Are you a “concerned other” who is struggling with how to help an alcoholic who doesn’t want help? Broken promises to change and constant relapses into drinking behavior can make you want to throw up your hands. But don’t give up! Remember, the alcoholic in your life cannot see their situation clearly; alcohol use disorder has created a “reality distortion field” around them. Their addiction is in control. Once you understand the nature of their disease and have insight into the intervention process, you can provide your loved one with the help they so desperately need.
When is it the Right Time to Stage an Intervention?
For decades, an accepted approach to intervention was to hold back on confronting your loved one and wait until they have “hit bottom.” That is the hoped-for moment when the problem drinker is truly “ready” to seek help for alcohol use disorder. But can an alcoholic be relied upon to even recognize the bottom, or will they simply “slide sideways”? A weary, honest awareness by the alcoholic that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” does happen in some cases.
But not all.
As Katherine Ketcham and William Asbury put it in their 2000 book Beyond the Influence: Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism:
. . . Intervention is sometimes equated with coercion and criticized, often severely, for forcing alcoholics into treatment against their will. The idea that alcoholics are sick, irrational, and incapable of giving up alcohol by themselves and thus need an external force to break through their denial offends many people, while others insist that alcoholics need to assume full responsibility for getting and staying sober.
The authors explain why holding back on intervention, however well-intentioned the strategy, can do more harm than good:
Alcoholism . . . is a progressive neurological disease strongly influenced by genetic vulnerability. Willpower is as powerless to alter the neurochemical changes in alcoholics as it is to stabilize blood sugar fluctuations in diabetics or heart fibrillations in coronary patients . . .
Waiting until the alcoholic is ready to quit drinking is a dangerous strategy. Over the years the hit-bottom theory has cost many alcoholics their lives – for every alcoholic who hits bottom and sees the light, dozens more are destroyed on the way down.
Intervention is a technique designed to help alcoholics before they hit bottom . . . before the alcohol destroys everything of value in the alcoholic’s life[.]
Of course, the downward spiral of the alcoholic in your life may have caught you in its vortex as well. By staging an intervention, even to help an alcoholic who doesn’t want help, you are not just potentially saving the alcoholic’s life, but also your own. You must face the common foe of addiction, what Ketcham and Asbury call “the true enemy,” with determination born of understanding of its “true nature” as a neurological disorder.
Types of interventions include informal interventions, in which family, friends, and co-workers may express, over a period of time, their concern regarding their loved one’s drinking and gently offer their support. This may help create the necessary “internal coercion” within the alcoholic’s self-dialogue that can cause them to ultimately seek treatment.
In other more severe cases, a full-blown crisis intervention may be necessary. Perhaps drinking behavior has had emergency room-level impact upon the alcoholic’s health, or put the health of others in jeopardy (e.g., drunk driving). As part of a crisis intervention, the medical and legal authorities may direct the alcoholic offender to treatment so “the underlying cause of the emergency,” as Ketcham and Asbury describe it, is addressed.
Between the informal and the crisis intervention is the formal intervention, a professionally guided, thoughtfully planned approach. Assisted by a counselor, concerned others gather to confront the alcoholic regarding their loved one’s drinking behavior and the negative impact it has upon the lives of all involved.
Formal Intervention Essentials
The five “essential elements” of a formal intervention are:
- Authority: Facts must be presented to the problem drinker by the people who know them best.
- Firsthand Examples: Evidence described in confrontational testimony must be highly specific to the case. Avoid generalizations and opinions.
- Supportive Tone: Avoid shaming and condemnation.
- Focus on the Disease: Center facts around what the person is like with or without alcohol use disorder affecting their behavior.
- Documentary Evidence: When available, confronting the problem drinker with audiovisual proof of their drinking behavior makes denial near impossible.
If you’d like to learn more about staging a formal intervention in a neutral setting, Serenity Acres Treatment Center can help. You don’t have to wait until your loved one hits bottom to lend them a hand. Use the contact form below, or call now!
Ketcham, Katherine and William F. Asbury, et al. Beyond the Influence: Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism. New York: Bantam, 2000.