By: Marilyn L. Davis
What Others See that We Can’t
When people have clarity, there is no question that using drugs and alcohol are self-defeating. However, when we are in the grips of our addiction, we do not see reality. Many of us require a caring intervention by others to understand just how much harm we have inflicted, the damage to our relationships, and to know that there are still people willing to help.
Twenty-seven years ago, I worked at a small southern college. My dual roles, House Director and student helped me justify my tranquilizer and alcohol use. I deflected criticism of my Xanax and alcohol use when individuals would ask me why I looked or acted a certain way. I’d make self-serving comments to anyone who would listen that if they had to put up with over one hundred college students and be a student, they would need something for their nerves as well.
“Nerves” is not a medical term. Although my doctors understood my reference to the anxiety, snowed under and stress. Yes, I wrote doctors. It is not uncommon for us to doctor-shop; where we seek out complicit physicians who willingly dispense prescriptions as long as we meet the co-pay.
Or, if we use controlled substances, we might go to more than one doctor, get a 30-day supply, and go to another for the same symptoms and get an additional 30-day supply.
Then we have to make sure that we don’t give Dr. X’s prescription to the same pharmacy where we’ve taken Dr. Y’s for the same medication. It’s no wonder that I had nerves, all those surreptitious activities – sneaky, underhanded and probably today, illegal.
False Fronts Prevent Us from Seeing Clearly
Part of my smoke-screen was to deflect criticism from co-workers and family by pointing out my grades. I would throw out my status as Dean’s List student and proudly proclaim that no one with a substance abuse problem would have a 3.9 GPA. Sidetracking the issue typically ended the conversation about my use.
Why did this work for me? If you think about it, how else would an academic institution judge someone except by their grades. Whether it was a student or an employee, throwing up, the GPA bought me time and kept people from addressing my issues.
I also used the change course approach. When someone asked me about my use, I just re-framed the question into my own with, “Do you think someone with a substance abuse issues would be a Dean’s List student with a 3.9 GPA?” That invariably focused the conversation on my better qualities and took the direct attention off any suspected substance abuse issues.
However, that all changed when the college hired a new dean. I worked in the Office of Student Development, and this was to be one of her departments. She believed in meeting with each staff member individually; getting their feedback on strengths and weaknesses within the office.
Several of my co-workers determined that my erratic behaviors and suspected substance use were a weakness. After discussing their concerns, she calmly told them that no one on campus was qualified to make an assessment, but that she was in a position to require me to have one.
I met with her for what I assumed would be my luncheon get together and instead, she informed me that there was concern about my pill use and drinking. Since she was new and had not observed any of these behaviors, she wondered if I would have an evaluation to determine if I had a substance abuse problem. I immediately agreed, thinking I could justify my use to any counselor.
Excuses Quickly Crumble with a Professional Counselor
My assessment was not what I expected. I assumed it would be a form with yes/no responses and I was prepared to lie.
Instead, the counselor asked questions that I found challenging. It was apparent that I would not be able to rationalize my use with this woman.
After talking, I asked her opinion and she calmly told me that I was an addict and alcoholic. I asked if she had to report her evaluation to the school.
When she said that she only could with my permission, I took what I thought was a way out. I informed her that she did not have my permission. Feeling smug and self-assured, I grabbed my purse and left.
Only a delusion addict and alcoholic like myself would think that “no news is good news” in this case. When the Deans did not hear from her, they collectively made other plans.
On September 30, 1988, I was called to the president’s office. Not unusual, I had been there for meeting before. It reeks of education and English library influences in the decor. However, the moment that I went it, I realized there would be no offer of tea.
Five deans and the president all stood up, formed a single line and produced 4 X 6 cards. Each shuffled, and looked to one another for direction. As a psychology major, I knew what they were preparing to do – have an intervention, and I would be the subject.
While we have TV show of the same name today, where people typically deny a problem, throw fits and make wild accusations, I did not. Nor, would I put these people or myself through the ordeal of recounting all of their collected examples of my out of control behaviors. Instead, I just asked them what they expected. They expected me to get help.
Although this group of individuals had no counseling to help them facilitate the intervention, in my case, this worked to get me the help I desperately needed, and I will celebrate 27 years this month.
If an Intervention is Needed: How To Effectively Conduct One
For many of us in the addicted population, any one individual confronting us about our use is ineffective. We can argue with the best of them, deflect one person’s point, and use the time-worn, “Well, that’s just his or her opinion.” As if one person’s opinion doesn’t count
Combining forces for an effective intervention is a better approach. Also, having a skilled interventionist to weed through the examples and determine who, if anyone, is a weak link is paramount.
Think about this logically, if five people are giving the same example, it may be five people talking about it, but it is still just one example. We’ll get out of that, but if five people are giving five distinct examples, even for the same type of behavior, it is more efficient.
Looking for the weak link references the individual, who may have valuable information, but is still not solidly in favor of requiring treatment for the person. And we can spot a weak link the minute we walk into a room. The one who will cave if we cry or may think they are somehow responsible for our choices, and we can use that information to distract from the intended purpose of the intervention.
I knew that none of those people, uncomfortable as they appeared, was going to back down on their guidelines for my continued employment.
After I had been in treatment about four weeks, my father told me that the college had asked him to participate. Much to his credit, my dad told them he couldn’t; that he knew if I started crying, he would take me out of the intervention and probably not have the same demands as the college. He knew that this was the best thing for me, so he removed himself.
As we talked about it, I knew that had he been present, I would have cried and manipulated him and not gotten treatment.
Treatment: The Ultimate Objective
Getting the addict help is the fundamental objective; not condemning, shaming, or belittling the person. Whether we act like it or not, most of us feel guilt and remorse for our behaviors; our addiction is just stronger and overrides those feelings.
Also, in our use, we are not doing something to others; we are doing something for ourselves.
A trained interventionist lets the family and friends vent about their anger, fear and sometimes guilt. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with having these emotions, or that they can’t be discussed leading up to the intervention. But if the entire focus of the intervention is family feelings and thoughts, it is distracting from the primary goal – getting help for the addict.
Having a written statement, often revised and reworked several times is the norm. These letters convey the love, concern and how the relationship used to be before drugs and alcohol took over.
How do these letters accomplish this? By reinforcing the following:
1. That the person still loves the addict; not the behaviors, the use or the other self-defeating behaviors. It’s okay to be angry about the actions, just distinguish between the user and the acts.
2. The family and friends have grave concerns for the welfare of the addict, or in some cases, the children of the addict.
3. The family and friends miss communicating and visiting with the person. Whether it is a family function or a work golf tournament doesn’t matter; examples of how it used to be are helpful in conveying this message.
4. How good the relationship used to be or remind them of accomplishments when they were not using.
5. That today, there is a choice – treatment, with a plan in place, or, and then state the alternative. With any ultimatum, the group must be in agreement about the consequences of choosing not to enter treatment.
For some families, it may be that they will no longer give money to the addict. They may still buy food, or pay rent, but not give the addict cash. However, you may state that withheld support will continue if they choose treatment if that is an option. Be prepared to state that you will withhold any further assistance unless they get help for their addiction. Be specific to the type of support – financial, housing or transportation. However, you can reinforce that a withheld support will continue if they choose treatment if that is feasible.
For others, they may have to distance themselves and not communicate with the addict for a set time. Some family members do need a break. One member may be the point of contact to see if the user has changed their mind about needing and wanting treatment if they refuse help the day of the intervention.
6. Give concrete alternatives when possible.
- Go to detox if it is medically indicated.
- Come home and enter outpatient treatment for 12 weeks
- Restart recovery support meetings for 90 days.
- Enter a long-term facility for three months.
Options and the semblance of choice can sometimes defuse an emotional and irrational response from the addict.
What If the Intervention Doesn’t Work?
It is difficult when all just want the addict to get help, and they walk away from the intervention, angry and refusing to get help. Families and friends, who have done all they can, enlisted the help of a trained interventionist, and had their mock intervention need to know that, “all they can do, is all they can do.”
Without being cliché, this is probably the most difficult thing for families to accept.
Often, when an addict reflects on the care, concerns, and examples, they will change their minds and want help. Make sure they have a number to call – a family member, friend, or in some cases, the interventionist.
Sometimes Interventions Work – a Day Later
If the addict asks for help after the intervention, mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, some family members will spend time on the “Why didn’t you take the advice yesterday?” Or worse yet, “I told you that you needed help.”
Forgo those words and be grateful that your loved one is getting treatment and they can finally see their lives as you see it, and are willing to make changes.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart
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