The Basics of an Intervention

This guide is for the friends, family members, and other loved ones of people struggling with addiction disorders. Its purpose is to educate readers about what, for many, is the first step in addiction recovery, the intervention. It offers, in an easy to digest step-by-step way, a road map that can help you plan for and conduct a successful intervention for your loved one. Included near the end is a list of helpful resources that can help you and the person you care about, get through every step of the addiction recovery process, and which can remind families struggling with addiction that they are not alone.

Denial is one of the characteristic features of an addiction disorder. People with substance abuse issues frequently deny that they have a problem, as do many of their loved ones until it’s too late. The purpose of an intervention is to pierce the wall of denial and make a substance abuser see the damage their disorder is causing to those who care most for them. By gathering together the family and friends who know the user best, and then by telling the subject about the pain of their addiction and the consequences of continued use, it is sometimes possible to break through. Everything that must be done in preparation for an intervention is directed toward a singular goal: getting the substance abuser to agree to treatment.

Step 1: Form a Team

The first step is to put together a team to stage the intervention. The people you choose for this team will all be in the room during the intervention, so they should be very close family and friends of the person you’re trying to reach. A professional intervention specialist can help you plan the details, as well as offer advice about who to include and who should not be there.

As a rule, the people at the intervention should all be people the subject cares deeply about. If someone in your circle is also struggling with addiction issues, it may be best to encourage them to remain away from the intervention. These can be emotional confrontations, and it’s best to avoid distractions and potential arguments.

Step 2: Do Your Research

The more you know about the way addiction works, the more prepared you can be to confront a resistant or hostile subject. It also helps to learn as much as you can about the specific drug or behavior (such as gambling or sexual activity) the person is addicted to. Finally, it is also very helpful to learn about co-dependency and the role loved ones play in substance abusers’ addictive behavior. You may also want to read first-person accounts of other families’ interventions, which may give you a better feel for what to expect. Encourage the others on the intervention team to also prepare in this way.

Step 3: Make a Plan

It takes careful planning to put together a successful intervention. Start by coordinating with your team and agreeing on a time and place. Allow for several hours, if needed, on the day of the intervention. Ideally, the whole team can meet before the intervention to go over notes and strategy and chat with the intervention specialist for some last-minute tips.

There is no firm rule for the ideal place to hold an intervention, but it is generally a good idea to choose a neutral location away from familiar surroundings. People with substance abuse habits may have hard-to-predict emotional reactions to their own homes, parents’ homes, or other familiar places. Renting a motel room or other venue may be preferable since the subject is not likely to feel overly defensive or territorial about the space. It’s very important not to stage the intervention in any place owned or controlled by the subject. Highly agitated addicts may try to terminate the intervention early, and one way to do that could be to order the team to leave their home. Since there is no way to refuse this kind of demand on the subject’s own property, it may be best to meet up someplace else.

Step 4: Set Realistic Boundaries and Expectations

The intervention is fundamentally a last-ditch effort to save the life of a person you care about who is suffering from addiction. It is important to set realistic expectations for what you hope to accomplish. This should be as specific and easy to define as possible. Usually, the goal of an intervention is to get the person with an addiction to agree to check into some kind of inpatient treatment program, preferably right away. The desire is to get the subject to agree to treatment conditions based on everything said at the intervention, and you should be ready to drop everything and head out to the treatment center as soon as the subject agrees to check-in, even if some people at the intervention haven’t had a chance to talk yet.

Bear in mind that interventions often fail. Addiction is a very difficult disease to work with, and the people living with it are often highly resistant to change, as are many of the people in their circle of family and friends. One of the most effective techniques used to break through to someone in this state is to plainly state how your relationship will change if the person doesn’t agree to get treated. This is almost always followed by a statement of consequences, such as cutting off money, eviction from the house they’re living in, or a complete break in the relationship. Whatever the new boundaries are, it is crucial to the addict’s chances for recovery that these are things you can actually do, so that they don’t come across as empty threats.

Step 5: Rehearse

During your preparation for the intervention, try to rehearse your statement a few times. Listen to how it flows as speech, and try to cut out any words or sentences that aren’t absolutely necessary to make your point. Avoid using accusatory language or placing blame during your statement. If something you want to say seems like it could make the person feel attacked or unloved, or if it’s likely to put them on the defensive and make them more resistant, it may be best to either reword it or cut it out entirely. Under the pressure of an intervention, many people with addictions lash out emotionally, often seizing on any opening your statement gives them to change the subject. Try to keep your statement brief and as on-point as you can make it, to give the person as few openings as you can.

Step 6: Hold the Intervention and Follow Through

The most important part of an intervention is the follow-through. Even if the intervention itself didn’t produce the results you hoped for, your willingness to enforce healthy boundaries afterward might encourage a person struggling with addiction to seek help later.

Resources and Additional Help

  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) leads addiction research efforts in the United States, and it can be an invaluable asset for family members looking for information about substance abuse, especially during the research phase before an intervention.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) operates the 24-hour National Treatment Referral Hotline (1-800-662-HELP), which provides referrals for treatment and intervention services. The hotline does not dispense medical or legal advice, and conversations are kept confidential.