Disclaimer: The stories and strategies I present in this blog are ones I use or have experienced as an intervention specialist. Depending on your situation, I strongly recommend hiring a professional interventionist. Families whose strike out on their own, even with the best intentions and armed with good advice are more likely to succeed with the help of a seasoned interventionist. Don’t experiment on the people you love. If you truly want to help someone, a professional interventionist can be more than someone who simply plans a meeting. He or she can guide you and stay objective even when family members lose perspective.
• • •
One of the most common questions I get from families is, “What if the addict says ‘No’ during the intervention?”
Of course he’ll say no. That’s what a good intervention is all about, planning for it and turning it around.
Planning is perhaps the single greatest asset to any intervention. Having a plan makes the difference between knowing what to do when the addict refuses help, or being caught off guard, fumbling for answers. Lack of planning is the reason most families believe that the intervention they’ve attempted has failed.
For example, a family makes an offer of help, the addict refuses and erupts into crisis. The family has no plan and so concludes that the intervention has failed. What they needed – and what every intervention needs before it ever begins – is a plan that includes these kinds of scenarios.
You might be thinking, “How can we plan our intervention to include a crisis?” You should be asking, “How can we not?”
An addict or alcoholic erupting into crisis during an intervention as a way of pushing back is one of the most common control mechanisms. I was introduced to this before I started my work as as an intervention specialist.
Shortly after I graduated from rehab I was considering working at the treatment program, so I stayed on-site to talk to the director about becoming an intern. I was outside his office when I overheard a family arguing inside. The parents were obviously there to deliver one of their sons into treatment. But, he was not having it. I listened to the angry outbursts for a few minutes before the door flung open and a young man stormed by me and exited the main doors. I watched his back disappear as he hopped down the steps to the parking lot. His mother was next to appear. Her face was flushed, one hand clutching at her chest while the other grabbed at the air where son had just been. Her husband and other two sons clamored awkwardly behind her. The director strolled up, leaning back slightly as he walked around them and ended up facing the mother, deliberately blocking her view. Her escaped son was now either sitting at the bottom of the steps, or beginning his trek down the winding road that led to the main highway about a mile away. I soon realized it did not matter either way.
The director explained to the family that this was not uncommon and was in fact, an effort at control. These outbursts were how her son had controlled his mother and the rest of the family when he wanted to avoid doing something, or when he wanted something.
It is the same behavior a child exhibits by throwing a tantrum. Strolling through the grocery store the child sees something he wants. When the mother shakes her head the child bursts into a fit. If this tactic works, over time the child develops this mechanism as a way of getting what he wants or avoiding something he doesn’t. The same is true for most addicts.
This is not to say that during every intervention the addict will throw a tantrum. For most addicts it means making others wrong. The offer of help is wrong, the treatment program is wrong, the family is wrong for doing the intervention in the first place and so on. Or, the addict might say or do something to otherwise put the family into a panic and generally throw them off balance. The best damage control for this kind of contingency is to plan for it beforehand.
I am not suggesting to plan to fight with the addict. That will benefit no one and won’t have a positive result. The best approach is,
- Acknowledge that it’s going to happen or will likely happen.
- Stay calm. Don’t react by fighting back.
- Stick to your guns, to your offer, don’t make deals when the addict erupts, and don’t let others start making deals, which is where these outbursts tend to lead.
- Start listening to the objections the person has. Objections are your friend. They provide a list of things you need to handle in order to get the person to agree to go to the program.
The reason you’re doing an intervention in the first place is because the person you’re trying to help is refusing to go to a treatment program, so expect refusal. Allow it to happen. Most of all, when the addict starts bellowing his disagreements and the reasons he can’t or won’t go to treatment, listen to what’s being said. I’m not saying to agree with it. I’m saying to listen to it, because the next thing you’re going to do is regroup with your team, discuss the objections and what to do about them.
PS: The young man in the story did eventually return to the treatment center. The director had prepared the mother by bringing her attention to how her son exerted control. Once she was aware of it she was able to stay calm even when he continued to act out. Full-blown interventions, even ones the last several days are no different.
The best way to handle objections is to be ready for them.