Family, friends confront abusers of drugs and alcohol in cathartic interventions

GUARDIAN ANGELS

April 24, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

On the morning of Sept. 25, 1980, he heard his grown children enter his Baltimore home. John, then a 63-year-old man earning six figures, heard his daughter talking downstairs with his sons.

"My first thought was, 'If we're going to have a party, I got to get to a liquor store.' I was out of beer and liquor," says John, now 77.

When he came downstairs, he saw his children, his priest, an old friend and his wife. The first person to speak was his daughter.

"Daddy, I love you. We're all here because we love you," she said.

One by one, the group told John about his drinking problem -- how the daily pints of vodka and bourbon were eating him alive, how when they wanted to talk to him about anything he was usually sleeping off last night's drinking jag.

His family intervened.

A counseling creation of the 1960s, interventions remain a popular strategy used by family, friends and co-workers to gently and blamelessly steer a substance abuser into treatment before they self-destruct. Without warning, the person is confronted with his or her substance abuse problem in what is usually an emotionally charged event.

Days before Nirvana's Kurt Cobain fatally shot himself, the singer's family and friends held an intervention, according to newspaper reports. And, putting the ultimate stamp of cultural currency on the practice, a "Seinfeld" episode this year involved a substance abuse intervention. "It made 'Seinfeld' -- I don't know know how you can get more fashionable than that," says Dr. David Rose, a clinical psychologist in Towson who oversees interventions.

Thirty years ago, intervention was billed as an alternative to treating addicts after they had "hit bottom." In 1978, interventions made addiction-treatment history when former first lady Betty Ford underwent a successful intervention conducted by the man who wrote the book on intervention -- Vernon E. Johnson, an Episcopalian minister from Minnesota.

"Intervention always has some effect, and that effect is invariably positive. . . . At the very least, it offers a chance for recovery where before none existed," Mr. Johnson wrote in his 1986 book, "Intervention: How to help someone who doesn't want help."

"Instead of having these people die, we do this," says Dr. Larry Fishel, a therapist in Towson, who coordinates about 50 interventions a year. One lasted about seven hours. Most last about two hours.

The only goal of an intervention, Dr. Fishel says, is to get the person to agree to get help. It's not the time for friends and family to scold the person, he says. The surest way to ruin an intervention is to start blaming the subject, who will either leave the room or get so angry and defensive that he or she rejects any help.

"I edit out all the blaming words," says Jay Conner, a certified relapse-prevention specialist in Baltimore.

Based on Vernon Johnson's step-by-step process, Mr. Conner and other interventionists first meet with family members and friends who will be confronting the substance abuser.

"Get anyone who has power over them. If you have everybody there, the person has no place to run," Mr. Conner says.

They are asked to write about three incidents in which that person hurt or embarrassed them. They are coached not to threaten the abuser. "If you tell them, 'You will die if you keep this up,' they won't believe it, and they won't care," says Mr. Conner, whowill be confronting the substance abuser.

"Get anyone who has power over them. If you have everybody there, the person has no place to run," Mr. Conner says.

They are asked to write about three incidents in which that person hurt or embarrassed them. They are coached not to threaten the abuser. "If you tell them, 'You will die if you keep this up,' they won't believe it, and they won't care," says Mr. Conner, who oversees about five interventions a month.

After the intervention group is coached, the members confront the unknowing substance abuser, who simply shows up somewhere to meet them. Each group member recounts bad times caused by the person's drinking or drug use. The family secret is now exposed. The subject, who needs to be sober, also has to keep quiet during the intervention.

Participants speak of the adrenaline rush, the breathtaking drama and the emotional rawness of interventions. "The more tears, the more agony, the more pain, the better it is," Mr. Conner says.

After the venting, the group asks the person to get help immediately. If prepared properly, the group already has a treatment center in mind and on call. The idea is to give the person no time to back out.

In John's case, his family was prepared. John, who declined to give his last name because he's in Alcoholics Anonymous, where last names are not used, listened during his 1980 intervention but had no intention of going to any "funny farm. That's what I thought rehab was," he says. Anyway, how could he miss that much work? he thought.

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