Why Sober Coaches Earn $1,000 a Day
They're paid thousands a day to babysit A-list addicts and boozy B-listers. But what, exactly, do sober coaches do?
I first became aware of the lucrative sober coaching industry when I was 18 and fresh out of rehab. My roommate, Ella, and I had just moved into a three-bedroom townhouse in California's Huntington Beach, and to make ends meet we invited a girl I'd met at treatment to join us. Like me, Janelle was 18 at the time, and had already been in and out of a long procession of treatment centers without much success. She was a trust-fund baby, a well-pedigreed equestrienne with a penchant for hard alcohol and pure heroin. Ella and I were both crazy in those hormonal, madcap days of our early sobriety, but Janelle was particularly unhinged. She stumbled through a half-dozen codependent relationships and paid thousands to have her prized stallion shipped out to Southern California and stabled near our apartment. But when the horse arrived she simply ignored him. I knew that Janelle struggled mightily to stay sober, but I didn’t realize just how bad things had become for her until a few weeks after I had moved out of the apartment, when Ella phoned to give me a status report.
“I found a sippy cup full of whiskey under the bathroom sink,” she hissed. “And a bottle of gin in a riding boot in the front closet. Dude, she’s on a gnarly bender!”
“Are there still spoons in the kitchen?” I asked. (This was, I had learned, a fairly reliable litmus test of the severity of a relapse.)
“Not for long,” Ella replied, darkly.
The qualifications of sober companions are often dubious. “You are a sober coach if you say you are, but what exactly does that mean?” asks therapist Patty Powers.
A few weeks later, Ella called me again to tell me that Janelle's parents, distraught over her latest relapse, had once again intervened. But this time, rather than sending her back to treatment, they’d decided on an alternate route.
“They just moved a woman into your old room,” Ella whispered. “Her job is to follow Janelle around and make sure she doesn't get fucked up.”
“What?” I replied, incredulously.
“Seriously! She’s like a life coach or something. She gets paid $1000 a day just to slap the vodka bottle out of Janelle's hands.”
“That,” I said, “sounds like a pretty good way to make a living.” I fired up a cigarette and glared at the upscale department store where I was working at my post-rehab “get-well job,” selling off-brand men's "designer jeans" for $10 an hour.
“I guess,” said Ella. “Except you have to hang out with crackheads like Janelle all day.”
She had a point. Maybe, I thought, my shitty retail job wasn’t so awful after all.
Back when I was living with Janelle, "sober companions" were something of a novelty—high-priced accessories who were usually retained by well-known actors and rock stars struggling to maintain their careers. But over the past decade, they have emerged as an alternative to the traditional rehabs or as an extension to conventional treatment. For chronic relapsers, high-profile patients, or addicts with money to burn, they function as a stopgap between rehab and real life. Their tasks range from the mundane (gently reminding a client to attend a meeting in the morning) to the explosive (chaining a padlock on the bedroom door to keep the client from going on a run.) Most people struggling with substance abuse find it most difficult to stay sober when they're alone. For a fee, some people can buy themselves constant company. The company doesn’t come cheap, however. While some sober companions will work pro bono on certain cases, they generally charge between $750 and $1000 a day for their services. Fees for the most prestigious sober coaches (and the most demanding clients) can top $80,000 a month. In return , sober companion accompany their clients anywhere—to parties, work functions, business trips, or just through a typical day, encouraging them in their sobriety and helping them stay clean in a world rife with temptation.
Joe Schrank, a sober companion (and a co-founder of The Fix), describes his job this way: “My primary duty is to provide the scaffolding around someone who is in the early days of their sobriety. I try to build trust, and help my clients normalize the basics of living an intoxicant-free life. In some ways It’s similar to hiring a personal trainer. They can’t lift the weights for you but they can give you the support to lift the weights yourself.” Reportedly, Lindsay Lohan, Robert Downey Jr., Owen Wilson, and Matthew Perry have all employed sober companions, usually at the insistence of Hollywood studios that can’t afford to have their big stars out on a big bender. Increasingly, though, sober companions are working with a more diverse client base.
“I’ve had all types of clients,” says Patty Powers, a New York-based sober coach who has appeared on the A&E series Relapse. “I get a lot of clients who refuse to attend yet another treatment center. I also tend to people who are returning home from treatment, and people who hire me at the suggestion of their therapists. Then there are clients in the entertainment industry who will lose their job if they don’t submit to testing and have a sober companion.”
Sober companions labor under a strict code of anonymity, so they're understandably reluctant to share any details that might compromise the privacy of their clients, but it’s safe to say that their work takes them to locales that are both both grisly and glamorous. "It's a notoriously unpredictable profession," says Schrank. "The truth is, you never know where you're going to end up." One well-known sober coach spent hours trying to convince a wigged-out hooker to return a Super Bowl ring she'd stolen from a well-known NFL player. Soon after, she accompanied another bewigged client to his seat at the British House of Lords. While some sober coaches are called on to rescue their clients from dangerous crack houses and dive bars, others fall effortlessly into their clients' luxurious lives. One sober companion I encountered was recently hired to look after a golf-loving sports mogul. They got along so well that he ended up living full-time at his client's mansion, while collecting a $1,000-a-day fee. He spent most of his time playing golf with his client. A few weeks later, the coach's brother moved in as well.
Another high-tech billionaire asked his sober companion to stay with him during a particularly stressful weekend. When the coach demanded a $50,000 fee, the client didn’t blink an eye. Such exorbitant rates may seem to distasteful to some. But since the relationship between companions and clients is so intimate, it's no surprise that some wealthy clients would happily shell out obscene quantities of cash to keep a good sober companion on hand.
Unfortunately sober coaches can become as much of a crutch for some clients as the drinking and drugging once was. The onus is on the companion to maintain healthy boundaries and an appropriate degree of professionalism—a dangerous position, given how many hustlers there are in the game. Schrank notes that the business isn’t regulated in any way: “There are no professional associations or standards of practice,” he says. "So you have a lot of charlatans in this game."
Powers admits that some sober companions have dubious qualifications for the job. “You are a sober coach if you say you are, so what does that mean?” she asks. “It means there will be people with a good sales pitch and a gift for hustlers using therapeutic jargon—people who may not really be in recovery—selling themselves as sober coaches. If someone is looking for a sober coach, I'd tell them to really take time to interview several candidates, or better yet, have their therapist speak to them before arriving at a decision.”
Finding a good sober companion is no small feat. While a handful of high-profile sites like hiredpower.com and soberchampion.com have sprung up to connect clients and coaches, most connections are made through referrals. Says Schrank, “The best way to find a reliable sober coach is through a trusted professional—a psychiatrist or therapist or friend. Many people in this business work collaboratively with psychiatrists or other treatment providers. It’s a valuable thing to have feedback for their in-office therapeutic process.”
Sober companions are a contentious subject in the recovery community. After all, detractors say, isn’t it just paid sponsorship?
But when the success of the relationship hinges on the chemistry between companion and client, a glowing commendation isn’t always enough. “There is no wrong way to get sober,” Schrank says, “Ultimately it’s really about the ability to work together. If someone is not ready or willing for a 12-step life and the coach is a die-hard 12-stepper, that’s a tough situation. Or what if the companion doesn’t believe in harm reduction and that’s the client’s goal?” There’s no particular script that should be used, but, he says, “a clear and honest conversation is critical.”
This, of course, assumes that the client is the one hiring the sober companion, which isn’t always the case. Timothy Harrington, a Colorado-based sober coach who got his start working at the tony treatment center Promises Malibu, says that he’s frequently hired by people who have a vested interest in the client’s sobriety: an employer, family member, or insurance provider. In those instances, Harrington says, when an external force is applying “other leverage to the client,” the outside force is less concerned with the process of recovery and more fixated on the end result. “They just want the client to get sober,” Harrington explains.
Schrank is less willing to compromise on this front; he prefers to be hired directly by the client. “I’m not much for policing people in this realm, so if the client is not willing to change, it doesn’t make much sense to get involved,” he says. “Often families try to hire me to monitor a situation, but there’s no point to that if the identified patient isn’t willing. Ultimately that produces a cat-and-mouse game that really doesn’t help anybody.”
But the client doesn’t always want to stay sober, which doesn’t preclude Harrington’s professional involvement. “I will work with somebody who is in the process of figuring out whether or not they want to stay sober or not,” he says. This contrasts with AA, where the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking; with a sober companion, desire isn’t a necessity. (Though, it probably helps.)
As a result, sober companions are a contentious subject among those in recovery. 'Aren't they just paid sponsors?' detractors say. Powers says no. “I don’t talk about the steps, work steps, or read 12-step literature with clients,” she says. “Instead I talk a lot about how to defend themselves against the disease, so that when they do start working with a sponsor, a lot of the material will click into place on a deeper level.” Harrington says that he’s received hate mail from people in AA. One of the fundamental draws of 12-step programs is that it’s democratic; other forms of treatment require resources, but 12-step programs, and the sponsorship that’s recommended in the rooms, come free of charge.
“It’s sleazy,” says one recovering alcoholic. “If you want support, you can get it for free in the rooms. People shouldn’t be charging for it.” Monetizing the process looks ethically suspect, even if, as most sober companions insist, they have to work hard for the money.
It’s true that only the most devoted of 12-step sponsors would undertake the commitments that sober companions frequently do to keep their clients clean. “I’m 24/7 when I’m on a job,” Schrank says. And, he notes, “I’ve been introduced as everything from total honesty—‘my sober companion’—to ‘security,’ ‘friend from college,’ or whatever the client is comfortable with at the time.” Schrank says that he’ll work with clients for a few days up to as long as a year, but most coaches agree that a period of several weeks is typical and that the most important consideration is that the client sticks to the planned duration.
And during that period of days, weeks, or months, sober coaches can traverse the globe with their client, which often means going on tour or to a film set—an experience that can yield unforeseen results. One sober coach told me about being hired by a label to accompany a high-profile musician on his world tour; one night, there was a knock on the door of the hotel room where they were staying. It was the musician’s bandmate. “I want to get sober, too,” he said.
Ultimately, however, hiring a sober companion is no more a guarantee of long-term success than a stint in rehab, attendance at a 12-step meeting, a regimen of Antabuse, or any of the other assorted avenues that people follow in their pursuit of recovery. My old roommate Janelle, ended up firing her sober coach and moving to Tempe to smoke crack full-time. Perhaps her sober companion wasn’t very good—or maybe Janelle was just hopeless. It’s impossible to say. For me, the difficulty of pinning down empirical data about the effectiveness of sober companions invites suspicion. But as with all forms of treatment, there’s only so much a sober companion can do.
“To me,” Powers says, “it’s insane to tell someone that establishing friendships with people in recovery is essential to staying clean, and then watch them do everything possible to get out of doing it. It’s like, ‘Do you think I’m kidding? You won’t stay clean without it, so get off the fucking sofa and call someone on your goddamn list.’”
That, I thought, was very good advice—and it didn’t cost me $1000 a day.
Sam Lansky is a blogger for Wet Paint and a regular contributor to The Fix. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky.