What do Lindsay Lohan, Rush Limbaugh, Mary Tyler Moore, Steve Howe, Betty Ford, Darryl Strawberry, and Keith Urban have in common? Rehab. As these celebrities and many others can attest, having your personal demons and addictions laid out for the world to see can be embarrassing. It can also be motivating, forcing you to confront your behavior and change it. It’s hard to deny you have a problem when it’s laid out on the cover of every tabloid newspaper in the country.
The everyday addict doesn’t need to worry about that. The crackhead accountant, alcoholic sorority girl, and huffing teenager aren’t going to find themselves on the cover of People. For them, a common countermeasure is the intervention, a therapeutic tool meant to force the addict to confront his or her behavior and the pain it has caused loved ones. A&E’s Intervention, now entering its third season, shows how the process works.
The season premiere presented the story of Ryan, an attractive 23-year-old from a middle-class family. Ryan has been addicted to OxyContin for four years, mainlining it up to 15 times a day. He has stolen his mother Greta’s ATM card and a friend’s car. Greta has banned him from home, hoping to protect his younger sister, and now he lives as a vagabond.
Ryan’s biological father, no longer a part of his life, was a cocaine addict, and his stepfather Paul is an alcoholic. Ryan began his drug use at 12, becoming a daily pot smoker. However, he seemed likely to break the cycle of addiction by excelling as a drummer in his high school band, which led to a college scholarship. But Ryan’s inability to read music caused him to drop out of college and party. Now, he lives solely for a fix.
Intervention provides no narration, only occasional typescript explaining what is happening. There are no “Drugs are bad” lectures. The images need no commentary. Cameras recorded Ryan’s drug use in painful detail (Ryan believed he is part of a documentary about addiction). He appeared shooting up in a variety of locations, using his shirt to tie off his arm and jabbing himself repeatedly in the quest for a vein. While on his way to his dealer’s house, he was hit by a car and wound up in the emergency room. Again, mom came to the rescue, taking him home to recuperate from his minor injuries. While the rest of the family was at church, he invited his friends over to the house and they all shot up.
The most frightening scene showed Ryan visiting friends for a night of Oxy use. The young couple he visited, faces blurred to protect their identities, shuffled off their child to do homework and put the baby down to sleep before getting out their needles. The mother’s hands shook, and afterwards, blood covered her arm. Despite commenting on how messed up she was, Ryan couldn’t recognize that he was on the fast track to becoming her.
The actual intervention, involving Ryan’s immediate family, aunts and uncles, girlfriend, and interventionist Ken Seeley, took only 10 minutes of the hour-long episode, with Seeley’s pre-intervention interview with the family taking up another five minutes. (The interview also proved to be a mini-intervention for Paul’s drinking problem.) The rest of the episode focused on Ryan’s spiral towards death. It’s easy to imagine a sober Ryan is pleasant, and we hope he’ll make it. After hearing his family’s tearful pleas that he get help, he quickly agreed and left with Ken for a detox center, to be followed by 90 days in a rehab center. Yet, a postscript to the episode noted that Ryan’s behavior got him kicked out of rehab within six weeks, after which he entered another program for a month before walking out. Currently, he is living in Southern California, working as a valet. The series didn’t mention whether Ryan was clean, but did point out that Paul had quit drinking.
Ryan’s story is not unique. Each week, the series focuses on one or two individuals in various kinds of trouble: addicted to drugs of all kinds, alcoholic, bulimic, or violent, to name a few. Intervention is not easy to watch, but it is compelling. Whether the troubled soul is an aimless young man like Ryan, the child of a rock star, a middle-aged businessman, or a confused teenage girl, the series passes no judgments, taking a “This is where they were, this is where they are now” approach.
This approach is actually the show’s one weakness. It makes little effort to examine the psychological, social, and physical factors that lead to addiction. Many young men and women grow up in homes with addiction, faced disappointments, or experimented with drugs and alcohol at an early age, but most don’t find their lives spiraling out of control. What factors led Ryan to his path, when so many others choose differently? This story might help viewers recognize warning signs early, so that they don’t get to the point where an intervention is needed.
Still, Intervention offers hope: help is available, recovery is possible. While Ryan’s future is uncertain, the show has had numerous success stories. What comes across most clearly is the importance of commitment to recovery on the part of all involved. If Intervention helps addicts and families make that commitment, then it is important TV.
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