INTERVENTIONS: ADDICTION, FAMILY AND ROAD TO INTEGRITY
“Family intervention is an act of love and a rare opportunity to save a life,” state experts Jeff and Debra Jay. “Most families are ill prepared to negotiate with addiction – but intervention moves us toward productive behaviour.” They share their experience and expertise, from the family’s point of view.
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As family and friends, we can name the ways addiction has changed our loved one, who is being held hostage by this disease that does not allow its victims to reach out for help. But those of us who have a close relationship to an alcoholic or addict are often unaware of the ways in which addiction is systematically chipping away at our integrity. We give money to addicts, telling ourselves they need it for their mortgage or to fuel their car for work, when it really supports a cocaine habit. We watch as someone gets behind the wheel drunk, but consider it excessive to call the authorities. We comfort ourselves with beliefs that children are resilient, so it does not really matter that they are growing up in a household beholden to the demands of alcoholism. Secrets are kept at the expense of the most innocent.
We look away, laugh it off, make excuses, clean up messes. But we avoid addressing the heart of the problem.
Intervention, properly executed, is our road back to integrity. It is a journey back to our commitment and conviction. We no longer bend to the will of addiction but instead take a firm stand for recovery. In alcoholic homes, families often excuse their own actions or lack of action by declaring the situation hopeless, maintaining that there is no use in trying. In this way, we allow alcoholism to define what is worth doing. If we value integrity, then we believe our actions are valuable regardless of what alcoholics do or do not do. We do the right thing because it is right.
Intervention changes our thinking patterns. It is thought realignment. It moves us toward productive behaviour, accurate thinking, a sense of purpose, and clear goals. We focus on what we want from our lives rather than what we do not want. Every experience in life has a thought behind it. When our lives are in chaos, our thinking is in turmoil. When our thinking is straightened out, we are able to return to orderly living. Intervention is not only for the benefit of the addicted; it puts the entire family back on course.
Still today, alcoholics and addicts are routinely left to hit bottom – an unorganised jumble of negative consequences which might or might not lead to sobriety. For many, the bottom has no bounce. Instead, it leads to loss of family, jail, insanity or death. For others, the tragedies are quieter: a loss of self-worth, unrealised potential, financial hardship, loneliness, shame, regret.
Families reaching out for help are still routinely advised that the only thing you can do is let the addicted loved one hit bottom. Such counsel rarely tells the whole story: you and your family will hit bottom right along with the alcoholic. The solution for the alcoholic cannot be the undoing of the family.
Hitting bottom assumes the addict will experience something so powerfully painful that he or she will be struck sober or run looking for help. Sometimes it seems to happen this way. But, usually, the desire to get sober lasts only as long as the pain lasts. When circumstances improve and pain is reduced, drinking or drugging resumes, seemingly without regard for past troubles.
Families and friends, however, can easily recall the suffering and humiliation. They often ruminate over addiction-driven incidences, reliving the emotional upheaval over and over again. Driven by fear of what lies ahead, families and friends double down their efforts to curb the negative consequences of addiction by staying one step ahead of problems or quickly straightening out unavoidable tribulations.
When we struggle to control an addict’s behaviour, but do not address the addiction itself in a meaningful way, we are relegated to the sidelines to wait and see how this game of chance plays out. It is always a role of the dice and the odds favour the addiction. We have no idea, as a family, how great our losses will be or how long the losing streak will last. Will our loved one eventually find a way into recovery, or will the addiction take all?
DETACH WITH LOVE
Families are often told to stop their enabling behaviour by “detaching with love”. Yet families have great difficulty consistently following this sage advice, and the reason is rarely identified: families enable not only to save their addicted loved ones, but they enable to save themselves. When a wife is told to let her husband hit bottom, which could mean that she and their three children won’t have food on the table or a roof over their heads, she is not going to detach. Instead, she will do everything in her power to protect her husband and keep the family salary cheques coming in.
WHAT IS HEALTHY DETACHMENT?
When examining how the word detachment is commonly used, several questions come to mind:
When we give an addict the freedom to live the life s/he chooses, are we not simply giving the addiction the freedom to imprison her/him?
When addiction affects the family, isn’t it everybody’s business?
How realistic is it that we will find a place of peace when we are immersed in the daily distress of living with alcoholism?
Why is addiction given more leeway than the family’s needs? Isn’t better to interrupt the cycle of addiction as early as possible?
Detachment is not synonymous with inaction. Rather, it is a spiritual quality that makes action possible. Detachment is neither passive nor remote, but paradoxically is fully engaged with the world. It is not resignation, but a willingness to take action while knowing you cannot guarantee the results. Detachment is letting go of the problem so you can take hold of the solution.
Buddhism, a religion often defined by the concept of detachment, describes this spiritual act as freeing oneself from the preconceived ideas which influence action. It teaches that detachment is the coming together of compassion and objectivity, and from this comes clarity of insight, which allows us to relieve the suffering of others while we simultaneously preserve dignity and justice. This perfectly defines the goal of a well-designed intervention.
Franz Metcalf, in his book What Would Buddha Do, reflecting on what actions Buddha would take if a friend were addicted to drugs, offers a quote from Jatakamala 20.23: “When someone goes wrong, it is right for his real friends to move him, even by force, to do the right thing”. Metcalf adds that Buddha never heard the word “intervention” but that is what he is describing with these words.
WHAT DOES INTERVENTION INVOLVE?
Intervention, while focused on getting the addicted person to agree to treatment, first requires that family and friends make changes. This often requires that we are rigorously honest about our own resistance to change. As family, we must ask: Are we willing to leave behind the comfort of our old ways? After all, the pain of change always gets better, but the pain of staying the same always gets worse. Francis Bacon, the father of deductive reasoning, said that “He that will not apply new remedies must experience new evils; for time is the greatest innovator”.
Family intervention, above all else, is an act of love and a rare opportunity to save a life. It is both profoundly spiritual and eminently practical. It begins as a way to release a loved one from addiction and ends by bringing people together in ways they never expected. By doing an intervention, we are making the kinds of spiritual changes we are asking the alcoholic to make. We first must admit we need to change before we can expect the alcoholic to change. We must recognise our need for help before we can ask the alcoholic to accept help. We must be willing to work together before we can ask the alcoholic to work with us.
The family and the addict must put aside well-worn ways and begin to trust a process that is unfamiliar. Intervention is a concrete demonstration of trust, and trust in action is justice. Justice, as defined by most of the world’s religions, means right relationships – honourable dealings with others, integrity of action, and goodness. Since the addicted are not capable of evenhandedness, it is the family who must stand up, reclaim power and do the right thing.
Intervention is a spiritual negotiation. Acknowledge it or not, we are always negotiating with the alcoholics and addicts in our lives. Negotiation is simply a discussion intended to bring about an agreement or resolve a problem. But most families are ill prepared to negotiate with addiction. Consequently, they are locked into a win-lose approach – the addiction wins and the family loses. Spiritual negotiation generates a win-win-lose approach: the family wins, our loved one wins, the addiction loses.
There are many ways to proceed when intervening, but a spiritual negotiation is never a poorly planned ambush. It requires education, training and thorough preparation. Some families can do it on their own with the help of a good book on intervention; others need the help of a clinical interventionist.
Either way, intervention starts with the basic premise that working together works. By reaching out to one another and building a team, families can change the direction of their future. The group wields more power than any individual. Helen Keller perfectly describes the power of coming together: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”.
JEFF JAY and DEBRA JAY are co- authors of Love First: A New Approach to Intervention for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction and Debra is the author of No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. They are clinical interventionists, noted columnists, nationally known speakers and workshop leaders (www.lovefirst.net).