperately wanted help. But I was scared. I was scared of what my family would say and do. I was scared they would force me to go to rehab which was the last thing I would want to do. I wasn’t one of “those” alcoholics. I couldn’t be. This had to be circumstances, not something that was actually wrong with me.
This fear and denial won until one day I just couldn’t take it anymore. I reached out for help for what might have been the first time in my life. But the addiction had won. I had already had a suicide attempt and was on the verge of another, when something inside me said, no- not now. My family surrounded me with love, the type that I really didn’t expect, and thought I didn’t deserve. I am very lucky to have them, and though I didn’t need a technical intervention, I did receive what could be seen as part intervention part detox. They took me up to my Mom’s cottage where there was no alcohol and we all sat around drinking flavoured soda water. We were there a week- long enough for my head to start clearing and my body to stop screaming. By the time I came back to what was my normal life, I immediately started going to regular AA meetings and my family checked in on me regularly. Now that I’ve been sober for over two years, I can tell you that without this type of love and support at the very beginning of my recovery, I would not have made it this far. I was still very vulnerable and needed any support I could get. Resistance happened throughout early recovery, but knowing I had people rooting for me was key to getting to where I needed to be.
So what would be my advice to those dealing with a family member who may be suffering from addiction? Be patient. Sit with them in love. Don’t give up if they relapse. And just because they are not asking for help, doesn’t mean they do not need it.
Kari T- recovering alcoholic.
This story illustrates how hard it can be to get a loved one help if they are suffering from addiction. Denial is a very powerful thing, and the addict can go years fighting the voices in their head before being ready to receive help. Someone dealing with addiction will often go through a lot of mental acrobatics when trying to come to terms with what is going on in their life. No one wants to be an addict, so admitting you have a problem can be a very difficult thing. Also, addiction is progressive- the addict will often start off using their substance of choice in a harmless way, and slowly, over the years, the use will become unhealthy. The slow progress of the disease can make it easy for the addict to be in denial of their dependence on their chosen substance, and if they are able to have a functional life, the harms can be very hard to see.
In our society, we often see the addict as the lowest of the low, someone who has major mental health issues, or is homeless and not worthy of our attention. More often though, addicts fit into society seamlessly, and the stigma around addiction can actually make it very hard for people suffering to ask for help. Oftentimes, a lot of damage has to be done before the addict starts thinking about getting help, and as the loved one of an addict, you often have to sit by watching them suffer before you are able to get them to listen.
When faced with this degree of resistance, family members of an addict can look to staging an intervention which can help the addict come to terms with what is going on in their life. An intervention is when family and friends gather around the addict to tell them about the impact of their addiction on their lives in an attempt to get them into a rehabilitation program.
The basic process is this:
- The family and friends gather in a safe location with which the addict is familiar, and where they feel safe and comfortable.
- Once the addict arrives, family members and close friends take turns reading statements about how the addict’s behaviour has impacted them. Each person finishes their statement with a consequence of the addict not seeking help. For example: "If you do not seek help/go to rehab, I will no longer lend you money."
- The group provides resources to the addict to support the next steps if they do agree to treatment.
The ultimate goal of an intervention is for the addict to seek help, usually in the form of a rehabilitation program. Though family and friends can stage the intervention themselves, it is advisable for them to seek the help of an interventionist. An interventionist is someone who has training in addiction recovery, and who has previous experience in performing an intervention. Having a professional involved makes the intervention safer, as the addict will often respond in anger. Additionally, an interventionist can be seen as a neutral party, so that the addict will be less likely to feel as though they are being ganged up on. Understandably, emotions run high for both sides of the intervention, and by using professional help, it is more likely that the intervention will work.
It is hard for the recovery community to quantify whether interventions are successful, as the degree to which they are successful is subjective. Some might feel as though the intervention is only successful if the addict attends rehab and goes on to live a sober life. For others, it might simply be the fact that the addict is more open to the idea of recovery. In general though, it is important to remember that you cannot force sobriety on anyone- they must seek it themselves. Even if an addict does end up in a rehabilitation centre after an intervention, it does not mean sobriety will be automatic. Recovery is a long and often painful process, and the addict will need as much support as they can get after leaving rehab. Friends and family must realize that relapse is very prevalent in the recovery community, and just because you staged an intervention that resulted in participation in a rehabilitation program, that doesn’t mean the work is over. Addiction can be a lifelong struggle and family and friends need to be patient if they want to be truly supportive.
For those who are looking to stage an intervention, there are a few tips that might make the outcome more positive:
- Do not schedule the Intervention for a time that may be difficult for the addict. Stay away from times when the addict might be high, or when they are under additional life stress. You want a calm and focused addict whenever possible.
- Do not shame or yell at the addict. This will only make them more combative.
- Be as specific as possible when talking about the harms the addict has caused you. Also be specific about what the consequences will be if they do not follow through with treatment.
- Make notes on what you are going to say- do not just “wing it”, as emotions may be running high and you want to be cool and collected.
- Keep your words short and to the point. The addict will not be able to concentrate for that long and you need to be precise in what you say.
- Create a specific treatment plan for the addict. Hearing that you need to go to rehab can be very overwhelming if there isn’t a plan for how to do this. Make sure you research things like budget, and what the addict might have coverage for from health insurance.
- Follow through on your consequences. If you tell your addicted partner that you will move out if they do not go through with treatment, have a plan for moving out. The addict must see that their actions have serious repercussions.
Interventions can be a very useful tool when dealing with a close family member or friend who is suffering from addiction. They give the addict insight into their behaviour, and make it harder for them to deny that they have a problem. Denial is a key factor for addicts who resist help, because if they do not have a problem, there is nothing to fix. Addiction can also be a very lonely place, so when trying to help an addict, it is important to surround them with people who truly care about their wellbeing. Having a support system is not only important when going into treatment; it is an important part of the entire recovery journey for the addict. So if an intervention is necessary, be sure to include people who are willing and able to offer continued support.
One of the most important things to remember when dealing with an addict is that they have to be ready and willing to seek help themselves. If an addict is not ready to become sober, then all of the efforts you may put into getting them help will be for naught. Exercising patience when it comes to addiction recovery is crucial, as it is much easier for an addict to continue to use than it is for them to recover.
Showing an addict love and support can go a long way, and recovery is possible. But it is a marathon, not a sprint, and it is something the addict has to do of their own volition. So be the cheering squad on the sidelines holding up the sustenance that is needed to keep going.
Photo credit: Robbie Biller. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.