When AA began, there was a strong idea that you shouldn’t push alcoholics into recovery until they want it. In the 1960s and early 1970s people began to realize that was fine for the one in thirty-five who got sober in AA, but what about the other thirty-four, who just suffered and eventually died? The process that developed, popularized by Vern Johnson (1980), was called intervention.

Intervention is a technique of breaking into a delusional system. It works very well with addiction. The delusion of addiction effectively prevents most addicts from seeing the reality of their disease.


  • I don’t have a problem.
  • Nothing is wrong.
  • It’s no big thing.

Types of Intervention

Intervention can be a formal process that happens infrequently or an informal technique used every day.

Formal A formal intervention is a planned, even choreographed, event designed to create a crisis in the life of an addict. Concerned family, friends, employers, or others closely involved in the individual’s life meet, share information, and prepare for the intervention. A trained professional may instruct the participants and even lead the intervention, in which all concerned share data and feelings about specific events in the person’s addictive behavior. The goal is usually immediate entry into a treatment program.

Informal An informal intervention takes advantage of one of the many crises that abound in the life of an addict. It often involves being prepared, and “striking while the iron is hot.” An informal intervention may take place without the participant(s) or the addict ever knowing it is an intervention.

Elements of Intervention

Whatever the style of the intervention, there are some elements that increase the chance of success:

Specific data addict, the more it hits home, and the harder it is to defend against. Compare these two items:

  • “You get mean and argumentative when you are drinking, and you make me so embarrassed.”
  • “On my birthday last year you came in yelling and screaming and slurring your speech, and my guests all left early. I told you I was embarrassed and hurt and you insulted me. That’s not like you.”

Love and concern If you, the participant(s), can show genuine love and concern for the addict, the addict is much less likely to see it as an attack. If you share how you feel, they will find it hard to argue with you.

Alternatives for recovery You have to give the addict some alternatives for recovery. Will power hasn’t worked in the past, so you need to have a solution that doesn’t just say, “try harder.”

A what-if clause If you have decided what you will do if the addict refuses the options for recovery you have offered, you have an edge. If you can honestly say, “I love you, but I can’t and won’t stay here and watch your addiction destroy both our lives,” you have a much more powerful bottom-line tool. It helps if family members are already in Al-Anon or committed to family treatment. The intervention can then be an invitation to join them in recovery.

It is important to carry through with your what-if clause, or the addiction will be enabled to continue. Unfortunately, many family members do not pursue their own recovery if the addict refuses help.

The worry over whether the intervention will be successful assumes that if the individual does not choose to enter treatment immediately, there has been a failure. In our experience, even an intervention that does not seem satisfactory to the interveners has probably raised the awareness of the problem and provides relief that it is finally out in the open. Most of these will eventually result either in the addict getting some help later, or in positive benefits to the family for getting honest about it.

Good insight to what intervention is actually doing is found in the Awareness Ratio module.


An intervention is one of the few opportunities an ordinary person can have to save a life. The risks are considerable; you may lose a friend — but if the addiction is rampant, how long would you keep the friendship anyway? Most addicts who get into recovery are very grateful to those who cared enough to take that risk.

Intervention, see also: Acceptance, Addiction model (PEMS), Awareness Ratio, Behavior, Crisis, Delusion, Disease concept, Employee assistance programs, Enabling, Gratitude, Inventory, Love & caring, Recovery, Responsibility, Self-centeredness, Service & giving, Sponsorship, Step One, Step Twelve, Therapy & treatment, Tools of recovery.

Updated 11 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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