The Nuances of Intervention—Addressing the Myths in How Intervention Works

Family intervention; son is reading a letter from his father.

Most of us who know anything about addiction or who have seen this crippling affliction first hand have also heard the term “intervention” tossed around. Intervention is a broad term, with multiple definitions and applications in several fields. For example, there is an intervention in the educational sector. There is also an intervention in a global, political sense. And then there is an intervention in drug and alcohol addiction.

Defining Intervention

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines intervention in a few different ways. The definition I think fits best for our purposes is: “The act of interfering with the outcome or course especially of a condition or process (as to prevent harm or improve functioning).”

To understand the word intervention, we also must understand the term “intervene” which is quite similar. Merriam-Webster defines it: “To interfere with the outcome or course especially of a condition or process (as to prevent harm or improve functioning). To occur or lie between two things.”

I find these simple definitions of the terms “intervention” and “intervene” particularly insightful for our purposes here. There are many ways in which we can look at intervention, and there are certainly some myths about it. But when we break the process down to its basic steps, it becomes easily understandable.

To intervene merely means to come between two things to prevent those things from meeting. It literally means to place or interpose oneself or an object or thing in a location to prevent two other objects or things from converging in that location. In the case of addiction, to intervene quite simply means to place oneself, one’s words, one’s thoughts and emotions, and one’s urgent request to the addict between the addict and his or her drug of choice. It is the manifestation of, “No, I am coming between you and your drug, I am asking you to get help; I am insisting that you no longer continue with this harmful habit.”

That is the simplicity of intervention.

Things You May Have Heard about Intervention

Even though addiction intervention is not a complicated process, it is a process which deals in a very turbulent and emotional field. Of that, we can be sure. Trying to help an addict to get clean sometimes feels like that old game of “Greased Pig” where slaphappy farmhands try to catch a greased pig at the county fair. Good luck. You’re in his element, and his four hooves grab traction on that muddy earth far better than your two feet do.

Trying to help an addict is much like that, except this would be more like trying to catch the pig while also blindfolded, and this pig is wearing Nikes. Addicts know all the tricks, and all the manipulation techniques. They know what to say, how to act, and their priority number one is protecting their habit and maintaining their ability to pursue that habit.

So the prospect of staging an intervention often feels like an impossible challenge, and something you’d rather avoid doing if you can.

But I would ask you to reconsider.

Adult son thinking.

Everything I said above about addicts is something I believe. But at the same time, deep down inside they do want to get help. We often forget this. Every addict knows, inherently, that their habit will eventually kill them if they do not get help. Every addict knows, inherently, that they are harming their family members and loved ones by continuing to use drugs and alcohol. Every addict knows, eventually, that they won’t be able to kick their habit on their own and that they’ll need to get help.

You’ve probably heard the following:

  • “Interventions are always difficult.”
  • “Addicts don’t want help.”
  • “You have to get the intervention right on the first try, or you blew it.”
  • “Interventions can make the situation worse, not better.”
  • “An addict has to hit ’rock bottom’ before an intervention works.”
  • “You can’t force an addict to change their mind about their habit.”
  • “Interventions are a dramatic, unpleasant waste of time.”

These are the views of many who have attempted interventions on their addicted loved ones which didn’t work. So now, such individuals feel as though intervention as a general process does not work, even though that could not be further from the truth.

Successful Actions for Intervention

Son and father hug.

Interventions can be stressful, dramatic, unpleasant, and so on. But they don’t have to be. Thousands of addicts agree to get help every year, and they are quite amicable to it. To give yourself the best chances for a successful intervention, follow the advice below:

  • Get educated. Your understanding of the intervention process and of addiction, in general, will increase your chances of success. The more you know about addiction in general, the higher the percentage chance you have of being successful with your intervention on your family member or loved one. There is a vast swath of information on addiction across the web.
  • Speak out of love, compassion, and understanding. Love is the universal message of all people. If we are willing to accept it and reciprocate it, love is the language that we can all speak. When planning, staging, and performing an intervention, never take the stance of convicting the addict of anything, of labeling them, targeting them, accusing them, belittling them, and so on. That rarely works, and it just makes an addict close down on you and go on the defensive. You have to get them to open up, not close down.
  • Be persistent. The number-one reason why interventions fail is that those attempting the intervention give up too soon. I’ve seen this happen many times. It is not uncommon for an addict’s first response to be to rebuke the efforts of family members and loved ones to get him help. Sometimes, the overall message and feel of an intervention have to sink in over a couple of days. If a family’s first efforts at intervening are not successful, try again in a few days. The addicted loved one could have come around by then.
  • Develop a firm bottom line. If you have been supporting the addict’s addiction in any way you must let them know with love that the only assistance you can give them moving forward is to help them get into treatment. This does not have to be drastic action, but, you must remain firm in your decisions to no longer support the addiction. This does not mean any longer talking to the person or refusing to help them, it simply means that you are steadfast in your desire for them to get help and you are willing to help them get into treatment.

Drug and alcohol addiction is a life or death issue. Whether an intervention is easy and straightforward or difficult and complicated, all of it is worth it. The healthy, fruitful life of your loved one fully recovered and sober is worth every bit of effort.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.