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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. Why do so many people wait until they are in a deep crisis before doing an intervention?

Because they think, if they have an immense religious background or religious upbringing, that God will see them through. I'm going to be a little bit egotistical, but when somebody says to me, “I've been praying to God,” I go: “Here I am.” I always tell the story of the drowning man in the ocean, and God sends the steamer and then he sends the rowboat and then he sends the canoe and then he sends the kayak, and the man drowns. Then he gets up to God and says, “How come you didn’t save me God, I believed in you!” God says, “Who do you think sent all those boats?”

After all these years of the show, don’t a lot of the addicts know they're on Intervention

There have probably been 12 or 15 episodes in the last seven years that, when [the producers] found out that the person knew that she was on Intervention, the producers picked up and left.

Why is it so important that the addicts not know they are on Intervention?

Because that’d be like if I said, “Sacha, next Tuesday at 11, we’re going to hang you, and could you bring your own rope?”

Fortunately, the crew and the field directors are some of the most magnificent, caring, loving human beings I've ever met in my entire life, and this is their job—the empathy and the hard line of following a meth addict for 24 hours and always being able to discreetly be where they need to be. The only thing they’ve ever done that was maybe not “real” is, I think, they hid keys a couple of times from the people who were so drunk and they were going to drive. 

The whole world has respected this process. We’ve done 214 shows or something like that, and again between 76 percent and 78 percent are sober. 

I really had not started drinking alcoholically until after I had my daughter. I had no conceptual idea of how to take care of her. 

Are you concerned that addicts don’t have the mental fortitude to give consent to be filmed?

No, because the family is the one that contacts us. Addiction is a mental illness. I mean why else would you do something every single day to kill yourself? I don’t think you are in your right mind. 

This is too important. The epidemic that is going on in the United States of America right now that is not being talked about in the big world except by us in the field is prescription medicine. Somebody dies every 19 minutes of an overdose of prescription medication, and I just heard this statistic that 2,000 kids from the ages of 14 to 19—2,000 kids—use a prescription medication every single day for nonmedical use.

And they’re all so expensive. They're a dollar a milligram. You use three a day and that’s $240. You can get jacked on heroin for $60. We have all these heroin addicts now. That heroin comes from China and also comes from Afghanistan. Between the pharmaceutical companies and the Taliban, we’ve been supporting a whole lot of people. Bin Laden was a heroin addict. How else could you stay in one room for seven months?

How are the show’s treatment centers selected?

I’ve been instrumental in guiding them to great treatment centers. The treatment centers give scholarships; the show doesn’t pay for it. By using scholarships, the treatment centers sure try harder, I’ve found. That wasn’t really well-known; everybody thought that the show was paying for it. But, if the centers are taking on the responsibility, they’ve got to give good treatment. 99 percent of them have done just an exemplary job.  

What do you look for in a rehab facility? 

Programs that last for 90 days. They should also have a detox and a medical unit connected to the facility. There should be some type of psychological support, almost always 12-step support, and a family program. If they don’t have a family program, the Betty Ford Center has been incredibly generous by allowing the families to go through their family and children’s program. The children’s program is the greatest in the world. If somebody in an intervention won’t go to treatment, I still send the family there immediately. 

What was your own experience of addiction like?

I really had not started drinking alcoholically until after I had my daughter. I had no conceptual idea of how to take care of her. My daughter was the only baby I’d ever seen that was brand new. I was stunned. I remember going, “I don’t know if I can keep this child alive.” At night when she would finally go to sleep, I would start drinking. I would drink myself into, “Everything’s going to be okay.” Every night. Did you have an intervention?

Yes, my mother-in-law. I got sober the first time my mother-in-law opened her mouth. She told me that she would take my kids away from me. I’m adopted. Somebody’s going to take my kids away from me? It was the one thing that was promised me all my years of growing up: Nobody’s coming to get you. You’re ours. When she said she would take my kids away, I thought, “Over my dead body.” She gave me a certain amount of time to get it together. I believed her. I never doubted her—nor would anybody. She was six-foot-one, and a social worker, and the bailiff, and the welfare investigator, and the divorce investigator in this small county. I thought, “I believe her.” That’s how I got sober. Why I've stayed sober is because I knew from this intervening on me that, if I started drinking again, I just really knew that she would come and snatch these kids in a second.

That’s how I got sober. Intervention? Yes. I think so.

How did you become an interventionist?

I was a stay-at-home mom. The girl across the street said to me, “I got a great idea! Let’s go to UCLA and get our addiction certifications.” I went, “What?” She had been a pretty successful actress. She had never gone back to college. She really wanted a career. I thought: “Am I really going to go to work?” My kids were getting older, I didn’t know what I’d do. I was guided by a power greater than myself—and she just happened to be my neighbor! 

If I represent something, it’s that a loud broad from Kansas is able to quietly sit with the family and say to them, “I understand how you feel.”

I never ever imagined that this life would ever be possible. Intervention was the first documentary-based reality show. I love it. I watch it every week; it has a tremendous amount of power. At one point, there were like two million people that watched this show, and that’s a lot of people who want to look at other people’s misery and learn from it. I'm enamored with all the people we’ve been able to help.

Is it your life’s work?

It is my life’s work. I don’t do this alone. I have 15 minutes before every single intervention, where I sit quietly within myself and listen to the guidance that I need to be able to go in there and be strong and give these people hope. I don’t do anything other than represent recovery and absolutely represent hope. Love and religion have nothing to do with drug addiction. You can love somebody to death, because I’ve watched it over and over again. You can’t pray somebody well. You can’t heal them. 

If I represent something, it’s that a loud broad from Kansas is able to quietly sit with the family and say to them, “I understand how you feel.” It suddenly doesn’t have so much to do with me. It has to do with the power greater than myself. I really believe that. This isn’t the life I chose; it chose me. 

Sacha Z. Scoblic is the author of Unwasted and a Carter fellow for mental health journalism. She has written about Bob Forrest and the struggle for the new super painkiller, among other topics, for The Fix.

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