By Stacey Harrison
Back in 2005, when Jeff VanVonderen agreed to take part in a documentary series that would chronicle interventions for addicts, he did so hoping to raise awareness about a method of treatment many people did not know was an option. It’s succeeded far beyond what he or anyone else could have imagined, as Intervention has lasted over 100 episodes and returns for its ninth season on A&E June 28.
I caught up with VanVonderen recently to talk about his history with the show, how it’s helped people, and why so many of the addicts featured are still surprised by the actual intervention:
What was your reaction when you were first approached with the show?
Jeff VanVonderen: Well, they approached me when it was an idea. There wasn’t actually a show, it was just this idea about a show. As far as thinking there should be, or it would be great for there to be a show like this, I’m all on board with that. But I couldn’t figure out how they were going to pull it off, because I do interventions anyway. That’s what I did before, and I just couldn’t imagine somebody wanting a camera following them around. The people I work with, I just thought, “This won’t work.” … The creator, the guy who’s idea this was, he said they’d work that out. The reason I said yes is because probably half the time or more when I would do an intervention, somebody would say, “I didn’t even know there was such a thing” or they’d say, “You know, if I had known about this five years ago, maybe my dad would still be alive.” And I thought, well, what a great opportunity to let people know that there is such a thing and that it’s effective and they don’t have to give up yet, there’s more they can try. That’s why I said yes, I never really aspired to be on TV or anything, and frankly I didn’t know if they were going to pull it off.
Were you worried about how it would be portrayed on TV, after the editing process — whether they would make it try to be more like a “reality” show?
Not really, because first of all, everybody knows they’re on camera, so they’ve all agreed to be on camera. Second of all, if it had been what you just described, I wouldn’t have done it. Frankly, I think it’s maybe the only reality TV show out there. (laughs) Because all these other shows you’re talking about people doing what they don’t usually do where they don’t usually do it. This show is people doing what they usually do where they usually do it. It’s exactly reality TV. I told them, if they were going to exploit people, I wouldn’t be part of it. If the cameras or the presence of a crew ever got in the way of a successful outcome, I’d quit. Because there’s too much at stake here. We’re going to get one shot at this, and we have to do it right. Frankly, that’s never happened. I’ve never experienced that. When I show up, they’ve already done their four or five days a week filming the addict and the family, and interviewing people. When I show up, I just do exactly the same thing I would have done had there been no cameras. I do the training day, and I do the intervention, and that’s what I do in my private practice, so for me it’s not that different.
Are you able to see the footage they’ve shot beforehand? Is it helpful?
There were times in the past when I did do that, but I don’t know, they get so many hours of video that they whisk off. By the time I get there, it’s pretty much breakneck speed, everything that’s happening. The thing about it is they do verbal interviews with the family ahead of time even to get to the point where we’re going to now do the shoot. I get all those, and actually I get a psyche evaluation that they’ve done with the client, because besides the regular psyche evaluation, which is about diagnostic stuff, the psychiatrist who does the evaluation has to tell the show that doing an intervention is not going to harm the client and that treatment would be beneficial for the client. So I’m actually better prepared for the show interventions than I am in my private practice, because usually in my private practice, I get all the information on training day when I first meet everybody. … There have been times when I’ve seen the footage, but that doesn’t really help me. That would be time-consuming and, at that point, they’d be preaching at the choir. I get it, the guy’s in trouble, we need some help.
How is it decided which interventionist — you or Candy Finnegan — takes which client?
I pretty much told you everything I know about how the show part of it works. (laughs) I don’t know how they pick clients to be on the show, and I don’t know how they pick interventionists to work with certain clients. I know that they do have criteria; there might be a certain family that I would fit better with. I’m sure that’s the case, but I don’t know that whole process. They get 130,000 or so applications a year, and I don’t know how they pick the ones for the show. That’s fine with me. I get a lot of e-mails from people who assume that if they e-mail me I can get them on the show, but I have nothing to do with that.
Is that how you prefer it, staying out of the production process as much as possible?
I’m not a show person. I’m not a production person, I’m an interventionist. They just ask me to do what I do. Now, there are some times when, ahead of the shoot or while the crew is there, but I’m not there yet, when they might encounter what I call crisis within a crisis. If I was doing a private practice intervention and all of a sudden there was a glitch, family members would call me and say, “All right, what do we do about this? How do we handle this?” We don’t want to sabotage the intervention. We don’t want to let people sabotage the intervention, so basically we want to keep everything the way it is until the intervention, otherwise it’s once again people trying to get help that doesn’t really help, like they’ve been doing for the last eight years. Unless the client presents with some imminently life-threatening thing and we have to intervene ahead of the intervention and get them to call 911 or something like that [I’m not involved]. … As far as the show part goes, I think it’s brilliant, and I don’t know how they pull it off.
It’s always amazing to me how they keep finding people who don’t realize they’re on Intervention.
Here’s the thing, Stacey. First of all, by and large, addicts are not sitting around Monday night at 8 or whatever watching A&E. Second of all, if you have somebody who’s got a problem with substances and they come across a show that’s about substances, they tend to turn it off. They don’t watch it. They don’t want to see that. There have been a few cases where the addicts have found out, for various reasons. There’s been a couple times when the family, who went through all this to get them on the show, tips them off. When that happens there is no show, because then it’s not about an intervention anymore, now it’s about robbing somebody out of treatment. That’s happened a few times when the show has pulled the plug at the last minute. They call me the day before and say, “It’s over,” and I don’t go.
Do you watch the episodes you’re on, or is it too strange?
It’s pretty strange, I have to tell you. I have watched some, but mostly I don’t watch. The strange part about it for me is I’ve been there for the whole thing, and then they edit it and I’m always thinking like, “Well, that would be a good teaching thing for the audience to see” in terms of the problem itself, and then they edit it out and I get frustrated. It’s easy for me to turn from an interventionist to editor, and I don’t like that, so typically I don’t watch the show because I’m thinking, “Oh, man, I wish they would have left that part in because that would have been so educational for people to see.”
We don’t see the treatment part, instead just getting the “Three months later” card. Do you wish we could see more of the actual treatment that happens after the intervention?
That would be a different show. That would be called The Treatment Show. It would also create all sorts of confidentiality issues for people who are in treatment with the person. If they followed them around during treatment, it would change the client from being their regular client into a celebrity client, and that’s not good for their rehab.
OK, so a show like Celebrity Rehab is not such a good idea?
The way I think about all the shows that are like this, whether I like them or not, or think they should do that or not, because the problem we’re dealing with is so steeped still in stigma and denial and everything else, anything that’s out there that talks about the problem or makes it more OK to talk about it is going to save lives. That’s about as far as I go. I don’t like the idea of paying addicts to be on a show, I suppose, but I don’t know who does that. But if that happened, I wouldn’t like that. (Note: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew does pay its stars.)
In many of the episodes, the addict isn’t the only one who gets treatment. How do you decide when a family member, or several family members, also need help?
What does not get shown is the extensive training that we do not just on the show but in our private practice as interventionists. The most important day is the first day, when we do the training. The show kind of looks like we meet and talk a little bit then write letters, but that’s a six- to eight-hour process. We know exactly what we’re going to say and not say and do and not do and who’s going to sit where, and who’s going to chase them if they run out the door. The show doesn’t give that impression, and it also doesn’t give the impression that we try to get families into treatment every single time. Sometimes it doesn’t show that, and sometimes it’s spontaneous. Like, I get there and I realize that we really need to do this and then we try to arrange help for them. Or sometimes the show people who are doing these interviews realize this, and that’s all set up ahead of time just like the addict’s treatment. It’s pretty cool.
You said your motivation for doing this show is bringing attention to the method of intervention. Obviously, the show has been successful, so how have you seen that play out?
Absolutely. Even just from the ripoff shows, but Intervention is mentioned all over the place. South Park did a parody of Intervention about a month ago, and … although I do watch South Park, they can be really mean, and they weren’t mean at all. … I thought it was hilarious. But also, I saw a commercial about this guy confronting his brother over the phone about some high cholesterol or something, and then it says, “This intervention was brought to you by …” and then it named the chemical. It’s out there so much more. When I pictured the show, I imagined here’s this couple sitting on the sofa wringing their hands because they just had another blow-up with their son or daughter and now [the son or daughter is] out on the street and they don’t have a cellphone, and they took away the car and [the parents are] just hoping they don’t die, and they’re just surfing through the channels and here they see this show called Intervention and they say, “You know what, we could try one of those things.” That happens all the time. It’s not good when the family thinks that now that there is such a thing they can do it by themselves, because frankly that’s what they’ve been doing already in different versions.
So you don’t mind when the show is parodied? Another example is the Fred Armisen skit where he becomes addicted to the show, and his loved ones stage an Intervention intervention. You’re not worried that may hurt the show?
The more people talk about addiction, the more lives will be saved. That’s how it is, because denial is the hallmark symptom. … Here’s something that happens a lot. I get a lot of e-mails, and people come up to me in airports, and they say things like, “You don’t know me, but I’m a major fan of the show and I’ve watched it for two years, and I was stoned all the time and doing cocaine during the commercials. Then one night I’m watching the show and I think, ‘Well, my life sucks. I need help.’ And I checked into treatment and I’ve been sober for 18 months, so thanks for the show.” So the show itself is doing interventions. That would be one of those addicts who is watching A&E, but most of the time, I’ve had people in my private practice recognize me from the show, and that’s not a negative thing. That’s a positive thing. But as far as somebody coming into an intervention that is for the show and then saying, “Oh, I knew about this,” that doesn’t happen. I did have an intervention on a guy who was a pretty severe alcoholic, who actually had to drink on the way to treatment to not be in withdrawal, just to get to treatment safely. At our layover, the light went on. He said, “Wait a minute. I’ve seen you.” But that was not a factor in the intervention anymore.
Has the popularity of the show ever been a hindrance for you in doing your job, or for being taken seriously in some academic circles? For instance, are you ever written off as being a “TV doctor”?
It’s never come up. In the beginning, I think people in that area you just mentioned, and even media people like yourself, were skeptical of the show. But they hadn’t seen it. Most of that went away once the show actually came out and people got to see what really was happening and that it’s a real intervention and the cameras happen to be there. It’s not staged. I can hardly believe there is such a show, and I can hardly believe I’m on it. I’m just this guy from northern Wisconsin, I live in the woods. I’m sitting out on my back deck right now talking to you and looking at the woods with my dog laying here. Also, I’m on this show. It’s so strange to me that I am, but pretty much people who know me or people who meet me figure out after a little bit that I’m not like a TV doctor. This is just me. … If I go to Wal-Mart, where I live, I’m going to Wal-Mart to get bread, and eggs and milk, because I live here. But I can tell that people who don’t know I live here, they recognize me from the show and finally they come up and they go, “What are you doing here?” I go, “I’m getting bread. I live here.” “Oh, we thought you lived in Hollywood.”
How well do you know the other interventionists on the show, Candy Finnegan and Ken Seeley (no longer with the show)?
Well, we don’t hang out. I didn’t know them before that. I keep in contact with Ken [Seeley], because we became friends through all this. But A&E sponsors a recovery project in September, which is Recovery Month, and it’s a big event where they march recovering people over the Brooklyn Bridge. Last year there were 10,000 recovering people from 50 states who marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, and they have a concert and the whole deal. It’s breathtaking. I’ll see them at that, or I’ll see them at the prison wards, or once in awhile I see them at other things, but we don’t hang out.
One thing that always strikes me as I watch the show is the patience the interventionists have. You see the addicts treating their families pretty horribly at times, and like many watching from home, I’m not sure how I’d handle that. I know you’re trained for this, but what goes into handling those situations where the addict becomes belligerent and not receptive?
There’s two things involved with that. One thing is that, yeah we’re trained, but you can’t really train patience. That would be called fake patience — acting like your patient when you’re really not. I really am patient, and the reason is because most everything they say except “Yes, I’ll go” is just noise to me. I don’t even hear it. The noise has been running the show for 10 years and now that’s done. Another thing that I think of is that I really respect people’s right to stay sick. In other words, they don’t have to say yes to please me, and they don’t have to say no to give me the finger. They don’t have to take care of me in any way by not going, and I think that comes through, because sometimes I’m the only person in the room they’re not angry with. They don’t have to make sure I have a good day. I look at it like in the middle of the room there’s a big boulder, and in the middle of the boulder is, “Yes, I’ll go.” My job is to chip away everything that is not that. [What that requires] is different for everybody, and that takes time, and we’re headed to the yes, so all the other stuff is just stuff.
I’ve always detected a power struggle where maybe the addict feels like since everything is focused on him, he holds the power during the intervention. Do you think that plays into anything?
I don’t think so. I think it’s opposite of that. I think that they think they’re put in a position where they have no choice, and that’s why sometimes they dig their heels in and say no, and then afterwards they go anyway, because they have to find a way to save face or make it look like it was their idea. I did an intervention not for the show about three weeks ago in Toronto and the guy did the whole intervention, he heard the bottom line, and he said, “Screw this, I’m leaving,” and ran out the door. But the intervention doesn’t end until people cave and go back to doing the things they did before. So as long as they continue the tone of the intervention, if the guy calls in five days later and says, “Give me some money,” and they say no, then the intervention is continuing. But anyway, I was on my way to the airport, and … we get a phone call from his cousin who says … he changed his mind and he says he’ll go. So he just needed that much time to do the math and make it his decision. When that happened, he went. It’s almost like he had to say no, because everybody would like it too much if he said yes.
You’ve been doing this for so long, and seen so many different people. Does it still get to you or are you able to completely compartmentalize yourself from all the emotions and tragedy involved?
It doesn’t really get to me that much, because I respect their right to stay ill. They get to say no. If they want to get help, then I’m there and I can make that happen and get them from Point A to Point B. But if they want to stay the same, they get to do that. It’s not that I don’t care, because these are my people. These are the people I do care about. I do hope everybody says yes, but I also respect their right to say no. … A lot of times the families are more difficult than the addict. That gets to me. Here they’ve been doing this plan that hasn’t been working for so long, and they want to keep doing it. Even after all the training and all the bad experiences they’ve had, they’re still willing to be the getaway car for this person. That’s the hardest thing. Also, if there’s a severe injustice with somebody, a vulnerable person who’s being exploited, that still gets to me. I don’t mean that I want the addict to get what they deserve, because they’ve already not gotten what they deserve and now they’re getting a second chance. … To tell the truth, you and I probably haven’t gotten what we deserve either. Most people aren’t in jail because they didn’t get caught, not because they didn’t do it.
Photo: GRB Productions