The TV series Intervention follows a predictable trajectory: bright-eyed kid suffers some sort of trauma, starts using, careens into full-blown addiction, goes through an intervention, and is redeemed by treatment. Usually. But what does a real-life intervention look like?
Vancouver-based Linda Lane-Devlin is the founder of Interventions On Demand and has performed hundreds of interventions over the last 19 years. Part referee, part therapist, part crisis management—she helps people struggling with addiction get into treatment. She's also a former addict, a factor that has helped her immensely in guiding others away from the edge.
VICE: How'd you get into this field?
Linda Lane-Devlin: I'm in recovery myself for almost 20 years. I was a mother with children and a husband and everything—and I almost destroyed my whole life and everybody else's. When I first got clean I was very grateful. I got some really good opportunities and my life changed really quick. To make those changes and then learn about addiction and how I could help other people. I was working for the government as a manager of addiction services for five years. I got put in leadership roles where we could be a part of big decision making around treatment. Then I became clinical supervisor for treatment centers. And it's only the last five years that I've really wanted to go out on my own and be my own boss.
What do you do exactly?
Friends and family will usually identify the need for an intervention. They'll say; "we need some help with Joe, he's using and it's causing a lot of problems in our lives." Then you're trying to arrange and coordinate the best treatment for that person in getting them the help that they need. It's not necessarily treatment—it could be getting them to abstain from drugs and alcohol, or a harm reduction approach; to reduce use. But mostly, it's about getting them out of dodge for a bit, getting them to a place that's safe. It's about intervening at a point where it's getting really bad for them and others and there are usually a lot of negative consequences. You're trying to get in there and facilitate the conversation and get them the help that they need.
There are different models of intervention. The Johnson model is where you surprise the person—but you want them to be in a state where they can hear a conversation. You don't want them to be too out of it. Other models—like the Arise model—is where you invite the person. No intervention has ever been the same for me. Every one of them has different variables. Sometimes they'll go away and come back in a few weeks because the family has shut down the resources. The success of the intervention is about the work that you do with the family more so than it is the addicted person.
How similar is it to the show Intervention?
It is very similar. I find with the show they really focus on the drug use. But what's good about the show is that they show the love. That it's not an opportunity to make someone feel worse about what they're doing. They're trying to get them help.
Sometimes, the first thing clients will ask is 'am I on TV'? Some of them want to be. It's a grandiose thing—they want that attention so that they can be seen. Especially younger ones. The older adults don't want to be on TV at all. You have to really affirm that they're not.
People may watch the show and think, "I'll just do my own intervention." Do you think that's wise?
I think there's a huge danger in that. You want to have a facilitator of interventions because there is so much that can go wrong. If someone feels targeted already there could be some aggression.
Are you seeing certain addictions more often?
You're hearing every day about all the overdose deaths with fentanyl and W-18. Those drugs are pretty scary. If they were around when I was using, I don't think I'd be alive. A lot of people are suffering withdrawals from these really strong opiates. Crystal meth is the one thing that really scares me for people. Some of the damages—you can't come back 100 percent. Whereas with alcohol and heroin, you can repair your body and health fairly quickly.
What was your most unusual intervention?
It's strange, but I've had an intervention where, as soon as the person's cat came into the room, they became open and loving. So I had to strategize on how to have the person's pet be a part of the process. Then they got to take the cat to treatment—that was the only way they would go.
What's been your most troubling case?
A young girl, working on the street, 17, on methadone and benzodiazepines, panhandling every day. Now, what she'll do is go out and look for fentanyl. She wants fentanyl because there's no more heroin really on the street. Even though she knows everybody's dying [from fentanyl overdose]. They don't think it's going to happen to them.
She tells me that—just me and you talking right now, having a normal conversation—she doesn't like that feeling. She classifies it [being high] as having "warm blood." "I need to be warm, I need to have warm blood." And that's the way she defines it. She's so afraid to be sick, and then normal like me and you, that it overrides the threat of death.
When are interventions most effective?
You come prepared and say; "let's go accept this gift of treatment, we've got it all set up for you." It's taking care of every detail—their bags are packed, ready to go—so they can leave with you in that car.
It's also helpful when it comes from a loving, caring place. When you go in blaming and accusing and shaming; it doesn't work. Their walls come up and they'll run the other way. I've had people run out of the front door and they're gone; they don't want to hear anything.
You want to have the conversation when they're not going to go into withdrawal. I've had some who were too sick and even became hospitalized. There's been a few where they're too high so they just take off. You usually want to do the intervention when they've just woken up so they're not too out of it.
How do you deal with outbursts?
It takes having a really good sense of self. You have to have boundaries in place for sure. It's about crisis management the whole time. You've seen those people that chase tornadoes. It's really like that because you don't know what to expect. You can get yelled and screamed at. I've been shoved around a little. You really have to look at safety. I've done an intervention where there was a police officer that lived next door—and he knew what was going on in case anyone became violent. Sometimes the person who is using drugs takes over the whole family, the whole household. I've had a client where he's punched holes in the walls and really targeted the parents. I've had one where an individual went right for the father and started strangling him.
What about after the intervention?
Families have to continue to do to work on themselves, and learn how to support the loved one in treatment. And what does coming home look like? With some of them it's not good to come home. I had a client from Northern Ontario—if he went home, he would be dead. Because of the way he used and the drugs and there were no resources to support him to stay clean. So he lives here—a year and a half clean, he's 18 years old and doing amazing. He's a little miracle. You have to make those calls sometimes too—getting people right out of their area. And families have a hard time with that. The feel like they've lost their loved one in another way. It's hard sometimes when people get well, they're still losing.
What has doing this job taught you about the nature of addiction?
You don't have to wait for people to hit rock bottom. You can help people think about the argument for change—where they are versus where they want to be. Because most people who are using compulsively and living with physical and mental health concerns and consequences—they don't want to be where they're at. They feel the compulsion and the obsession to use. And they don't think they can get out of it. I think people nowadays are getting clean younger—and they're not having to hit skid row to make that change. They're able to do it because they have the loving support and resources.
You've done interventions both in Canada and the US. What are the differences between the two countries in dealing with addiction?
The challenge is paying for treatment. The burden is on the family to pay for treatment these days because the waiting lists are so long. When doing interventions, you have to have treatment centers that are able to take the person in that day, so you have to really plan the interventions around the wait lists. In Canada, there are some government funded beds for treatment. But treatment hasn't been given more money from government in twenty years. So they have to run on their lean resources—they have to charge people for treatment. It's called the private pay. Some families don't have the money.
It's easier to get people in in the states because many states have state insurance that will cover some people's treatment. The treatment itself is more expensive than in Canada though.
What do clients think of you? Have any named their babies after you?
No babies! Are you kidding? I've had voodoo dolls made of me! At first, the interventionist is usually the person the user hates. Because you shut down their show and their resources. A lot of people have to grieve their use as well. Because it was a whole lifestyle. I think responsibility and accountability is really hard for people when they haven't done it for a while.
But then they go to treatment and say, "I really like being clean and sober." They've [written me] letters because they're so grateful that I've helped them save their life. That's the way they see it. When you have those situations, where you see them get healthy and completely change into different people—from the person who was bullying their parents and manipulating everyone to get their drugs—they come around and become fathers again, they become mothers again. You just see the amazing changes that people make when you take away the drugs and address the disease. It's a great feeling to see people overcome and recover.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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