Candy Finnigan on Life, Love and Addiction

Candy Finnigan of A&E’s Intervention Talks Recovery, Rural Life, and Gay Rights

Candy Finnigan is a nationally renowned addiction specialist and board registered interventionist, as well as the author of When Enough is Enough: A Comprehensive Guide to Successful Intervention. She received her certification in chemical dependency from the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed her internship at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Ms. Finnigan currently uses her experience of personal recovery from alcoholism to help others on the hit A&E reality program Intervention. She has two children and has been married to her husband Mike for 43 years. For more information, see http://www.candyfinnigan.com.

Photo courtesy of Jody Frank

Photo courtesy of Jody Frank

WS: College students, especially in a high-stress environment like Harvard, often face unique mental health issues. How can we, as students, work together to take care of ourselves and those around us?

CF: Here’s what I have to tell you. For many college students, they use a deficit medication, such as Adderall, or those Five Hour Drinks. You need to help yourself and help others. You’ve worked so hard to get to where you are; you get to the college you’re at, but it can be taken away from you just as quickly if you don’t stay centered. You know, we think when we are really smart intellectually that everything is always going to be OK. Sometimes, you know, it’s the pressure. Kids like Harvard kids, Yale and Princeton and all that, they put so much pressure on themselves that they lose themselves in the accolades instead of becoming bigger and broader people.

If you see somebody in trouble, even if they tell you they’re not, if they say, “No, I’m not,” they probably are…Ask somebody for help…Tell somebody, whether it’s a counselor or someone in the counseling department, wherever it is, you just have to make people aware. Everyone has got the Monday morning blues. “I’ll do better Monday; I won’t do this again. This is just a one-time thing.” When we are away from family, the accolades that we always need are the ones that come from strangers.

WS: Interesting.

CF: So I always feel like, don’t be stupid. Don’t be hip. Don’t be the cool one. If you see somebody who is in trouble…keep your ears and eyes open and your heart open. The best message I can give to you is help somebody else, and hopefully at the same time you can help yourself. I started my first college lecture series; I am so excited…I’m so thrilled because this is a group of people in this age group that need to hear this more than anybody, because they got where they are, particularly in an outstanding situation like you guys at Harvard.

You’ve got to be astutely aware that you are part of a community, and you might be the one to call…because if you don’t say something, and nobody else does, how can the person ever get help? A lot of kids die in colleges, about 3 or 4 a week. So if you see someone and you can’t rouse them or get eye contact with them…you’ve got to pick up the phone and dial 911, because [the time between] when you touch them and when they die could be anywhere between 11 and 22 minutes. 

And if you don’t call, who will?

No one is going to raise their hand and say, “Help me,” because when you’re high, you don’t know you’re that high. So with a large group of people who are all achieving to be better educated and better people, I think the best common ground is that everyone should try to help somebody else, and let somebody else help them. Depression is a huge, huge thing in college, but because you’ve achieved and accomplished so much with the education you’re getting, you forget that you’re a normal human being.

WS: I couldn’t agree more with that.

CF: You know, I grew up in Kansas, and my dad went to Williams and my mother went to Vassar. My mother was born in 1909 and she had a Master’s degree. You know, I have to be brutally honest with you and say that you can be too smart for your own good. You have to live life on life’s terms.

WS: Did you grow up in a rural area?

CF: Oh no…there are more millionaires per capita in Wichita, Kansas than anywhere else in the United States!

WS: The reason I ask is because I grew up on a farm.

CF: I went to a farm a lot. My grandfather owned a farm and I’m a really earthy girl and I love horseback. I was the happiest in my childhood, not getting dressed up in little outfits and hopping off to see the Eisenhowers, but being at the farm. The first thing I ever learned to drive, of course, was a tractor. It’s my soul with that universal earth…

I think nothing is more beautiful than driving down a small country road when all the wheat has been planted.

It looks like waves…It’s magic.

WS: You’re making me homesick!

CF: Oh, good!

WS: Here’s a question that’s very personal, because I came out in college. What advice would you offer the queer community at Harvard and colleges elsewhere?

CF: Well, let me tell you something. I’m adopted; my brother is gay. My parents didn’t have any idea what to do about it.

It doesn’t matter who you are; it matters who you become…

I think it can never define who you are, unless you allow other people to define you that way. People like Ellen [Degeneres] over the years have made it so empowering to be who you are. You know, Ellen Degeneres is not known as “Gay Ellen Degeneres,” you’re not known as “Gay Will.” My mother’s best friend growing up was William Inge…and he was phenomenally intelligent and a wonderful writer and gay. My mother never, ever told me he was gay. We would go out and visit and I had no idea he was gay. I just thought he was a guy who wrote really cool stories. So, I grew up in a family that accepted it readily, but couldn’t recognize it in their own child. The truth of it is, the reason we are here is for acceptance. I’m a huge believer that we are human beings and that we all have the right to pursue happiness and all of our dreams.

WS: That is great advice. You have very successfully, very passionately utilized your own experiences with addiction and recovery to help people in a variety of difficult situations. How can we build compassion and empathy based upon our own unique struggles and backgrounds?

CF: I got put in positions in my life where I was called upon to go help somebody, and it seemed to be a gift I had…You never know! I am very successful at being an interventionist because I am not afraid to say to anybody,

“I don’t want to hear it from you. I’ve been there, done that, and I got the t-shirt!

So, you either let these lovely people love you to death or you’re gonna get up off your ass and let’s go!” We only have one shot at [participants on Intervention], and if I don’t tell them the truth, how can I expect them to tell me the truth? How can I expect them to come forth with all the shame and blame in families with addicted people? [Addiction] is a family disease. You know, I’ve never had an acting lesson. As I said, there wasn’t anything that looked like I was going to end up being who I am. I just stood still long enough to listen…I stood still long enough as I got sober and got the message

You can have anything you dream of if you help other people.

I get to use [my] life, whether there were good roads or bad roads; I’ve been married to a rock musician, come on now, for 43 years…[Laughter] You know what I mean? I have never loved anybody but him…but I was also a drunk. And he was. Little did I know, when I walked into Kansas University in 1965 and saw this really handsome hunk…[that] he was an alcoholic and he hadn’t even had a drink yet.

WS: Finally, how do you take care of yourself when you get home from such a demanding job?

CF: I don’t have anything to do with it; I am the messenger.

The only thing I ever want to represent is hope…

I am highly educated in the field. When I started, I was like everybody else. I thought, “If nobody else is going to tell them the truth, I had better tell them the truth.” How do I take care of myself? I’m in my 26th year of recovery; I belong to a 12-step support group with other women who have the same disease of alcoholism that I do. My primary purpose is to help another alcoholic, and take one day at a time not to drink, and I don’t take any of that for granted. Not one single day, because if I’m not in recovery, how can I ask someone else to be?

I’m married to a wonderful man, as I said, for 43 years. I have two fabulous kids. Neither of them is afflicted with the same disease my husband and I are, because I always jokingly said I’d kill them! [Laughter]. I have somebody that I can bounce things off of – a good idea or a bad idea – and I talk to other alcoholics every single day. The gift that was given to me was the gift of being the messenger to tell somebody that they don’t have to live like this anymore. The whispers and lies are all over. The truth will set you free, but first it’s going to piss you off. You’ve got to get through that part. So, I just do what I do because I’ve been gifted enough to have the opportunity to do it. It wasn’t anything I ever planned. It’s that old John Lennon thing…when you were standing around planning exactly what you were supposed to do and who you were supposed to be, life was passing you by.

William Simmons would like to thank Candy Finnigan and Ninon Aprea for their kindness and generosity with their time. He can be reached at wsimmons@college.harvard.edu or followed on Twitter

  • K. Bonsall

    This is an intelligent, informative, and courageously honest interview. If only attendance to such a lecture was required by both students and their parents as part of the submission process. There is nothing more frightening than wondering if your kid is gonna make it through the night, go to rehab, get clean and stay clean. One Day at a Time is not just a mantra for alcoholics. Thanks CF for sharing your gifts and for being a part of THE SOLUTION.

    • Will Simmons

      Thank you very much for your comment! I’m glad you found it inspirational and informative. I know I certainly did!

      All best wishes,

      William Simmons

  • Bruno

    I like the different perspective that the interview offers on Candy Finnigan’s expertise: William Simmons asks questions that were never asked to her before and gets answers that won’t disapppoint. Good job of both the interviewer and the interviewee.

    • William Simmons

      Thank you so much! I appreciate your kind words.

      All my very warmest,

      William Simmons