Of the estimated 23 million people in the United States who are living with a substance abuse issue, only about 3 million get care, according to Open Society Foundations. Sometimes, issues of insurance and payment stand in the way between addiction and recovery. In other cases, people don’t heal because the damage caused by addiction remains hidden to them. Even as their lives fall apart, they remain convinced that they are happy, healthy and in control. An intervention is designed to break through this wall of denial, helping addicted people to see the need for treatment and healing.
Many interventions take the form of letters, meaning that each person participating in the conversation creates a letter addressed to the addicted person, and when the day of the intervention arrives, people read their letters aloud. Obviously, these letters play an important role in helping people to accept the need for addiction treatment, and most families spend several days working on their letters. But knowing a little more about how typical letters sound and how they are structured might help family members to get a jumpstart on the work that lies ahead. This article will outline the important components of an intervention letter, along with hypothetical examples of what a completed letter might sound like. This hypothetical example is written from the point of view of a wife to her husband, but it could easily be modified to fit almost any addicted person and any concerned loved one.
Addicted people might be frightened or afraid when an intervention begins, certain that they’ll be attacked or disgraced due to the choices they’ve made in the past. The first part of every intervention letter should remind addicted people that they are loved and valued and that the family is there only to help and to provide a solution to the terrible problem of addiction. It’s perfectly acceptable to be emotional here, as long as the feelings expressed are genuine.
Outlining the Situation
Researchers writing in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry discuss this lack of insight, and they suggest that this phenomenon can impact people in different ways. Some people don’t think they have a problem at all, while others think they have some kind of problem that doesn’t really need treatment. It’s tempting to respond to denial with labels, calling the person an “addict,” a “drunk” or a “loser.” In general, this isn’t helpful. Labels don’t help to change a person’s mind as much as shut that person down and halt future communication. Instead, it’s best to simply outline the addiction’s impact in clear terms based on facts. That’s what this section of an intervention letter is designed to do.
In this section, families can mention specific instances in which they’ve noticed the addiction behavior. They might cite law enforcement action, test results or even the number of missed days from work. Any hard facts that are attributable to the addiction is best placed in this section.
Making It Personal
While many of the behaviors associated with addiction take their toll on the addicted person, there are some parts of addictive behavior that can ruin a family’s functioning. For example, people with addictions to Vicodin might pay as much as $25 per pill, according to CNN Money, and they might take hundreds of these pills each day. This can put a huge hole in the family budget. In addition, substance abuse can leave families feeling abandoned and guilty, and those feelings might be hard to bear.
Being honest is always a good idea, but families should take care to use positive language. Terms to avoid include:
- “You always.” Substitute with specifics, such as “last Friday.”
- “You make me feel.” Replace with the softer, “When this happens, I feel.”
- “This is your fault.” Omit altogether. This isn’t the time to place blame.
- “Why won’t you stop hurting me?” Substitute with the gentler, “I want things to get better.”
Providing the Solution
Up to this point, the letter has been focused on shining a light on the poor behavior and helping the person to see the need for care.
Now, families can begin to get positive and provide the person in need with a solution that can help.
Here, the family can discuss the treatment options available, and each letter should prompt the person to get help. Glossing over the details is acceptable, as the letters are just designed to introduce the concept of treatment. The real nitty-gritty of decision-making might come later in the conversation, and the family might then answer any questions the person has about how treatment might work.
Consequences for Refusal
Some people will quickly accept the treatment programs provided after listening to the heartfelt expressions of love and concern provided by their families.
This section of the letter contains those consequences. In an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, researchers call these statements “alternative consequences,” and they’re best used when they’re closely tied to compliance with treatment. Families that use vague statements like “You have to, or else” won’t find success, but families that get specific may provide a prompt that allows people to understand what will happen to them if they continue to harbor an addiction. These consequences might sound harsh, and they shouldn’t be so harsh that families won’t follow up on them, but they can be meaningful.
Good examples include:
- Refusal of financial support
- Sole custody of children or pets
- Change in living arrangements
- Refusal to nurse someone to health after a binge
Some families read these consequences right away, ending their letters with the vision of how life would be without treatment. Others hold their consequences in reserve, reading them aloud only when the addicted person has listened to everyone speak and continues to refuse care. Either method could be useful.
As these examples make clear, writing an intervention letter can be a stressful and emotional experience, and there’s a lot of pressure on families as they write. If you’d like to get help with your intervention letter, please call us. We can help you find a family mediator who can help you write it and help you rehearse reading it. Call to find out more.