When people think of interventions, one of the things that often comes to mind is giving a person an ultimatum as a way of forcing him to go to treatment and the various negative consequences that might result. This is why when many people think of interventions, they cringe.
Ultimatums can be used as a mechanism of force during in an intervention – but what we’re going to look at is why an ultimatum delivered lovingly is more effective than one delivered in a way that is condescending, humiliating or delivered in anger.
The most effective ultimatums are those given from a position of self-preservation. I’ll explain.
For example, when my mother gave me an ultimatum to get me to go to treatment, she didn’t present it as punishment for me not going. She presented it as a way of disconnecting herself and her life from what I was doing, thereby leaving me alone with the choices I was making.
It wasn’t me she was threatening to disconnect from. She was disconnecting from my behavior.
She told me that she loved me too much to watch me kill myself or participate in my self-destruction. She said matter-of-factly that if I wasn’t willing to try the treatment program she could no longer support the choices I was making. I would have to deal with the consequences of those choices on my own without her support or that of my family. She did not talk down to me. It was a matter of self-preservation on her part and an unwillingness to participate any longer or in any way with in the choices I was making
When my family echoed her position and then maintained their unified position against having any contact with me unless I was willing to at least give treatment a try, I remember I began to think it really was over. I could choose to continue using drugs and drinking, in which case I would no longer be able to communicate with my family, or I could choose to give the treatment program a try. If I chose treatment, I would have my family’s full support. If not, I would be on my own financially, emotionally and any other way until I changed my mind. Needless to say it had a powerful effect on me, and the fact that I’m writing this is a testament to my decision.
If one were to go back and look at the timeline of my intervention and identify where I decided to go to treatment, the turning point was during the days that ultimatum was enforced.
And, that’s the difficulty with ultimatums, enforcing them. No one wants to be the bad guy. It’s often really difficult for a family to maintain an ultimatum as a unified team. It can feel a lot like one is abandoning the addict. But, without the fear of loss an ultimatum is just a request. During an intervention it has to be much more than that. It has to bring the addict or alcoholic to the conclusion that things have genuinely changed and the game is over.
For some family members it can feel too harsh. For others it turns into something punitive.
Parents especially have a unique connection with their children. Disconnecting from a child at a time when he is suffering can feel like abandonment and therefore feel wrong.
A father who has said yes to his “little princess” 99% of the time can find it almost impossible to give his daughter an ultimatum where he has to be the bad guy and say no to something she is begging to have, such as money or a place to stay. I have seen the smartest and most successful fathers turn tail at this challenge. Fathers who, in one moment were perfectly reasonable, refuse communication about the subject because it means being the bad guy toward his little girl.
Corollary to this is the daughter who knows how to use nuanced suffering to pull her father’s heartstrings in order to get what she wants. It is one of the many ironies in addiction. It goes against the natural order of a father’s affection or a mother’s instincts. This is often a misunderstanding or misinterpretation as to what an intervention based ultimatum actually is.
One of the tasks I face as an interventionist is convincing parents that an ultimatum and a disconnection are two different things.
Disconnection is simply that: a disconnection. It is unclipping the line and leaving nothing for the person to grab onto. An ultimatum however, given while also giving an offer of help gives the addict something to grab onto. It is an effort at forcing him or her to let go of the drugs or alcohol and accept treatment.
If you saw your child drinking a bottle of poison and you had a bottle of the antidote in your hand, you would not hesitate. You would slap the bottle of poison out of your child’s hand and as far away from his mouth as possible. Then you would do anything and everything you could to get that antidote down his throat. If he refused to to swallow, you would probably resort to coaxing him into doing it in a loving way, without being condescending or treating him like a child. You would do whatever you needed to do to make sure he heard you and took your pleading to heart. Well, drugs and alcohol are literally poisonous as well as all the behavior they bring with them. A good treatment center is like an oasis of antidote, a lake of medicinal waters. You, his parents, have to make sure your child swims in the lake or he dies in the desert.
Being an addict is like being in a river. Sometimes it’s calm and peaceful and you just float along in the sunlight, and sometimes it’s a little scarier, with unexpected twists and turns in the darkness. When it gets bad, you don’t even realize how bad it has become.
Even though you’re plummeting down the rapids, rocks smashing against you as if they’ve been thrown from underwater, you feel very little of the pain because the water you’re in is so cold; it’s numbed your nerves. You know that there is some pain but the fun, the rush, the excitement of being in the river is greater than the danger you believe you are really in.
Doing an intervention for someone in that state is like being on the riverbank with a doctor and an ambulance. Your loved one is splashing in the water right in front of you, becoming more and more battered and bruised, but he can’t feel it because the water is so cold. He refuses to get out even though you tell him it’s hurting him. What do you do? You have a doctor an ambulance and a safe place for him to go to get treatment for his wounds, which are much worse than he is aware. An ultimatum is like leaving your loved one in the river all night, when it’s no longer fun and the river has become a reeling nightmare, but you’ve left a light shining on a branch hanging overhead, and the ambulance is parked on the shore so he can pull himself out anytime.
An ultimatum may be the most loving thing you can possibly do for the person you are trying to help.