Intervening on the Show ‘Intervention’

The failures and triumphs of the popular A&E reality show about addiction.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

I got into reality shows when I finished school and began working. My break time naps often coincided with Dr. Phil on the lunchroom television, and it elicited some useful laughs to break up an otherwise bland workday.

Perhaps my life was newly boring. Perhaps I was a little lost, unsure of where I was headed. As much as it shames me to admit, I found comfort in browsing subreddits like r/trashy and watching Dr. Phil clips on YouTube because there was a part of my brain that delighted in thinking: “Well, at least I’m not that screwed.”

I often feel a twinge of guilt when I watch these shows, which put the rock bottoms of people’s lives in front of thousands to gawk at. I also feel like I should know better; since I have a mental health condition (OCD) myself, shouldn’t I relate to this being unethical?

Nevertheless, one of my favourite reality shows that I still watch on occasion is Intervention, which follows substance abusers. But in this show’s defence, I do think it has more value than many reality shows. What follows is an honest discussion about the show’s flaws and merits.

What is “Intervention”?

The premise of Intervention is simple. We are introduced to an addict (opioid addicts, alcoholics, gamblers, compulsive gamers, and shoppers have all been featured on this show) who is told they are participating in a documentary about addiction. Little do they know that their friends and family are planning an intervention for them at the end of the episode, where they read them heartfelt letters to urge the addict to seek help.

Intervention is massively successful. There are 21 seasons and a thriving online community of dedicated fans. A few Intervention alumni have gone on to be somewhat famous in mainstream culture. Of note is Allison, a brilliant academic and ex-inhalant abuser famous for singing “I’m walking on sunshine” in a rather disturbing, brain-damaged state. It is important to note that according to her Twitter, Allison does not like people watching her episode. (Out of respect for her, I will not link to her video clips or her episodes. Instead, here is the business she runs now as a therapist.)

The problems with “Intervention”

The problematic nature of this show is pretty evident. Addicts are often angry at the intervention. They feel betrayed and ganged up on, and it becomes questionable whether going to treatment is really the addict’s choice or the result of guilt-tripping and peer pressure.

There are many legitimate complaints about the show: the intervention method used in the show has been called outdated; expensive rehab facilities that offer their services for free have questionable practices, and one thing I noticed early on was the lack of diversity.

Most featured families appear middle-class and White. A few interesting episodes have explored how issues of racial, homophobic, or gender discrimination have impacted addicts, but these are rather few.

Finally, the rock bottoms of many people’s lives are no doubt exploited for shock value. The opening sequence of the show features flashing lights and an urgent, desperate music theme that screams: LOOK HOW MESSED UP THESE PEOPLE ARE.

Why I watch “Intervention”…if somewhat begrudgingly

Nevertheless, I feel oddly drawn to this show. Ironically, it’s addictive.

At first, I thought I liked the show because it reassures me. The line between responsible use and abuse is thin, so when I see someone spend $500 a week on drugs, I can think to myself: “Well, I only spent $10 on that bottle of wine this week, so I’m probably not an addict. Whew.”

But a bigger reason why I’m so drawn to this show is I get extremely attached to the addicts themselves.

This is, in my opinion, what Intervention manages to do well. With no narration and fueled only by interviews, it’s a non-judgemental look at the lives of ordinary addicts. More importantly, it shows that in most (if not all) circumstances, addicts are addicts not because they are a bad or weak person, but because the odds are stacked against them.

The stigma against addiction

Let’s backtrack a little. I grew up in a completely drug-free environment. Drugs were vilified by the adults of my childhood, something I learned at an early age that only “bad people” do. The people homeless on the street and begging — I was told they’re there because they were too lazy to go to school, and did drugs instead.

Intervention enlightens audiences like me and our assumptions. Very rarely are people substance abusers because they tried heroin one day “for fun.” Rather, addicts develop substance abuse problems to cope with environmental stressors, tragedies, traumas, unhealthy relationships, and things that are largely outside their control. There is also evidence that you can be genetically predisposed to addiction.

One of the most harrowing episodes I watched was of a woman who doesn’t swallow. She became this way after being sexually abused by a neighbour who forced her to perform oral sex on him as a child.

Honestly, if something as horrendous as child sexual abuse happened to me, I might be addicted to something too — anything to erase the pain.

Reality shows vs. documentaries

So what separates a problematic reality show and an ethical one?

Reality shows are similar to documentaries in that they show real people doing real things, but the difference is in the “show” part. The chief purpose of Intervention is entertainment, not education. Most screentime is taken up by dramatic scenes of addicts fighting with their families, shooting up, or committing crime. There is very little time spent on preparing for the intervention, and few medical experts (unless you count the interventionist) are present.

Contrast this with a documentary like VICE’s “Fentanyl: the Drug Deadlier than Heroin” which chronicles the lives of fentanyl addicts in Alberta. The tone here is more serious and realistic, with more sit-down interviews with medical professionals, addicts, and social workers. I felt that I actually learned something about fentanyl, the healthcare system, the victims themselves, and social work when I watched this documentary.

A highly-cited 2012 study on stigma and addiction concludes that:

The limited evidence indicates that self-stigma can be reduced through therapeutic interventions such as group-based acceptance and commitment therapy. Effective strategies for addressing social stigma include motivational interviewing and communicating positive stories of people with substance use disorders.

What jumped out at me was the last part: communicating positive stories of people with substance use disorders. Intervention does do follow-ups on successful and unsuccessful addicts, but I’d still argue the bulk of the show is mired in negativity.

Shows about addiction made me realize that I’m not an addict not because I have superior self-control or an upright moral character. Rather, I was lucky enough to be born into a supportive environment and, at the same time, there is no history of addiction or major psychotic illness in my family. My parents gave me adequate attention, my teachers encouraged me, and I had friends to lean on in bad times. I never needed drugs.

I hope others will come to this conclusion too if they choose to watch shows like Intervention.

My life isn’t problem-free. I have OCD, and I can definitely see that if I was born into a different environment — one without proper love and support — I may be in a very different position right now.

Finally, as someone who does not struggle with addiction at the moment, please take my essay with a grain of salt. I more than welcome readers who have experience with addiction (either through their own experience or through a loved one) to weigh in.

(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free:

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