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How a Traditional Intervention Works

By Comments off By the Numbers: How a Traditional Intervention Works

Marc Hertz describes the first stage of a recent traditional intervention for a heroin-addicted young woman. This is the first in a two-part series describing a real-life traditional intervention. For part two, click here.

By Marc Hertz
The family called us at noon and said they had a very sick heroin – and methadone-addicted daughter, whom we’ll call Jessica. They asked if we could come immediately to perform an intervention with Jessica before she left at four o’clock for her bartending job. The dad told me Jessica was “so bad off, she couldn’t hold her head up.” I told him to call 911, but he said that wouldn’t work. This young woman had been functioning in her addiction for a long time and since she wasn’t overdosing a 911 call wouldn’t have any traction. What prompted the call from her father was that she had gotten into a car accident and totaled her car earlier that day driving home from her daily dose at the methadone clinic. Without her car, she lacked a way to the clinic, so she would have to rely even more heavily on straight heroin or become very sick with opiate withdrawal.

Planning an Intervention

While it’s not uncommon for a family in despair to call and ask us to come and do an intervention immediately, a normal intervention is carefully planned. It’s a scripted event and it’s important for us to take a measured approach and not react to the family’s drama. But in this case, I was compelled to do it quickly. The car wreck had been Jessica’s third accident in a month. I worried that if we didn’t act quickly, it could end badly: either another car accident or Jessica getting desperately sick.

Jen Stowe, our psychotherapist, drove with me to the city where Jessica lived with her mother. By 2:30—just two and a half hours after we got the call—we were meeting with the family at Caribou Coffee. The cast of the intervention was the mom and the dad, who are divorced, the stepdad, and the twin sister. We did a week’s worth of work in an hour.

For an intervention, the family writes an intervention statement to the addict describing how their addiction is affecting them. The letter is six very rhythmically specific paragraphs designed to open the addict’s heart, dampen denial and minimization, and appeal to their better nature. We scrub the letters for shame, blame, anger and moralizing. Those are the things that turn the intervention into an emotional brawl.

Mechanics of a Traditional Intervention

We all went to the house and the dad went downstairs to wake Jessica up. She went into the bathroom and obviously used heroin. When she came upstairs, I could understand the desperation of the dad. She was very high. I introduced myself and told her the family brought me in because they were concerned about her, and they wanted to tell her how her addiction was affecting them. I said, “You have the easy job. All you have to do is sit there and listen to the people who love you.”

I always have the most emotional person read their letter first because it sets a tone of love and compassion rather than coming off as punitive. In this case, the dad went first and he sobbed through his whole letter. This was the first time this young woman had seen her military father cry. The sister read next and was very tough on Jessica, although Jessica nodded off during her sister’s letter and I had to wake her up. Then it was the stepdad. The last to read was the mom, who had the leverage to tell Jessica if she didn’t go to treatment she couldn’t live there anymore, as it enables her and keeps her from needing to change.

The Family’s Role in an Intervention

The family followed our lead. Jessica tried to triangulate by talking directly to her family members instead of to us, but they didn’t engage. Also, we always instruct a family that if a silence develops, to allow it to linger. People are often uncomfortable with that direction, but silence is a powerful thing. That’s when the addict really swims in their remorse and we don’t want to take that away from them.

The intervention in this case was a calm event. Jessica admitted she had a problem, and said she wanted help and was willing to go with us to treatment. There was never any obvious contention. The drama was in the reading of the letters, not in the family members yelling at each other like they do on TV. Next week, my colleague Jen Stowe will describe what happened when she accompanied Jessica down to her room to pack for treatment, and how after Jessica’s admission to treatment, the story takes a more dramatic turn.

—Marc Hertz founded Marc Hertz Consulting and FRrē with a passion for helping not just the individual suffering from addiction or mental health issues, but his or her family as well.

Learn more about traditional interventions and family-focused solutions to addiction and mental health issues. Interventions can turn negative family dynamics into positive solutions. Contact us at or schedule a consultation today.