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 Her talented, sensitive, articulate, thoughtful son had withdrawn; he wouldn’t look her in the eyes; and he began lying and stealing—to the point that it landed him in jail for 17 days.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: Preparing your Home and Heart for the Advent Season

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The Advent season is a time of preparation for our hearts and minds for the Lord’s birth on Christmas.  It extends over the four Sundays before Christmas.  Try some of these Ideas to celebrate Advent in your home by decorating, cooking, singing, and reading your way to Christmas. Some of the best ideas are the simplest.

Special thanks to Patty Lunder for putting this together!

Advent Crafts

Handprint Advent Wreath for Children 
Bring the meaning of Advent into your home by having your kids make this fun and easy Advent wreath.

Pink and purple construction paper
– Yellow tissue or construction paper (to make a flame)
– One piece of red construction paper cut into 15 small circles
– Scissors
– Glue
– Two colors of green construction paper
– One paper plate
– 2 empty paper towel tubes

1. Take the two shades of green construction paper and cut out several of your child’s (Children’s) handprints. Glue the handprints to the rim of a paper plate with the center cut out.

2. Roll one of the paper towels tubes in purple construction paper and glue in place.

3. Take the second paper towel and roll half in pink construction paper and half in purple construction and glue in place.

4. Cut the covered paper towel tubes in half.

5. Cut 15 small circles from the red construction paper. Take three circles and glue two next to each other and a third below to make berries. Do this next to each candle until all circles are used.

6. Cut 4 rain drop shapes (to make a flame) from the yellow construction paper. Each week glue the yellow construction paper to the candle to make a flame. On the first week light the purple candle, the second week light the second purple candle, the third week light the pink candle and on the fourth week light the final purple candle.

A Meal to Share during the Advent Season

Slow-Cooker Barley & Bean Soup 

Make Sunday dinner during Advent into a special family gathering with a simple, easy dinner. Growing up in a large family, we knew everyone would be together for a family dinner after Mass on Sunday. Let the smells and aromas of a slow stress-free dinner fill your house and heart during the Advent Season. Choose a member of the family to lead grace and enjoy an evening together. This is the perfect setting to light the candles on your Advent wreath and invite all to join in a special prayer for that week.

– 1 cup dried multi-bean mix or Great Northern beans, picked over and rinsed
– 1/2 cup pearl barley (Instant works great, I cook separate and add at end when soup is done)
– 3 cloves garlic, smashed
– 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
– 2 ribs celery, roughly chopped
– 1/2 medium onion, roughly chopped
– 1 bay leaf
– Salt to taste
– 2 teaspoons dried Italian herb blend (basil, oregano)
– Freshly ground black pepper
– One 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, with juice
– 3 cups cleaned baby spinach leaves (about 3 ounces)
– 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, extra for garnish

1. Put 6 cups water, the beans, barley, garlic, carrots, celery, onions, bay leaf, 1 tablespoons salt, herb blend, some pepper in a slow cooker. Squeeze the tomatoes through your hands over the pot to break them down and add their juices. Cover and cook on high until the beans are quite tender and the soup is thick, about 8 hours. 

2. Add the spinach and cheese, and stir until the spinach wilts, about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. 

3. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls and serve with a baguette.