A&E struck gold back in 2005 when they launched Intervention, a docu-style series following alcoholics and drug addicts (and some struggling with other disorders) from what we hope is their bottom through a staged intervention and, if all goes well, off to treatment. Though briefly canceled in 2013, the show was (thankfully) revived just a year later and has now officially entered its 15th season. The fifth episode aired Sunday, April 3.
This Is Barry
The fifth episode of the season pails in comparison to its predecessors in terms of drama but it does offer something valuable: a portrait of a run-of-the-mill alcoholic. Barry appears to be just an average 50-year-old guy, living a simple, blue-collar lifestyle somewhere in Canada. He lives alone, drives a pick-up truck and wears windbreakers. But what sets Barry apart from peers is that he has a drinking problem, one that goes beyond the after work six-pack or local bar scene. Barry’s entire live revolves around drinking. If he works at all, it’s only to earn money to buy alcohol. His social circle consists of other middle-aged drunks, including what he refers to as “girlfriends.” And even though the women he dates appear to be below his level (at least physically), even they end up kicking him to the curb. Why? Because he’s a stereotypical alcoholic: broke, belligerent and always getting into fights.
What it was like
But things weren’t always the sad state of affairs that they are now. At one point, Barry was a licensed plumber and had a wife and child. But, as is often the case in many working class communities, alcohol was a big part of the culture he grew up in. Born to teenage parent, Barry saw drinking in his home from a very young age. While this isn’t what makes him an alcoholic, it could explain why his love affair with alcohol went unnoticed, or at least untreated, for so many years. Many of us in recovery will say that it took us a while to realize we didn’t drink like other people because we surrounded ourselves with people who drank like us. When there are others doing what we are doing, it helps justify our own behavior (this works in recovery, too).
But while some heavy drinkers are able to remain just that, at some point, the real alcoholics veer from the status quo and start to unconsciously make choices that destroy their families, their relationships and their livelihood—and that is exactly what happened to Barry. As his sister points out, Barry hasn’t changed since he was 16; he is stuck in the 70s (although thankfully not in regards to fashion or hairstyles) and seems to refuse to grow up. Even though some grownup things have happened to him, like becoming a husband and a father, people who have arrested their development with alcohol and drugs aren’t able to rise to the occasion. It might be happening but that doesn’t mean they are going to show up.
In some ways, Barry reminds me of my dad (although much more present and functioning). His self-righteous justifications and victim mentality demonstrated a complete lack of self-awareness that is pretty jarring coming from a man of his age. Sometimes the excuses for certain behavior or actions that come out of my father’s mouth is both tragic and infuriating. I have learned through him how a person can live for so long beating to his own drum because he doesn’t even hear the drum of others.
But beyond what went on in Barry’s home as a child and what may be genetically pumping through his veins, there is something else in his past that may be fueling his addiction. When Barry was 10 years old, an uncle sexually abused him. And while not every kid who gets abused turns out to be an addict, it certainly does up the chances. Especially when, like Barry, you keep the abuse a secret from your family and friends and carry the burden of shame with you for decades. Shame is a killer when it comes to addiction and other self-destructive behavior. It also has a way of festering and growing inside someone until it becomes bigger than the person. It wasn’t until recently that those close to Barry became aware of the abuse.
What It’s Like Now
Barry has agreed to be in a documentary about addiction but when we first meet him, it’s not clear as to whether he will a good candidate for an intervention.
“I like who I am,” Barry says. “There are things I can improve on and things I don’t want to improve on.”
This doesn’t exactly sound like a man who is ready for a life change. Everybody has things they could improve on; that sentiment doesn’t even begin to fit the bill of a 50-year-old, unemployed (and unemployable) man-child who scraps up seat change to buy cigarettes and is living out of a hotel. Barry showcases how the alcoholic mind has such a warped perception of reality that it tells him he is doing just fine and that everyone who loves him needs to back off and mind their own business (well, until he needs to borrow money from them).
Making the conscious choice to live a low functioning and limited existence is sad to watch but Barry is an adult and he should be allowed to make his own choices, no matter how painful they may be for others. But what is really gut-wrenching to see is Barry’schoice to nurture his addiction to alcohol rather than the relationship with his son—who hasn’t spoken to him in three years. And as much as I want to judge Barry (and let’s face it, my own father), I can also see very clearly that he really isn’t aware that this is the choice he is making. I am sure he knows—on some level—that is estrangement from his son is related to his drinking but I don’t think he understands the connection beyond the fact that, like everyone else, he wants him to stop drinking.
“I’m an alcoholic but I am not a bad person,” Barry says. But what do you call a person who allows years to go by without speaking to their son and not doing whatever it takes to rectify the situation? Bad person, maybe not—but seriously fucked up person, absolutely.
The night before the intervention, Barry attends the funeral of an 84-year old woman who was the mother of an old friend of his. The friend, apparently, committed suicide two months ago and so Barry is feeling particularly sentimental about her passing. And if there is one thing drunks love, it’s a good tragedy. Barry takes the funeral as an opportunity to get shit-canned and (probably) feel sorry for himself. His “behind the eight ball” mentality is clear as he sits in the back of one of the producer’s car, rambling and practically shirtless, about who he is and what he is all about. Oh, that’s another thing alcoholics love, drunk or sober: self-righteous indignation.
Meanwhile, Barry’s family meets with Interventionist and addiction counselor, Maureen Brine, who explains that the whole idea behind and intervention is not waiting for a crisis, it’s creating the crisis. She addressing the possibility that Barry won’t accept treatment and asks the family how long they feel they will be able to stick to the bottom lines they are giving to him. They all agree that they are ready to stand by their promises to cut him off if he doesn’t go to rehab.
Barry doesn’t seem too taken aback when he enters the room where the intervention is going to happen and finds his family there. But he does appear a little confused and disoriented, probably due to a combination of cameras in his face and a hangover. Like he is arriving home for Thanksgiving dinner, Barry welcomes his mom and sister with a hug and tells his father he looks good, before taking his seat on the couch. Maureen Brine also seems to sense that Barry isn’t quite sure what is happening so after she introduces herself, she flat out tells him that this is in intervention, to which he takes in stride. And by stride, I mean it’s still not clear whether he’s registered the information. His mother reads her letter first, pointing out that her parents wanted her to give Barry up for adoption but she fought for him and is still fighting for him now. She states her bottom lines, which are—if he doesn’t choose to go to rehab—no longer taking his calls, giving him food or giving him money. She appears to escalate to anger at the end, closing with “I’m done,” referring not to the letter but to her relationship with her son.
Barry’s sister reads her letter but it’s clear their relationship is strained and so it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on Barry. But when his father says he will lose respect for him if he doesn’t opt for treatment, this seems to resonate with Barry and he agrees to go.
In all of my years of being around active and recovering addiction, there seems to be one thing addicts (alcoholics especially) are really attached to and it’s the notion of being respected. It’s one of the most tragic ironies of all time because respect is pretty much the first thing that goes out the window when someone starts to lose control of his or her drinking and using. But the disease’s ability to warp a person’s perception of reality doesn’t allow for addicts to see that. In fact, it often tricks them into thinking their drinking and using is what’s allowing them to not fall to pieces, to appear like a “normal” and functioning person; someone worthy of respect.
Although there are only three family members in the room, the fourth letter comes in the form of a pre-taped video from Barry’s son, Adam. This seals the deal and Barry agrees to go to treatment, though he is somewhat skeptical. “If this is a matter of going to detox and drying out, I have done that many times and it didn’t really change anything,” Barry tells Maureen. But Maureen assures him that this is different. “We have much bigger plans for you,” she says.
Barry makes an open apology to his family for “turning out this way” and says he doesn’t want to continue the behavior. He leaves with Maureen and heads to the airport to go to treatment.
A cool little twist is that after learning of his dad’s decision to accept help, Adam greets him at the airport, hugs him and wishes him luck. We then see Barry on the plane and he doesn’t appear to be drinking, which for an alcoholic on his way to treatment is almost unheard of.
Two Months Later
As Barry plays horseshoes, he tells the camera that treatment was not what he expected. He said that drinking didn’t even cross his mind during the first week but he knows that it’s all he would have been thinking about if he had been in jail, a hospital or detox because he has been in all three of those places. The message being, something is definitely different this time.
Adam comes to visit his dad in rehab and we get to see the beginning of the reparation of their relationship. He tells us that ever since his dad has been in treatment, they have been talking once or twice a week— a big change from not having any contact for three years. Though Adam comes off kind of personality-less, this could just be the result of years of disappointment and the broken spirit that comes with it. I don’t blame him and when you are re-opening your heart to a recovering addict, it’s smart to be cautious and keep your expectations low.
Barry completed three months of treatment, moved in with a new girlfriend and continues to look for work. But unfortunately, despite the revelations Barry had during treatment, he continues to drink—though now it’s in what he says is “moderation.” But from someone who drank 40 ounces of vodka a day, it’s hard to know what that means. Regardless (or irregardless as they say in Canada), the chances of Barry’s drinking habits not eventually returning to what they used to be are unlikely.
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