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Meet the World's Most Famous Interventionist

In her seven years on Intervention, Candy Finnigan has seen it all. In this exclusive interview, she explains how her own intervention brought her to where she is today.

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By Sacha Z. Scoblic

12/18/12

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Candy Finnigan isn’t just an interventionist; she also plays one on TV. The tell-it-like-it-is broad from Kansas will be recognizable to any fan of the Emmy-winning TV show Intervention, A&E’s groundbreaking reality series. Intervention follows addicts struggling in the depths of their addictions for months, often bearing silent witness as addicts sneak alcohol, manipulate their families, scrounge for drugs, stagger into walls, emit primal tortured wails, get sick, get high, get mad, get off, and get undone. But then, the controversial and utterly compelling show follows these addicts even further, and we watch as they walk into the most terrifying room any addict can face: the intervention. 

That’s where Finnigan comes in. She is the stranger in a room full of an addict’s loved ones, and she is clearly in charge. While the families sit in the now-familiar circle—scared, fidgeting, eyes darting about, tears already falling—Finnigan alone is poised, standing, calm. She says hello, smiles, and invites the addict to join the group—as though she has just run into an old friend. In many ways, she has. She comes to this work the hard way: Finnigan herself has been sober for more than 25 years. And for more than 20 of those years, after earning a certification in chemical dependency from UCLA and completing a subsequent internship at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, she has been intervening on behalf of desperate, shell-shocked families—families who love, enable, and tolerate a spiraling addict.

Finnigan takes obvious pride in her work on the show, in its vast reach, and in its unexpected popularity. In fact, Intervention has become much more than a television show; it is a movement. A&E, in partnership with several federal agencies and nonprofits, launched The Recovery Project to raise awareness that addiction is a treatable disease. The group holds town-hall discussions, provides guides to addiction-services resources, and hosts events all over the country. For Finnigan, this is the ultimate expression of harnessing the power of television for good. It’s also just another day at the office.

If you videotape somebody at their worst, they start to get it.

When you were approached to do Intervention, what did you initially think of the concept? 

I had the concept! A couple of years before, I wanted to do something like it. I just thought, “Who would I ever get who would really do it?” 

I didn’t get hired right away. They interviewed me and I just wasn’t what they were looking for. They’d probably like to have a 40-year-old blonde with large breasts. Months later, they came back to me—I think they talked to everybody who was a renowned interventionist. Back then it was still such a good-old-boy network. There weren’t a lot of women interventionists. That was 2004. It suddenly became the very chichi career to have, trust me. 

Addiction has really come out of the closet in pop culture.

What Intervention did was put hope and a face on addiction. It put a face on the families and the fact that these families do suffer. It’s a family disease. Then, by representing the hope, everybody didn’t feel so alone. When viewers saw these families in addiction, no matter what drug—over and over and over again on the show—they really went, “My God! I thought I was the only one that was having to go through that!” 

Do you ever worry about the effect of the show on the addicts who appear on it? 

No. We have a 78 percent success rate. Why would I worry about that? That’s like 70 percent higher than any other place or any network. 

What’s your secret?

It’s partly because people get recognized. Also, I really feel that, if you videotape somebody at their worst, they start to get it. I’ve always said this to families: If you go get yourself a camera, and video these people at their very worst, then video everybody who really loves them, and ask them what they’ve gone through. Then do an intervention and show it to them. They’ll go [to rehab].

I’m talking about addicts seeing themselves. You become a part of this whole process and you see how you hurt people. You see what you said and did and that you took all of your grandmother’s jewelry. I mean, you’re horrified. That breaks the denial faster than anything in the world. That’s really my definition of an intervention: A family holds a mirror up and every single person sees the same person—and it is different from what the addict sees. 

How can you say no [to rehab] when you see that? Nobody made that up. You don’t stay up all night on meth to make yourself look good. It becomes such a reality check. 

I’ve heard some rehabs have patients watch the show.

I am so enormously shocked when anybody shows Intervention at a treatment center. I mean, you don’t think there’s any triggers in there? Yeah, I'm always incredibly appalled.

In your book, When Enough Is Enough, you treat families a lot like addicts. It seems like you’re teaching families their own recovery program.

I am a family interventionist. That’s the reason I don’t have them write letters to the addict. I have them write statements. They all start the same way. They all look the same way. The addict-alcoholic, even if they don’t hear what the family wrote, they hear that every single person starts their statement with the same sentence. They’ve all come together. It has a cohesiveness.

I stay between three to five hours—sometimes it goes on seven hours—with the family, teaching them and telling them and showing them how they’ve enabled this situation and how they can’t keep living like this. The addict is drinking poison and expecting the family to die—and they are. 

You studied with Vernon Johnson, founder of the Johnson Institute and the father of interventions. What did you learn from him?

What I learned from him more than anything is that this work—helping people realize a solution before it’s too late— is a blessing. I remember saying to him, “I don’t know who you invite.” He’d say, “Well, the people that’ll be in the first two pews of the funeral.” In all the classes I’ve ever taken and all the different processes that I’ve ever learned—until he said those words to me, I never really realized the life-or-death situation that intervention is and should be. It was such a profound statement. 

And then he said, “And if they choose not to go [to rehab], then I always think it’s a really smart idea to allow them the privilege of planning their funeral.” I thought, Oh, God, I could never do that. I couldn’t say to somebody, “Okay, since you’re going to choose to die instead of live, let’s talk. What kind of music? Do you like Stevie Winwood? What about Eric Clapton?”  It was like I thought I could never so flippantly say something like that. Boy, have I said it. I was so glad that there was a tiny little part in my brain that got that planted. 

By the way, the first time I ever, ever heard anybody say, “Relapse is not a part of recovery,” it was Vern Johnson. Relapse is not a part of the rehabilitation. Relapse is not a part of a 12-step program. Relapse is a part of the disease of a victim. 

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