Rescued from addiction
From drugs to alcohol to eating disorders, families and friends are using interventions to pull their loved ones back from the edge
RedEye / Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
John David was asleep, coming down from the heroin he'd shot the night before, when his doorbell rang one morning last April in his Humboldt Park apartment.
Waiting on his doorstep were his dad, mom, two sisters and their husbands, and his step-grandfather.
"I wasn't too sure what was going on," David, now 23, remembers. "I was kind of nervous."
What was going on was an intervention into a heroin habit that had led David to drop his longtime dream of cooking school and spend his days prowling Chicago Avenue for drugs he said he paid for by stealing, scamming and begging. Fearing the worst was to come, David's family confronted him that day with letters, tears and pleas that he seek treatment.
It was excruciating, David and his parents told RedEye. And it changed his life.
"I knew I had a problem with drugs, but I didn't have any clue what to do about it," said David, who says he is now drug-free, a chef and living near his parents in Wisconsin. "I don't think I would have done anything if my parents hadn't put their hand out."
Too often, experts say, the families and friends of people on self-destructive paths don't put their hands out soon enough.
There are efforts to change that. The A&E reality show "Intervention," which starts a new season Friday, and HBO's "The Addiction Project," a multimedia campaign that debuts on Thursday, aim to raise awareness of what addiction is and what people can do to help.
Hollywood offers more real-life lessons. The recent downfalls of Britney Spears, who entered rehab two weeks ago after several months of odd behavior, and Anna Nicole Smith, whose death last month shone a spotlight on her troubled life, are very public examples of lives allowed to spin out of control, some say.
"It's really sad when I look at people like Britney Spears or Anna Nicole, to look at all of these supposedly professional handlers who just enabled them by covering up, fixing their problems, keeping their secrets," said Bob Poznanovich, CEO of St. Paul, Minn.-based Addiction Intervention Resources, which the Davids hired to help with their intervention. "People were holding their hands but never gave them help."
Oftentimes, people who think they're helping inadvertently become enablers. They don't know what else to do and fear an intervention will be alienating.
"There's always this sense that they're being disloyal," said Jake Epperly, president of New Hope Recovery Center in Lincoln Park, which has an intervention team.
But by and large, interventions seem to work.
At New Hope, 75 percent of interventions lead to treatment, Epperly said, mostly for alcohol addictions but also for drug addictions, eating disorders and gambling.
At Addiction Intervention Resources, which has an office in Chicago, 90 percent of intervention subjects seek treatment for everything from substance abuse to depression to compulsive behaviors, Poznanovich said. (Meth addicts are an exception, with only 50 percent seeking treatment after an intervention, often because the drugs make them paranoid or psychotic, Poznanovich said.)
People who go into treatment after an intervention tend to fare better than if they go in alone because they have loved ones holding them accountable, experts say. Even if a staged intervention doesn't lead to immediate treatment, it often plants the seed that gets someone to seek help down the road.
The notions that people have to hit bottom before they can get better, or that they have to want help before they can be helped, are misguided and, in some ways, cruel, Poznanovich said.
"Interventions are a way to get people to get help before they are able to get help themselves," he said.
He speaks from experience.
Poznanovich was a successful vice president at Zenith Data Systems in Chicago when he developed a $1,000-a-day cocaine habit that derailed his life. He lost his job, his fiance and half a million dollars, he said. It wasn't until his mother and brother staged an intervention that he started treatment.
"I didn't want to have to ask for help," Poznanovich said. "The beauty of the intervention was that it was done for me."
David, 22 at the time of his intervention, said he at first felt his family members were ganging up on him when they confronted him. But he listened as they read the letters they'd prepared, telling him how his addiction was affecting their lives and that they wouldn't put up with it. He caved after the first letter, read by his older sister.
"It was an eye-opening experience," David said. "I had thought that I was by myself and no one really cared."
David's father, Douglas David, called the intervention experience "the worst thing you could imagine," even though it was successful.
John was a culinary arts student at Kendall College in Evanston (the school later moved to Chicago) when he started doing drugs his freshman year. He said he went from smoking pot to snorting OxyContin, then to snorting and shooting heroin.
"It was about not feeling accepted and wanting to feel accepted," John said.
He got suspended from school because his grades were suffering and never went back.
John said he did "the most despicable things" to support his heroin habit. He said he scammed money from his parents, did errands for dope dealers, panhandled and shoplifted. He was caught stealing $550 worth of DVDs from Best Buy in the fall of 2005 and spent five days in jail. Court records show he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor retail theft and was sentenced to court supervision.
"That was probably when I first knew that I had a problem, when I got caught," John said.
His parents, who were living in Wisconsin while their son's life came undone in Chicago, didn't see the signs at first.
Then, on a visit to Chicago, Douglas said he found a hypodermic needle in his son's bathroom. Later, John's girlfriend's mother told the Davids that she'd seen track marks on John's arms.
"We were scared to death," Douglas said.
Douglas awoke in the middle of the night and told his wife that he feared their son might end up on the streets and disappear. They became proactive, contacting treatment centers to learn what they could do. They hired David Eichhorn, Midwest director of intervention services for Addiction Intervention Resources, to help.
On April 29, 2006, family members flew in from across the country and gathered in a downtown Chicago hotel to write their letters. The next day, they rang John's doorbell.
"It was one of the most powerful [interventions] I'd ever seen," Eichhorn said. "They loved him so much, and he felt it."
John was admitted to Hazelden, a treatment center in Center City, Minn., for its 28-day residential program. Resentment of his family turned to appreciation. In the last week of the program, "it was like seeing miracles," Douglas said of his son's transformation.
After eight months of treatment that involved halfway houses and outpatient programs, John is now the head chef at a bakery and living in Wisconsin with his best friend from childhood. When he gets cravings, he calls his sponsor. He said he is "incredibly happy."
"There's a life afterwards. People should know you can get through it," John said. "People should know that there's always someone who will miss you if you die."
HOW DO YOU INTERVENE?
Intervention experts advise families and friends to approach as a group, armed with letters describing how the addiction has affected them and how their relationship will change if they don't seek help.
"A lot of times, people feel bad about the ultimatums, because it's scary to think that you might have to cut someone off," said Gretchen Feinholz, an addiction therapist with New Hope Recovery Center in Lincoln Park. "But it's important that what they say is what they follow through on."
Some of the most successful interventions take place at work because there's less wiggle room when an employer says to get help or get fired, said Bob Poznanovich of Addiction Intervention Resources. But more often, the heavy lifting falls to family and friends. Poznanovich offers some tips.
- Don't do it alone. Gather together the people who care about the person in crisis so you can confront him or her together, and be unified in your message.
- Don't keep their secrets. Everyone should be open and honest about what they know in order to get a true picture of the problem.
- Make arrangements. Have a treatment center picked out and reserved so that there are no obstacles.
- Write letters. Get your thoughts on paper about how the person's addiction or behavior has affected your life and include facts that prove they have a problem, so that you can read from the letter at the intervention.
- Don't make deals or threats that you can't keep. For example, don't say, "If you don't stop drinking, then I'll leave you"--if you're not really going to do it.
- You can't force them into a treatment center. Illinois law doesn't allow involuntary substance abuse treatment unless the person is mentally unstable and at risk of doing harm tothemselves or others. If they walk away, you still can change your own behavior so that you don't enable their problem.
WHEN DO YOU INTERVENE?
It's often difficult for friends and family members to know when it's time to intervene.
"Usually it's past time, sadly," said Lea Minalga, president of Hearts of Hope, a non-profit substance abuse education and counseling group in Geneva.
Minalga, who has had to stage interventions with her son several times since he started using heroin at 17, said the families themselves often are in denial.
"Usually, families have been living in a hurricane, and they get used to this unbalanced, dysfunctional household, and it becomes normal," Minalga said. "Sometimes it just takes a family member to finally scream, 'This isn't normal!' "
There can be concrete signs of a problem. Some people lose their jobs, let their relationships fall apart or don't do the activities they normally like. Others get into legal troubles or car accidents.
But often you feel in your gut when something's not right. Bob Poznanovich, CEO of Addiction Intervention Resources, said you should focus on your own feelings about the other person's behavior to determine when to intervene.
"When it's gotten so bad for you that you can't take it anymore, that's the jumping off point," he said.