TV's Mother-and-Son Intervention Team

By Will Godfrey 10/03/12

The subject of the first ever TV intervention now works alongside his mom in tonight's TLC special: Cracking Addiction. They speak with The Fix.

Brandon and Debbie confront two challenging
clients during the show.

Cracking Addiction, tonight's TLC special, spotlights the work of Debbie and Brandon Knauss—a mother-and-son intervention team. They first hit screens in 2003, when Brandon was the subject of the first ever TV intervention, on the Dr. Phil Show. Addicted to drugs including Vicodin and heroin, Brandon struggled, relapsed and at one point spent six months in jail. Debbie was desperate to help her son, and frustrated by professional advice including one therapist's assurance that Brandon could detox "safely" on his own—even though he was then taking between 20 and 40 Vicodin a day—and one psychiatrist's dismissive remark that "He's just a normal kid who wants to party and have a good time." After watching an episode of the Dr. Phil Show, and approving of Dr. Phil McGraw's "no-nonsense approach," she wrote in and received the help she'd hoped for. Brandon, now 30, has nearly seven years drug-free.

Debbie set up the family business, VIP (Vital Intervention Professionals), in 2008. She's a licensed chemical dependency counselor and psychiatric nurse, and also trained as an intervention professional. But she dislikes what she sees as some interventionists' tendency to remove uncooperative addicts' support, or even get them kicked out of their homes, she says. She contrasts this with her flexible, "whatever-it-takes" attitude. She started taking Brandon along to interventions because she "felt that there would be a better chance of saving that person's life if Brandon could communicate with them as a young person who has been there." And soon, "I could see Brandon's God-given talent." She believes that their partnership, of one male and one female, one qualified professional and one recovering addict, is ideally balanced. "We do our best work together because of our strong family bond. I'll know what Brandon is thinking about a situation—we don't even have to talk about it."

Brandon tells The Fix that "I have a lot of experience that they don't teach in school about what these kids are doing." Most of the clients he and his mother work with are in their teens and early 20s—the age at which he experienced his problems—which helps him to relate. He says that the drugs they most often receive calls about are heroin, opiate painkillers and meth: "We usually get called for all the most difficult cases!" He "couldn't imagine a better partner" than his mother, but admits that working with her has its difficulties: "It can be really hard to hear her talk about her personal memories, reliving all the pain I put my family through." However, "seeing the happiness on her face after we've helped someone is the most rewarding thing." 

Debbie says that being filmed while working "doesn't affect us at all. We forget that the cameras are there." And the clients? "Actually, they welcome it, because they've seen Brandon on TV—his intervention, his relapses—and they've seen how it worked." Brandon describes going on TV again as "an out-of-body, surreal experience" and a dream: "I feel so blessed to be able to help people in the way that I do."

"I want Cracking Addiction to reveal to families that this is a family disease, that this is a real disease and that you can recover," says Debbie. She feels that drug education in the US often isn't good enough: "When kids are just taught that 'drugs are bad,' then when they experience them for the first time, they're like 'whoa!' when they get that dopamine rush." Much of the information given to young people, she says, is "on a similar level to what they're told about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny." And she has words of caution for her colleagues in the addiction field: "In this industry, we're very quick to jump in and to judge when people go about recovery in different ways. Recovery is as unique as the individual in question."

TLC's Cracking Addiction airs Wednesday, October 3 at 9 pm Eastern. Preview clip:

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.