Behind the Scenes at Malibu's Most Exclusive Rehab

By Nic Sheff 02/27/12

What kind of treatment do rich and famous addicts receive for $100,000 a month? A rare look behind the gates of one of the country's ritziest rehabs.

celebrity rehab.thefix.jpg
A luxury rehab Photo via

I’d been sober a little over a year when I first got the job. That was the minimum requirement: you had to at least have a year clean if they were going to hire you. I had a year clean off IV crystal meth and heroin and I saw landing the job at the posh rehab in Malibu as basically the best opportunity I was gonna get. I was 21—a college dropout who’d already been in and out of four different rehab programs. My last job had been working at the juice bar of a funky, not very clean health food store in one of the ugliest neighborhoods in LA. They’d paid me whatever minimum wage was back in the early 2000s and, believe me, it wasn’t enough. 

But the $50,000-a-month treatment center in the Malibu Hills promised to pay more than twice that and besides, the job would afford me a certain cachet—one that the health food store definitely didn’t have to offer. I mean, I was gonna be working at this rehab full of celebrities. That was something I could tell people with pride when they ask the first question everyone always asks in LA, “So, what do you do?” 

“I’m a Residential Technician at **** in Malibu,” I could say.

Well, at least it sounded cool.

When some actor guy from a TV show way before my time overflowed the toilet, guess who had to wade into the bathroom to clean his mess up?

In terms of what a “Residential Technician” actually did—well, if anything it was more like being a glorified babysitter. You had to keep tabs on all the clients at all times, search their rooms and their persons, get ‘em to pee in cups for you, pass out medication, drive ‘em around to the gym or 12-step meetings, and—because these are the rich and famous we’re talking about—basically do whatever it is they ask.

I’d been to different county and hospital and low-end private places that seemed to operate on the philosophy that you had to be broken down before you could be built back up: there were always countless chores to be done, rules to follow and punishments doled out.

But not so at ****. We did the chores for them. And as far as the rules went—well, they were really more like suggestions. There were no punishments. No one had to make his or her own bed or respect time limits on the phone, or even cancel any appointments they had in the outside world. If some strung-out actor had a meeting with their agent—well, it was our job to drive ‘em there. If they wanted to barge into the office and use one of the counselor’s computers to check the security cameras at their house ‘cause they were convinced someone was breaking in, we had to let them do that, too. Basically, we weren’t allowed to ever say “no” to them. And honestly, after a few months of working there, I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was just some sort of scam—more like a resort with bonus clemency than a place where people actually learn how to change and face their feelings of self hatred and inadequacy. 

Because in my mind, that’s what addiction really is—people trying to blot out the pain of being human with chemicals that inevitably just make the pain even worse. And what group of people as a whole could possibly be more insecure and hate themselves more than a bunch of actors and trust fund kids? Both my parents were celebrity journalists, so believe me when I tell you that most actors live for attention and external ego stroking. And most trust fund kids are constantly in need of validation that they themselves are good enough and that people like them for who they are. Believe me when I tell you, these are some seriously fucked up people. And that’s coming from the perspective of a seriously fucked up person myself.

Addiction is like an epidemic among those people, so a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous rehab would inevitably be a goldmine. That’s especially true in this day and age, when a stint in rehab is touted as the answer to everyone’s problems—as if a 30-day treatment center could erase a history of bad biology and a lifetime of bad decisions. Rehab seems to be the quick fix solution every disgraced celebrity is looking for—from cheating on your wife to erupting in a racist tirade. And if you’ve got to go to rehab, a luxe, lush place like the one I worked at is definitely the way to go. When it comes equipped with a fleet of five-star chefs, tennis courts, equine therapy, a swimming pool, and a staff of friendly Residential Technicians do your every bidding—well, a month at rehab doesn’t have to be much different from a month at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But throughout the time I was working there, I couldn’t help wonder if I was actually doing more harm than good.

As I said, at every rehab I ever attended, there were a strict set of rules and guidelines patients had to follow, in an attempt to foster some sort of humility in a bunch of selfish, self-centered drug addicts and alcoholics. For me, that process really did work. Having to do chores, being told “no,” and being largely stripped of my freedom definitely made an impression. But the rich and famous clients at this place didn’t get any of that. One time, this actor guy from an HBO series stuck a piece of pizza crust from that night’s dinner into the lock of the med room door and when the tech on duty went back up there 10 minutes later, the actor had broken in and was riffling greedily through the many bottles of pain killers and anti-anxiety medications. Now, at any rehab I went to, an act like that would have had me out on the street in a second, but not here. The philosophy was, I suppose, that rich and famous people are used to a certain kind of treatment and, if they don’t get it, they will simply leave. That’s why the goal, above all else, was just to get them to stay. They could be detoxing so badly from alcohol that their whole body was going through seizures, but if they wanted their dry cleaning taken care of, one of us had to run right out and make sure it got done—and that the cleaners didn’t use too much starch. One ex-Saturday Night Live comedian made me drive him to a meeting with a director at The Grill in Beverly Hills, but because all the nice cars were taken, I had to transport him in my tiny red tin can, oil-leaking Mazda 323. He insisted that I drop him off three blocks away so no one would see him arriving in such a déclassé little vehicle. And, of course, when some actor guy from a TV show way before my time overflowed the toilet, guess who had to wade into the bathroom to clean his mess up?

At the rehabs I attended, such special requests were automatically denied and humility was considered character-building and good for recovery. And it was true. As an addict, I was a self-entitled bastard. Being in rehab and having to scrub the toilets and follow the rules really did help bring me down to size. But the clients here weren’t getting that. I actually felt sorry for them—like they were being taken advantage of and throwing away their $50,000 dollars.

But, on the other hand, I have to admit, I was kind of jealous, too. I mean, there I was, with over a year of sobriety, trying to do everything right, and yet I was the one charged with taking out some trust fund kid’s dry cleaning, and eating the clients’ leftovers only after they were at least one day old. I was the one making their beds, driving them out to go see Lakers games. Once one of the clients offered me $10,000 to give him a single Klonopin. I refused but,  I’d never had more then $2000 in my bank account ever in my entire life. At times, being humble and sober didn’t seem anywhere near as much fun as being rich and in rehab. And I wasn’t the only staff member who seemed to be getting a little star-struck and envious. Other techs and even counselors would gossip about the clients in hush-hush terms every chance they got. We all knew who was worth what and exactly where their money came from. We read the clients’ files and spread rumors about impending celebrity intakes. 

“Did you hear Britney Spears is checking in tomorrow?” I was informed about 10 times during the course of my tenure there. (In fact, she never came in at all). 

Even the head of the entire program got into the action, saying to a woman just coming in with a collection of Louis Vuitton luggage, “Oh, perfect, wait here. I’ll get my LV bags and bring them in to keep your LV bags company.”

And then she actually did.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
nic sheff.jpg

Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.