Of the estimated 21 million people ages 12 and over in the United States who need substance abuse treatment, only about 3.8 million get care, according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.1 Sometimes issues of insurance and payment are obstacles to addiction and recovery. In other cases, people don’t heal because the damage caused by addiction remains hidden to them.2 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 get a jumpstart on the work that lies ahead.
Knowing what should be included can help you or a loved one compose an intervention letter that expresses truth with compassion. The following includes hypothetical examples written from a wife to her husband that can be modified to fit any addicted loved one.
The first part of every intervention letter should remind your addicted loved one that they are valued and loved, and that the family is there to provide a solution to the problem. It’s acceptable to be emotional as long as the feelings expressed are genuine.
Remember that your addicted loved one might be frightened during an intervention. They may worry that they’ll be attacked or disgraced due to choices they’ve made in the past. Putting the emphasis on how much they are loved rather than how much you’ve been hurt is the best way to begin.
“Darling, I came to this meeting because I love you so much. I remember the day we first met and how my heart skipped a beat when you walked across the gym floor to ask me to dance. I loved building a home with you, and watching you hold our baby daughter for the first time is a moment I’ll just never forget.
I’ve been so happy to see you succeed in your work, and when you were promoted, I thought I would burst with pride. You mean everything to me, and that’s why I wanted to talk with you and urge you to get help.”
Outlining the Situation
People with addictions don’t mean to harm their family members, but they may have a complete lack of insight about the potential dangers their behaviors can cause. 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.” Labels don’t help change someone’s mind as much as they shut that person down and halt future communication. That’s why it’s best to simply outline the addiction’s impact in clear terms based on facts.
As you and your family members outline the facts, mention specific instances in which you’ve noticed the addictive behavior. Cite things like law enforcement action, test results or even the number of missed days from work. Place any hard evidence or negative behavioral outcomes in this section.
“Over the past six months, I’ve noticed that your alcohol use is becoming a significant problem. Last week, you were arrested for driving under the influence, and when your breath was tested, you had twice the legal limit of alcohol in your blood. Prior to that, I took you to the hospital for treatment when you came home intoxicated and fell, cutting open your head.
Finally, I attended our daughter’s graduation by myself because you were drinking at a bar with your friends. Your work has always been so important to you, but I noticed that you’ve missed five of the past 15 work days because you were too sick from drinking the night before.”
Making It Personal
While many of the behaviors associated with addiction take their toll on the person struggling, there are many addictive behaviors that can ruin an entire family. The amount an addicted person pays for drugs and alcohol on a daily basis can put a huge hole in the family budget.
As the substance takes over more and more of the addicted person’s life, it leaves family members feeling abandoned and guilty, and those feelings are hard to bear.
Being honest during an intervention is always a good, but take care to use positive language.3
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.”
“Alcohol is also beginning to be a difficulty in my life. When I bring the recycling barrel to the street, filled to the brim with bottles, I feel embarrassed and ashamed, certain that our neighbors are judging us. Yesterday, when we went to dinner, you drank a bottle of wine at the table and started to slur your speech and talk too loudly.
It was our anniversary, and I wanted to show you how much I value our relationship. Instead, I was worried about your safety, and I was angry that my plans weren’t valued.”
Providing the Solution
Up to this point, your intervention letter has focused on shining a light on poor behavior and helping the person to see the need for care. Now it’s time to provide your addicted loved one in with solutions that can help. In this section, discuss treatment available options and include a prompt for the person to get help.
“I miss the man I married, and I hope you’ll enter a treatment program for addiction. Here are two brochures for programs I’ve researched for you. I think you’ll like them, and I’m willing to bring you to the program you choose right now. I will also work with your office, so you can get the time off you need, and I’ll handle all the affairs at home until you come back. As soon as you agree, we’ll get started.”
Glossing over the details is acceptable, as intervention letters are designed to simply introduce the concept of treatment. The real nitty-gritty of decision-making might come later in the conversation. At that point, the family with the help of an interventionist, can answer any questions the person has about how treatment might work.
Consequences for Refusal
Some people quickly accept the treatment plan after listening to heartfelt expressions of love and concern provided by their families. But some people struggling with addiction continue to believe they don’t need care. They may not agree to enter treatment until they are faced with the consequences of refusal. This section of the letter contains these consequences.
Often referred to as “alternative consequences,” these statements are best used when closely tied to compliance with treatment. Vague statements like “You have to or else,” won’t produce the results that specific consequences will. Families that outline what will happen should their loved one refuse treatment provide a clear picture of what refusing treatment will look like going forward. The consequences may sound harsh, but often they are necessary to save the life of the person you love.
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 can be effective.
“I feel so strongly about this issue that I am willing to take steps to change my life, if you won’t change yours. If you don’t accept treatment, I will open a separate checking account, so my money won’t be spent on alcohol. If you don’t accept treatment, I will start sleeping in the guest room each night, so your snoring won’t keep me awake.
If you don’t accept treatment, I will not bring you to any public function with me, including family gatherings and workplace activities, and I won’t attend such events with you. Please, will you accept help, so these things won’t need to happen?”
Writing an intervention letter can be a stressful and emotional experience. If you and your family members need help writing an intervention letter or planning an intervention, please call us. We can connect you with an interventionist that will walk you through the process. Call 269-280-4673 to find out more.
1 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” SAMHSA - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, Sept. 2017.
2 “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, June 2018.
3 Wilcox, Stephen. “Intervention – Tips and Guidelines.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 25 July 2015.