Joani Gammill, 'Dr. Phil' Interventionist, Talks About Her Own Addiction

06/20/2011 08:52 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

Joani Gammill, a registered nurse, recovering addict and mother of two, has just written an account of her career as a professional "interventionist," which she embarked on after an appearance on the "Dr. Phil" show sparked her own recovery. "The Interventionist," published by Hazelden, recounts some of her most dramatic and frustrating interventions, arranged by addicts' families, and how they have furthered her understanding of the disease of addiction. Recently she sat down to speak with me about her book.

Rosenberg: You describe many different types of addicts in "The Interventionist." Some are poignant, some are pathetic, and still others are likeable, but some are downright scary, like Jeff.

Gammill: Yes, during transport to the rehab facility, I was afraid he would force the car over, strangle me or assault me. I feel I have post-traumatic stress from that to this day; I feared for my life.

Rosenberg: Even though Crystal is streetwalking and has infections on her arms, face, ankles and in her eyes, you let her stay in the family home and are devoid of an attitude toward her.

Gammill: One of the biggest successes of my recovery is I immediately like and love the patients and see beyond the person to the disease, which I suffer from, too. In the case of Crystal, if I had not let her stay in the house, she would have been shooting up in some back alley in the hood, or with some john.

Rosenberg: Still, do you think so-called normies, people who are not addicts, understand harm reduction? Or would this look like enabling?

Gammill: An addict isn't going to give up their drugs or alcohol on the spot because of something I do. I don't have that power.

Rosenberg: You talk in "The Interventionist" about the addiction of codependency and needing to take care of or please others. When you wrest someone from the depths of their addiction and bring them to rehab and the doorstep of recovery, do you want them to appreciate it and thank you?

Gammill: Being a nurse for 17 years, including working in neonatal units, I learned how to let go of a patient. You can't get emotionally involved and carry around attachments or you're sunk.

Rosenberg: How else has being an R.N. helped your interventionist work?

Gammill: Well, of course, as a nurse with seven years of drug and alcohol rehab nursing, I know the medical piece of addiction and withdrawal and how to deal with the shakes or DTs that can occur during transport. Just a few weeks ago, I had a patient who I sensed, as a nurse, had something else going on besides alcohol intoxication. It turns out she had bleeding on the brain from a fall, which happens a lot to alcoholics.

Rosenberg: There is no doubt that intervention work takes to heart the 12th step of Alcoholics Anonymous, which says, "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics," and demonstrates how working with others keeps recovering people sober themselves. But doesn't publicizing patients' battles with drugs or alcohol glamorize addiction and violate anonymity?

Gammill: Anonymity is a personal choice that has to be respected -- like all medical conditions. But when someone's struggle with addiction becomes reality TV, it shows families how difficult the battle is and can get them treatment they could normally never afford. I personally got three months of rehab treatment from being on the "Dr. Phil" show, which I would never have had -- probably worth $90,000. Most health policies, including mine, don't cover drug and alcohol treatment.

Rosenberg: Has your work given you a clearer picture of why some people "get" recovery and others don't?

Gammill: Well, I used to try to predict, but really you could ask why someone recovers from any disease, like cancer. I think sometimes having a lot of money can be a barrier to recovery because having to work somehow aids recovery. But mostly the keys are nothing we haven't heard before: spiritual contact with a higher power, working with a sponsor and working the steps.

Rosenberg: You talk in your book about how you loved your children more than anything on this Earth, but your addiction is stronger.

Gammill: Yes! And I have little tolerance when people say, "If she really loved her children, she wouldn't drink." If she really loved her children, would she cure her MS and fix her blood sugar, too?