In 1973, Jeff VanVonderen was an alcoholic living with four other substance abusers.
His problems with booze were so bad that one day, he says all four of his roommates “ganged up on me and ripped me a new one. I had evidently passed them up because they noticed I had a problem. That left such an impression on me. That’s when I realized I had a problem. I started seeing counselors and going to AA. When a guy who’s slurring his words sees something, there must be something to see.”
That was VanVonderen’s first intervention – there would be plenty of others, just not for him.
A board-certified interventionist himself for the last 14 years, VanVonderen has plied his trade on A&E’s “Intervention” since 2005, one of four such specialist who appear on the show.
Getting sick people who, due to the nature of their disease, stridently resist real help, into treatment is a challenging task. But VanVonderen, who experienced a relapse last year of his own that kept him off the show for a time, believes it’s a life-or-death matter.
“There’s an intervention coming anyway – you’re either going to go to prison or ruin your liver and wind up dead. This way, the bottom they hit gets raised so you don’t wind up there.”
Fancast caught up to with VanVonderen as he was prepping to attend the September 12 Recovery Rally in New York City, an free, annual, sobriety-themed public event tied to National Recovery Month (Smokey Robinson is due to perform and 5,000 are expected to attend).
So describe the first intervention you ever did.
I had a friend who was an interventionist who asked to go along with him just to keep him sane. That was 14 years ago. It was a 55-year-old male who had sexually molested all of his daughters and most of his nieces 20 years prior, and they had decided to do something. It took 11 ∏ hours and we had 14 people there, most of them victims, all adults now. By the time we were done, not only did he end up going to treatment for sexual addiction, he wrote a check for $40,000 for the treatment of these women.
What type of addiction makes for the most challenging intervention?
Methamphetamine, just because of the way it affects the brain and the drug-induced psychosis people get. It changes the way your brain fires, so people get very suspicious and paranoid. When you do a normal intervention, the person doesn’t think a lent ball is a listening device.
What’s the toughest intervention you’ve had to do on the show?
Not so coincidentally, we had this guy Dillon who was a meth addict (in season three). He was living in a trailer his mom was paying for, and when we pulled up with the police at seven in the morning, there were meth addicts crawling out of that trailer like clowns at a fire station. That’s how it started. So we did the intervention and he was under the influence the whole time. He was not cooperative at all. At one time, he jumped out the window and ran down the road, which could have been a problem, since he was already on probation. And he was really mean to his grandparents.
But I remember that one. He eventually agreed to go to rehab.
You have to remember that about 50 hours of shooting are edited down to about 24 minute, so some stuff gets edited out and some stuff doesn’t get shot. We were in the car, about halfway between a cotton field and a peanut field in Oklahoma, and Dillon told me to pull over to a gas station and let him out. He had changed his mind. I called the police that were involved and they said it was out of their jurisdiction. But they called a local policeman who was a big fan of the show who wanted to help. I said, “When you catch him, put him down on his knees and read him his rights. I’ll approach him and ask him if he wants to go to treatment or prison.
How many interventions do you do a month?
In a normal month, I would say I do three or four, and about a quarter of them are for the show. There are some months when I don’t do any – people don’t normally do interventions around Christmas, for example. They think this is the year Norman Rockwell shows up and keeps this happy family together and makes dad keep his promise to stop drinking.
Do you like being on TV?
I never aspired to be on TV – I don’t even watch TV. In fact, I don’t even watch the show because I know how it ends. But the reason I said yes is because I used to always hear from half the clients I did interventions for that, if they had known something like this was available earlier, maybe their dad or someone else would still be alive. The more exposure, the better.
Do people recognize you?
They do. Two weeks ago, I was at the airport in Minneapolis. There was a woman looking at me. She approached me and said that she’d watched the show for two years and that she was drunk the whole time. She said it was because of our show that she got help.
Watch the season premiere of ‘Intevention’ Monday, September 14, at 9 PM on A&E.