How To Write an Intervention Letter
One of the most challenging steps you can take as someone with substance use disorder (SUD) is admitting you need help. However, the way this decision comes about can frequently require measures of intervention from family, friends, and even a recovery professional. One of the most common ways to do this is by planning an intervention.
Contrary to popular belief, an intervention is not a single event but instead an ongoing process that can take days, weeks, or even months of interaction with the individual with SUD. Intervention involves a professional SUD recovery expert organizing a series of such interactions with the goal of the individual in question accepting help and agreeing to attend treatment. An important component of this process affords loved ones the opportunity to share how the individual’s SUD is impacting their lives and relationships. However, this can be tricky to navigate without causing animosity or emotional upheaval. Because of this, experts typically recommend writing an intervention letter ahead of time to allow for preparation and proper vetting before the conversation occurs.
I know firsthand how complex interventions can be to organize and facilitate, but I continue to do this because I know how powerful interventions can be. The details of how SUD has impacted relationships between individuals and their loved ones can be hard to hear at times, but this information can be highly effective in helping an individual realize how much what they’re doing is harming others. If you’re having trouble putting into words just how much SUD is affecting you without shaming or belittling your loved one, here are some helpful tips.
The Role of an Intervention Letter
Some people who are planning an intervention know exactly what they want to say to the individual in question. While they must refrain from shaming or attacking the individual, they can objectively state what has happened to them personally, as well as offer support for their loved one while they are resolving the issue. If they need help outlining exactly what they want to say, I find that intervention letters are an effective tool.
Intervention letters are written by loved ones and are read to the individual with SUD during the intervention process. While this may occur during an official meeting with close friends, family, and the interventionist, letters can also be used throughout the process. Writing a letter to an addict you love may help you refrain from becoming emotionally charged or aggressive, as the goal is never to belittle the individual but to clearly state how SUD has changed their lives. I know this can be difficult to do, especially if someone’s SUD has progressed too much for too long. However, if you want your intervention to be effective, you may want to consider crafting an intervention letter.
Why Write an Intervention Letter?
There are several reasons I would recommend writing a letter to the alcoholic or addict in question, especially if you’ve never participated in the intervention process in the past.
The intervention process can become emotional, as everyone involved wants the best for their loved one who is clearly struggling and posing a safety risk. If you are asked to speak to your loved one and share your thoughts, it can be difficult to stay on track. An intervention letter can serve as a guide in case you lose your train of thought or are unsure what to say next.
Keeping Emotions in Check
Writing a letter prior to the intervention is much different than coming up with a verbal presentation on the spot. When you write a letter ahead of time, your mind is more focused, and you aren’t as emotional. This also allows you to read a letter that is more objective and supportive rather than speaking from pure emotions, which may sometimes be an issue.
You Can Revise Your Letter Ahead of Time
If you don’t plan ahead, you may not say exactly what you want to say when the intervention occurs. I’ve seen cases where people freeze or misspeak when trying to share their opinions. Thankfully, if you write a letter ahead of time, you can edit it if necessary. We usually rehearse any intervention events ahead of time, and we’ll provide feedback on your letter if something can be improved.
Individuals Can Keep the Letters for Inspiration
One of the most powerful aspects of an intervention is when someone completes a rehab program and looks back on how their life used to be. Some clients I’ve worked with keep the letters they’ve received from their loved ones as motivation to improve. For example, if a client’s brother wrote a letter explaining how SUD has prevented them from spending time with each other, the client may refer to the letter to remind themselves of why they needed help.
Writing an Effective Intervention Letter
You may do a brief research on example intervention letters and how these are typically structured, but I’d like to provide a few key tips as someone who frequently organizes and oversees interventions. I’d also like to share a few examples to go along with each tip should you need further assistance.
Start With Compassion
If you were going to write a letter to an alcoholic, for example, you don’t want to start with lists of facts about how alcohol can rewire your brain. The individual may see this as lecturing, and they may ignore other important points afterward. Instead, begin your letter by being compassionate.
For example, you could say something along the lines of “I’m so thankful for you and how I’ve been able to rely on you when times have been tough. You’ve inspired me to make life-changing decisions that have made me a better person.” By starting with something like this, the individual doesn’t feel threatened, which makes the rest of the letter much more likely to be heard.
Give One Example of How SUD Has Affected You
You may feel compelled to list every little thing that has changed as a result of the individual’s SUD. However, exhaustive lists can feel accusatory, aggressive, and scolding. Instead, choose the most significant example and describe it as clearly as possible. Then, mention how that one change has caused many changes that have you concerned for the individual and feeling like your relationship has suffered.
For example, instead of saying, “All you want to do is drink,” go with something like, “It seems that every time I am around you, you are intoxicated, and I miss interacting with the real you.” In other words, if you can show you care and are affected on an emotional level, the individual may be more open to hearing your side.
Interventionists like myself usually take time to explain to everyone how SUD is impacting the individual involved. If you can also show your loved one that you have at least a minor understanding of what goes into SUD, the individual may be able to look toward you as another source of support. Be aware of your loved one’s condition, and explain this in your letter. Your loved one may be more eager to seek help.
Apologize For Past Mistakes
While this step isn’t always necessary, it could be a very effective tool in helping the intervention seem less confrontational.
If an individual feels lectured to, or if loved ones have been too aggressive in trying to help, the individual may internalize negative thoughts such as “everyone hates me” or “I’m the only person doing anything wrong.” It hurts me to hear comments like this from those with SUD, but this only motivates me further to help these individuals reframe their thoughts into more positive ones.
If you’ve made mistakes in how you tried to help in the past, or if your enabling might have led to someone’s dependence on substances, own it. Clearly state in your letter what you’ve done wrong and how you intend to change. Interventions don’t only change those with SUD but those involved in the intervention altogether.
Remind the Individual of Your Concern
After you’ve shown compassion, support, and awareness, remind your loved one that you care and love them. In doing so, you should also politely, yet clearly, ask them to accept treatment. You don’t want to repeat everything from your letter verbatim, but you can summarize what you’ve said while encouraging your loved one to seek treatment. Remember, this is a loved one you care about, and you want what’s best for them. Let this be reflected in your letter.
Outline the Consequences for Refusing Help
It is imperative you understand that I’m saying you should “outline” the consequences. You do not want to begin a large debate or argument between yourself and the individual, but rather objectively say what will happen if they do not seek help.
For example, if you’ve been participating in making excuses for your loved one – like saying “they’re just overworked,” your letter could say something like, “From this point forward, I won’t be lying to others about your situation. If people ask me what’s been going on, I’ll tell them about your substance misuse. I’m doing this not because I don’t like you or anything but because I sincerely care about your safety and want you to attend treatment.”
Another common example is setting boundaries for the financial or other support you will give your loved one if they refuse treatment. Instead of saying “You won’t get any more money unless you do what I’m asking,” set a clear boundary for what you are able to do with your finances. “I am not able to contribute financially to your addiction.” You are no longer telling the person what they should do, but instead telling them what you are able to do with your own money.
These examples show how you can calmly explain your terms while also showing how much you care for your struggling loved one.
How To Read Your Letter
Now that your intervention letter has been written and you’ve attended a rehearsal for the intervention, it’s time to consider how to read the letter when the time comes.
The main tip I would give to anyone who reads intervention letters is to avoid sounding condescending or confrontational. Generally speaking, most people participating in the intervention process feel emotional and I would advise retaining a moderate tone. Do not lecture, act aggressively, or instill shame in the person struggling. You are trying to encourage them to seek help by and repair relationships that have been harmed by SUD by illustrating that they have the potential to get better.
Speak as clearly as possible, yet in a soft and inviting tone. This can be a bit confusing to understand, but essentially, you’re trying to avoid sounding harsh. Avoid raising your voice, as this could be seen as confrontational. Also, stick to what you’ve written and revised. If you go off-script, you may risk saying something you shouldn’t.
Are Intervention Letters Truly Effective?
While there’s no specific research or statistics showing that intervention letters are effective, we do have statistics regarding the effectiveness rate of the intervention process. It is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of interventions are successful and result in the individual seeking treatment. The other ten to twenty percent of individuals who refuse treatment may eventually accept treatment at a later date, while others may continue to refuse.
Part of the reason interventions are so effective is because of well-crafted thoughts from the individual’s most important loved ones. When your thoughts are composed in a letter, you can stay on track, say what you need to, and avoid saying anything that may hinder progress. In short, writing a letter before the time comes to speak your truth to your loved one can help make the intervention process more effective.
As an interventionist who has helped hundreds of clients over nearly 30 years, I can safely say that intervention letters are indeed useful. These can be effective in encouraging those with SUD to seek treatment, as well as reminding these individuals of why they’ve chosen treatment. With both a reality check and the support of their loved ones in place, people headed to treatment can begin to move forward in recovery with the hope that they can repair their relationships.
Reach Out for Intervention and Family Recovery Support Services
If you feel your loved one may benefit from intervention and need an experienced professional to oversee the process, I can assist you. My partner Brad Langenberg and I offer a number of comprehensive addiction recovery services for the whole family that you may find helpful, including assistance with writing intervention letters.
From intervention services to sober companionship and on-going family recovery support, we are here to help you every step of the way. Contact me today to learn more about our intervention and family recovery coaching.
You’ve got this,
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2022). Alcohol and the Brain: an Overview | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcohol-and-brain-overview
Premazon. (2017, April 18). Intervention – What is the Success Rate? AIS. https://www.associationofinterventionspecialists.org/intervention-what-is-the-success-rate/