When all else fails for desperate addicts, Jeff VanVonderen and his fellow interventionists step in to help. It's all in a day's work on A&E's ground-breaking series.
For sheer drama, it's hard to beat an intervention: A desperate family confronts an explosive addict and forces him to choose between a right-this-second trip to rehab or total disconnect. That's why it's impossible to avert your eyes from A&E's Intervention, which gives America a fly-on-the-wall view to such pyrotechnics. But it's not just riveting TV; it's also an inspiration to those who've seen it all before-in real life. In fact, following the first airings of the show, at least one intervention center logged its highest call volumes of the year. Jeff VanVonderen, one of the show's three interventionists, isn't surprised. "That's the reason I said yes to the show in the first place. Because in the past, when I did my own interventions, at least half the time someone would say, 'You know, I didn't even know there was something like this.' Or 'If I'd known about this ten years ago, maybe my dad would still be alive.' And I just thought, 'Well, that's not right!' And I pictured someone sitting on a sofa, and they've just given up on the addict, they don't know what else to do. And they flip through the channels and come across this show and go 'Wow! There is something else to do!'"
With the help of co-interventionists Candy Finnigan, Dr. Tara Fields, and VanVonderen, Intervention takes audiences from pre-intervention family counseling through intervention and long-term outcome. But by also giving a sometimes shockingly up-close look into the lives of practicing addicts-scoring drugs, taking drugs, even stealing them-the show lets viewers in on just how high the stakes are for the families who have often watched this downward spiral for years.
While the idea of inserting cameras into such an emotionally charged situation might strike some as exploitative, VanVonderen says that once issues of confidentiality are dealt with, opening up the addicts' stories to the world is actually good for them. "The truth is that denial is the hallmark symptom of this disease. So the more we talk about it out loud, the more it gives people permission to talk about it, and the more it breaks through denial. And denial is what's keeping them in bondage to this disease-and I don't just mean the addicts; I mean the families, too."
Indeed. As the show documents unsettlingly, family members often contribute to the problem, becoming as dependent on managing the addict as the addict is on his addiction. Witness the mother of rock star meth addict Travis, who gives her son money that she knows will go to drugs ("I'm literally cooperating with his demise," she laments). Or how about the father of crack addict Alyson who, upon hearing that she has agreed to go to rehab, immediately begins to offer her reasons to change her mind. "Sometimes the families are more difficult than the client," says VanVonderen. "Because the family has to hit bottom in terms of their ability to help or control or fix the problem, just as the addict has to hit bottom with his drug. Trying to help the addict has been their job, and it's hard for them to be fired."
Surprisingly, for all the built-in emotionalism of the show's intervention sequences, the real shocker tends to be in how fast the drama can dissipate. "Yeah," agrees VanVonderen, "Have you noticed that a lot of [the addicts] go kind of quickly? It's because in the training with the family I tell them that the only thing that comes out of the addict's mouth that we care about is 'OK, I'll go to rehab.' All the rest is just noise. And up until that point, they've been pleading with the noise and negotiating with the noise, and it's just pointless. And so when you see the addict get really violent or adversarial in the intervention, you'll also notice that people don't react too much, because it's just noise; like Charlie Brown's teacher-'Rah rah rah'-you know? And we don't engage the noise anymore."
That does not, however, mean "the noise" doesn't get loud: Viewers watch as gambling addict Gabe threatens suicide at the top of his lungs and meth addict Sara and gambling addict Alissa both choose homelessness over rehab and are filmed sobbing hysterically on the street. "It's just like a three-year-old having a tantrum," notes VanVonderen. "You ignore it and it goes away and then we get back on track." And, he says, sometimes the most violent and unequivocal refusals-like Gabe's-turn quickest into agreement. "The truth is it's not just the families that know they need help. A lot of times for the addict, it's like somebody just finally came and got 'em. And they're invited to say, 'Today is bad enough, it doesn't have to get any worse than today.'"