Last night, soon after experiencing a strong urge to watch A&E’s addiction porn Intervention, I found myself absorbed in the heartbreaking struggle of a woman who consumed a litre of vodka each day. As this shell of a woman cried about losing her home, money, family, and health, I sat on the couch, thoroughly entertained as I ate popcorn.
Hold up: does this image seem perverse to anyone else? It absolutely blows my mind that our society is set up in such a way that I am able to sit on my couch and eat popcorn while I watch someone dying on TV. Our bonkers world has apparently made me so desensitized to suffering that I can watch it, chuckle about it, and have some delicious Smartfood as it dances in front of my eyes. WTF?!
I had hoped that one of the consequences of having a hyper-connected world would be more, uh you know, connection, perhaps an increased sense of empathy born out of a deeper awareness of the scale of suffering happening in the world at any given moment. Unfortunately, it appears that the reverse has happened, and we stopped worrying about it the moment reality TV stopped being a provocative new cultural phenomenon.
But I’m here to tell you that Intervention is out here on its SIXTEENTH season, and the struggle is still real.
I like to tell myself that my watching of Intervention is different—more ethically sound. As a recovering alcoholic, I’ve found enormous comfort in the (surprisingly) numerous drinking memoirs out there, and Intervention scratches a similar itch.
I seek out episodes featuring women with drinking problems, and then I meticulously compare myself to them. After watching one young woman get obliterated on five drinks in three hours, I proclaimed that that she hardly drank anything, and I was clearly a better alcoholic than she. My boyfriend found this exercise unhealthy and objectionable, but he won’t ever understand the energy that goes into an addict’s hyperawareness of a substance.
When I was drinking, I could barely concentrate on conversations as I calculated who had drunk how much, and how much I could therefore drink before drawing negative attention to myself. To this day I can tell you which of my coworkers are one morning beer away from full-blown alcoholism, and which pretend to sip their drinks to uphold social convention (and to not seem like complete bummers).
When I find a woman whom I identify with, I try to project myself onto her in order to justify my decision to quit. Of the women I watched last night on Intervention, the one most like me did nothing but sit on her couch, drinking vodka—so much vodka. She barely ate, and seemed to use alcohol as a way to let out her emotions. Yep—this was my girl.
Watching her cry on the couch alone, or suddenly tear off to the liquor store while friends and family begged her not to, or go days without eating really brought me back to my drinking days. I watched and watched while telling myself, look—this is what you would have become if you hadn’t stopped.
I know this is true, yet I still feel pangs of envy as the woman on the screen nestles deep inside the numbing safety of alcohol. How perverse that I am still drawn to something that I know will harm or kill me, and is ruining the life of a woman as I watch. It’s highly disconcerting to know that I’d rather be sitting alone somewhere drinking than living my life; even worse is not being sure I’ll ever feel differently.
As lifelong afflictions go, this one is relatively minor and pretty manageable at the moment, but becoming an alcoholic also feels a lot like the first permanent mistake I’ve made since becoming an adult.
And that’s another thing about Intervention that’s both hard to watch and symptomatic of some deep-rooted cultural shitfuckery: the blame and the crap the addict takes from family, friends, and then a well-meaning “interventionist” during the surprise ending. (It’s not a surprise. There’s an intervention every damn time. I can’t believe they’re able to keep making this show—who doesn’t know the premise of Intervention by now?! FYI to addicts: if you get asked to be in a documentary about addiction, the documentary is actually the show Intervention and it’s not a documentary at all, but rather an intervention. Sorry, A&E.)
While I know that I am not entirely at fault for becoming an alcoholic, I sure feel as if I am. Looking back, I can clearly see that some choices I made in young adulthood led me to this point (choosing to become close friends with an actual alcoholic when I was 18 stands out here), but I know there are many who made decisions similar to mine and still didn’t turn out to be alcoholics.
There’s a cultural movement—the movement is glacial, people—toward seeing addiction as a disease, but we’re not there yet. I don’t see people going around the room reading impact statements to cancer patients, for instance. Addiction seems to have more in common with mental illness in the sense that people are more often blamed or stigmatized for their own sickness, but still I’ve never seen an intervention for someone suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar. Just saying.
So when I see family members yell at the addict and take away her substance, I see a society with a long way to go in terms of how we deal with addiction. Because I know exactly how that addict feels without her substance, I find the behaviour of well-meaning loved ones especially cruel. I’m fond of saying that I wasn’t drinking three bottles of wine a night because I wanted to, and this is true of most addicts, I’ll bet. Of course I wanted help! But suddenly yanking what feels like an addict’s only support system away and making them feel immoral for reacting to that really doesn’t seem like an acceptable way to handle things.
Early on in my recovery, before I decided that moderation was incompatible with my all-or-nothing personality, my boyfriend took the liberty of hiding all the alcohol in our house, so that I came home one night slightly buzzed to find a dry house. For an alcoholic, there is no worse situation to find yourself in.
When you’ve been drinking for long enough, you tend to feel generally powerless. You might have started drinking to console yourself over a lack of power over a situation, or perhaps drinking made you feel as if you had power. Drinking then becomes a place to retreat to when situations arise that you cannot change, and you begin to avoid dealing with things. Pretty soon, drinking also starts to exert power over you. You may find yourself unable to stop after what should have been a couple of drinks after work with coworkers. You end the night at 3am, twenty drinks deep and ashamed of your lack of self control.
So when an addict’s only recourse from having no control is taken away without their consent, things get ugly. I don’t want to be dramatic here, but for me it was one of the scariest feelings I’ve ever experienced. Addiction harms everyone in its wake, but I don’t think that fact should be used as an excuse to take away the agency of the addict if no one else is in danger.
And what of the pivotal scene of each episode of Intervention: the—DUH—intervention? I don’t feel 100% good about the entire practice. I think that coming together to ask the addicted individual to get help is a good thing; it is also a nice opportunity to let the person know how much they are loved.
But what of that staple of the recited letters at each intervention: “your addiction has negatively impacted me in the following ways….” Uh, no shit—the person listening to you is out here on the verge of liver failure, thnx. Chances are they already know how shitty this is for everyone involved too, so why you gotta play them like that?!
Even worse is when the entire family is instructed to cut their addicted family member off if they refuse this intervention. I understand that there’s a point at which the loved ones become enablers, and there’s a point at which they need to exit the situation for their own health and safety.
I also know that if all of my loved ones cut me off because I wouldn’t seek help at the exact moment of their choosing, that I’d probably use that as an excuse to sit myself down on that vodka couch of tears and drink my face off until I was good and ready to stop. Which would probably be in about 10-20 years.
My point is, an addict is always looking for a reason to self-isolate and indulge in their chosen substance—interventions give them a perfect excuse to do just this. I have no better suggestion, really, but why do we need to demand so much of people who think (and are often told) that they’re worth so little? Can we have more options for addiction treatment, more scientific research into a variety of methods that fall outside of the intervention>rehab>AA flowchart?
My evening spent watching Intervention with popcorn was depressing for any number of reasons: the program exploits real human suffering, and it brings me uncomfortably close to my own barely resolved reckonings with substance. But the most depressing thing about the show is how it showcases how we fail addicts when we try to force morality, control, and ultimatums into spaces that were meant to hold compassion, love and empowerment.