Former Addict Helps Families Of The Afflicted

Addiction to drugs and alcohol affects more than 13 percent of the U.S. population. Kristina Wandzilak, a former addict, has dedicated her life to helping others overcome their dependence, working as a family interventionist. The new TLC documentary Addicted follows her as she leads the addicts and their families to recovery.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

These days, we often throw around the word addicted to describe a deep fondness for everything from chocolate to "American Idol." But people who really are addicted, or who love someone who is, know that addiction is no joke.

Unidentified Woman #1: I didn't do anything bad.

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm 31 years old and I have some drinks to feel better.

Unidentified Woman #3: You need to get back to your meetings, you do.

Unidentified Man: Well, I think that when tonight...

Unidentified Woman #4: I don't want...

Unidentified Woman #3: There are lots of people, too, who drink a lot. They go to AA meetings.

MARTIN: Right now, millions of people who are trying to shake an addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex, and many of them have families who are desperate to help them. To do that, many people turn to an interventionist whose job is to help the addict face the reality of his or her addiction.

One person who does that work is the subject of a new series on TLC that premieres tonight. It's called "Addicted." And the central figure in that series is with us now. Kristina Wandzilak, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. KRISTINA WANDZILAK (Executive Director and Founder, Full Circle Intervention; "Addicted): Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I'm just going to play a short clip where you introduce yourself. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Addicted")

Ms. WANDZILAK: My name is Kristina Wandzilak. When I was 14, I was addicted to drugs and alcohol. I turned to prostitution, robbed homes and dug through dumpsters to pay for my habit. I got help. I survived, and today I am an interventionist.

MARTIN: Well, that tells us what we need to know about you, but you don't go into the details in the series, which I just want to emphasize, it really focuses on the people you're trying to help. But I would like to ask you, how did the addiction start for you?

Ms. WANDZILAK: Very innocently, I think. I had my first drink when I was 13, just being curious about alcohol. I stole it from my parents' liquor cabinet and experimented with alcohol and I loved what alcohol did for me from the first time I drank it. And maybe that's, like, the perfect storm in my story that it was my personality, it was my biochemistry, it was an early experimentation with alcohol, which led into this raging addiction.

And, you know, by the time I was 14, 15 years old I was addicted to methamphetamine and cocaine. I mean, it happened so quickly for me. By the time I was 18, my family had let me go and I was out on my own doing my best to make my way, which I did terribly. Landed homeless in the streets and eventually got sober at the age of 21 years old and have been clean and sober since.

MARTIN: What was the key to getting clean and sober for you?

Ms. WANDZILAK: At the age of 21 years old, I was dying on the floor of a homeless shelter in San Francisco - what I believed. I was dying. I mean, I saw a light. I couldn't breathe. I was so certain that my life was coming to an end, and honestly, it was in that moment when I realized that nobody was coming to save me - that I had done this to myself at the age of 21 years old. And that I could've disappeared off the face of this earth and nobody would've noticed. And it was in that very moment that I realized that I needed to somehow change my life.

MARTIN: What you do in this series is essentially you are a person who tries to help other addicts face that reality. You don't actually do treatment yourself, but what you do is you try to get people to a place where they're willing to accept it.

And I just want to play a short clip from the first episode in the series where you are about to work with a Amanda Fields(ph). She's 31 years old. She's been addicted since she was in high school. She's back with her parents. They clearly are at the end of their tether with her. Her parents have left her alone in their home for the weekend, and she's broken into a locked refrigerator that they keep in their garage, where they keep all of their alcohol to - specifically to keep her from it, and this is the scene when they return, and here it is.

(Soundbite of TV Show, "Addicted")

Unidentified Woman #5: Did you have people over at all?

Ms. AMANDA FIELDS: Nothing happened to your house.

Unidentified Woman #5: You're being sneaky.

Ms. FIELDS: I have not been being (censored) sneaky.

Unidentified Woman #5: And you don't talk like that.

Ms. FIELDS: So sick of your (censored). And you guys will never know every person that is important in my life. You won't know who I'm sleeping with all the time. You won't also know who I'm hanging out with. I am still 31 years old. Nothing happened, done.

Unidentified Woman #5: That's enough.

Ms. FIELDS: (censored) this.

Unidentified Woman #5: Talk nice.

MARTIN: You know, I have to say that from what we saw of the series, this is pretty raw stuff. I mean, you don't see anybody out on the street, you know, turning tricks, but you do see people getting pretty high and pretty sick and really being abusive toward themselves and to their families. I wanted to ask, what do you think the benefit is of showing this?

Ms. WANDZILAK: Well, I think with "Addicted," what makes it so important, in my opinion, is that it doesn't just show - yes, it shows the addiction, but it also shows the recovery and showing people the way out. And, yes, we meet Amanda and her family in crisis, but as you watch the episode, they move from crisis to intervention to treatment and homecoming. And you watch the whole family move into recovery, which I think is the most beautiful thing about "Addicted."

MARTIN: How did you find the people who you follow in this series?

Ms. WANDZILAK: It was a collaborative process between my practice in the Northern California area and production. And it wasn't easy, frankly, choosing, because for every one that was chosen, there were many that weren't. There were a lot of addicts out there that wanted help, but their families didn't. So I had...

MARTIN: Wouldn't participate in the process. Well, I did I want to ask you, though, about the ethics of capturing people behaving in such a destructive way. I mean, we see Amanda who is getting seriously stoned. And I did want to ask about how you addressed the ethics of observing that and not intervening in that while it's going on.

Ms. WANDZILAK: I think it's about telling the story and I think every individual on "Addicted" and, you know, every crewmember on "Addicted," you know, there was a beautiful agreement to tell a story. And the reason I did this, to be frank with you, I have been approached multiple times over the years to do television around addiction and have had no interest in it. What I liked about "Addicted," what I like about TLC is the family aspect and their willingness to tell the whole story. So, what starts out very difficult ends very beautiful, and that is how I wrap my head around doing this.

MARTIN: Okay, but what if somebody overdosed on camera?

Ms. WANDZILAK: If somebody overdosed on camera, well, there are when you're filming, you know, and in production and working with a disease like this, there are rules and regulations in which we work by. So if anybody at any time was in inherent danger of overdose, then, you know, 911 is always called, always. There's no question.

MARTIN: I did notice from what I've seen, that I didn't see any ethnic diversity among the people you're working with. From what I saw, everybody seemed to be Caucasian and they all seemed to be kind of middle class. And I wondered whether, was that intentional or was that just how it shook out? And I wondered also whether is that part of your message is that middle class white people get addicted too.

Ms. WANDZILAK: It is how it shook out. There is a family that's Albanian. They came from Albania. So, there is one different culture. But should there be a future for "Addicted," my hope is that we will see other cultures as well.

MARTIN: One of the things I think will be jarring to some people is that you're very, very attractive, which I'm sure you know at this point. And I wonder, I think, for some people it will be jarring to see the contrast between how very pretty you are and how well put together you are, you're very well-dressed, you're very well-groomed. And to hear you talk about your own story, I guess what I'm asking is does your own background affect how successful you are able to be to connect to people? Do you find that that matters?

Ms. WANDZILAK: For what I do in my work, I think it's imperative that I come from a place of experience as well as, you know, I bring to the table a wealth of professional information. I have been doing this for many, many years, long before it was popular. Long before people even knew what intervention was, to be frank with you. But I also bring to the table my own personal and profound experience with addiction and the buys me street credibility and it buys me credibility with families and addicted individuals.

It's not the first time I've heard that, your point about being well put together. I hear that as a great compliment, because if you had seen me 16 and some odd years ago, you would not be saying that. I mean, I was homeless, I hadn't showered in months. I dug in dumpsters. My gums were bleeding. I was balding. I was 180 pounds. I was bloated and beaten and lost, profoundly lost. So, that I could come this far, I hear that as a compliment. But the street is still in me.

I also I think the fact that I look the way that I do, in some ways, really helps, to be honest that mothers and fathers and employers and brothers and sisters can look at me and think, you know, if she can do it, if she can change, if it could happen to her, if it could happen to her and her family and she could come out of it, then there's hope for us too.

MARTIN: Kristina Wandzilak is an interventionist and a former addict. Her new one-hour series "Addicted" premieres today on TLC, and she joined us from our studios in New York. We thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WANDZILAK: Thank you so much for having me.

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