Do Interventions Really Work?

By Kristina Wandzilak 04/22/11

The confrontations we see on TV tend to favor the surprise attack model. But the renowned interventionist from TLC's hit show Addicted argues for a kinder, gentler approach.

TLC's Kristina Wanzilak makes the case for less confrontational interventions

Working as an interventionist for the last 15 years, I have been a maverick in the field, swimming against the current “ambush model” so much in mode these days. I don’t believe in subjecting unsuspecting addicts to surprise attacks. And that’s because all my research, studies and practice have continually reinforced the belief that addiction is a family disorder. We need to move from the idea that we’re treating addicts as flawed individuals to an approach that recognizes that addiction is usually a family disease.

My main problem with the surprise method is that the process is entirely addict-focused, with the whole family’s health hanging on its most dysfunctional member. I do not want the success of my interventions--and the health of my clients--to be contingent on the choices of the most impaired person. There was a time in my career that I considered getting a person into treatment a great success but I’ve learned over the years that this is actually the easiest part of my job. The real challenge is working with the families. There can be one person drinking and five people affected by alcoholism--or, as is often the case, more than one person addicted in the family. Why create an intervention for just one person when the whole family is hurting and needing help? I consider it a successful intervention when I have a family who is looking at their caretaking and enabling behaviors and at their own relationships with the addict and asking themselves, “How did we get here?” “What is my part in this?” “What can I change in me that will benefit my life and my family?”

Families and partners play a major role in the progression of every addiction. Behind every major addict is a major codependent, and the main thrust of my job is to collapse the codependent inter-family structures that allow addiction to progress. The truth is, families don’t have to wait for their addicted relatives to finally decide to change their lives. They have power--lots of power--to influence the lives and decisions of their loved one. It is true that you cannot change a person, but trust me when I say that change can certainly be encouraged. Addicts and families are usually engaged in a sophisticated and deadly dance but when family members decide to change the ways they interact with troubled members, addicts will shift their behavior in return.

I’ve come to understand that underneath the massive weight of addiction is a lost, hurting, terrified, good and decent person. And I believe the skill of a great interventionist is to be able to access that person quickly and effectively. I don’t think that surprising a person with their closest friends and family is the way to begin a trusting relationship. It is my job not just to get addicts help but also to inspire change and it’s my calling to ignite the small flicker of light that is buried deep within every addict I’ve had the pleasure to meet. And I begin this connection by being honest, up front and respectful.

I begin the process with an assessment that doesn't include the addicted person. Once we commit to working together as a team, with the family agreeing to follow my directions--even when it is painful and counter intuitive--I instruct them in how to talk to the addicted loved one and explain what the intervention will be. The addicted person may not be ready for change but the family is, and with or without them, we are moving forward.

About 98 percent of the time, the addicted person comes along but in cases where they don't, the intervention continues because the family needs help. Families do not have to suffer with addiction; they can heal, with or without, their loved one. We look at addiction, codependency and at enabling and caretaking behaviors. If the addict agrees to treatment, he or she leaves as soon as possible. If help isn't accepted, we talk about how the relationships in the family will have to change. Either way, treatment recommendations are made for each member of the family.

Then we move into the aftercare, where I follow and support each member in his or her action plans and commitment for 90 days. "Aftervention" -- my word -- is when we come back together at the end of 90 days, once the addicted person and the family have completed their treatment plans. We look at how far they have come as individuals therefore creating a healthier family system that is in recovery. I talk to them about what they need to do in order to continue the process of change. Aftervention is beautiful time of reflection and commitment moving forward.

While working as an interventionist is not always an easy task, I am fueled and driven in this endeavor by my hard-earned personal experience with addiction and my great passion for addicts and their families. As a person who was placed in treatment four times by the time I turned 21--homeless, beaten, broken and lost--I know first-hand just how important it is for the entire family to change.

Kristina Wandzilak, CAS BRI-II, is an international addiction interventionist, the founder and executive director of Full Circle Intervention, the author of the critically acclaimed memoir The Lost Years and the expert from TLCs Addicted

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