Intervention Recap, Episode 15: This is Jonel

Intervention Recap, Episode 15: This is Jonel


intervention jonelA&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 revived just a year later and is now in its 15th season. This week’s episode aired as the 15th episode on Sunday, July 24.

What It’s Like

Another week, another intervention—and this one’s a nail biter. Jonel is a 23-year-old mother of two with double addictions, to Suboxone and meth. She is a member of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe in Montana; the wild beauty and tragic history of the tribe saturates the story. Native Americans have a 27% poverty rate, double the national standard. 65% have used illegal drugs. It’s the bleak inheritance of Manifest Destiny’s brutal imperative, and the Blackfeet people are used to taking care of their lost and abandoned children—too used to it, in too many ways. “Indian people,” says Jonel’s mother Windy, “are taught to be quiet.”

The episode begins with the producers trying to find Jonel, who hasn’t shown up for filming. Windy accompanies the Intervention crew to the small shack Jonel shares with her boyfriend, Brandon (a dude who’s never found a wall against which he cannot lean mopingly). No answer. Cops bang on the door, but can do nothing.

After they leave, the door opens and filmmakers enter to see Brandon and Jonel shooting up. She injects his arm, and asks him to “shoot up in my neck because it’s pretty much the biggest vein that I have.” As he injects her, she blows air into her thumb to expand the neck vein.

The beauty and the starkness: Jonel has the cut-diamond cheekbones of a fashion model, and thinning hair she scrapes to the top of her skeletal head. Ice blue mountains shimmer in the background behind a tattered sign reading, Browning, The Home of the Blackfeet Nation. This is the area to which the US government consigned the tribe, formerly known as the “Lord of the Plains,” in 1855.

Brandon and Jonel use meth to recover from Suboxone. “I need the energy,” sighs Jonel. She’s always asking her impoverished relatives (who care for her children full-time) for money. She steals and sells her food stamps to get the Suboxone injection she needs in the mornings—or else she’ll “just lie there miserable and sick.”

Windy, eyes weighted with regret, asks, “Could I have done more to save her?” The answer to that question, perhaps inevitably, is maybe you should do less.

What It Was Like

Jonel was a playful little girl, who her Uncle Nugget refers to as “a scooter”—before she could walk she just scooted on her butt to get around. When she was nine, her parents moved the family out of the reservation. Her parents began to “party” together, and then to fight. After a particularly violent night, Dad left. Windy returned to Browning with her children—and her family looked after them while she would go out for days, smoking pot, drinking, doing meth.

And so time passed. Windy seems to have sobered up, comparatively, but when Jonel first fell in love, it was with the abandon of a love-starved child. She was 16 when she met a man named Sotana. Within four months she was pregnant and they were planning to marry.

Then, one night, Windy heard that Sotana and a few friends had been in a car accident. She and Jonel rushed to the hospital, where they waited for news. Windy: “Every time the door would open Jonel would look, and I knew, I knew…”

Jonel says, “He died on impact.”

What Happened

Jonel stopped eating. Two days after Sotana’s death, she gave birth to their child, Joselyn. Then she recreated the past: she dumped her baby on her mother and aunts, and started “partying.”

(It’s jarring to me, when the Blackfeet people refer to drug use as “partying” like we’re in some 80s frat movie—as if this shit actually looks fun. It doesn’t.)

Jonel’s use swiftly escalated to the Suboxone and meth, and her second child, Thunder, was born already addicted. The Child Protective Services were called in, and they wouldn’t permit Thunder to leave the hospital with his mother. Uncle Nugget and his wife became Thunder’s foster parents.

What It’s Like Now

Jonel comes to her mother’s house for dinner, a rare event, and only because cameras are rolling. However, six-year-old Joselyn thinks it means something, that her mother’s passing, feigned interest in her family has a core of genuine feeling. Joselyn’s response is complex. “It really made my heart break because my mother doesn’t come home a lot,” she says. The little girl’s face is bathed in tears. “She always lies and it makes me feel sad.”

Jonel is jonesing, however, and desperate to leave ASAP. “I love them so much that I wouldn’t want them to be part of my lifestyle,” she explains. So she tells her clinging daughter that she is “like super, super tired,” and soon a water-damaged wall shakes as the door slams behind Jonel, while Windy clutches the weeping child, saying, “I knew that I would again…have to clean up the mess.” We are beginning to catch a wee whiff of savored self-pity from our Windy.

Next day, Jonel’s used a gram of meth. She’s on her way back to Windy’s for more interviews. Brandon, out of his mind on meth + possessiveness, drives her there, refusing to let her be interviewed alone. At Windy’s he does his doorway mope. “They want to film her,” he says, “not me.” Windy tolerates Brandon like a bad smell. Looking at her, he sulks, “Coffee would be nice.”

Soon he’s got Jonel back in his car, and again he’s plaguing her. “If you don’t want me, just tell me, man,” he says. “Are we going to break up?” Jonel says she just went home for the interviews. But Brandon goes on and on and the car turns left onto a dusty street connecting to nothing. Rusted silos, broken fences, aluminum shacks and Suboxone. Plus one chipmunk.


Donna Chavous is the interventionist: she wears her knowledge of this disease elegantly as a cashmere shawl, and I get all girl-crushy on her. Many family members are present; cousins, aunts, uncles, a grandma with a Farrah haircut. Chavous heads straight to the fly in this messed-up ointment: How much will Jonel’s relationship with Brandon affect her chances? “All the support she can get to let go of him and take care of herself is important,” Chavous explains.

A cousin points out how tough it is to be sober in Browning. Windy says she cannot bear to see Jonel sad, that if she calls from rehab, Windy will get her out. The entire family flinches like a dead puppy has been flung to the floor, and Windy starts to cry.

“I’m gonna need someone to like reassure me,” she says. “I’m weak when I’m alone.” Suddenly you see a light bulb go on over everybody’s heads. An aunt says, “You’re making it all about you now,” noting that Windy is as much of an obstacle as Brandon.

Chavous says Windy needs help, too—but frankly I’m worried about little (fortunately absent) Joselyn and what this culture is teaching her about the connection between “partying” and martyrdom.

The Intervention 

The next day, even more family members are in the intervention room. Windy’s prised Jonel from Brandon’s house, but of course he’s outside leaning against the car.

Jonel enters wearing a pink velour sweat top—the required addict garb. Chavous disingenuously states that all Jonel needs to do “is listen.”

Jonel’s sister reads, “Addiction has taken over who you are…I want to take the time to tell you how very truly sorry I am about Sotana.” Jonel starts wailing, and Grandma Farrah clutches her to her breast. An aunt says she is going to adopt Thunder because she will not let him grow up the way Joselyn has. Windy’s pulled her act together and firmly intones, “It’s time to come back now, you’ve been gone too long and I will not bury you. This is an opportunity for us both to change.”

Chavous zooms in with the facts: “This is an opportunity to go to treatment in Arizona, and I’m willing to escort you there,” she says.

Tears hang from Jonel’s emaciated cheeks. Her lips tremble and she says, “I need to smoke a cigarette.” No—don’t let her out to the car! The Leaner will lean on her and pull her away! As Jonel leaves the room her eyes roll like a trapped foal’s, and in that frantic look we see the full addict—the manipulative combo of self-pity and contempt plus the ruthless demand for obliteration.

She goes straight to Brandon. When she tells him about the rehab offer, he asks, “Why would you even do something like that?”

And we cut for commercial break. This is worrying because there are less than 10 minutes left and I take it personally when these interventions are failures. I don’t sit through 43 Olive Garden commercials for nothing, you know.

But shh…we’re back. The whole family moves outside. Uncle Nugget pulls Brandon aside and does the man-to-man thing that has a powerful effect on insecure guys. “You need to let her go,” he says. When Brandon bursts into tears, Nugget says calmly, “It’s good to cry.”

Meanwhile, Chavous tells Jonel that if she doesn’t want to “take this opportunity for your children and to get better as a mother, there’s nothing more I can say.” Back and forth it goes: Jonel says Arizona’s too far, too far. Brandon clings to Jonel like a rock upon which he’s been shipwrecked. Finally, they both agree to go to rehab—she in Arizona, he in Cali.

Jonel is flown to the A Sober Way Home in Prescott, AZ. We see no more of Brandon, who I’m sure is a lovely person now, but against whom I have a powerful urge to lean a 4×4 plank. Hard. The pragmatic aunt says, “What I really hope is that they use this as a tool and turn it to help our people who are suffering from the same addiction.”

62 Days Later

We open on a beautiful Arizona climate, waves of sand embedded with rocks beneath an azure sky. Jonel is sitting on a boulder. She no longer looks like an emaciated lemur but still has cheekbones for days. “I finally can look in the mirror and feel worth,” she says. The desperate, ratlike expression is gone from her eyes.

A counselor at Sober Way home says Jonel has a lot of trauma she is still working through, but right now both Joselyn and Windy are in Arizona to see her. Jonel hugs her beautiful daughter, saying, “I love you more than you’ll ever know.” That has a whiff of the ol’ martyrdom to me but Joselyn is “happy that I hugged her.”

And Jonel has found a sense of her experience’s value. “I want people, especially young woman, to be inspired…there is hope and there is a chance and it’s worth it.”

Jonel plans to remain in Arizona indefinitely, and has ended her relationship with Brandon. Jonel has been sober since March 20th, 2016.


About Author

Dana Burnell has written for The London Times Sunday Magazine, The Guardian Weekend Magazine, Inside New York and Time Out New York. A former Editorial Assistant at Harvard Review, she’s the received Mellon Foundation Grant and two Fiction Fellowship Grants from Columbia University. She’s written two novels, Mistaken Nonentity and The Tame Man.