With a multitude of awards, a huge fan base and the distinction of having helped many addicts get help, the A&E series "Intervention" returns tonight for a tenth season with thirteen new episodes. The success rate of the series is evident in the numbers - since the series began in 2005, there have been 172 interventions and, to date, 134 of those individuals remain sober. However, there are many more who need help and in tonight's season premiere we meet Rachel, a young artist panhandling on the streets of New York City to support her heroin habit. While Rachel is aware she is being filmed for a show on addiction, she doesn't know about the impending intervention with her family - and interventionist Candy Finnigan - until she shows up and cameras are present to capture every harrowing, dramatic moment.
Along with Finnigan, Jeff VanVondoren returns to the series as one of the addiction experts while there are also two new faces - addiction specialists Rod Espudo and John Southworth - to help people get the best chance at getting healthy and, in many cases, staying alive. Finnigan and VanVondoren recently spoke with our Jim Halterman about how the cameras may or may not interfere, how they keep themselves emotionally protected through their work and how they respond to critics knocking the show for being too sensational.
Jim Halterman: When people come to the show, is it safe to say this is the last resort for them?
Jeff VanVondoren: I think it's the last resort anytime somebody calls an interventionist at all but that's why I said yes to the show. I never aspired to be on TV and I still don't get it. I'm just a guy from Wisconsin but half the time when I've done an intervention in private practice somebody would say 'I didn't know there was a thing like this' or they would say 'If I had known about this five years ago then maybe my Mom would be alive.' I would say 'There is such a thing and what a great way to get the word out to the public and there are people who can help.' That's why I said yes to the show.
JH: It seems that a lot of the interventionists have some sort of addiction or abuse in their background. Is that your experience?
Candy Finnigan: My experience is that many interventionists are recovering themselves. This is a two-edged sword. With compulsive behaviors (alcoholism, drug or gambling addiction, sexual addiction, etc.) understanding the problem and identification with the sufferer is a 'way in.' On the other hand, understanding and identification in themselves are not the only qualities that go into being an effective interventionist. A lot of people who are calling themselves 'interventionists' have little or no training, which can be dangerous to clients - doing more harm than good - and gives the profession a bad name.
JVV: I'm an alcoholic and just from my experience and who I know in the field I would say it is true that most of them are recovering from their own addiction issues but I also know quite a few don't and they have never had an issue with drinking or drugs.
JH: Does it change anything in the actual intervention having cameras present to document what happens? Is it intrusive to what you're trying to do?
JVV: It doesn't change anything for me. The show's mantra is that they are there to document, not direct. They give some direction before I get there. For instance, if I said 'Jim, how did you feel when you got that call the other night' you might say 'I felt sad' but the viewer doesn't know what the question was so the producers might say 'Can you say that in a complete sentence?' and then you say 'When I got the phone call, I felt sad.' Once I get there, that's all done. The camera people and the directors don't step in at all. That's how I want it. That's pretty much the way it happens. Now, we're at crunch time and I can't have them worry about the show more than worry about the intervention.
JH: You've been doing this a long time but how do you take care of yourself since what you are doing in your every day work is so emotionally taxing?
JVV: There's two parts to that. One part is that I live out in the woods at the end of a road where not even a car can go by my house so it's totally away from all that. I don't even watch the show. I get frustrated because I turn into an editor and I say 'I would've cut that out' or 'I would've left that in.' The other part of it is that I really respect people's right to stay sick. They don't have to get well for me to be okay. I hope they get well and I care about them a lot but if they choose not to, they get to. But they have the right to say no. Hardly any of them do but they get to and they don't have to say yes to make me a happy guy.
CF: My emotions are one the most effective tools I have. I have seen and felt the heartbreak myself, seen relationships destroyed and health ruined. I've been at the funerals. I am clinical in my training and preparation but never in the midst of the event. It is a wrenching, deeply emotional experience for everyone involved - including me - so I don't attempt to hide my honest feelings. Indeed, it's one of the ways I'm sometimes able to cut through the pervasive dysfunction and denial all around me. Intervention, I believe, is a profound act of love.
JH: In the season premiere, one of Rachel's biggest problems is that she believes her Dad hates her and she also blames her father for her body issues. Do things usually come back to the addict's family and their past with them?
JVV: We are who we are because of what's been done to us. We are who we are because of how we chose to respond to what's been done to us. I know people that have had worse things done to them than the people you see on the show that are in better shape than those people. It's the choices you make in how you respond to that. Addiction is a family system issue. A person cannot continue to use in a destructive way unless somebody is excusing it or ignoring it so that's where the family comes in. They come in with good intentions but they don't always help; they can make it worse.
JH: Candy, I thought it was interesting that Rachel said she knew you and knew the show when she realized she was in an intervention. You would think that seeing so many similar stories on the show would convince someone to get help but is it just that the addiction is stronger than common sense?
CF: Belligerent denial is one of the outstanding characteristics of addicts. When someone is in the grip of a progressive illness, 'common sense' has long since vanished. One of the definitions of addiction is loss of the power of choice. It's like dancing with a gorilla. The gorilla decides when you're done. Certainly, it's gratifying to be recognized as someone who represents the hope of recovery, but that in itself is no guarantee of success.
JH: I was concerned for you during Rachel's intervention when her boyfriend came into the mix since he had a history of violence. Is there usually someone there like a police officer or some kind of security just in case something goes wrong?
CF: The intervention on Rachel was a very unusual situation. In my private practice, I have, on the occasions I felt warranted caution, been accompanied by another professional trained in protection services. The show has hired people for that purpose but their presence was not apparent to the subject of the intervention. The intervention you reference was never supposed to include the deranged boyfriend and his appearance was an unwelcome surprise. But nine times out of ten, I walk into an intervention with nothing but thorough preparation and hope.
JH: There are critics of the show that think it sensationalizes the stories for dramatic effect and ratings. What do you have to say to them in response?
CF: That's like saying footage of Hurricane Katrina and its lasting devastation has been "sensationalized." Is the correct course of action to keep it a secret? There's no effort made, nor is there any need, to sensationalize the real human tragedy and drama that we film. All we have to do is show up and turn on the cameras. What you see is what it is. As for my contribution, there's nothing different in my behavior on the show and what I do in my private interventions. I've encountered people who clutch their pearls and accuse me of capitalizing on others' misery but the subjects on the show were miserable before they begged for, and were given, the chance at something better. What are the critics doing to help these families and countless families like them? Additionally, I know the show has helped many thousands of viewers who find themselves in exactly the same hopeless situation as the families they're watching because I get hundreds of emails every week from people thanking me for making them aware that they aren't alone and that there are solutions. The show shines a light on a national epidemic - the official remedy for which is mainly incarceration - and educates those who are desperate enough to be teachable. I'm not going to apologize for what I do. Right action needs no defense. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be useful.
"Intervention" premieres its tenth season tonight on A&E at 9/8c. Exclusive updated interviews with past subjects from the series first nine seasons are available on www.AETV.com/intervention.