The Case for Consequences
Featured Guest: Ken Seeley
Recovery is more than a one-time decision. But can a consistent set of consequences help rewire someone’s brain to say no to the voice of addiction in their head?
We’ll discuss this with interventionist Ken Seeley of the A&E TV show Intervention on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.
David: Recovery is more than a one-time decision but can a consistent set of consequences help rewire someone’s brain to say no to the voice of addiction in their head? I’m David Condos and we’ll discuss this with interventionist, Ken Seeley, on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.
David: If you’ve ever watched an intervention play out on television, the parts you might remember most are the displays of heightened emotions from surprise confrontations and shouting matches to tearful breakdowns and hugs among family.As you might have suspected, there are many other elements of the intervention process that you miss if you’re only looking at it through the lens of a TV camera. Ken Seeley, well, he would know because he’s one of those interventionists who’s frequently lent his expertise to the popular reality TV show, Intervention, during its 20-season run on the cable network A&E. That role in the spotlight is only one part of his nearly two decades of work in the world of recovery. As someone who has not only led thousands of interventions himself but also trained hundreds of other interventionists, he’s seen up close how the most critical parts of the intervention process often don’t happen during the intervention itself.
According to Ken, it’s what transpires before and after an intervention that truly determines how positive that outcome might be for the person with addiction and the family around them. When approaching a lifelong journey like that of recovery it’s not surprising that he places so much emphasis on the value of consistency throughout this process specifically consistency related to the consequences. They can keep individuals focused on rewiring their brains one healthy decision at a time. When Ken describes the importance of consequences, he’s speaking as someone who believes that he wouldn’t be alive today without the boundaries that were forced into his life 30 years ago in Southern California.
Ken: I got sober July 14th 1989. I tried to get sober for like four years prior that and just couldn’t do it. At 19, I went to my first AA meeting and wasn’t for me and till I was 26 years old is when I finally surrendered.
David: What finally did it for you? What was your turning point?
Ken: I had an intervention and got fired from work. It wasn’t really considered an intervention in 1989, it was more of you’re fired. You were done.
David: It was just ripping the Band-Aid.
Ken: It was an intervention but it wasn’t really– My family wasn’t involved and all of that but my work did my intervention just like the doctor diversion programs when the medical board pulls their license if they’re not compliant in recovery, I got fired from my job and didn’t know how to live without finances so I checked into treatment to figure out how to sell drugs better. That’s where the miracle happened.
David: You didn’t consider yourself ready, you weren’t in that mindset but it’s still happened.
Ken: Not at all, my rock bottom happened.
David: As you started discovering your own recovery, setting up your own new life, I assume you wanted to give back and how did you come to see this as a career, as a calling?
Ken: My first 10 years I did sober jobs. I did home health care. I took courses on how to take care of people at home when they were at hospice stages of their life. Iran a nonprofit drug and alcohol center so I didn’t really work in the field till I had 10years sober. When I had 10 years sober I started answering phones at a treatment center and realized there was a career in interventions, talking people into getting treatment. Really what I did at the beginning was more of a 12-step call and then I got educated on intervention practices.The most important thing that we’ve learned in the last few years is that every single person that goes to treatment needs an intervention period. They go into treatment because they hit a form of their rock bottom, a piece of their rock bottom, a very small piece of it.
They go into treatment and then all of a sudden those consequences get further behind them and they forget what they were and then they’re back to using. That’s why we have the revolving door and so many people are going through treatment numerous times because the bottom line, the consequence is not consistent. We need to figure out with the family system how to keep consequences consistent for at least a year. If they’re consistent for a year, when that voice starts playing in their head, I want to go get high because I can’t handle all the trauma I’m dealing with or the emotions around the trauma that I’ve had, I rather go get high than deal with that, they’re hearing the other voice of the family saying, “That watch that you stole, that credit card that you stole, we’re going to press charges and you’re going to face legal consequences.”
That voice is louder than the voice over here that’s saying, “I want to go get high,”and that’s the missing link, that’s what’s missing is that the consequence when people come into treatment dissipates. Then they go to treatment again because another consequence happens. It dissipates, they go again, it dissipates. There’s nothing consistent and that’s why we have this revolving door. Without doing an intervention on every client that comes to treatment is almost criminal.
David: What would you say that you wish more treatment providers, doctors, therapists knew about intervention and the role it can play?Ken: It’s not about intervening on the patient, it’s intervening on the family systems because if my work didn’t intervene on me, I would’ve probably died because my family was in New York so they didn’t see how bad it got. They didn’t see how bad I was on crystal meth. If they didn’t intervene on me, I would’ve probably been dead. I knew that emotionally I hit that emotional spiritual rock bottom that we all have to hit, I hit that but a lot of these addicts that are out there, they’re so young and they’re dropping like flies. They’re dying out there because they haven’t hit an emotional rock bottom.
David: They’re dying before they even get there.
Ken: Exactly. If we’re not giving them a chance to hit that emotional spiritual rockbottom that’s necessary, we got to create some other consequences to keep them on track for that first 12 months. It’s so insane that we have the techniques and the doctors have been doing this for over 30 years and it works with a 80, 85 percent success rate but yet we’re not doing that for every single young adult that’s coming through the door by creating consequences. Like a doctor, they go through the program and they have to stay compliant for five years. If they’re non-compliant they lose their license.
Treatment’s about dealing with the pain that they’ve been masking with the drugs but what’s happening is that voice gets louder and the doctors have that voice. I worked my butt off for 10 years and I’m not giving up my license so they stay compliant and that’s why they have that long success. The everyday person, the 21-year old, we have close to 200 people a day dying in this country. 200 a day. That’s like a plane going down every single day. We have that happening in this country right now and the reason is because we’re not holding them accountable like we hold the doctors accountable.
David: Yes, like you said, when you’re 21, if your family might not know, you might be going from job to job. There’s no consistency.
Ken: You’re invincible at 21. You don’t think you’re ever going to die and you never think that anything bad is going to happen so you just keep going and going and going. At 26, enough things happened. When I was 19, when I got kicked out of the Air Force for drugs, that wasn’t enough for me to say I have a problem. That was a huge consequence to get kicked out of the Air Force but that wasn’t enough for me at 19. I still didn’t identify when I went to my first mandatory meeting. I didn’t identify. Now you’re asking somebody that may have gotten in a car accident and the family said you have to go to treatment.
You were under the influence. Or maybe overdose.You have to go to treatment. Those things aren’t strong enough. They’re not going to keep somebody sober. There needs to be a consequence that’s playing in their head that says if I use this is going to happen, and it’s easy to do. That’s the thing that’s heartbreaking. It’s easy to create with the family but yet people aren’t doing it.
Speaker 2: What does it take to connect the dots and give families the education and encouragement they need to set some of those unflinching boundaries that might help save their loved one? One piece of the puzzle is making it clear that if they’re going to change their family system, they have to put a stop to enabling the addictive behavior.
Another aspect that Ken says shouldn’t be overlooked is having empathy. It’s also critical to help families understand the disease model of addiction and learn about how hard it is for their loved one to say no to that voice of addiction in their head. In his role with the A&E show, Intervention, Ken encounters these complex relational dynamics with families from all walks of life. In his experience, when a family is open to having an interventionist help them implement a system of consequences, it can lead to more clear reasonable expectations for everyone involved.
Ken: I just did an episode this week for the show and the kid’s crying hysterically at the intervention. I am so sorry I hurt you. I am so sorry. The dad’s crying. He said he’d never seen his dad cry before. Then he starts crying and saying, “I am so sorry. I cannot believe I hurt you and my sisters this way.” I could feel that that person that’s suffering, the addict, was sincere. He never meant to hurt his father that way and his sisters. He never meant to. It’s the addiction. He said he drove to an AA meeting, and on the way to the AA meeting he missed the exit and automatically went to the dealers without even consciously thinking about it.If there’s consequences like we did, we put consequences in place. We said, “You will never see your family again.
As much as you love them and as much pain as it caused you, you will never see them again. They’re going to cut their tie. They’re done. They can’t do this anymore. They did it 31 times. They cannot do it anymore.”Now when he’s driving to that AA meeting, guess what that voice is going to be playing in his head? That voice is not going to say, “Automatically go to the dealer.”That voice is going to say, “You go to the dealer you lose your family.”
David: Is it worth it?
Ken: Is it worth it? Just like the doctor. You go to the dealer you’re going to lose your license. Is it worth it? Why doesn’t everybody get that opportunity?
David: Like you said, there’s a lot more to it than just the intervention itself. Could you say a little bit about what you hope to accomplish when you’re in that pre-intervention stage preparing with the family?
Ken: The pre-intervention stage the most important thing to express to the families are that it’s not about getting the addict to treatment. It’s about changing their behaviors in order to get them to stay in recovery long term. Anybody could get somebody go to treatment. AA started with 12-step calls. Back in the day somebody would call drunk and say, “I need help. I don’t know what I’m doing,” in a blackout.Then somebody would show up at their doorstep and talk him into go to treatment.That’s a 12-step call. Anybody could do that. Anybody could talk somebody into going to treatment. Changing the environment around the addict to create consequences, healthy boundaries, to motivate them to want to continue to change is the challenge.
That’s what is very difficult because families still think, “Oh, the addict’s the one doing the drugs, they’re the ones that need to change. We don’t need to change anything.”Convincing them in the pre intervention I think is the key component that if you change your behaviors by putting boundaries and healthy boundaries into place and bottom lines into place, you may get a different result or you can still do what you do, and I always cushioning the rock bottom. You could still pay for the lawyer to get him out of the legal trouble, you could still give him a place to live, but you’re going to be nursing them to death.
David: It’s not going to fix the problem.
Ken: No. You’re going to nurse him to death. I want you to be very clear when they die, you were the nurse that nursed them to death because you didn’t put boundaries into place to create a scenario that every addict has to face in order to get into recovery. What I mean by that is no addict goes to treatment because they just got a raise at work or they got engaged. That’s not why you go to treatment. You go to treatment and get into recovery because there’s pain in your life. Pain creates change. It’s not about being punitive or harming your loved one, it’s about creating a scenario that’s going to create change.
David: Yes. Talking about families, what about when families are unwilling or in denial? How do you approach that? Because I’m sure that happens pretty frequently?
Ken: A lot. When they’re in crisis mode and I’m sitting in their living room with them they’ll do anything. But say a self-admit person, “Well, my son’s already in treatment. Why do I need to change anything? Why do we need to do this? He’s already in treatment.” Well, the reality is if you don’t he’s going to be on that roller-coaster ride again. Convincing them is the hardest job that I have as an interventionist. Showing them examples of how this works for other people that when they changed, they got a different result. Having them do their work, getting them in therapy.
Like I said, the one that I just did, I got the family to sign a family contract. The two sisters are going to go to Al-Anon meetings and they’re going to go get sponsors and start working the steps. The dad’s going to do that. He’s going to go to therapy. He’s going to go to grief counseling because his wife passed recently. All these things I’m getting them into their recovery. They’re getting tools to knowhow to deal with their own issues because dad– an awareness that I had for dad, at 19 he was a caregiver to his mother. Then his brother needed help. He was a caregiver to his brother.
Then his wife needed help. He was a caregiver to his wife. Now his son needs help, and so he’s a caregiver to his son. Since 19 he’s been caregiving for somebody, so he doesn’t love himself. He loves the feeling that I have to take care of this one, and when I take care of this person I feel complete. I told him, “That’s your heroin that your heroin. Your son turns to heroin, you turn to taking care of people and without it you’re going to be detoxing. You’re going to feel discomfort because you’ve been doing it since you were 19.” Really, that’s what a pre-intervention is about is unraveling each individual that’s there, giving them tasks for them to reach and focus on their recovery and putting bottom lines into place so they could get their loved one into recovery and not only into recovery, but long-term recovery.
Speaker 2: Between the intervention and long-term recovery, there are often a number of pitfalls that families and their loved ones face. Some of them might be more obvious like a loved one who struggles to follow through on an ultimatum or someone with an addiction who changes their mind about treatment on the way to the facility. Other barriers to this process can come from more unlikely sources, even from some of the recovery programs themselves.
Ken: Well, a lot of treatment centers don’t believe in this modality is that everybody needs an intervention. That’s the first roadblock that you get. They’ll say, “We got it from here. We don’t need your help.”
David: Ask you to pass it off.
Ken: Yes. See you later. Thank you for bringing him in, but we got this. I just work with the family. I got them doing their work. I got the addict. I got bottom lines and some places just don’t want to hear that. Getting them into treatment, that’s one roadblock. The other roadblock is as an interventionist and case manager, my job is not to treat them. My job is to get them to good treatment and then as they’re progressing, working with the family to let the therapist know in treatment that the family’s also doing their work. If they’re not doing their work, so I’m using this example of this dad again.
The dad, if he doesn’t do his work and he starts enabling– again remember that’s his– co-dependency is his drug of choice. If he starts enabling his son again, we put bottom lines in place that the daughter that’s ready to start a family will not let the dad see his grandchildren. Dad broke down and said, “I love kids and I would be devastated if I couldn’t see my grandchildren.” Now dad has a motivator himself to keep him-
David: He has that voice like you were saying.
Ken: -on track when his son calls and says like he did in the 31 times, “Dad, come pick me up. They don’t have good soap here.” Dad buys into that because that’s his drug of choice, pulls him out of treatment. Now dad has a motivator. As they get healthier they start buying into dad, “Dad, oh my God, I’m so glad you did this for me.You saved my life. Thank God for you.” Really what they’re doing is manipulating dad. They’re trying to see how far they could get with dad. I’m so grateful. I finished my 90 days and I got my certificate. I completed this. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Dad’s like, “Oh, thank God you’re coming home. I’ve been missing you.” Then all of a sudden dad didn’t do his work. He goes back to manipulating dad and now they’re back to square zero.
David: Because they thought they were done. They thought it was over.
Ken: We are done. That’s why relapse continues, that’s why there’s a revolving door.That’s why we continue to be in this horrible place where 200 people, close to 200 a day died in 2017. I think it was 92,000.
David: That’s a whole city of people. Over the course of the year.
Ken: Exactly. A whole city of people in the course of a year gone because of this disease. If it was anything else the government would be on top of it. We would be like joining forces like what are we going to do to stop this? The reality is because it is that addict that’s making the choice and the stigma of the disease it’s brushed under the carpet still.
David: Even though it is affecting everyone especially with the opioid crisis, it probably is still seen as somebody else’s problem in a lot of ways.
Ken: You think of how many people are at the funeral. If that’s 200 people a day, that’s 600 people that they lose their kid, that they’re mourning, that they are in pain, that they’ve been going through this misery. There’s so many people that could take action to make a change. We just got get that message out there.
David: All right. Well, you’ve given your life, your effort, your time to this mission over the last couple decades. Could we end by having you sum up why this mission of helping others, make that decision to seek help and then seeing it through to long-term recovery, why is that so important to you?
Ken: It’s funny I just did an exercise at one of our trainings and it’s this exercise that we learned with Judy Crane and she does in her trainings that me too, so anybody that has felt suicidal even clean and sober step in the middle of the circle. I was completely shocked that everybody didn’t step in the circle. I thought everybody had felt that way. I know that personal pain that the addict’s going through that they don’t even know it yet but they know something’s not right. I know that personal pain and I definitely know that pain of the family members that are watching their loved one die.
Knowing that pain deep down inside and knowing that there’s a little bit of hope if they just shift a little bit gives me the rocket fuel to want to continue to help. We’re not here on this earth to have to live in that misery. Nobody deserves to live in that misery. It’s painful to watch that and they deserve an amazing life. If I could give them a glimpse of light or hope then I can’t give up.
David: Ken Seeley is a board certified interventionist based in Palm Springs, California, who’s appeared on dozens of episodes of the A&E reality TV show,Intervention. He’s also the founder of Intervention 911 which has provided resources for families and training for interventionists since 2002. To find out more about his work there, visit intervention911.com. As always this podcast is powered by Foundations Recovery Network and produced, written, and edited by me, David Condos. If you haven’t yet be sure to connect with us on social media to get a look at what you might have missed and what we have coming up. We’re on Facebook at Recovery Unscripted Podcast and on Twitter at Recovery Unscripted. Thank you for listening and I hope to see you right back here for the next episode of Recovery Unscripted.