Intervention: From fear to empowerment

Julie Filby

This story originally appeared in the Denver Catholic Register Sept. 21, 2011. September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. This was the first in a two-part series on intervention. Click here for part 2, “Experts dispel common myths about intervention.”

Jheri Newell’s son John Paul, 30, had turned into someone she didn’t recognize. Her talented, sensitive, articulate, thoughtful son had withdrawn; he wouldn’t look her in the eyes; and he began lying and stealing—to the point that it landed him in jail for 17 days.

Over the course of two years, J.P. had become addicted to drugs. It started with Vicodin prescribed for a toothache, continued with Oxycontin, and ultimately led to an addiction to heroin.

“I realized he was turning into someone I didn’t know,” said Newell, a Catholic who attends various churches in the Denver Archdiocese. “The addiction started to really manipulate his personality, it’s insidious.”

Newell prayed that God would provide the help her family needed.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion because, you know, this is my loved one,” she said, breaking down and acknowledging the situation continues to weigh on her today. “You’re afraid …you’re just afraid …and then you start praying even harder than you usually do.

“It’s a matter of trusting that the right people are going to come into your life to help you with the situation,” she said.

In response to her prayers, she met Stephen Wilkins, a trained intervention provider.

On Dec. 1, 2010, Newell sat down with Wilkins at a restaurant for an hour and a half to discuss the situation and the possibility of conducting a family-structured intervention for J.P.

“We talked about how I felt, where I was in the process, where JP was in the process,” she said, “my expectations, my plans, and how an intervention actually works.”

A family-structured intervention is a process that involves several people, usually four to eight, that prepare as a group to approach a loved one who is involved in a self-destructive behavior, such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, gambling, an eating disorder or other health problem.

An intervention aims to motivate an individual to accept help for the addiction or behavioral issue, put relationships on the road to healing, and raise an individual’s self-esteem so he or she believes she can succeed at recovering.

“This is a loving process,” said Wilkins, a parishioner of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver, who has been doing interventions for eight years. “Everybody that participates in a family-structured intervention has the opportunity to start getting well, everybody. It’s my job to shepherd them through this process with as little anxiety as possible.”

Interventionists such as Wilkins—and Howie Madigan, who has assisted with some 2,400 interventions since 1974 and co-founded the National Center for Intervention—equip families with the tools needed to get treatment for loved ones. Appropriate treatments vary by individual and may include counseling, community-based programs, outpatient treatment or inpatient treatment.

“The truth is families are not equipped to deal with alcoholics and addicts,” said Wilkins, who is a recovering alcoholic of nine years. “They wear themselves out with the best of intentions.”

Wilkins generally provides two training sessions of three to five hours with a family prior to an intervention. Newell was grateful for the educational and therapeutic benefits of the training.

“Educating yourself through an interventionist is absolutely amazing because you’re now out of fear and into empowerment—it’s absolutely priceless,” she said. “Once you have someone guiding you … you know you’re doing the right thing, and you’re being pushed along by God.”

On Feb. 8, Newell gathered four of J.P.’s closest family members and friends at a relative’s home, along with Wilkins, for an intervention. Each participant had prepared a letter that they read aloud to J.P.

“It’s very powerful to hear the voice along with the words,” she said. “And of course it’s emotional because the letters are very heartfelt and honest … it’s an incredible level of honesty. At the end of the letter, you ask: ‘Will you get help?’”

After more than two hours, Newell—along with Wilkins and J.P.’s younger brother—started the drive to a treatment facility; one that she had carefully researched and chosen in advance. After a few diversions along the way, including J.P. jumping out of the car at one point, she delivered her son safely to treatment.

“I know he has the faith, strength and stamina to get through this,” she said.

It is estimated when an intervention is done professionally, 85-90 percent of people, nationally, get some kind of treatment.

Madigan, a recovering alcoholic of 44 years, understands the power of addiction.

“The truth for an addict or an alcoholic is the single most important relationship in their life is the relationship they have with the thing they’re addicted to,” said the 76-year-old parishioner of Immaculate Conception in Lafayette. “They’ll sacrifice all other relationships, including their relationship with God most of the time, to stay with it.”

Newell believes the experience deepened her relationship with God.

“I didn’t realize how far I had gone from my relationship with God,” she said. “This experience has changed me immensely. I really had to trust God in a different manner…I really needed God more.”

This trust helped her deal with fear.

“At first I was afraid, but in order to really help an addict, it’s not about you—it’s about the steps that are needed to help that person,” she said. “Trust that God will give you the tools. The healing starts to happen; and it’s amazing what unfolds.”



National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems or 800-626-6910 Ext. 200


National Center for Intervention

Intervention services or group presentations (parish, parent or community groups)

Stephen Wilkins

720-366-4736 or


Interventionist training



National Catholic Council on Alcoholism and Related Drug Problems or 800-626-6910, Ext. 1200


Denver Area Central Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous or 303-322-4440 (24-hour hotline)


Recovery retreats based on 12-step spirituality

Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House

4801 N. Highway 67, Sedalia or 303-688-4198 Ext. 100

COMING UP: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

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Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr