Intervention Series Shows the Many Faces of Addiction
Think you know what an addict looks like? Many of us have preconceived notions of just what an addict is, and many of us are very surprised to learn that our ideas are totally off the mark. The truth is that addicts could look like you or me, the neighbor, your doctor, your son or daughter or parent or sibling. Addiction touches every strata of society: rich and poor, educated and illiterate, young and old, male and female. It also cuts across race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, and political affiliation. Intervention, the 2009 Emmy award-winning series on A&E, captures them succinctly and poignantly in a well-researched and compelling format.
Basic Stories, Real People
These are real-life stories, you see. They’re not actors and they’re not getting paid to lay out their addictions for the world to see. They agree to participate in a documentary on addiction. They don’t know they will soon face an intervention. If they accept the offer of treatment, the costs are picked up for them.
This is the basic format for each of the stories: first the interviews, shot on camera, with the addict, family members and close friends participating. Then comes the intervention, facilitated by a trained interventionist. The goal: get the addict to accept treatment. If the person agrees, he or she is immediately whisked off to the treatment facility – whether that involves going by car, taking a plane ride or other transportation. They are accompanied by the interventionist or staff from the treatment facility. There’s no turning back once the commitment has been secured. It’s off to treatment, period.
Of course, no one likes it once they get to treatment. Addicts, as we come to know through the course of each of the programs, are fierce in their denial of their own problems. Even when they grudgingly come to admit that they might just have a little problem – but nothing they can’t lick – it comes with a series of caveats. Most of them just want to go home. Some of them leave before treatment is complete. They do so against recommendations and many of those that leave will relapse. Such is the addiction cycle. Without firmly committing to treatment and going through it with a genuine intent to get clean, addicts will simply revert back to their old habits and continue their downward slide.
The interventionist, along with the statements of family members and close friends, helps the addict to realize how deeply the addiction has hurt all concerned. There are a lot of tears shed, or bursts of anger. Some addicts walk out and refuse to come back. Others come back but still put up a fight. And so it goes.
While the format is consistent week to week, the stories are all different. These are, after all, individuals – each with unique backgrounds, each with their own addiction to overcome.
Here are a few of their stories, in brief.
“Rocky” – Crack Addict
In Camden, New Jersey, Rocky, a 50-year-old black man, a former two-time Junior Lightweight boxing champion who was discovered by Muhammad Ali, agrees to be in a documentary about addiction. He doesn’t know he will soon face an intervention.
“I’m a drug addict, homeless crackhead dope fiend,” Rocky says at the outset of the program. Tired and worn-down, Rocky looks less like a former champion and more like his self-description. He’s been doing $5 bags of rock for the past 15 years – and smokes up to 15 bags a day. “Feels like heaven, just temporary,” Rocky muses.
He knows his temporary heaven can bring on a sudden heart attack or stroke, but that doesn’t stop him. Never has. He panhandles 6 hours a day just to get the money for his crack and alcohol. Homeless for the past 10 years, Rocky has been living in abandoned houses for the past 4 years. A stroke left one leg paralyzed and Rocky walks with a shuffling limp.
It’s a long way from the limelight of his championship days. He had it all back then: money, power, and fame. But the success, the relentless pressure, and the boxing lifestyle brought him down, leading Rocky to turn to drugs and alcohol. Now, even though locals still call him “Champ,” he’s lost everything – his marriage, his twin sons, Ricky and Lamar, his wealth, and his title. Without immediate help, Rocky will likely die soon.
Rocky tells an interviewer at one point, “It was all worthless, to be champ and lose it all.”
One of his twin sons, Ricky, has gone to great lengths to get some help for his Dad, knowing that this is the Champ’s last and best chance of survival. During the pre-intervention, family members and close friends meet with the interventionist, Candy Finnigan, to go over what to expect during the intervention. On the day of the intervention, Rocky, who believes he’s going to his final interview, enters to find his two sons, best friend, and brother. Lamar, Ricky’s twin brother, hasn’t spoken to his father for 15 years.
During the intervention, things get very emotional, and both Ricky and Lamar break down in tears. The Champ, seeing how Lamar completely breaks down, calling for his Dad to accept help, finally agrees. After Rocky utters the words, “I will accept,” he is taken to Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center in Louisiana. After 2-1/2 months of treatment, Ricky and Lamar go to visit their Dad. Sober for 75 days, Rocky still has a difficult time getting past his ego, the counselors tell the sons. Still, he makes small progress. After 90 days, Rocky leaves treatment against his therapists’ advice. He lives in a sober living home in Louisiana and is in contact with his sons on a regular basis. He has been sober since November 9, 2009.
“Shane” – OxyContin Addict
Shane is a 26-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona, a talented cellist and aspiring music producer. His twin sister is Vanessa. When the brother and sister were nine, their father got hurt in a car accident and took to his bed for a year. His wife and kids tended to him hand and foot while he abused prescription drugs. Shane’s parents divorced when he was just 15. At 16, Shane was in a car accident, injuring his neck. He was prescribed OxyContin for pain and Xanax for anxiety. In no time, he was abusing the pills.
Shane and Vanessa drank and used drugs from age 15 to 24. Vanessa then moved to California to start her life over. Shane moved in with his grandmother, selling drugs out of her house to finance his out-of-control prescription drug habit.
He’s following in his father’s deadly footsteps (Shane’s dad died from an overdose) – and the future looks grim. His only hope is an intervention, which is arranged by his grandmother and twin sister, Vanessa. The interventionist is Jeff VanVonderen.
It isn’t easy – it never is – but, after the emotional turmoil, the tears, bitter accusations, shame and regret, Shane finally agrees to accept treatment at a facility in Florida. After he completes treatment, he moves into a halfway house there. Shane has been sober since November 2009.
“Allison” – Inhalant Addict
Allison is addicted to inhalants. Each day, she inhales 10 to 12 computer duster cans. She is also anorexic and a cutter. Literally wasting away, without immediate help, Allison will soon die. She has agreed to participate in a documentary about addiction. She doesn’t know that she will soon face her own intervention.
Allegedly, Allison and her sister, Erica, 2-1/2 years younger, were abused as youngsters. Despite investigation and a trial, the alleged abuser was let go due a lack of evidence. Allison and Erica’s father divorced when she was 9 and he left for the Middle East. She has had no contact with her father ever since.
Nevertheless, Allison did well in school, participating in band. She entered college, studying pre-med and music. At 22, she married – and got divorced 8 months later. After a boyfriend introduced her to inhalants, Allison was hooked. There were a string of other boyfriends, but none of them stayed. They couldn’t handle Allison’s constant abuse of inhalants. It was literally all she did all day. A second marriage lasted 2 months. Again, the reason was Allison’s incessant inhalant abuse.
Soon, Allison found a sugar daddy, a 46-year old man, married with two kids, who paid for her rent and groceries – and financed her drug use.
Allison’s mother, sister, half sister, uncle and grandmother arranged for an intervention to save Allison’s life. They met for the pre-intervention with Jeff VanVonderen, the professional interventionist. Gathering their thoughts and going through the game plan, the family prepared for the intervention the next day.
It was one heck of a session, and one that ended without a favorable resolution. Allison kicked and screamed, refusing to hear. Jeff spoke plainly and directly, “Allison, what are you willing to do?” Erica pleaded with Allison to accept help, to go to treatment. Allison stormed out of the room.
Allison’s mother called the sugar daddy from the intervention room and told him he was not to provide any more rent or give Allison any money – or his wife would learn all about the affair.
Back in her apartment, constantly inhaling from the computer duster cans, Allison was barely coherent as animal control came and took her two cats. She cried hysterically and bitterly fought the police who arrived to take her to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
After 7 hours, Allison was released because she was no harm to herself. She finally agreed to go to treatment and left immediately for a Port Hueneme, California treatment facility. Two months later, Allison was better, working on her shame and learning to manage her emotions. She now works at a treatment center in California, talks with her mom and sisters each week.
Allison has been sober since 2008.
“Amy” – Eating Disorder
Amy is the youngest child of Wendy and Len, and has an older brother and sister, Jonathan and Lara. Amy was born in South Africa and immigrated with her parents to Toronto 22 years ago to escape the violence of apartheid. Always suffering from anxiety and low self-esteem as a child, Amy became anorexic and, soon later, bulimic. Today, still living with her parents, Amy is so emaciated that her parents fear she will die soon. That’s why they’ve sought help in the form of an intervention. Amy has agreed to participate in a documentary about addiction. She has no idea she’s about to face her own intervention.
“I love binging and purging,” Amy tells an interviewer. “I need it. I crave it. I want it.” She’s been bulimic for the past 4 years, and binges and purges up to 4 times a day.
According to Wendy, all Amy thinks about is, “What am I going to eat? What am I going to binge on and when am I going to purge?”
An average weight for someone Amy’s height and build is between 115 and 154 pounds. Amy weighs 92 pounds. Her father, Len, remarks, “She looks like she’s in a concentration camp.”
“I can’t describe how good food tastes,” Amy explains. “There’s no way to describe how explosive all the flavors are.”
Average caloric intake for a woman Amy’s height is 2300 calories per day. Amy eats up to 24,000 calories per day. She eats until she can’t eat another bite. “Then the guilt switches in” and “I have to get it out,” Amy says. “Then it’s a different euphoria… It’s like Aaah.”
Amy also has osteoporosis.
Looking back, Wendy and Len say Amy always had problems. She needed to be told when it was time to do something and she was extremely resentful and jealous of her older sister, Lara. “I have never been content being Amy,” Amy observes.
At 14, Amy went to high school. She weighed 109 pounds. Her self-esteem plummeted. She became obsessed with exercise and body image. This was the start of her ritualistic, obsessive-compulsive behavior. She knew something was going on when she stopped getting her period. “Anorexia became my best friend.”
At 18, she graduated high school and entered college – but dropped out after one semester. “I couldn’t sit there and take notes.” Eight months after leaving college, Amy started binging. She gained 35 pounds in two months. At 20, Amy purged for the first time. Then, she purged daily.
Three years ago, Amy’s parents sent her to treatment. When she came home, she seemed great. At her one year anniversary, Amy wanted to celebrate her success. No one wanted to. One year and one day after her release from treatment, she relapsed. She shoplifted to get money for food. She stole her sister’s engagement and wedding rings to get money for food. She stole $2,200 from her brother, Jonathan’s, checking account. Both Lara and Jonathan have a lot of anger toward Amy, who has never apologized for her actions.
Following a check-up, Amy’s doctor tells Wendy that her daughter may have a heart arrhythmia and she needs to go to the hospital emergency room. After tests are done and the results are inconclusive, it’s recommended she be placed under psychiatric observation. Amy refuses. She goes home against medical advice. Although she’s 24, her behavior is that of a 2-year old – she screams and shouts and has tantrums when she doesn’t get her way.
Interventionist Candy Finnigan meets with the family to prepare them for the intervention. It won’t be easy, but all are determined to do something. It’s the last hope Amy has. Candy tells the family that if Amy doesn’t go into treatment, she’ll need to go into a psychiatric ward, with her parents as guardians. “It might be the only way to keep her alive,” Candy warns.
The intervention begins with Wendy, then Lara, Jonathan, and Len speaking to Amy about how her eating disorder has affected their lives. Amy sits stoic, finally breaking into tears and sobs after her father’s words. She agrees to accept treatment and Candy takes her to Remuda Ranch in Milford, Virginia.
Three months later, Amy’s parents visit. Amy has been making progress, even though it’s been difficult. Her mother, in the meantime, has changed her own behavior and is stronger. She will no longer enable Amy’s disorder. After Amy completes treatment, she moves into an extended care facility at Remuda Ranch. She is discharged 12 days due to noncompliance. Her parents will not allow her to come home. Amy now stays with a friend in Toronto and continues to binge and purge daily.
“Vinnie” – Crack Addict
Vinnie, 28, is a crack addict in Hartford, Connecticut. Suffering from attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Vinnie has been addicted to crack for the past 8 years. Agreeing to participate in a documentary on drug addiction, Vinnie tells interviewers, “I like to live life as fast as I can. Without drugs, my mind’s like a ball going a hundred miles an hour. After that first or second hit, I can breathe. Crack gives me relief.”
Abuse of crack can also result in cardiac arrest, stroke and death. But tell that to an addict. All they care about is getting the next hit.
Ivana, Vinnie’s mother, tearfully says, “He spends $200 a night on crack.” His habit costs $1,000 a week. To get the money to finance his habit, Vinnie steals and sells car parts. Younger brother Sal (same name as Vinnie’s father, who refused to take part in the documentary), says Vinnie stole more than $30,000 in car parts, stereos and accessories in the past year just for crack.
“I’m known as one of the kind in Hartford that can steal a car the fastest,” Vinnie boasts, his eyes half-lidded, his face bearing dark, angry scars. He throws up blood daily. Crack abuse often causes stomach problems and ulcers. Vinnie comments about “an acid taste from his stomach,” but he says it in a matter of fact way.
Vinnie’s younger sister, Michelle, remarks that Vinnie was a happy kid, always on the go, always wanted to run. Ivana recalls her sister, who was into astrology, told her Vinnie would make her life hell – and he has. Teachers said he was a troublemaker. He had few friends, was hyperactive, always trying to be the center of attention. But the one he most wanted attention from – his father – wouldn’t give it. Sicilian, he wasn’t into hugs or demonstrating affection. He never gave praise to Vinnie, either, but would rebuke him and call him stupid, a moron, and an imbecile. Still, as Vinnie relates, he kept going back, hoping his father would change.
Vinnie was into bikes, and raced BMX bikes, becoming state champion twice. His father is a self-taught mechanic who runs his own auto shop.
When Vinnie was 14, his parents divorced. He and Sal lived with their father while Michelle went to live with Ivana. Vinnie started to be out more, doing what he wanted whenever he wanted. At 17, Vinnie moved to his Mom’s apartment. He dropped out of school less than a year later. And he went downhill fast.
At 18, Vinnie smoked marijuana for the first time. At 4 months, he used it every day. His mother tolerated it, thought it might make his ADHD better, calm him down. At 19, Vinnie tried crack for the first time. At 20, Vinnie got kicked out of his mother’s house and started sleeping at friends’ homes, sold all his stuff and started stealing. He did drugs all day long.
“I was very angry. I told my mom I was going to kill myself, hang myself. They’d all be better off if I was dead,” Vinnie says.
Ivana breaks down in front of the interviewer. “I thought, maybe it would be better if he did die. He’d be at peace. I hate myself for saying it, but I can’t help it.”
Vinnie began living out of his truck. Feeling abandoned by his brother, sister, mother and father, Vinnie got a dog, Max. “Max is my best friend. He’s like my son. That dog is everything to me.”
Finally, Vinnie’s mom let him come home. She did everything for him, cooking, his laundry, giving him money for his drugs. Vinnie says, “She helps me because of guilt.” Vinnie sold his truck (the one his father bought for him a year ago) for $300 to buy crack. Now that the drugs have worn off and Vinnie realizes what he did, he wants his mother to give him the money so he can get his truck back. He knows he’s at bottom. “They tell me I’m retarded, I’m a moron, I’m stupid. It’s true.” Vinnie breaks down, saying, “There’s a big empty spot in me and I just keep filling it with drugs.”
The family has arranged for an intervention. During the pre-intervention meeting, the interventionist, Candy Finnigan, tells Ivana in no uncertain terms, “This family is as sick as Vinnie. You have to change, too.” She tells Ivana she will need to go to the Betty Ford Center family week therapy to talk about all of her shame and blame. “I can get Vinnie to change, but not you. You are the only one that’s going to make a difference.”
During the intervention, Michelle, Sal and Ivana talk about how Vinnie’s addiction to crack has negatively affected their lives. Vinnie sits, stoic, throughout. At the end of his mother’s tearful plea, he accepts treatment. On the way out, he remarks to the camera, “This is better than any dirt bike they ever bought me in my life.” Candy takes Vinnie on a plane and he begins treatment at Life’s Journey Center in Palm Springs, California.
Although Vinnie began to learn healthy coping skills and how to safely identify triggers – things such as family issues – he left treatment after 29 days. His mom flew him home. She had attended Betty Ford family week. Vinnie worked at his father’s shop until they had an argument. Vinnie has had several relapses, but says he has been sober since March 12, 2010.
“Gabe” – Gambling Addiction
This episode launched the Emmy-award winning show, Intervention, and is worth revisiting. It was recently re-broadcast with updates to the progress of Gabe, a young man with a gambling addiction.
“I’m in love with gambling,” says Gabe. “That’s my mistress. My whole day revolves around how am I going to get money… I do wish that my life were completely turned around.”
Gabe’s first love is music: playing, singing, writing. It’s what he hopes and dreams about. But his gambling addiction has gotten in the way. “Being ashamed of myself is a major impact,” Gabe confesses. “I am a gambling addict.”
For the past 6 years, Gabe has been gambling 4 days a week, and up to 12 hours a day. When he’s in the casino, Gabe says he feels “such an excitement. I know the odds are against me…but I know it is possible [to win big]…I’ve done it before.” He’s also lost more than $500,000 in the past 6 years. He owes more than $180,000 to banks, casinos and credit card companies.
His father, Irv, says, “He’s possessed, but there’s never enough.”
Gabe says he once stayed up 4 days and nights gambling. “I’ve dug myself a hole so deep, the only way out I can see is to gamble again.”
An only son, Gabe was always close to his Mom, who spoiled him and made him her life. A demanding child, Gabe was also brilliant. In high school, he had a 156 I.Q. (131 is considered genius). At 11, he prepared at Cal State Lutheran for college and at 13, entered UCLA, the second youngest student ever admitted to UCLA. At 18, Gabe entered the Ph.D. program in biochemistry at UCLA Medical School and began teaching pre-med students. He got the idea to teach rap to his students and gained notoriety and a bit of celebrity, appearing on CBS with Dan Rather. His parents say he was led to believe he would have anything he wanted.
After one year in the Ph.D. program, Gabe left to pursue a career in music. For 5 years, he tried to produce, direct, start an online music company. He was unsuccessful.
At 21, Gabe started gambling. By age 25, he was gambling 4 days a week, maxing out all his credit cards and getting deeper and deeper into debt. His parents took out a home loan to pay off Gabe’s gambling debts. Last year, his parents had to sell their house, but Gabe still continued to gamble.
Gabe’s friends, Adam and Joe say he hasn’t paid them back for any money he “borrowed,” and he owes Adam more than $8,000. They don’t even want to take his calls anymore, because it will just be about getting more money to gamble. Adam says the parents are “fifty-fifty responsible for what he’s turned into.”
It’s true. They’ve enabled Gabe to keep on gambling. Since he is so brilliant, they let him do whatever he wanted. No need to take a menial job – he’s too gifted for that. They continued to support him – paying his apartment rent, food, car payment and insurance, giving him money to gamble and paying off his gambling debts. Now, however, they’re financially ruined and emotionally bankrupt. It has to stop. The family and friends have called for an intervention and meet a day ahead with interventionist, Jeff VanVonderen.
Irv tells VanVonderen that Gabe feels he’s entitled to everything they have, that they owe him – and that the idea is repellant to him. Gabe’s Mom can’t see how they can stop. When they’ve threatened to cut him off in the past, Gabe’s tried to commit suicide – 4 times. One time, he took an overdose of pills and hung himself by a rope by a mortuary. His parents found him, rushed him to the hospital where his stomach was pumped and he underwent a psychiatric evaluation. He was released.
The interventionist tells the parents and friends, “Tomorrow, he’s going to be held accountable. You need to have the biggest holds oh him that you can do. You’re not going to get another chance like this. This is crunch time.”
The next day, Gabe thinks he’s going to look at another apartment to rent. When he sees the assembled group, he’s already skeptical. It goes downhill from there, devolving into Gabe’s shouting and acting like a child. His parents give him the ultimatum: accept treatment or it’s all over: no more support, no more coddling. His friends tell him they’ll never see him again if he continues to gamble and doesn’t go for treatment. Gabe shouts at VanVonderen, saying “I don’t have any more tolerance for people trying to hoodwink me. I can take a bottle of pills and get over it.” VanVonderen says he’ll call 911 if Gabe is serious. Gabe tells him, “Okay, lay it on me. What else?” Ultimately, though, he agrees to go to treatment. He flies to South Carolina and enters Algamus Recovery Centers in Rock Hill. He leaves after 3 weeks against medical advice.
One year later, Jeff goes to see Gabe for the first time since Gabe left treatment. He tells him he’s going to be given “a second second-chance.” Jeff has arranged for Gabe to go back to Algamus. Gabe wants to think about it, and doesn’t wind up going.
Since 2005, Gabe has been producing his own music and teaching others. His parents continue to support him. And Gabe continues to gamble.
Treatment and Recovery Centers
For each episode, a licensed therapist recommends treatment and facilities that are based upon the specific needs of the addicts who participate in the Intervention series. The show works with numerous treatment and recovery centers throughout the United States and Canada.
Links to some of the treatment centers and facilities used in the show’s episodes are included on the Intervention website (http://www.aetv.com/intervention/int_treatment.jsp). It is not all-inclusive list, as not every treatment center and facility used is included. And, even though the links are there, anyone considering treatment should conduct their own research to determine the best treatment for their family, as well as the addict, and seek professional advice as appropriate.
Candy Finnigan and Jeff VanVonderen are board registered interventionists (Level) II.
Candy Finnigan, a nationally recognized addiction specialist, has been involved in all areas of recovery for the past 15 years. After receiving her certification in chemical dependency from UCLA, she completed her internship at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and worked there in addiction services. Certified in sex addiction and chemical dependency at The Meadows, Finnigan received her intervention training from Dr. Vern Johnson, the man who developed the process. Finnigan has been affiliated as an interventionist at Promises West and Malibu, Betty Ford Center, The Meadows, Cottonwood de Tucson, Vista Taos, Hazelden, Talbots, Caron, and other treatment centers. In addition to interventionist training, Finnigan is an expert in relapse prevention, family and individual counseling. She is the author of When Enough Is Enough: A Comprehensive Guide to Intervention, a book that provides advice to family members thinking about an intervention.
Jeff VanVonderen has been counseling individuals, families and organizations in the areas of addiction, family systems, and recovery for the past 25 years. A sought-after speaker and consultant, VanVonderen is the author of 5 books: Good News for the Chemically Dependent, Families Where Grace is in Place, When God’s People Let You Down, Tired of Trying to Measure Up, and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. VanVonderen has also been featured in broadcast media and magazines and has appeared as an expert witness in cases involving issues of abuse in 5 states: Alabama, Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington, and Wyoming.
If you are struggling with addiction, don’t wait a moment longer to get help. Call 1-800-662-HELP.
If someone you know is suffering from an addiction – alcohol, drugs, polysubstance abuse, gambling, etc. – and could benefit from an intervention, contact the Intervention show producers (http://www.aetv.com/intervention/participate/).