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How to Have a Family Intervention

One of the hardest parts of the intervention process can be getting the family on board. In almost every situation, the family concurs that their loved one needs help, but they almost never agree on how to do it.

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Effect on the Family

The Effect of Addiction in Families

Addicts and alcoholics affect family members in diverse ways, and because family members have different opinions, bringing all of them together to create a cohesive plan for intervention is difficult.

In our experience, the hardest person to bring on board is the father or any other male in the family who is in a position of dominance or power. In all our years of doing interventions, nothing has prevented an intervention from happening more often than a man’s pride and ego.

By nature, women tend to want things fixed, and men want to be the fixer, hesitating to allow another person – especially an outsider to the family – to tell or show them how.

Most families of addicts seems to think that if they plead hard enough, provide tough love or ultimatums, or witness their loved one hit “rock bottom,” they can singlehandedly cure the problem of addiction.

Most families don’t understand that addiction is a disease and that the addict is the product of a family that has passed down behavior from previous generations.  Addiction in families can be fixed rarely, if ever, without intervention and guidance from outside the family.


Understand the Roles and Behaviors for Families of Addicts

Most families of addicts believe their behavior, either individually or collectively, is helping the addict or alcoholic when, in fact, their behavior is being manipulated.

The addict or alcoholic will manipulate the family until they have, unbeknownst to them, learned how to effectively allow the addiction to thrive.

Families of addicts fall victim to the deceit and dishonesty caused by their loved one. The addict or alcoholic will teach the family how to keep him or her comfortable in the addiction, all while family members break down emotionally.

Paradoxically, family members and the addict’s lives follow parallel tracks, in that when the loved one has a good day, the family believes they have had a good day. The same phenomenon happens when the loved one has a bad day.

Generally, families that call us are in crisis, but within 48 to 72 hours, the crisis subsides, and the family returns to the situation they found themselves in earlier.

As a result of shame and guilt or seeking to protect the addict or alcoholic’s feelings, families continue the cycle of insanity that the loved one has created.

When Family Behaviors Sabotage the Intervention

What makes setting up a family intervention difficult is that everyone in the family is affected differently by the addiction. As a result, each person’s behaviors work against one another, creating chaos and confusion in the family system, allowing the addict or alcoholic to operate under the radar.

Until a family changes its behavior with an intervention geared to make the addict or alcoholic feel discomfort rather than avoid it, things will not get better. In fact, they will progressively worsen.

In some cases, some family members (who would never admit it) seek to sabotage an intervention, fearing what might happen to them if the person gets better. Some may even try to sabotage it because they want to be the hero, the one who fixes it. Others may present obstacles because they suffer from guilt and shame.

When a family attempts to protect their loved one’s feelings, they are really protecting their own.

Why Families Do Not Intervene

Addiction is the only fatal illness where the afflicted individual fights to remain sick rather than get better. Unfortunately, many families resist seeking help for their loved one as well. Pressure and manipulation from the addict or alcoholic frequently fuel the enabling behaviors of the family, allowing that conduct to continue.

The reasons why families do not intervene can be quite complicated. Intervention and treatment centers fielding calls from a family member usually avoid the 800-pound gorilla in the room, discussing everything other than what is really going on so as to not turn the family away in fear or anger. Were it any other fatal illness, the family and/or the person suffering from the illness would not have to be convinced to do or participate in an intervention. Trying to get a family to come together for an intervention is one of the most difficult challenges imaginable. Until the family acknowledges and overcomes the barriers to doing an intervention, things are most likely not going to improve.

Behaviors that Keep People in a Holding Pattern

Families as well as their addicted loved ones do not welcome change even when change would improve the situation. It has been said that codependent enablers light themselves on fire to keep their loved ones warm. Families oftentimes are unable to separate themselves from the addiction and the chaotic behaviors associated with it. While an addict or alcoholic is addicted to drugs or alcohol, a codependent person is similarly addicted to the addict or alcoholic. A common feeling among codependents is the sense of being needed; should the loved one get better, that role would come to an end. An intervention would necessarily impact codependent behaviors that feed the addiction as well as the feeling of being needed. Codependents invest much time and energy in their loved ones all the while failing to develop healthy lives with boundaries to protect themselves.

When family members are not on the same page and form alliances among themselves, the family stays in chaos and confusion, reflecting the behavior of the addict or alcoholic who usually comes out on top, runs the show, and never gets better. A family that enables and shelters the addict or alcoholic from consequences also holds the addict or alcoholic back from wanting help or hitting bottom. Enabling is an impediment to growth.

Families are taught by their loved ones to enable the addictive behavior and that all will feel better by so doing. Codependency occurs when one takes an action for someone, knowing it is not right or feeling bad about it later. Doing the right thing without regard to how it makes you feel is called selflessness.

The Reasons Families do not Intervene

  1. Family secrets and the fear and guilt associated with those secrets being known.  This causes families to feel they don’t have the right to intervene.
  2. Fear of change and outcomes unknown. This is your new normal.
  3. If the loved one gets better, he or she will leave me or hate me and never talk to me again.  (I’d rather have this than nothing at all.)
  4. If the loved one gets better, I will have to look at myself and my own problems.
  5. If the loved one gets better, I will no longer be needed in the relationship. (Codependents need to feel needed.)
  6. Guilt.  Codependents operate under this mentality:  “If you feel better, I feel better.”  Codependents have no problem giving advice although find it nearly impossible to take advice.
  7. What if I do this and the loved one doesn’t feel better?  Then the fault is mine.   And I need to be the one to fix this and make the loved one feel better—not you or your company.  No one and certainly no company is stealing this role.
  8. The loved one gets better and the codependent is no longer a victim or a martyr.
  9. Each family member is affected differently and thus plays a role counterproductive to the loved one getting better, which in turn runs counter to the family working together.
  10. Through their behavior and self-medication with substance, addicts and alcoholics are acting out their families’ untreated and passed on guilt and shame. The addict and the alcoholic punish the family while simultaneously seeking attention, justifying themselves as victims.  The family acts in a similar manner as it is easier to blame the addiction than to address and fix the real problem.

It would be an illusion to believe that somehow things are improving if the loved one continues to drink or use drugs. He or she is not getting better. In fact, the codependent enablers are simply becoming more comfortable with the addiction and the accompanying behaviors of chaos and confusion.

Until a family acknowledges that addiction is a family illness that involves everyone at some level, things are most likely not going to improve. Simply waiting for the loved one to want help or hit bottom while a codependent family continues to enable is hardly a solution.

Many reading this page may disagree or even be angered. The fact is that the family plays a role in the addiction of their loved one. For that to change, the family must change first. If only one side gets better, the chances of long-term health and sobriety on either side are greatly compromised.

An Intervention Also Treats Familiesof Addicts – Not Just the Addiction

In most cases, if the person who made the initial phone call for help were the sole decision maker, many more people would receive an intervention.

Unfortunately, the original caller is almost always talked out of pursuing an intervention, or other members of the family refuse it.

When someone calls about addiction in families, we explain that the intervention process is as much about the family behaviors that keep the addict comfortable as it is about the one addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Although the goal of family intervention is to have the addict or alcoholic surrender to a treatment program, roughly 80 percent of the work involves preparation and education of family members in order to change their behaviors and lifestyle before, during and after the intervention. 

Typically, families have allowed the addiction to continue with as little discomfort as possible. When a well-executed, systemic model intervention is performed, the family must follow through with action for the loved one to achieve long-term sobriety.

Although No Situation Is Easy, Addiction in Families Is Almost Always the Same

Nearly every call we receive begins with a family member saying the situation is unique or complicated, and the intervention won’t work. After a few minutes of listening to the family member, we realize once again that although no situation is easy, they are almost always the same.

The family frequently feels there are barriers, behaviors or patterns that we have never seen or heard of before. In fact, addiction in families is overwhelmingly common in terms of how family members deal with their loved ones.

Drug addiction in families is not a moral dilemma where one lacks the power of choice. It is a disease where both the family and the substance abuser are unable to repair it without professional help.

Family systems become chaotic and appear complicated because the addict or alcoholic (who is running the show) can thrive in the chaos and drama, whereas the family cannot. It is almost always the family’s secrets, guilt and shame that allow this along with the fear of making the necessary changes.

Another complicating factor is that family members have been affected differently by the addiction, and as a result, the family is not on the same page as to how to help their loved one.

Consider, for example, the millions of people who read a book about Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous. Every one of them who is sincere about wanting recovery reads that book and thinks, “Oh my God, this is me. My situation is not unique.”

It is as if a weight has been lifted off their shoulders when addicts realize they are not alone.

Although all addicts and alcoholics are different, the way the disease takes control and hijacks the mind is almost always the same, and this applies to the families of addicts as well.

Understand this: We don’t want the family to feel that the same intervention protocol applies to all. We do want you to understand that a solution is possible, that many others are experiencing the same thing as you, and that you are not alone.

It is crucial to remember that you don’t need anyone’s permission to do this. If certain family members don’t want to participate, then they are choosing to stay in the problem. In that case, leave them out of the intervention.

Deciding Who Should Be Presentfor the Family Intervention

Many wonder about who, specifically, should attend the intervention. The answer is:

  • Immediate family members who want to help, and
  • Most importantly, the family members whose behaviors have created problems through enabling and codependency.
  • Friends are welcome, too, so long as they are not drinking or drug-using buddies.

Sometimes, the most effective people in an intervention are family members and friends the loved one doesn’t expect to be there, and toward whom he or she is not does not feel anger or resentment. These friends and family members can often be great voices of reason.

No one person makes or breaks the outcome of an intervention. As such, there is no reason to postpone an intervention because one or two people aren’t available, although a short delay might be possible. A delay would not be helpful for someone who is a primary enabler or codependent and contributing to the addict or alcoholic being comfortable in the addiction.

Don’t wait for the hold-out or the person who is talking the family out of the intervention, arguing against it. If someone doesn’t want to be part of the solution, then they become part of the problem.

Interventions Fail When Families of Addicts Continue Old Behaviors

After the intervention, if a family is to see any success, the changes they make have to be sustainable.  An intervention is only as strong as the weakest family member. If anyone in the family system reverts back to old behaviors, such as providing comfort and resources to the loved one, this will almost certainly lead to chaos with the addict or alcoholic running the show.

Families of addicts who fail to get on the same page are the primary reason why interventions don’t take place – i.e., one family member doesn’t want to do the intervention and doesn’t think it will work. You should proceed to do it anyway and, surprisingly, he or she will likely show up.

An intervention isn’t about talking a loved one into treatment; it’s about setting boundaries, holding the addict or alcoholic accountable, and changing the family’s behaviors. Those behaviors have to change not only during the intervention, but for the rest of their lives, just as they have to with the addict or alcoholic.

Remember that you don’t need anyone’s permission to stage an intervention in order to save someone’s life. Too many individuals are no longer with us because the family was swayed by a member with secrets or hidden agendas, who didn’t want to do this and held out, preventing the rest of the family from moving forward.

If you have been affected by a loved one, have had enough and are enabling addiction in families, then you should be there. If you don’t agree with the intervention, don’t ruin it or jeopardize it for those who do.

No More Excuses

Common Intervention Excuses – And Our Answers

The excuses families make for not intervening and the actual reasons why they don’t are completely different.

Families go so far as to deny the real reasons:

  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Family secrets
  • Fear of confrontation
  • Believing the pain of the status quo will be less than the pain brought on by change (in other words, the existing situation has become the family’s new normal)

Here are some of the most common excuses we hear – and our response:

They’ll never go.

You’re right – not until the family changes.

The intervention won’t work.

And what you’re currently doing will? Interventions don’t fail, but people fail to try. Would you say that if it were any other fatal illness?

The intervention won’t work at this time. We need to wait for this or that or until the time is right.

That isn’t possible as there is no perfect timing for an intervention, which is a process rather than an event. Something is always going to come up.

We already did an intervention ourselves, and it didn’t work.

That’s because you didn’t use a professional, the equivalent of going to court without an attorney and being surprised you didn’t win.

They’ll lose their job.

You’re right, and they are going to lose it anyway.

Nobody else can run the business or do the loved one’s job.

Someone else can and will when the addict or alcoholic is in jail or worse. Everyone is replaceable.

He is doing well now: hasn’t drunk or used drugs in a week or so.

The addiction is still there. Left untreated, it will be back soon, likely with a vengeance.

I don’t think they are drinking or using that much.

It isn’t how much or how little they use; it’s what they do or don’t do as a result. You didn’t call just about the drug or alcohol problem; you called about the behavior.

That interventionist is a salesman.

No, your loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol is, as are any family members making excuses and talking you out of it.

We’ve already done everything.

If that were true, you wouldn’t be reading this.

We’re in a holding pattern.

And just how does that solve the problem?

We’re going to take them to a doctor or therapist.

And they are going to do what?

We’re going to wait until after the wedding, holidays, graduation, birthday, etc.

Sure, while you watch on pins and needles waiting for them to do something bad and ruin the event.

We’re going a different route.

This means you’re taking a less effective, less confrontational approach. Haven’t you tried that already? As people learn in recovery, their best thinking got them to where they are, and the same applies to the family.

Professionals in the field of addiction don’t have to prove they’re right. They just have to give their advice and let the addict and the family do it their way until they suffer enough pain and consequences, finally realizing they are wrong.

What a family is waiting for their loved one to do – seek help and change – is something the family can’t find the strength to do for themselves.

This is the only fatal illness where people don’t take professional advice but instead follow nonprofessional suggestions from family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, professionals who aren’t experts or versed in addiction, doctors, other addicts and the loved one himself or herself.

If an oncologist told you that you needed 10 chemotherapy sessions, you wouldn’t negotiate with him or question it.

We will suggest a way to fix the problem, but families of addicts rarely listen or follow through with professional advice, preferring nonprofessional advice because it is a more comfortable option. The family who has allowed the problem can’t fix the problem, and the addict or alcoholic who is the problem can’t fix it either. Until the family changes, the addict or the alcoholic most likely won’t change either.

Interventions Are Not ‘Tough Love’

“Tough love consists of stern punishment used over time for the purpose of helping someone.”

When doing an alcohol or drug intervention, the latter is true but not necessarily the former.

In other words, interventions are not hostile acts, harsh treatment or punishment. They are a gift of love geared to help someone.

Families of addicts who believe they can fix the problem simply by implementing tough love, such as asking their loved one to leave the home or get help, are like the sheriff escorting the outlaw to the city limits, saying, “Not in my town, pal.”

Tough love alone allows the loved one to blame everything and everybody else, confirming the thinking that feeds his or her addiction.

Tough love is a way to begin the conversation by saying, “You know what you need to do?” But after that, nothing else is heard.

Although enabling, codependency, lack of boundaries and family history are partly responsible for the addiction, they are not the only reasons, although the addict or alcoholic may think so. When a family turns to tough love, they essentially confirm what their loved one already thinks: that nobody cares, and that the family is the problem.

Addiction is not made better by tough love, but rather with love, respect and affirmation.

The addict or alcoholic has every right to drink or consume drugs, just as the family has the right to not be part of the addiction or provide resources to the addict.

Intervention implies a mutual respect for one another’s decisions.

This is not to say that consequences aren’t necessary, because they are. It’s a matter of how they are delivered to and perceived by the addict or alcoholic.

If the loved one perceives the consequences as punishment, they dig their heels in, which increases the stubbornness and the urge to fight back.

Interventions Are Not Ultimatums

Ultimatums contain demands that are final. The loved one sees them as a rejection, and they lead to the relationship with the family breaking down. Ultimatums rarely work short term, and never work long term because addicts and alcoholics suffer from rejection issues.

Addicts and alcoholics certainly need consequences resulting from their behavior, but they need those consequences to derive from their decisions, and not because of enforced rules or ultimatums.

Addicted individuals are very stubborn, and when ultimatums are made, a standoff of wills occurs, with the family rarely outlasting their loved one, eventually giving in.

Addicts and alcoholics are perfect examples of individuals doing the opposite of what they’re told. You’re almost better off telling them the opposite of what you want to get the desired result – aka reverse psychology.

“If you don’t show up to work, you will be fired” is an ultimatum most people would heed. Again, most people, fearing the loss of employment and being unable to pay their bills, would go to work.

Addicts and alcoholics don’t think that way and would blame everything that went wrong on their boss rather than own their actions.

This is not to say that others wouldn’t do the same, but addicts and alcoholics take it to the extreme.

Enforcing ultimatums precludes the opportunity to learn about your loved one’s problems, thus weakening the relationship. Furthermore, ultimatums fuel resentment within the addict or alcoholic, and that impedes the recovery process.

The Problem Can’t Deliver the Solution

Addicts and alcoholics are stubborn, selfish people. As a result, it is almost impossible for them to own their problems and to look inward.

They need to blame every other person, place or thing in an effort to take the focus off themselves. When the family, seen by them as the problem, tries to offer any solution, the addict or alcoholic receives it negatively and views it as punishment.

If addiction could be treated simply by enforcing tough love and ultimatums, we wouldn’t have addiction issues, and wouldn’t need treatment centers.

Consequences delivered properly through the intervention process can lead the loved one to a treatment center, but consequences alone do not produce long-term sobriety.

Many families of addicts think tough love and ultimatums will lead their loved ones to swear off drugs and alcohol forever. Families fail to realize that this model doesn’t apply to them because people suffering from addiction don’t operate in a traditional manner.

Addiction is a disease of the mind, and consequences alone do not make the loved one clean and sober. If consequences alone could achieve that, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Addiction is about avoiding discomfort. As long as it’s more comfortable to take drugs or drink alcohol than it is to work through a program of recovery, then substance use is the path the addict or alcoholic will take.

The long-term goal of an intervention is to have the loved one hold him or herself accountable, to undertake a program of recovery and to do the next right thing, even when nobody is watching. Prior to the intervention, the family has been dealing with their loved one in ways that haven’t been conducive to a successful outcome.

An intervention helps pass the torch so that the loved one can move forward in a healthy way, and peace and sanity can progressively be restored in the family.

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