Book Review of “The Interventionist” by Joani Gammill

Most of us only have a vague idea of what an interventionist does and what we do know is often full of contradictions and misinformation. Then again, most of us may never have need of an interventionist, let alone have cause to know who they are and what they do.

But for the millions of American families and individuals struggling with addiction of a loved one, friend or co-worker, it is sometimes only through the assistance of a professional interventionist that that loved one, friend or co-worker can be convinced to accept treatment.

And all interventions are by no means equal. Just how different – frightening, odd, downright dangerous, comforting and reassuring – the job of the interventionist can be is what Joani Gammill’s book, The Interventionist, is all about.

First of all, Gammill is not just some Joani-come-lately who figured out a good gig and does it. She’s got credentials and then some. Married, a suburban “soccer mom’ to two children in an upper-middle-class American town, Gammill was also secretly addicted to prescription painkillers and alcohol for years before she sent an urgent email to Dr. Phil, the TV self-help guru, begging for help to understand what was going on with her son.

Even though Gammill nearly died from an overdose of an injectable form of liquid morphine, she didn’t consider herself an addict. She would come to that acceptance a bit later, not that she didn’t seek help to try to curb her “habit.” Gammill has been in an out of detox and rehab more times than she’d like to count.

Gammill is also a registered nurse who worked in medical facilities and drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation centers. Following the communication with Dr. Phil, she went on to appear on his show and was herself the recipient of an intervention – TV style. Gammill credits Dr. Phil’s intervention with saving her life. But it certainly wasn’t easy. Accepting treatment and finally being able to overcome addiction is never easy. It’s also an ongoing process. Once you are addicted, you’re always an addict – the difference is that you’re an addict in recovery.

The Interventionist is an entertaining and thought-provoking compilation of Gammill’s interventions. Told in a candid, no-holds-barred fashion, it is at once witty, self-deprecating, and a brutal look at the inside of addiction. Besides being a successful interventionist able to get her charges into treatment, her words in the book resonate because she’s been there too.

Listen to what Gammill has to say about her tortured relationship with her father. “He was always around but never there. That statement sums up what every person who’s ever lived with an alcoholic feels to some degree.” Gammill’s father died drunk at the wheel when she was 18 years old.

Several of Gammill’s interventions involved teens. Describing one particular intervention, she says: “Giving teens mood-altering drugs is a dangerous game played with a not-fully-developed brain. Early drug use can negatively affect the growth process of the frontal lobe and be a precursor to addiction.” But what she has to say about her own growing up illustrates how well she knows what addiction is like. “I could be the poster child. Tranquilizers at age 15; needle in the arm at age forty-five.”

Dealing with another patient’s pill addiction ratcheted up Gammill’s own old demons. “Knowing that she has the pills – my one true love – has cued my brain to crave. Actually knowing what process is taking place helps me get through the craving. Like a wave, the craving will peak and flatten out. I have learned to wait it out with a combination of cognitive reasoning and prayer.

Despite her first love of prescription painkillers, Gammill is fully aware of substitute addictions and cross-addictions. “A less-favored substance, in my case, alcohol, would lead me back to narcotics. This is why it is impossible for addicts or alcoholics to use a substance they don’t consider themselves addicted to without getting addicted once again to their original love.’

What happens in a family situation when one member is addicted and the other is desperately trying to keep the unit intact? Anyone who has experienced addiction in the family knows that it’s a dicey situation, prone to all kinds of ups and downs, mostly downs. Gammill comments this way: “By the time the addicted person is spiraling out of control, the non-addicted party tries to manage the situation with increasingly controlling behavior. This is where Al-Anon comes in: getting significant others to embrace recovery for their side of the problem can be tougher than getting an addict into treatment. All good rehab centers have family programs that address this issue.’

Here’s how Gammill’s personal experience and her genuine understanding and compassion help her pull off seemingly impossible successful interventions. She tells the family members that if they get treatment, if they get into a recovery program of their own, the odds of their loved one getting well and staying well go up exponentially.

A huge part of recovery is for the recovering addict to make amends. It’s also a step in the 12-step recovery program that many have the most trouble with. Gammill comments: “We are taught that with amends, the job is done when we clear our side of the street with a heartfelt, sincere apology, taking responsibility for our actions. Whether or not the other person accepts our apology is not as important as taking honest ownership of our behavior. But you always hope to get a positive response.”

Another patient that Gammill had the pleasure (her words) of doing an intervention for was addicted to cocaine. The crushing truth is that the place in the brain where cocaine “hits’ activates repetitive movements. In Gammill’s observation, based on years of interaction with cocaine addicts, is that so many of them tend to obsessively and compulsively repeat an activity, “sometimes purposelessly picking at the face.”

What is the job of the interventionist? Besides getting the patient (addict) to agree to go to treatment, there’s more to the equation. Gammill is forthright in her words: “It is the job of the interventionist to help families under stress to choose a treatment facility by going beyond the glossy brochures and websites to talk about the plusses and minuses of each center, taking into account each family’s individual needs.”

In case anyone thinks that a professional interventionist, herself in recovery, has an easy time of it – especially being in constant contact with addicts and their drugs of choice – think again. Gammill tells the story of her own relapse and recovery, and closes the book with the observation that she still has work to do. She has gained the gift clarity by documenting her own story but recognizes that sobriety is, as one of her counselors told her long ago, “the circle of life. As you help someone else, you help yourself.”

The Interventionist is a fast-paced 320-page book that is easy to read – and you simply won’t want to put it down. By the way, you may see Joani Gammill on Dr. Phil, as she is a frequent guest on the program. She also speaks around the country on issues of addiction and recovery.

Joani Gammill’s website:

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