Should you do an intervention for your friend or family member? It’s a difficult question because you pay a price either way, regardless of what you choose to do. You pay a price for doing nothing, but you also pay a price for intervening. And it can be very difficult to know how to weigh one option against the other because the outcomes of both options are so unclear.
Dispelling the myths of alcoholism treatment: It’s not a cure
First of all, in order to understand the true value of an intervention, you have to know what the goal is and what the outcomes of that goal might be.
In the majority of cases the goal of an intervention is to convince an individual to attend inpatient rehab. You want them to go check into a 28 day program. Perhaps you have even arranged this in advance in case they agree to do so (that is ideal).
What, then, is the goal of inpatient rehab?
If you are like the vast majority of the public then you might assume that once you convince someone to check into rehab that they are all but cured. All they have to do is go to the treatment center, go through the motions, and when they come out of rehab they should have lost the desire to self medicate, right?
If only it were so easy. But it doesn’t work that way. If it worked that way then we would have essentially cured alcoholism and drug addiction. Take a look around and you will realize that we have NOT cured addiction yet, and in fact we have made very little progress in this area for several decades now. We are no closer to a “cure” today for addiction than we were two decades ago, at least when it comes to practical application. It is challenging to help addicts and alcoholics.
So it is important that you are realistic about alcoholism treatment and how it works.
The alcoholic has to want for it to work. If the alcoholic is not 100 percent ready to change their life, then alcohol treatment is not likely to be effective. At all.
That “at all” part is very important. Because it is very natural for the friend or family member of the alcoholic to hold out hope for this sort of miracle. They are hoping that maybe, just maybe, if they can convince their loved one to go to rehab, then maybe the rehab center can convince that person to WANT to become sober. That just by being in treatment, they might be lucky enough to hear just the right thing and be influenced enough to want to become sober on their own. That way, going to rehab will have effectively “cured” the person because it led to them wanting to get sober.
This is impossible. I am not trying to be negative. I am not trying to dash anyone’s hope. I am being realistic and I am telling you exactly how it is. Because I have had this hope myself, and I have watched other people who have had this same hope regarding their friends and family members. It never works out the way you hope it will. Because it is part of our human nature to believe that our friend or family member is special, that maybe they will get lucky, that maybe they will hear just the right thing and it will turn everything around for them. Even if someone tells us that “there is no cure” and that they only way to get sober is to first hit our bottom, we secretly hope that someone we love can somehow take a shortcut and just “get it” without having to go through so much pain and suffering first.
So I want you to be realistic. I want you to understand how treatment actually works.
It doesn’t work by sending someone to rehab who is sort of one the fence about alcoholism, and then that person is magically convinced while at rehab to change their life. This doesn’t happen.
Instead, it has to happen the other way around. The alcoholic has to reach a point of total exhaustion, a true bottom, before they can consider going to rehab and have it actually be a success. The surrender has to come from within. You cannot count on the treatment center to convince someone that they should change their life. It doesn’t work that way.
I think this is important because so often, the person who most wants to do an intervention is hoping for a “cure.” They obviously want results, they want the pain to stop, and they just want the problem to go away. And we cannot blame them for that. But at the same time that person needs to be realistic in realizing that going to rehab cannot convince an alcoholic to want to get sober. All rehab can do is to help someone learn how to stay sober, if and only if that person truly wants sobriety for themselves. It is an important distinction because so often we have that secret hope deep inside of us that maybe sending someone to rehab can somehow change their motivations. And it clearly cannot.
Dispelling the myth of the alcohol intervention: It doesn’t always work like on TV
The idea of the alcohol or drug intervention has been popularized by a television show. Anyone who wants to do an intervention for a friend or loved one has probably already watched that television show at least once, and is being influenced by what they saw.
The problem is that reality does not always match up with what we are seeing in our mind. And having watched this television show can give us an unrealistic portrayal of what the outcomes might be.
For example, the alcoholic may reject the intervention attempt outright. They might simply walk away from the intervention and refuse to participate at all. This can happen a lot, depending on the person’s level of denial. If they are stuck deep in denial and they tend to be non-confrontational then you may never really get a chance to see the whole thing through. They may just run away and continue to run away no matter what you do. Are you prepared for this outcome of total rejection? Is it still worth the effort to organize an intervention if it is likely that the person will not even participate? These are the kinds of questions that you need to think through before you start taking action.
An intervention is really an exercise in timing. If you get the timing wrong then nothing will work. If you get the timing right then the intervention will appear to be a perfect success. If you get lucky on the timing then it will seem like everyone should just do an intervention, because they work so well.
But the truth is that it is really all about the timing. The alcoholic is either ready to surrender or they are not. They are either at a point of total desperation or they are not. There is no in between. There is no grey area here. They are either at their bottom or they are not. What can you say to an alcoholic who is out of control? Not much, really.
So when you do an intervention, the outcome of that intervention is really based on their current state of being. This is why it is a timing issue. It has almost nothing to do with your actual intervention, or who you invited to come to the intervention, or if you hired a professional or not. None of those things really matter compared to the one critical factor that is going to dictate the person’s success or failure in recovery, and that is whether or not they have hit bottom yet.
If they have not yet hit bottom then it doesn’t matter what you do. You could organize the best intervention that the world has ever seen, and you could do everything just perfect, and you could get all the right people to come to the intervention and say all the right things, but none of it is going to matter if they person is not ready to change their life. If they alcoholic is not at the point of surrender then it is just a big show.
In fact, there is an outcome that might occur which you may not have considered yet. Normally the two outcomes of an intervention are either:
A) You convince the person to go to rehab, or
B) The person refuses to go to rehab.
But if you follow this through, there are actually 4 possible outcomes if we look at the bigger picture:
A) They go to rehab and stay clean and sober forever.
B) They go to rehab and then relapse.
C) They refuse rehab and struggle with alcoholism.
D) They refuse rehab and somehow become sober.
In other words, the trip to rehab is not really the point. It is just the means to get to sobriety itself.
So there is always the possibility that even if you convince the person to go to rehab, they still may end up relapsing after that.
And there is also the (very slim) possibility that the person will get clean and sober without attending treatment. Don’t ever tell them that though, because the odds are very slim and they obviously are looking for every excuse to avoid taking action (when in fact they probably should go seek professional help!).
What I want to point out here though is (again) that you be realistic. It is very possible that even if you convince someone to go to rehab (via an intervention) they may still relapse in the future. The bottom line is always that there is no cure! But that doesn’t mean that there is no hope, because there definitely is hope. You just have to be realistic and keep that hope in perspective.
Assessing the risk of an intervention
Is an intervention a risk?
Sure it is. You pay a price no matter what you do. That price that you pay in doing the intervention is part of the risk.
And that price can be difficult to determine, because it is so tough to predict the outcomes.
For example, if you organize an intervention and the alcoholic resents you for doing so, it may drive them further into isolation. Maybe they go on a binge afterward and refuse to talk to the people who were trying to help them. Obviously they are only hurting themselves with such a reaction, but it can still happen.
When you “spring” an intervention on someone, you run the risk of backlash (anger) and of isolating that person even further.
And you should realize that it is a bit of a trap. If they are not expecting it and you organize this big thing that they unknowingly walk into, you have to realize that this is grounds for anger. You can justify it all you want, and obviously you are doing it to help them because you love them, but that does not excuse the fact that it is downright sneaky and manipulative. Sure, you are trying to help the person, but if you “spring this on them” then you are still being sneaky about it. And so you should not be shocked if you get an angry response.
That angry response is a big part of the risk that you carry. You have to weigh that possibility very carefully.
Essentially what you should say is: “OK, the alcoholic in question is so out of control with their drinking and they are so messed up that I am no longer concerned with their possible reaction to the intervention, I think it should be done anyway. Even if they isolate further and refuse to seek help, at least we tried something and we tried to save the person.”
In other words, you must evaluate the situation and make sure that this person is really at their bottom or not. If they are definitely NOT at their bottom then you should probably not be “springing” an intervention. I say “springing” there in order to remind you of the risk involved, of the potential backlash. The alcoholic has a right to get angry about it, and you have to weigh that potential backlash and anger in your assessment.
Don’t just do an intervention because you want to change someone. They have to be ready for change, and they have to be at a breaking point. Realize that there are potential negative consequences to the intervention and make sure that you still want to pay that price and take that risk.
How to support an alcoholic without enabling them
How can you support an alcoholic without enabling them?
It’s really difficult. First and foremost, let me just say that it is really tough to do this well. Don’t expect to do it perfectly, especially if the alcoholic is someone you love.
The best way to “support” them is to withdrawal most forms of what you consider to be support. That probably sounds a little funny, right?
But it is true. In order to really help the alcoholic, you have to pretty much stop helping them. And then you need to offer to help them get professional help, such as by helping them arrange a trip to rehab.
On top of all this, you need to communicate your position very clearly. This is hard to do without it turning into a yelling match. This is hard to do without it seeming like you are the bad guy. Because essentially you need to tell them “look, I am no longer going to help you in any way, other than to take you to rehab. Let me know if and when you want to go to treatment, and then I will help you. But other than that I am not going to help you in any way.”
Recently I had an experience where I was dealing with a friend of mine who was alcoholic. I had to “take my own medicine” when it comes to what I am writing here on this website. And I have to be honest, I was not doing so well with it. In fact, I was actually violating what I just told you to do. I was helping this friend in other ways, I was giving the person rides to places, I was taking them to the store, I was helping him get groceries, and so on. And all the while this person had relapsed and was drinking heavily.
At some point I put my foot down, which was incredibly difficult to do.
It was hard to do because I felt like I was being mean.
But I finally told this person the same advice I just gave to you: “I am not helping you any more, unless you want to go to rehab. Tell me when you are ready for treatment. Goodbye.”
And believe it or not, this person is now checking into treatment later today. One other person (and myself) finally put our foot down, and it forced this person to realize that they really needed serious help.
You can’t always influence someone to go to rehab, but you can definitely be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. If you are “helping” someone without pushing them to go to treatment then you are part of the problem. In order to be part of the solution you have to stop “helping” them and make a stand. That stand should involve one single offer: “I will help you get professional help. I will help you go to rehab. That’s it.”
Sometimes the best course of action is to simply back off
Believe it or not, sometimes the best course of action is to simply back off and give the alcoholic some time.
Denial is very powerful. The problem is that the alcoholic resists the people who are trying to help him. The alcoholic will push back against this help, they will see you as being manipulative, even though you are trying to manipulate the alcoholic in order to get them the help that they need.
You can’t always take action that will result in a perfect outcome. An intervention may or may not be the right answer, but don’t force things if the person is nowhere near surrender.
You need to take a good look at the alcoholic and figure out how close they are to surrender. Most interventions (ultimately) fail because most people are not at the point of true surrender. I say “ultimately” because remember there are really 4 possible outcomes. In other words, even if they agree to go to rehab they may not stay sober.
Sometimes the best thing that you can do is to back off and let the alcoholic experience some negative consequences in their life. Remember that it is these negative consequences that have the power to push someone towards real change. The alcoholic will finally surrender when they become miserable enough to do so. They are motivated by pain. And sometimes you just have to back off and let them experience their pain for a while. A harsh truth, but make no mistake–it is the truth.
And, there is hope. There is always hope.
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