What Can Go Wrong During an Intervention — And How You Can Handle It

If you’ve ever known an addicted individual or struggled with substance abuse yourself, you know how nerve-wracking it can be to even acknowledge the damage of addiction. People living with addiction can be unpredictable, flighty and downright mean when others bring up their struggle. Asking an addict to get help can go wrong in many ways.

While carefully planning and staging an intervention is one of the most effective ways to catalyze recovery, sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry. Between missteps in planning or execution of the intervention — and the actions of the addicted individual — interventions can still run off the rails.

Read on to learn what can go wrong during an intervention and what you can do to get it back on track.

The Basics of Intervention

Before you can prepare for the many contingencies that can occur during an intervention, you need a vice-like grip on the basics. The key to a successful intervention is a combination of planning and flexibility, so be sure to keep these integral intervention steps in mind:

1. Create a Plan

A friend or family member is usually the one that initiates the intervention planning. If that’s you, you’ll need to form a planning group. Not everyone in the planning group has to be present for the intervention, but they should all be people who have close ties to your loved one. You need people who know your loved one well enough to have an idea of their habits and behaviors surrounding addiction.

The other person you want around during the planning phases is a trained addiction specialist. It can be tempting to pick the first counselor you find to get things moving, but don’t settle for less than a qualified addiction specialist to help guide you through the steps and implementation of intervention.

2. Do Your Research

If you’re going to convince your loved one that treatment is the only option, you have to be knowledgeable about the subject. Research your loved one’s drug of choice, as well as the treatment options available for addiction. To make things go more smoothly, you can even begin reaching out to drug intervention programs and treatment centers to ensure a seamless transition from intervention to treatment.

research your loved one's drug choice

It’s also important to know the full extent of your loved one’s addiction. Put your group’s heads together to find as many patterns of use as you can, as well as the negative behaviors that result. An addicted individual relies on keeping certain information from certain people to make the issue seem less than what it is. Making sure the group is all on the same page as to the severity of addiction makes it harder for your loved one to lie their way out of treatment.

3. Gather a Team

The planning group now decides who will form the actual intervention team. Depending on the size of your planning group, all members might end up in the intervention — but keep in mind that interventions work best with relatively small groups of four to eight people. With fewer people present, you can keep the intimidation factor low for your loved one.

All of the intervention team members should have very close relationships with your loved one. They should be able to implement a consequence if your loved one refuses treatment, even if it’s just to say their habits won’t be supported or enabled any longer. It’s also helpful to have non-family members in the group, who can keep the discussion focused on facts and consequences instead of charged emotional responses.

Provide a consistent message

The intervention team should decide on key aspects of the event, such as its time and place, as well as what exactly you should discuss. The goal is to provide a consistent message to your loved one, as well as a well-structured plan of action for treatment.

4. Decide on Consequences

When it comes down to the wire, consequences can be the hardest part of an intervention — especially for involved family members. Addiction convinces people that most consequences don’t actually matter, only drugs and alcohol do. Most addicts can take one or two consequences of their substance abuse and convince themselves that “it’s not that bad,” but being faced directly with consequences set by loved ones makes it significantly harder to simply ignore them.

When setting consequences, is vital to choose ones that are both significant and doable. For example, if you are holding an intervention for the parent of your child, the heat of contention might tempt you to say they’ll never see the child again if they don’t get treatment. That would be impractical for two reasons: One, the extremity and perceived unfairness of the proposition is likely to elicit heavy backlash from the addicted person and, two, it’s not a practical course of action to carry out.

As a group, you should approve a list of consequences to make sure everyone is on the same page. When everyone agrees on the consequences, it also gives members of the intervention team incentive to follow through on the consequences.

5. Make Speaking Notes

Even though interventions are held for those you know and love, they can stir up some serious stage fright. Between uncertainty at the outcome and the emotional volatility of your loved one, you and your team might find yourself stumbling through the intervention rather than presenting a strong and unified front.

To avoid this, you and your team should get together and make notes on what exactly you want to say. Doing this as a group can help avoid too much overlap and present a more convincing case for treatment overall.

Have specific instances which lead to upheaval

There are a few bases to cover when figuring out what to say. You’ll want to point out specific instances when drug or alcohol use led to behavioral, emotional or financial upheaval and how that has affected you. The goal is to help your loved one understand the full toll of their addiction, while still showing your belief in their ability to change.

It helps to use “I statements,” which generally prompt less defensiveness. For example, instead of saying “Your drinking ruined my birthday party,” you could keep tensions lower by saying “I was very hurt and upset when you came to my party drunk.” This simple rephrase moves the emphasis from the person’s actions and onto the very real emotional consequences.

6. Hold the Meeting

The meeting itself is simply the execution of all the planning you’ve already done. Without telling your loved one what they’re coming for, invite them to the location of the intervention, at the agreed-upon time. Once there, with the help of your qualified intervention specialist, you and your group will take turns voicing their worries and feelings.

Once everyone has said their piece, you can present your loved one with their options for treatment — and the specific consequences from each individual should they refuse to enter rehab. There may be tension and tears, but many well-planned interventions are successful.

7. Follow Through

In the event your loved one agrees to enter treatment, the intervention doesn’t stop with the meeting. Addiction treatment is most successful when friends and family members stick with the individual through their time in treatment. This can be as simple as offering rides to therapy or as significant as participating in family counseling.

stay through their treatment

Perils of the Planning Stage

Now that you know what it looks like when an intervention goes right, it’s time to take a look at the less pleasant possibilities that can occur. Even if your plan is near perfection, forces outside of your control can still create some of these issues with your intervention, such as:

Your Loved One Comes to the Intervention Intoxicated

This is one of the most common examples of what can go wrong during an intervention. By the time an individual’s addiction has become visible and destructive enough to warrant an intervention, it’s likely they spend nearly all of their time finding and using drugs or alcohol. The chances of their being intoxicated during the intervention are rather high. If your loved one is intoxicated at the time of intervention, they may react with more hostility than they ordinarily would when sober, or they may simply not listen to what you say at all.

If your loved one shows up drunk or high, the best course of action is often to postpone the intervention. An inebriated person can’t process the gravity of the situation they are in. If you go ahead with the intervention, you’ll only be left with an emotionally exhausted team and an addicted loved one who is less likely to trust you.

In less severe cases of intervention intoxication, a specialist can make all of the difference. They can either guide the situation back into safe territory or make the difficult call on whether or not to stop the intervention until a more appropriate time.

Your Team Loses Focus

If your loved one is intoxicated or becomes otherwise belligerent, the nerves and tension can get to you or other members of your intervention team. All the team members have to stay focused and nonjudgmental in their words and actions, which can be hard when an intoxicated or implacably angry person is getting in their face.

stay focused and nonjudgmental
Feeling attacked, defensive and hurt is certainly understandable in this situation, but the intervention hinges on being a safe space for your loved one. An intervention specialist is trained in de-escalation techniques and can provide coaching before and during the event to help team members stay focused on helping your loved one, rather than their own reactions.

Your Loved One Gets Violent

Although it’s painful to admit, individuals suffering from addiction often cease to be the people we knew and loved before. Someone with no history of violence or anger problems can develop them as they fall deeper and deeper into drinking or drugs.

That’s another reason it’s vital to have an intervention specialist on hand, as they are trained in violence prevention and conflict resolution. They can help everyone keep their heads when tensions are rising.

Verbal abuse from the addict is unfortunately common during interventions. A specialist can teach you how to deflect it, rather than react defensively to it, and wind down the situation without physical violence. If physical violence does occur, however, it’s usually best to stop the intervention altogether, especially if a professional is not there to assist.

Your Loved One Leaves

When you successfully plan an intervention, you’ve chosen a safe space and people who can help create a nonjudgmental atmosphere of support and optimism for your loved one. Even if you do manage this, there’s still a chance your loved one will simply choose to walk out rather than face the music. If they’re not there, they won’t hear what you have to say and, therefore, won’t have to seriously consider change.
don't try to force someone to stay

It’s not wise to try and force someone to stay, and physical restraint is absolutely out of the question. An intervention specialist, however, stands a good chance of talking your loved one into hearing your group out, if not convincing them to accept consequences and treatment.

Your Loved One Refuses Treatment

Even if your loved one listens to each and every person’s concerns and complaints about their addiction, they still might deny that their problem is bad enough to warrant treatment. Or, they outright refuse it without a reason at all.

While many interventions do end with the addicted person entering treatment, some don’t. Just because your intervention doesn’t convince your loved one to seek treatment that day does not mean it was a failure — and it doesn’t mean your loved one will never change. Many people in recovery point to failed interventions as playing a role in their decision later to seek the life-changing help they needed.

As you can see, interventions can be tricky to implement properly. Even with a solid planning foundation and hammered-out words and consequences, you’re still dealing with a group of emotional individuals and one person whose primary priority is drug or alcohol use.

Having a trained intervention specialist on your team is key. As a third party, they can offer a unique perspective as well as unbiased support. They can calm your loved one down, if needed, while helping clarify your statements. They can keep the intervention on point and shift gears when needed. Most importantly, they have been through many interventions before and have effective strategies for addressing any issues that may arise.

What If My Loved One Won’t Accept Treatment?

If your intervention doesn’t result in immediate entry into treatment, don’t worry — it’s not the end of the road. You don’t need to completely cut your loved one out of your life, and you certainly shouldn’t give up on them and their ability to recover. To help turn things around:

Don’t Cut a Deal

When faced with legitimate consequences for their addiction, people often try to avoid fully fledged treatment by bargaining. They may try to convince you that they don’t need long-term treatment and simply attending a 12-step group will work. They might try to wriggle their way out of outpatient treatment by promising to find a therapist.
Don't let them bargain you down

For many, these concessions can be tempting, because some form of action is better than none at all, right? Unfortunately, this is wrong.
Communicate to your loved one that only long-term treatment at a rehab facility provides the best chance of recovery from addiction. You can bolster your case with the fact that the highest addiction treatment completion rate — 70 percent — is achieved with long-term treatment in which the addicted individual stays at the treatment facility.

Don’t allow your loved one to bargain you down to anything less than high-quality, long-term treatment. If you let your loved one convince you otherwise, you’re doing them a great disservice.

Keep Your Promises

We never want to hurt our loved ones, which is what makes keeping consequences so difficult. You’ve already made your intentions clear when it comes to the repercussions of continued drug abuse, now it’s your job to stick to what you’ve said.

You may have to file for divorce, stop financially supporting your loved one or apply for custody changes for your children. It may seem as if you’re being cruel or unfair, especially when others are implementing their consequences as well, but consistency and stability are paramount when it comes to the aftermath of interventions.

Stand Firm

When an addict’s enabling network is taken away from them, they often try to get it back through bargaining and pleading. Whatever changes you make in your life to stop supporting your loved one’s addiction have to stay that way — no matter what they say to the contrary.

stop supporting their addiction
For example, if your consequence is to stop giving financial support to your loved one, they may react by accepting your decision at first, only to dispute it later. After a few days, weeks or even months, they may come to you asking for “just a little bit” of money, or “just enough to get by.” It may seem as if you’re harming them by refusing to give even a little bit of money, but in reality you’re only confirming your support of their recovery — and refusing to be a part of their addiction.

Stage Another Intervention

Sometimes, even following all the above steps won’t stop an addict from returning to their drug of choice. Addiction is an incredibly powerful disease. It alters the brain’s chemical structure so that drugs or alcohol are the only forms of perceived pleasure a person can achieve. Just as it takes time and multiple exposures to develop an addiction, it can also take time and multiple interventions to get through to the person in a meaningful way.

If your first attempt at an intervention doesn’t work out, wait for a suitable period before staging another one. Depending on the hostility and defensiveness of your loved one, this can be weeks all the way up to months.
Try an experienced interventionist
If you didn’t have an intervention professional before, be sure to have one on your team this time. An experienced interventionist can make the difference between recovery and the hard road of long-term addiction for your loved one.

Finding an Intervention Specialist

When you’re dealing with the health of people you love, there’s no substitute for engaging with a trained professional. Addiction is no exception, and a qualified interventionist can provide the framework and guidance for a successful intervention, as well as help you carry it out smoothly. These compassionate professionals are a must with any intervention, but they are especially effective for those with:

  • Violent tendencies
  • A history of mental or behavioral health illness
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • Multiple addictions

If you’re ready to take the next steps in helping someone you care about overcome addiction, 12 Keys Rehab can help. With our intervention program, you can get the support you need with the technical details, including creating a safe and supportive environment, and the execution of your successful addiction intervention. Give your loved one the greatest chance at health and sobriety. Contact 12 Keys Rehab today.

The Addiction Blog