A Compassionate Approach to Addiction Intervention (excerpt)


            At our first meeting at a coffee shop, I watched out the window as Howie climbed from his truck, stretched out his long, lean frame, and slung his portable oxygen tank over his arm as casually as a woman would her purse. He came to our meeting reluctantly, I knew, because he didn’t want to call attention to himself. But Howie is now 78 and in poor health, and people who care deeply about Howie persuaded him that it had to be told. On this he did agree: If it would help even one person to tell his story, he was for it.

            Howie has no college degree nor medical credentials, yet in the last 46 years he has coordinated more than 2,400 largely successful addiction interventions, and is considered the Godfather of Intervention by nationally-known treatment centers. Many people owe their lives to Howie. Many others would like to understand what he knows, in order to help their own loved ones who are in deep trouble.

            Howie has thick white hair and a trimmed but hearty white mustache. His salt and pepper eyebrows bristle upward above his glasses. He is proud to be an American-born Irishman, although a wayward one, as he would say. Quickly I discovered him to be a great story-teller, with frequent waving of hands and punctuations of laughter. Yet his stories are not embellished. They get to the crux of who we are—human beings, all of us, as he says—created by God, and worthy of another chance.

            After a couple of sessions at the coffee shop, I met Howie early on a Saturday morning at a recovery group meeting. Howie carries in his pocket a “chip” that commemorates his 46 years of sobriety, and he attends recovery group meetings each week.

            I arrived late and looked around a jam-packed room of more than a hundred people sitting on folding chairs. I honed in on Howie sitting in the row along the front wall. His was the first seat to the right of the meeting leader. Relieved that Howie had not saved a seat up front for me, I took a chair along a side wall. The group was similar to what I might see in the doctor’s waiting room: a variety of ages (except children), sizes, and by their tattoos and attire, life-styles. A man and a woman worked the room with coffee carafes, refilling and joking.

            If it weren’t for the white hair and mustache, and the portable oxygen by his knee, I might not have recognized Howie. He was coiled down low in his chair, seemingly incognito, and was quiet and pensive throughout the meeting. As several people shared observations and stories, Howie didn’t say a word.

            After the meeting I worked my way against the dispersing crowd toward the front where Howie sat. I noticed that a gentle line formed by his chair, people who wanted to talk with him privately, so were willing to wait. A woman sat in the seat next to him and held his hand when it was her turn. Howie made no attempt to rise or to leave until the line was gone.

            At our next coffee appointment, I asked Howie about the meeting, and why he sat up front. He said he always does. It was about seeing and hearing. He needed to be where he could see people to hear them well. But he admitted that he likes the spot too: “I sit up there and people come up and give me hugs and give me coffee and ask me where my oxygen is and harass me a little bit and that's a big part of it,” he said.

            This book contains Howie’s years of wisdom and experience on conducting positive, compassionate interventions. It begins with the story of Howie’s addiction, and of his commitment to help anyone he can to get the help that they need. Then he explains his intervention method, and the steps necessary for thinking through, planning, and accomplishing one. Additional resources include what Howie has learned about addiction and recovery from 46 years in a recovery group, and things to consider in selecting an interventionist.

            Throughout the book, Howie’s intervention stories demonstrate some outcomes to anticipate—positive and negative—in order to help you plan a successful intervention.                        

            Although Howie’s own addiction and the majority of his interventions have dealt with alcohol, or alcohol and drugs, his wisdom as an interventionist applies across a broad range of addictions. The treatment options would vary, but not the basics of how to train the spouse, sibling, parent, co-worker or friend who may be on the intervention team. No matter the addiction, the point is to take a team of individuals, some of whom may be hurt and angry, and help them to be united, compassionate, and sensitive in the intervention, so that their message can be received.

            Howie defines a successful intervention as one that persuades the addict to get help. He wants to help you help them to get the help they need.

            Howie’s experience will give practical advice and encouragement to anyone who desperately wants to save a loved one who has spiraled downward into addiction. The things Howie would most want to give you are help and hope. He would not want to think he had let you down.

Mary Beth Lagerborg