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I Was a Paid Celebrity Sober Companion

Making $600 a day to help a Hollywood star stay sober seemed like a great opportunity. I quickly became disillusioned, and found that profiting from AA service could cost me my own sobriety.

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By Antonio Vespucci

07/22/13

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I am sitting in the backyard of a Malibu estate set upon a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The sun is beaming one last smile in late afternoon, perfecting yet another southern California day. A teak picnic table is layered with meats and salads prepared by two staff chefs. Sipping an endless diet coke, refilled by one of several attendants present, I survey the scene nodding at the perfectly ordinary conversations buzzing around me. Of the nine of us around the table, I am the only one who has not been on the cover of People magazine, or starred in a big-budget film. I am the only one who is not a celebrity. Yet for the past month, I've eaten with this distinguished crew, had my morning coffee with them, heard secrets, shared struggles and nodded with sympathy; most especially to the problems of one of these people.

I have a job to perform, just as surely as the chefs, attendants and gardeners. Quite unexpectedly, I have ended up as a paid sober companion to a Hollywood movie star. There he is now, looking across the table at me as the wine is passed back and forth between the superhero, the beloved sitcom starlet and the reformed Hollywood bad-boy. I smile encouragingly: You can do it, one day at a time.

$18,000 for a month of doing what I do anyway? Of course I fucking said yes. Giddy, I booked a first class flight to LAX.

The sun begins to set, and a fire is started in the pit by the swimming pool. I get up to join the others in more intimate conversation. As with any dream, I feel a pang of regret that this impossibly comfortable way of life will soon come to an end. These wonderful people surrounding me are professionals at making one feel a part-of. Despite the compliments and hugs, I have to disengage from their talented grasps. They are not my friends.

What am I doing here? Guys like me don't even look at magazines about these kinds of lives, let alone get close to them. I was in my 40s, just three years sober. I'd gotten college degrees, been in the Navy, worked dozens of jobs and finally sobered up in New York. I had fallen into a good crowd of men and women who got invested in my staying clean—one guy walked me in the rain all night while I screamed about another injustice that I had to drink over. Life went from bleak to good very quickly. Then I received the phone call.

Just a month before that Malibu scene, I was in my 250-square-foot sublet in New York, cooking a couple of ribeye steaks atop an electric stove. Just me, my girl and a hungry new guy chain-smoking out the window. One of my few abilities is to cook and be a warm host; so I was cooking, bossa nova was trilling on vinyl and my girl was dancing and smiling and I thought of how in that moment I had it all—the ability to be helpful, love and hope. Just because I came into AA desperate and took some suggestions.

The phone rang at that moment. An NA friend who worked as an actress was calling. I steeled myself for her usual barrage of complaints about her fancy lifestyle. Instead, she told me that a colleague of hers was having problems with his job and marriage due to substance abuse. Could I give him a call and help him out? As I motioned to the newcomer that the ribeye was ready, the actress told me that her co-star "liked" me, and was considering trying me out as a sober companion to get him back on track. She gave me his cell number, cautioning me not to give it out to anyone else.

I made the call, thinking I would do for him what I was doing at that moment for the hungry new guy, eyeing my girl. I heard out his problems, I commiserated, and I told him what I had done when I was in trouble. The guy said he wanted what I had—and then offered me 600 bucks a day to help him. I'm happy be there for anyone, but I wasn't so sure about being compensated for it. No one got paid to be there for me, in fact, a lot of guys assisted me financially the first couple months. What would my sponsor think? He'd never heard of such a thing and was as clueless as I was in this "service-for-a-fee" department. Broke as I was at the time, the upside seemed impossibly good.

Despite having two college degrees, I'm ashamed to say that I've been an eight-dollar-an-hour guy my whole life. I've made ends meet by any means necessary, and live well below the poverty line. I eat better then a king and have many friends. I mismanage anything given to me on a silver platter, and I have a collection of silver platters. I am what you can safely call accident-prone. I often feel like a modern day Mr. Magoo as I wander through the clean life. Sobriety is like a very long acid trip without the anxious teeth thing.

The plan was that I would fly to Los Angeles and stay with this man and his family 24/7 for 30 days. I agreed, and he told me that his "people" would handle the arrangements. I was put in contact with an attorney, who had a non-disclosure agreement couriered to my home. I was then formally offered $600 a day and given a credit card number for travel and incidentals. $18,000 for a month of doing what I do anyway? Of course I fucking said yes. Giddy, I booked a first class flight to LAX.

That was error Number One. The actor's lawyer and manager both berated me: Who did I think I was? Movie stars go first class, employees go coach. I thought movie stars went private, and employees went first class. I duly paid back the difference, so that was the first few days of pay gone.

Infractions Two and Three had to do with the "car" my new client owned. Having lost his driving license, he continued to upgrade his vehicle yearly, despite not being allowed to operate it. With its sticker price of a quarter million dollars, he loved this machine deeply. Did he actually want me to drive this thing? Rent-a-Wreck, Enterprise and Avis were right down the block, every block actually. After a short lesson on where to put the key, he warned me that the tires were expensive (of course) and manufactured in such a way that they could get punctured on even the smallest debris on the road. So on my first day, while heading to his first appointment, I got my first flat. The big-time director would have to wait.

The second day we spent at the auto shop and I replaced the thousand-dollar tire myself. I quickly calculated that at this rate, I was going to walk away from this job owing the boss money.

By the third day I discovered my main task was to be a chauffeur, which in a world where lunacy is not a prerequisite for art would be seen as ridiculous. I'd never been to LA before! I got lost pretty much all the time. I don't have a smart phone. The only qualification I have is that I know how to not get high, one day at a time. As the days progressed, life consisted of a lunch and a dinner with some producer or director, as well as a daily trip to the gym, and several trips to different doctors for his many, many prescriptions.

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