Reality/TV: How A&E “Intervention” helps local families help themselves
Diana is drunk. Or high. Or — most likely — both.
In one scene she is on the phone, clearly agitated, trying to negotiate a deal, offering some sort of sexual opportunity in exchange for money to buy drugs, or just in trade for drugs.
In another scene, she gets into a shoving match with the man she refers to as her boyfriend. He baits her to come on, and she punches him several times, though fairly ineffectively, in the face. She has asked him to wait while she went to score drugs for the two of them, and when she returns an hour later, he accuses her of having traded them for oral sex.
Diana admits to having been discovered passed out in a ditch, clothing torn and disheveled, visibly assaulted, raped.
“Her identity, I guess, is Dynamite,” says one of her sons, visibly upset. “That’s what she’s calling herself nowadays.”
Despite her acceptance into the Proposition 36 Drug Court program, a DUI charge and two charges pending for possession of meth, Diana breaks into a vacant house to smoke meth, a scene captured on film.
But Diana isn’t a criminal in the traditional sense. Diana is an addict.
“I’m lost,” she admits at one point, tears in her eyes, looking away from the camera, “I’m really lost.”
Diana has agreed to be in a documentary about addiction.
She does not know she will soon face an intervention.
Fans will recognize the opener for A&E’s program “Intervention,” which serves as an explanation for why someone would allow cameras to follow them around during their most unflattering and often frightening behavior — and the reason their family asks them to do it.
Kellie is Diana’s daughter. She had written to “Intervention” four times — her aunt had written to the program as well — before she received a response.
Kellie and her two brothers grew up with their parents in Roseville, where the episode, which aired Sept. 10, 2012, was eventually filmed.
The question that frequently comes up is, Why would anyone put such incredibly personal and, let’s just say it, humiliating, film footage of their lives on television for the entire viewing public to see?
For Kellie, the answer is very clear: to save her mother’s life; to repair her family; and with hope, to serve as an example that will help others, the way the program helped Diana.
“We would never have been able to afford treatment like this on our own,” she says quietly, “And my mother wouldn’t have gone without their help.”
She says she used to feel shame, but since she learned about the disease of addiction, shame is no longer a part of her life.
Drugs, and particularly alcohol, were a part of family life for as long as Kellie could remember. Her mother was very functional, popular with her friends, participating in school functions, taking her shopping. But as early as elementary school, Kellie remembers a mother who drank and “partied,” and her stepfather making sure they tiptoed around, careful not to bother Mom when she was hung over. Later, pain pills were added to the mix, and an attempt at getting off the pills.
It was seeing her mom the week before Thanksgiving that prompted Kellie’s last and most desperate plea to “Intervention.”
Having burned bridges with the rest of the family, Diana was not welcome at their Thanksgiving dinner, so Kellie and her brothers, all young adults, went to pick her up to have a dinner of their own, two days before the holiday.
“She was squatting, basically on the street. She had her arm in a sling,” Kellie recalls. “She said she was going to leave for San Francisco to become a call girl!”
Seeing her mother injured and possibly leaving town, where they wouldn’t even be able to watch over her, was too much. Kellie went home and wrote to “Intervention” yet again. She received a response three days later.
Receiving a response is only the first step in a long process. There are videos to send, reams of questionnaires to fill out and a very thorough vetting process conducted by A&E, all of which can take up to five or six months before the actual filming begins. “Intervention” is not just a program for its producers; it’s a process, an investment—practically a mission—and they take it very seriously. If at any time they suspect the addict has become aware of the intervention, they will pull out, without a look back.
If you watch the program — I do — you can’t help but wonder how it is that more addicts don’t catch on. How many “documentaries about addiction” could people be making, for heaven’s sake?
Kellie said her mom was a fan of the show, “But afterward, when we asked her, she said didn’t think her story was important enough for anyone to care about. She agreed to the documentary because she thought she was helping us, helping us understand what she was going through.”
Apparently, that’s pretty common.
She might not have been the ideal mom, but, even at her lowest, she was still being a mom.
Candy Finnigan was the interventionist for the family.
She also recently gave a lecture at California State University, Sacramento, as part of UNIQUE Programs.
Finnigan herself has two children and over two decades as a recovering alcoholic. She is a certified interventionist and drug and alcohol counselor, among other things, who had no intention of ending up on television, making a fraction of what she does in the private sector to cry in front of millions of people, which she often does.
But there she is.
The pre-intervention that uses about 10 minutes of airtime can last four and a half hours in the real world.
“The only way I can do [it] is to interact with my truth until I can hear their truth,” Finnigan asserts, “I can never once think of a time when the show has compromised my values or the family’s values.”
Nor does Finnigan’s involvement stop when the cameras do. She remains a committed professional. Kellie admits to calling and texting Candy to the point where, “I think she waits sometimes for me to figure things out for myself,” but quickly adds, “But on the important questions, she answers right back!”
After the lecture at CSUS, Finnigan took time to speak with every member of the audience who approached her, one of whom was Diana — yes, that Diana — whom she hadn’t seen since the intervention. The unexpected meeting brought both of them to tears.
Finnigan remembers Diana as someone with common issues: both were adopted, functional mothers and alcoholics.
Finnigan says she hit what she considers “a very high bottom,” not suffering to the depths that some addicts do before seeking help. She was a stay-at-home mom with a perfectly clean house and snacks ready for her children after school. It was her mother-in-law, a social worker, who came for an extended visit and gave her an ultimatum: Lose the liquor or lose your kids; you have 60 days.
On the 61st day, she went to treatment.
“It had to be my idea,” she says, chuckling at the common mantra of addicts.
While Finnigan went for help after an ultimatum, she is quick to point out that addicts of any kind can’t get clean and sober for other people, even their children. They have to be ready to quit. She realized that although she was being told she wasn’t a good mom, the real truth was more that she was there, but wasn’t really there.
“Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink! I was living on a ‘Make-it-through-the-day-and-get-to-drink’ reward system.”
For many addicts, kids have become their secret-keepers, or simply make it more difficult to feed the addiction. Mired in diseased thinking, a parent may be relieved to lose a child, or know that the child is better off with someone else.
The strength of an intervention lies in the addict understanding how much people love him or her, and setting boundaries so that they will no longer support the unhealthy lifestyle of abuse and addiction.
Finnigan says interventions are effective because it’s hard to ignore if people are all saying the same thing. The addict has an easier time keeping their word if the family keeps its word.
Diana agreed to go to treatment, and was put on a plane to Texas. Part of the intervention plan is to isolate the addict from familiar surroundings, making it harder for him or her to walk away from the program, back into old neighborhoods and habits, and easier for family members to hold their ground.
Like many, Diana struggled, choosing to leave several times, but choosing to return after realizing no one at home would offer sympathy — or plane fare back.
Her children were offered a week of treatment at the Betty Ford Center.
Finnigan calls the Betty Ford Children’s Program the finest there is. It helps explain behaviors, and teaches the children coping skills, to keep expectations low, while still keeping hopes high.
“Kids,” according to Finnigan, “are not as reassured that you’re not going to drink again as adults are.”
But when it comes to staying sober, “Intervention” can boast an amazing success rate. As of this writing, according to Laurén Bienvenue of A&E, “We have done roughly 239 interventions to date and out of those, nearly 174 people are still sober. That is around a 75 percent success rate.” Four of those are from the Sacramento area, and one is from Modesto.
The national average is around 3-5 percent.
They can attribute much of that success to excellent treatment centers and dedicated staff, who conduct long-term follow-up. It isn’t a big-budget show. Treatment programs all over the country provide scholarships for the clients. Addicts and families are never given any kind of compensation, nor provided with any alcohol or drugs; not, says Finnigan, “so much as an aspirin!”
Camera crews follow the addict for about a week. Kellie says the family was not shadowed for as long, but the crew did check in throughout the week. After the first day, it was easy to forget the cameras and microphones. Any inconvenience was more than worth it.
“Our life,” she says with conviction, “has changed significantly as a result.”
Diana is now in a sober living house. She is working, clearing the legal wreckage created during her previous life, working with a sponsor, and regularly attending 12-step meetings. She spends holidays with her family.
During the pre-intervention, Candy Finnigan told Kellie and her brothers, “All I want to do is give you back your mom so you can be kids.”
Kellie attends Al-Anon and works with a sponsor of her own.
“I never really believed it would happen for my mom,” she says quietly, tearing up again, “But now I believe that if you
want something badly enough … ”
Diana has been clean and sober since Feb. 23, 2012.
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Disclosure: Kellie's brothers were not interviewed for this story and so details of their experiences have been omitted out of respect and in the interest of accuracy.