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Meet the Addiction Predators

From handlers of addicted celebrities to garden-variety "sober coaches," the addiction treatment world can be a rat's nest of opportunists, charlatans—and worse. 

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Art: Danny Jock

By Chelsea Carmona

02/03/13

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“If you try to get rid of me, she’ll be dead and I’ll piss on her grave… You’d better learn that I control everything,” threatened Sam Lutfi, Britney Spears’ self-proclaimed former-manager, according to Through the Storm, Lynne Spears’ memoir. Spears alleges that Lutfi acted as a jealous predator and jeopardized her daughter’s health and safety by grinding up and mixing her medication. Lutfi subsequently filed a lawsuit against the pop star’s parents, claiming libel, breach-of-contract, and defamation. He hoped to appeal to the jurors’ sympathetic side by arguing that the release of the book left him depressed, suicidal, and overwhelmed with death threats. The case was dismissed in early November.

The extraordinary circumstances of Britney’s life hardly represent the norm, but Lutfi’s behavior indicates a disturbing trend in the lurid overlap between celebrity and addiction. Whether we’re rapidly detoxing addicted patients on cable TV, announcing Lindsay Lohan’s latest rehab-stint in the tabloids, or awarding a book deal to Cat Marnell, our popular culture has turned a particularly voyeuristic lens onto the disease of addiction. Troubled celebrities are no longer heroes in the vein of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, or even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The public's interest in the escapades of Hollywood’s latest party girl has grown into, for some, a lucrative obsession. And as a consequence, the sensationalist behavior of damaged celebrities has become a target—even an investment—for some. Call them the addiction predators. 

Take, for instance, David Weintraub, a TV talent agent who has alchemized troubled stars into skyrocketing ratings, spinoff shows, and a multimillion dollar management/production company. For starters, he channeled his addled clients—Guns n' Roses drummer Steven Adler, porn star Mary Carey, fallen Miss Teen USA Keri Ann Peniche, and many more—onto Dr. Drew Pinsky's demented showcase for addiction in action, VH1’s Celebrity Rehab. The series follows the treatment and transformation of a cast of famous addicts, but as anyone in recovery knows, the sudden surge of income and exposure that results from the appearances can seriously complicate the recovery process.

“Very often, business overrides the treatment, and that’s where we've gone today. Treatment has lost some value because people want to make money instead of helping others get clean and sober."

“There’s nothing quick fucking fixable about sobriety,” says Recovery Life Skills Coach Lisa Neumann—who makes it clear that she has not worked with celebrities. Treatment professionals at large have raised concerns about the extreme transformations depicted on Celebrity Rehab after just one month of treatment. For Derek Salazar, Maintenance Counselor at Recovery Solutions of Santa Ana, the shortening of treatment in general is concerning. “Very often, business overrides the treatment and that’s where we have gone today," she says. "It’s sad to say that treatment has lost some value because people want to make money instead of helping others get clean and sober. When I got sober I spent 22 months in Phoenix House and it saved my life.”

New, controversial service roles have emerged within recovery communities to complement acute care. Along with hit dramas like CBS’ Elementary, celebrities like Owen Wilson and Robert Downey Jr. have commercialized these peer recovery support services by hiring sober companions to keep an eye on them for anywhere between $750-1,500 per day. Because of the excessive costs some peer recovery support specialists demand, these services have gained a reputation as the newest accessory of the troubled elite. But Neumann has a different take. “If you can pay $100 per hour to have someone follow you around your house, do it," she says. "But if you’re considering giving up addiction, it’s not time for a recovery coach. You need to be done considering giving up addiction for it to be cost and time effective.”

It’s not that Neumann, the author of Sober Identity: Tools for Reprogramming the Addicted Mind, wants to leave perpetual relapsers at the door; she’s just not interested in wasting anyone’s time: “I won’t work with someone until they get sober. I’m here for a phone call, a meeting, an assignment, or an e-mail. But I’m not going to charge you for that.” 

Unlike much of the substance abuse treatment industry, recovery coaching is a non-clinical, non-professional service provided by people who are experientially credentialed. While many coaches receive some kind of formal training, it's their first hand knowledge that provides the foundation for their expertise. With other service providers like recovery residence managers and sober companions, recovery coaches constitute a growing niche within the treatment industry known as peer recovery support specialists, or peer workers. But the peculiar nature of the professional non-professional is raising some concerns—and plenty of confusion. 

For Bill White, Senior Research Consultant at The Lighthouse Institute, a division of Chestnut Health Systems, “There are numerous misconceptions of the recovery coach role, mostly due to the wide variations in role responsibilities to which the title is being applied, whether it's peer/professional, paid/volunteer, full/part time. And there's a wide variety of organizational settings in which coaches and other recovery support specialists are now working. It'll take several more years before this role is clearly defined and evaluated in terms of its influence on long-term recovery outcomes.” 

White, who has served in the addictions field for 40 years, adds that this ambiguity parallels that present during the early history of the addiction counselor. But for now, with no accreditation system, recovery coaches have little to distinguish themselves from one another besides their sobriety date—and their social media presence.

Recovery coaching may have emerged as a form of service work done between close members of indigenous recovery communities, but today, private coaches need effective marketing and outreach strategies to compete with larger companies. For Neumann, the importance of online marketing was unexpected. “If McDonalds cut their advertising budget,” she says, “they wouldn’t have any customers left—but not me. I don’t want to spend money on advertising. My work should speak for itself.”

Her marketing scheme is completely against the traditional approach of the 21st century: fewer advertising dollars are necessary to keep an existing client than to find a new one. “I don’t want you to be here if you’re not catching on,” she explains. “I’m not doing my job if you still need me every week after a year.”

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