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How to Approach an Intervention

There are two ways to intervene with a substance abuser: an informal intervention (a personal discussion) or a structured intervention. The latter involves bringing together a group of people with the substance abuser to explore how the abuse has affected all their lives, and is used when the person has repeatedly declined to get help.

In any intervention, it's important to approach your loved one when he/she is not high or drunk (and when you are not acutely upset). Some additional hints:

  • Stay calm.
  • Couch your comments in concern.
  • Avoid labeling the person an "alcoholic" or "addict."
  • Cite specific incidents resulting from the person's substance abuse. ("You were recently arrested for DWI.")
  • Stick to what you know firsthand, not hearsay.
  • Talk in "I statements," explaining how the person's behavior has affected you. ("When you drive drunk, I don't sleep all night.")
  • Be prepared for denial and resentment.
  • Be supportive and hopeful about change.

The point of any intervention is to ask the person to take concrete steps to address the problem (i.e., go for a substance abuse evaluation, attend family counseling, enter inpatient treatment).

A structured intervention should be facilitated by a professional. The goal is to have the person begin treatment immediately.

  1. Enlist a professional to help plan it. (See Resources.)
  2. Bring together the people most significant to the abuser (three to six is best, no children).
  3. Decide who is going to say what.
  4. Make all arrangements for the person to begin treatment immediately following the intervention.
  5. Identify the objections you might hear from the substance abuser, and be prepared to answer each one.
  6. Decide what consequences you're prepared to follow through with if the person refuses to enter treatment. (For a teenager, it might be, "We will file a petition with the court to have you placed in treatment." For a spouse: "I will no longer cover up for you," or even: "I won't remain in this relationship with you.")
  7. Rehearse the intervention at least once.

Intervening With a Senior Citizen

  • Use only recent examples of incidents; don't dredge things up from the distant past.
  • When prescription drugs are involved, consult a physician with expertise in addiction.
  • Obtain the free pamphlet "How to Talk to an Older Adult Who Has a Problem with Alcohol or Medications" by calling Hazelden at 800-444-7008.

If Your Loved One Relapses

Since addiction is a chronic disease, relapses do occur. If this happens, don't lose hope. A relapse doesn't mean that the person isn't trying, or that his/her recovery is "failing." The majority of alcoholics and addicts who eventually recover suffer at least one relapse along the way.

If a relapse occurs, get back in touch with the professional or self-help group that you've worked with in the past, and prepare to intervene again. But remember, ultimately you are not in control of whether your loved one stays in recovery. You can only control how you react to his/her behavior  and how you conduct your own life.

-- Donna Boundy

This article is an excerpt from the Family Guide for MOYERS ON ADDICTION: CLOSE TO HOME, produced by the Educational Publishing Department of Thirteen/WNET. The entire guide is available, free of charge, by downloading it to your computer or requesting a copy by mail.

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