Ron Grover discovered his son was doing drugs when he was caught shoplifting a lighter from Walmart at age 15. Years later, Grover’s son was struggling with heroin addiction, and his parents didn’t know what to do.

“Before you know it, you have a problem on your hands,” Grover said. “You’re living on the edge of a razor at all times.”

Forty-six percent of U.S. adults like Grover have a family member or close friend with a current or past drug addiction, according to an October 2017 survey by Pew Research Center. Nationally, drug abuse ranges across all age groups, genders and ethnicities, according to a 2014 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Many addiction counseling services recommend intervention as the first step toward recovery, but there are three common mistakes loved ones often make. 

Intervening in Addiction Alone 

The purpose of intervention is to present reality to a person without anger or judgement, said Scott Teitelbaum, division chief of addiction medicine at the University of Florida. This moderator doesn’t need to be a paid interventionist, although Teitelbaum recommends these experts for their intervention experience. He said even a knowledgeable neighbor could be helpful.

“I think someone who is not emotionally involved is able to look at it and provide feedback and give guidance,” Teitelbaum said. “The moderator sometimes makes the person feel less under attack.” When people express their feelings, arguments can arise if the emotion-level becomes.

Grover said he did his share of yelling before seeking help through Community Reinforcement and Family Training, a program that helps family members of drug addicts to understand addiction and improve family interaction in the household. “You do all of these things – that I know since are counterproductive – in the heat of the moment,” Grover said.

Teitelbaum said loved ones should also be mindful of what they say to the addict. “How are you going to get to the person’s heart?” Teitelbaum said.

Saying the Wrong Thing

Certified Intervention Professional Jill Lopez from Colorado said loved ones often call her for advice because they don’t know what to say to the addict.

Grover and his wife were in this situation when they discovered their son’s addiction. “You’re scared because if they’re not at home, you’re afraid every phone call is the police,” he said. “When they’re home you’re on edge because you see the effects of the drugs.”

Lopez recommends each loved one involved write a calculated letter to the addict. “It’s the kind of letter that opens with love and then very lovingly transitions to what you’re seeing now,” Lopez said.

The beginning of the letter should discuss loving the addict and missing who they were before, Lopez said. The second half, she said, should cite specific examples of instances when they had disappointed others because of their addiction. “You take care of things that could get in the way of accepting help,” she said.

It’s also important to think of responses to potential objections, such as needing to care for their pet instead of going to a treatment facility, Lopez said. She insists the family must also prepare for the intervention to give it the best chances of working.

Failing to Properly Prepare

The people involved in an intervention must be well-rehearsed, Massachusetts Clinical Social Worker Frances Hall said. “The purpose is to help these people to be not angry but understanding,” he said.

Hall believes the first step requires the family to become educated on addiction, seeing it as a disease rather than a choice. After experiencing Community Reinforcement and Family Training, Grover said he and his wife found peace, even if they felt helpless in their son’s addiction. “It takes a lot of self-reflection when you’re a loved one or parent of an addict,” Grover said.

When mediating intervention cases, Hall said she meets with the family three or four times to create a plan for the intervention. She said the family should also have a treatment facility in place in case the person accepts help. “I make sure they understand what they’re up against,” Hall said. Without a scripted plan, the family will fall back into the same fight they have been having for months.

The final meeting is a run-through before the intervention, but it is important that the intervention is a surprise to the addict. “If you let them know, you lessen your chance of being successful,” Hall declared. She once did the run-through meeting at a Dunkin’ Donuts down the street from the addict’s house, allowing the family to prepare without being discovered. Hall said it is important to assign seats for the intervention, giving order to the letter-reading and eliminating interruptions. “You want to keep it loving but formal.”

The Aftermath

Grover’s son did what many addicts cannot. He decided to get sober and went cold turkey, detoxing in his girlfriend’s basement. He has been in recovery since July 2010.

But Mike Loverde, an intervention specialist in Illinois and former heroin addict, said he could not have overcome addiction without intervention. Loverde was introduced to drugs when he hurt his shoulder weightlifting in college. He said his friend who had cancer at the time gave him two Vicodin pills. “It was like there was a keyhole that never fit, and suddenly everything came together,” Loverde said about the power of the drugs.

Everyone gave his family advice that Loverde had to want to go to treatment before he could recover. However, Loverde said most addicts need intervention to go to recovery. He went to 19 rehabs before his family went through training with an intervention specialist and conducted an intervention of their own, which he credits for his recovery.

“I see now what they told my family and why it worked,” Loverde said. “Had they not done it, I know I wouldn’t be alive.